Ladakh had been on our to-see list for a long time. Situated in the Himalayas in North-India, it's a remote area that's also called 'Little Tibet' due to the similarities in topography and culture. The region is part of the province Jammu & Kashmir and close to the disputed borders with Pakistan and China, so there's a fairly heavy army presence everywhere.
A few weeks before our trip, on 5 and 6 August, we heard the devastating news of massive flooding in and around Leh, the main city of Ladakh. This is very rare, as it hardly ever rains and only the elderly can remember another flooding like this. Over 200 people died and 800 more are still missing, and the affected areas showed lots of destruction. But we asked for advice from local travel agents, and they said that we could still come - in fact, they want tourists to come or else the area would be affected by an economic tragedy as well... So we packed our bags and prepared to go!
We left Singapore on Friday evening, and after spending the night in New Delhi's airport, we arrived to Leh in the early morning. The mountains around Leh were nearly barren - it looked like a scene from the moon, and quite different from other parts if the Himalayas we have seen before. Leh is situated at 3,200m and we could really feel that we were at high altitude - the air was very dry and thin, and we felt a bit tired and dizzy.
We spent most of the day relaxing and acclimatizing, and only went for a short walk to the centre to arrange our trips for the next few days. While talking to our travel agent, we heard the sound of a crying dog, clearly in agony. We rushed out and saw a dog with his leg stuck in a grid, hanging from that leg down in a ditch. Everybody tried to help, but the other dogs were defending the dog in the ditch, not understanding that people wanted to help.
One strong western woman suddenly appeared and pulled the dog out of the grid with one arm. Diana was standing between her and the dogs so she could rescue the dog without being harmed, and unfortunately she got bitten badly by one of them. We rushed to the hospital to get tetanus and rabies injections (probably the dog had no rabies, but we wanted to take no chances). When we arrived there we realized the size of the flooding tragedy that had happened - the old wing of the hospital was washed away and all patients were moved to the unfinished new wing in a hurry. The hospital had tents outside, was understaffed, lacked medicine, and was struggling to keep things going. The staff was very friendly, but we had to go to a pharmacy across the road to buy our own medicine. They helped with the injections, but this experience made us understand how difficult it is to run a hospital in this kind of remote areas. We also realized that rabies doesn't require just one injection, but four over a period of one month, and that Sjoerd would have to learn how to do this...
On Sunday, we visited some of the monasteries south of Leh: Hemis, Thiksey and Shey. We started with Hemis Gompa, around 45km south of Leh, which was founded in the 17th century. It's one of the most-visited monasteries here, and it contains a three-story statue of Padmasanbhava. We started with the small museum with lots of ancient artefacts, and then we went in to see the prayer hall where we met a very friendly old monk. Afterwards we climbed up to see the main statue, where we listened for a while to a monk who was rehearsing some Buddhist text, in their typical singing / chanting style.
Next was Thicksey Gompa, a beautiful monastery built on a hill, with several temples. The first temple housed a huge frightening statue of a mahakala with many arms, the second temple had a two-story statue of the Maitreya Buddha (future Buddha), and we were captivated by the large golden head with a smile of inner knowledge. Near the exit was a Tibetan traditional medicine shop where we did a consultation and bought some horrible-tasting herbal pills to speed up the acclimatization.
The last place to visit today was Shey Palace, the former summer palace of the kings of Ladakh. The palace was nice, but more remarkable was the 12-meter high Sakyamuni Buddha statue inside - the largest in the region.
On Monday, we left Leh for a three-day tour of the main lakes in Ladakh - Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri. We shared a jeep together with a Polish couple, who were just as enthusiastic about photography as us... The journey to Pangong Tso took us through some incredible landscapes, mostly barren mountains with green valleys between them. In the valleys were small villages and sometimes a monastery, and each valley looked like a self-sustainable area. This is no surprise, as it may take a few hours to reach them by car nowadays, but a few decades ago it must have taken days or weeks to get supplies. There were also lots of grazing animals everywhere (cows, horses, donkeys, goats, yaks), and we could see the people working in the fields to prepare for the long cold winter that would soon come.
The journey to the lake took over 5 hours and suddenly there it was - a deep turquoise blue lake of 130km long, surrounded by beautiful mountains. We arrived just in time for some nice photos of the landscape and later of the sunset. We made a long walk along the lake, and there were no other tourists - it was just very relaxing to sit by the side of the lake and breathe in the fresh mountain air. We slept in a little guesthouse that was owned by a local family, with the kitchen and dinner area in two large adjacent tents.
In the morning we woke up to spectacular views of the lake, which compensated for the sleepless night (we had ascended quite fast to 4,500 meter and were still suffering from that). We had a last look at this stunning lake - we hope that the photos show its full beauty, but it was hard to do it justice.
