Visiting Ladakh

Of jagged gorges, stripped inclines, snow clad summits and empty expanses… of paradoxical climate, mystical people, inaccessible extents and enduring traditions, Ladakh is one of the last places on earth to open up for tourism.

Fast emerging as an increasingly attractive traveler’s  destination, Ladakh appeases many of one’s appetite of the senses – rawness of nature, spiritual awakening and  thrilling adventures.

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Best time to visit Ladakh – June to mid-October; even though early May maybe preferred by snow-lovers… like us.

How to get there

  1.  By road –       one of the most popular routes to go to Ladakh is driving up by car, bike or cycle from Manali or Srinagar. The adventure starts as soon as you hit the highway. Routes opens up between June – September.
  •  Srinagar to Leh – 434 kms via Zozila Pass, Drass, Kargil and Lamayuru. Preferred by locals and is open during winters for army convoys and traders.srinagar leh2
  • Manali to Leh –  475 kms via Rohtang Pass, Keylong, Baralacha La, Sarchu, Pang, Tanglang La and Karu. Preferred by motor tourists for its scenic vistas.manali leh

Buses take two days from either Srinagar to Leh or Manali to Leh. From Manali, deluxe coaches are available that may halt overnight at Kargil. Night halt on the lesser comfortable buses from Manali is at Sarchu or Keylong.

Bike rides may take 5-10 days depending on the number of stops one takes. There are many notable tourist places worth a stop along the way, more so on the Manali-Leh highway.

2.    By Air    –  Daily flights of Jet Airways, Air India, Go Air and Kingfishers from Delhi to Leh and weekly once flight of Air India from Jammu and Srinagar to Leh, both take not more than an hour. This route may take more time for acclimatization off your travel schedule, but the Karakoram from the sky is spell binding.

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Acclimatization :

Before planning a visit to Leh – Ladakh, one must be aware of AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness, a unique conditions specific to higher altitudes :

  • Leh – Ladakh is at a vertical height of 11,500 ft is the 8th highest city in the world after Lhasa, Tibet and the highest in India at Korzok.
  • The most common ailment at this altitude is AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness. It occurs due to low atmospheric pressure, low oxygen concentration, increased altitude to sea level and high radiation to sun exposure.
  • Extreme temperature variation in the diurnal and seasonal temperatures. During winters temperatures may be between -30 degrees to 2 degrees, in summer between 15 degrees to 35 degrees. Day time temperatures can drop suddenly from a warm 21 degrees to a chilling 2 degrees. Sometimes during the same day one may get frost bitten and sun burned. Therefore, ample covering at all times is warranted. Temperatures may also vary significantly between open and shaded or covered areas.DSC_2963
  • Oxygen concentration is lower at higher altitudes and so is atmospheric pressure. Both these conditions is what affects a new visitor toLadakh. Symptoms may vary from restlessness, nausea, dizziness, headaches, wheezing to blackouts. Deprivation of oxygen or Hypoxia is the basis of all AMS. If you are coming from lower altitudes, its better to break journey periodically along the way and gradually get accustomed to the decreasing oxygen levels. Or else, take first 2-3 days to stay indoors and acclimatize completely.
  • Sun exposure and radiation is a real threat and must not be taken lightly, even though it may appear the slightest in comparison to the above. Though the most imperceptible, exposure to increased solar radiation may have a graver outcome. People have been known to come away from mountain tops scalded over exposed hands and faces while being in snow all the time….. yours truly, ME … included…. Hence, frequent applications of sun tan lotion and fully covered clothing is a must.
  • Dry arid conditions rob the body of moisture faster than it would appear so hydrate frequently even at sub-zero.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altitude_sickness

How to overcome AMS : Though AMS does not effect everybody, it does effect a majority of people, even those ethnic to high mountain conditions but are returning from lower altitudes.  If AMS does not subside in the first two days, it may develop into HAPE or HACE, quite fatal and requires immediate descent. Ladakh’s main hospital Sonam Norbu Memorial (SNM) – 0198-252799 is the best apart from the army hospitals but civilians are rarely entertained there. Other than AMS, diarrhea, respiratory infections and accidental falls are the other heath threats in this region. Away from Leh city, medical treatment is nearly non-existent.  It is best to try avoiding any unfortunate occurences.

  •  keep to clean, hygienic conditions when travelling.
  • eat only in known clean places, nearly all guest houses and hotels have their own restaurants. If you are travelling the day, best to take packed lunches from your lodgings.
  • Keep in touch with your hotel staff about your health and let them know how you feel everyday. Most often they have indigenous recipes or ways to help you overcome AMS, colds or diarrhea. Many upscale lodgings also have oxygen cylinders to help you overcome hypoxia or hypobaria.

Although all this may seem a bit daunting, do not forget that “the best fruit grows on the outer branches”. Its a lifetime experience.

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Other tips unique to Ladakh;

  • Ladakh is a land of monasteries, much of the touristic agendas would circle around Buddhist worship places which are built on higher altitudes to the surroundings. Every visit to a monastery calls for a climb of at best 60- 100 rather steep steps. So as not to get washed-out by the mere climb and enjoy the calm stillness of monastic life, one needs to be at least averagely fit. A daily walk of 2-3 kms before visiting Ladakh can make your trip more than a run on a threadmill.
  • Carry woolen clothing all the time with you for the temperatures may suddenly fall quite low. Keep ears well covered for even though dry, the winds can be quite chilling.
  • Carry a wide angled lens camera or DSLR, to capture the essence of the landscape.
  • If you are trekking or camping overnight out of the city, plan to be close to your lodging before sundown. Lighting is low and towns far apart should you be stranded somewhere. Avalanches and wild animals are a real threat.
  • Internet in the city may be erratic, some good hotels do have reasonable service though. Mobile connectivity at remote places, high passes, defence areas and border regions is at best lost. Do not expect to stay connected once you leave the city premises.
  • Nearly all the local people can speak in Hindi, some in Urdu or English but you can do well to learn a few ladakhi words. ‘Julay’ which means ‘Hello!!’ and said both at meeting or departing with a slight bow and touch of the forehead with slightly closed right fist, is an immediate ice-breaker.

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DSC_2312Amongst your jaunting about to catch all the extravagance of its scenic locales, try not to overlook the humble Ladakhi. He will open up to you with the most astonishing stories of this splendorous land…  all with a simple “Julay!”……

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Leh – Ladakh city

The Leh-Ladakh city

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Nestled against a mountainous splendour, Ladakh is an enchanting land, which despite the stealthy approach of modernisation, seem to hold on precariously to its time-honoured past. The magnificence of the soaring mountain ranges and pristine valleys, the exuberance of its traditional festivals and the uncanny chutzpa with which its people dare the extreme conditions, earns Ladak the title of ‘The Land touched by God’s finger’. It’s a place of many discoveries, of thrilling adventures, chilling experiences and throbbing senses. One may come away from it with an euphoric delight of being touched by That Finger.

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Ladakh has had stragtegic historic importance being placed firmly on the ancient Silk route for the trade convoys of China, Yarkhund, Central Asia, Persia, Constantinople and India. It served as a place where camels and caravans could descend from the high passes and respite. It paid homage to many transient settlements such as Aryans, Tibetans, Chinese and Arabs, but finally consolidated as a simple empire under Senegal Namgyal who also buit the looming 9 storey Leh Palace in 16th centuary.

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The Leh city capital of Ladakh nestles between the Zanskar and the Ladakh Ranges. Even though called a city, it is an extended town with settlements sprinkled all down the countryside. Towns such as Spitok, Basgo, Kuru, Changspa, Saspol, Shey, Thiksey etc, though have 20 – 50 kms between them, come under the district capital, though Leh itself is not more than a kilometer in any direction. Washed by the Indus and Shyok river systems, the towns thrive by the water banks through seasonal agriculture, animal husbandry and the now thriving tourism industry. Every house has apricot, apple, walnut trees and atleast a cow. Many inhabitants are immigrants from neighboring Kargil, Dras, Padum and Zanskar regions entering as tourist guides and drivers. The city centre consist of mainly the Main Bazaar, the Leh Palace, the KBR airport, Shanti Stupa, hotels and restaurants and little establishments catering to these.

Ladakh district is divided into 9 CD Blocks namely Leh, Khaltsi, Nyoma, Durbuk, Kharu, Nubra, Saspol, Panamic and Chuchot.

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 Politically, Ladakh has two seats, one from Nubra Valley and one from Leh City in the J & K assembly and one Member of Parliament, a representative of Kargil.

Strategic location :To understand the Ladakh of today, one must consider its strategic location on the Indian frontier. What you might see, hear and feel may appear more foreign than Indian to you.

The state of J & K including the districts of Ladakh is bounded by Tibet in North East, Xinjian province, China in North, Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan in North West, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in East and South-East with Pakistani Punjab, ofcourse South to all these is Himachal Pradesh of India.