We left quite early, because we had long journey ahead of us... 370km along small winding mountain roads, which would take us over 10 hours to complete.
As soon as we had left the lake, we came to Marmot Land: a green field next to the road with a dozen fat and happy marmots running around, as well as horses and several large birds. We stopped and hoped to take a few photos, but the marmots turned to be so friendly that we could even touch them! It was a delight to play with them, and it was tough to leave them behind. Half an hour later while driving across a high pass, the weather changed completely and we found ourselves in the middle of a snow storm, which luckily didn't last long.
After a couple of hours, close to our next destination Tso Moriri, we drove by a herd of hundreds of goats and a little later we saw the tents of the nomadic Khampa people who owned the goats. During the summer months they live up in the mountains, and it was good to see that these people still keep their traditional lifestyle. Finally by 6pm we arrived at Tso Moriri, tired after long drive but happy to be at another great site in Ladakh. There was a little village at some distance from the lake, where we found some pretty basic accommodation - but still good, considering how remote it was... And we slept very well - probably exhausted from a long day.
On Wednesday morning, Sjoerd woke up early to take some photos, and it was nice to see how the village was slowly waking up (including an old woman who came to milk a few of her goats to prepare for breakfast). The views on Tso Moriri were quite dramatic due to the heavy clouds, but it was hard to capture the atmosphere in a photo. During breakfast we saw a puja (blessing ritual) with women wearing traditional costumes - this was to say farewell to the head lama, who left to spend the winter in Darjeeling and who'd only return in May when the snow is gone. We felt lucky to see this, as it's rare to see people wearing these traditional outfits – it was a true delight for photographers.
After breakfast we went for another long walk alongside the lake, trying to capture its beauty in a photo. The lake was calm, but unfortunately we didn't see the black-neck cranes which are occasional visitors.
On the way back we briefly stopped to see the nomads and their goats, before embarking on the long drive back to Leh. The road was mostly along the Indus river, which was very high and wild - normally there’s rafting on this river, but it was too wild now.
On Thursday we decided to take it easy and do the Heritage Walk in Leh. We started with some nice herbal tea and homemade cake at Lala Cafe, and then did a tour around the Old Town up towards Leh Palace, which stands dominating over the city. It was tough to see the poverty everywhere here – like elsewhere in India, Ladakh is also full of contrast, between rich and poor, between beautiful landscape and ugly cities, between clean mountain air and air pollution on the roads, etc.
There are some improvements however: a German charity is funding the restoration of the World Heritage buildings in the Old Town of Leh, people run eco-shops and eco-tours, and there is one dog charity - Ladakh Animal Care Society. We went to visit their centre at Saboo, a few kilometres outside Leh. There were a couple of Australian women (including the one who pulled the dog from the grid!) and some local staff. It was very encouraging and heart-warming to see their operations. It was started by a local man a few years ago, expanded with help from the Brigitte Bardot foundation, and now sterilizes over 1,000 dogs per year (around 7-10 per day). Since this year, there is a partnership with the local government, who understands that sterilization is a better alternative than culling dogs every year. It will probably take a few more years to really see the results (as there are so many dogs here), but we're confident that it will work in the end.
On Friday we left for Nubra Valley, to the north of Leh, which is another highlight of the region. The road there goes via Khardung-La, supposedly the world's highest motorable road, with a pass at 5,600 meters. The views along the way were stunning and we stopped often to take photos. The view over Nubra Valley was unique, with a large river flowing through a broad green plain, surrounded by high barren mountains.
Shortly after lunch we stopped at the monastery of Diskit, which was a 600-year old monastery with over 100 monks and students. It was situated on a hill and we could see sand dunes in the distance. It was a unique sight to have these sand dunes next to fertile grass land, with steep mountains on both sides. Our driver knew a shortcut that took us right through the sand dunes, so we had the chance to take some nice photos. We also saw a large group of camels, which were used for rides. We didn't do that, but we did admire these gorgeous animals lazing around in the late-afternoon sun.
Our guesthouse was in a village called Hunder, and it had a beautiful flower garden. In the evening we made a long walk around the village, looking at the sunset and the slow pace of life, and feeding some hungry dogs.
Nubra Valley is Y-shaped and on Saturday morning we left for the northern leg of the valley. Nubra means green in the local language, and it is indeed much greener than other areas. This makes it a hospitable, liveable area. In the other part of the valley we visited a gompa in Sumur, but it was less impressive than Diskit and Hunder. Then we started our long journey back to Leh, again via the highest pass in the world with stunning views and blue skies. We were impressed to see a group of South Africans who were cycling up the mountain - unbelievably tough people!
On Sunday morning we left Ladakh, looking back at another memorable holiday in the Himalayas, and looking forward to the next opportunity to spend some time in this beautiful part of the world.
For more photos, click here.