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This geographic location is strategically important for two reasons:

  1. The local culture is richly ethnic and heavily influenced by atleast one of the above regions i.e disctricts closer to China are more Chinese, those close to Tibet are highly Tibetan, those towards the west have greater Islamic domination. Though the population move smoothly within each other, traditions and rituals are fiercely guarded.
  2. Since 1972 when we lost part of the north-western sector like Gilgit – Baltistan, and Azaad Kashmir to Pakistan and Aksai Chin to China in 1962 and our subsequent win in 1999, the Indian Defence Forces play an important role in the smooth running of the remaining state. So, you might see uniformed personnel clearing up snow in the high altitudes, tarring roads, cleaning up rubble, managing traffic, supplying drinking water, air dropping supplies during winters, assisting with medical help at key places, keeping a look out for wild animals or helping you cross the road. Ofcourse, that’s not all they do – keeping watch in high towers of Siachen Glacier, LOC, LAC and DBO.

Why is it important to know this bit of history – because when you talk with local tour guides or townspeople, these events feature much in their casual chitchat. The people of Ladakh are ingratiated to the Indian Armed Forces.

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And like a pink elephant in the room, one just cannot miss the Stok Kangri, a snow capped mountain peak looming heavily in the backdrop to everything.

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For centuries after the initial settlements, Ladakh has more than been forgotten. Except for being used as a frontier outpost by later Mughal rulers and British, there was no real interaction between the region and the rest of the world. As such Ladakh has remained in a time wrap of age old traditions. Its only just catching up. In 1829, when a French traveler interacted with the locals, she found them to be the most contend and pride people ever. They had no idea what ‘poor’ meant. They were hardworking, happy, full of song and dance and had a strong community sense. That has since changed. Nonetheless, you will still find the Ladakhi quick to smile and converse when you offer the salutatory ‘Julay!

The Karakoram Mountains

Pegged as the new ‘Roof of the World’, Ladakh is the largest district of Jammu & Kashmir and second largest in India. It sits on a strategically important location between politically locker-horned countries of Pakistan, China, Afghanistan and India. Said in one breath as ‘Leh-Ladakh’, it can mean the entire district or the capital ‘Leh’ in Ladakh. Many a traveller has been bewitched by its raw, barren beauty enough to return again and again daring steep inclines and unpredictable weather conditions. To understand Ladakh one must know its regional topography. One of the biggest misconception is that Ladakh sits on the Himalayan Mountain Range, whereas it is actually stranded on the Karakoram Mountains. The Great Himalayas start as Pir Panjal mountains lower, near Jammu district, where one may visit Vaishnodevi Temple and runs just south of Zanskar Mountains. This is why, the mountains around Leh-Ladakh have no resemblance to the ones seen in Himachal, Uttarakhand, Nepal or Aruchanal Pradesh. Unlike the Himalayas, Karakoram has desert like conditions with little or no rainfall during the year. Its extent is felt all the way down the north of Afghanistan and Pakistan where it disappears into the Pamirs and Hindukush and China where it merges with the Tibetan desert. To the south, it descends into the basins of Shyok and Indus rivers which separate the range from The Greater Himalayas. Due to this geographic location, straddled between the many ranges and especially shielded by the Himalayas, from indian monsoons, Karakoram has been left high and dry. Its climate resembles those of artic and desert conditions. Therefore Ladakh is often called “COLD DESERT”. Temperature varies from –40°C in winter and +35°C in summer. Precipitation is very low at 10cm mainly as snow. Air is very dry with low relative humidity, and source of irrigation are only the melting glaciers. The district is under snow for nearly 6-8months.   karakoram mountains Karakoram as the highest mountain ranges in the world, 482km long, 5000 – 28000ft high, home to the most non-polar glaciers and thereby also called ‘The Third Pole’. There are more feathers in its cap;

  • K2 – is the second highest mountain peak, 28,251ft, after Mount Everest
  • Earth’s fourteen more than 8000+m peaks are nested here, including Gasherburn I and II and Broad Peak
  • The Siachen glacier at 44kms is the second largest glacier out of the artic/antartic circle
  • The Biafo glacier at 39kms is the third largest glacier out of artic/antartic circle.
  • About 40% of these mountains are glaciated, much more than the Himalayas at 20%
  • Pangong Tso is the highest saltwater or brackish lake in the world
  • Khardungla Pass , elevation disputed, is the highest motorable highway in the world
  • Changla Pass at 17,590ft is the second highest motorable pass.

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