Ladakh is a tiny Buddhist state at the northern tip of the mountains and glaciers between China and Pakistan. Shambha-La is a cosy hotel set in an apple orchard 1 kim outside Leh the capital of Ladakh.
Ladakh is a silent, blissful place of thin air and magical geological shapes, its landscape marked by soft, burned colors and purple shadows. Curiously, it boasts an intimacy that belies the rugged 4,000-m to 6,500-m peaks that surround the former kingdom. Even the mighty Indus River, which cuts across the high valleys and through the mountain gorges, can look almost like a stream when viewed from the hilltop monasteries. The brochures call Ladakh "Little Tibet". The two alpine regions are much the same, from the monasteries on the hills to the people's common features. But Ladakh is preferable in many ways. Tibet is much larger and can be so stiff and regimented. One feels at ease in Ladakh. The atmosphere is casual and friendly, and the people set their own pace. September is the best month to visit. By harvest time, most tourists have come and gone. Hotels that were chock a block in July and August are empty come fall, and discounts are easy to find. The sky is an electric blue. The days are warm, the nights cool. In the river valleys, as if in some tableau from a willow-pattern plate, farmers carry ricks and winnow grain among trees laden with ripe fruit, simple plank bridges and quaint houses with flat roofs stacked with hay. From October the high mountain passes into this once isolated land are snowed over, and the hotels put up their shutters. Those residents who can afford it have moved to the lower, more hospitable hills or to the plains of India. Those left behind hunker down until spring, when the tourists begin to return.
Most visitors fly to Ladakh from New Delhi, only 80 min. away and remain in Leh for a couple of days to adjust to the altitude. Adventurers can buy second hand Enfield motorbikes for around $ 800 and cruise to Leh from Manali, the backpackers junction in the Himalayan foothills, in three days. Sharp travelers will fly to Srinagar in Kashmir first and spend a few days on a houseboat relaxing amid the lotus gardens watching kingfishers flit from stem to stem. It is a bucolic experience, as long as you are not fearful of the insurgency that rumbles in Kashmir. You should be aware of possible danger, but the pleasure of being on a houseboat on a pristine lake far outweighs the fear. From Srinagar it is a 45-min. flight to Leh over some of the finest mountain scenery in the world.
An excerpt from HITCH HIKER MAGAZINE
I have one piece of advice for people who are going to Ladakh for the first time:
make your first trip as long as you can. The sense of feeling like a tiny speck
amidst the grandeur of nature—these are emotions that you will never be able to conjure up on subsequent trips.
My very first visit in 1996 took the wind out of my sails literally and figuratively. Just the mere act of de-planing made me unsteady on my feet. For that, I had to thank the lack of oxygen at 11,000 feet above sea level. It was the thin air that made walking up a hill a task that required supreme effort. Multiply that by ‘n’ because the whole of Leh was nothing but a series of steep inclines! But it wasn’t just the hills and slopes: it
was the beauty of it all. The landscape was largely brown, but if you think that brown is a boring colour, see it in Leh. Myriad hues will be visible to you if you focus and concentrate. By the time I left the town after that first visit, I was convinced that brown and its various constituents was a fascinating colour. It was the same with the weather and even the sky. At one minute, sitting in the garden of Shambha-La Hotel with the charming owning couple who have now morphed into close friends, the sky would be a cerulean blue. “Yippee” ’d crow to Pinto Narboo, the owner of the gracious guest house, one of the three finest in town. “Now I can go to Thiksey in half an hour” and wonder why I’d receive an
inscrutable smile in reply. A few minutes later, it would become obvious as fleecy white cotton-wool clouds scudded across the sky, to be followed by more ominous grey cumulus ones making their stately progress through Ladakh’s vast sky. Light and shadows would chase each other: sometimes I would be baking in the strong sunlight, a moment later freezing in the shade. Occasionally, it would be even more unusual: my head would be in the sun and my feel in the shade, feeling hot and cold at the same time.
In 1996, tourism to Ladakh was
almost aimed at foreign tourists and there was a sense of camaderie in the charming garden cafes and terrace restaurants
in town. You could overhear seasoned travellers hold fellow tourists spell-bound about the exotic corners
of the globe they had visited: Machu-Pichu, Mustang,
Ladakh. When I took a taxi with four western tourists
(in those days, sharing cabs to far-off locations was the
norm) to Pangong Tso, I thought my heart would burst
from so much beauty. There were long roads that swept
through miles of countryside dotted with monasteries
atop craggy hills. There were vast semi-circular arcs of
wasteland strewn about with boulders of various sizes, as if a couple of giants played marbles at some distant point
in the past. Apart from green, we saw every other colour
of the rainbow – mountainsides that gleamed silver with
mica or blood red with iron ore; mountains that appeared purple because of a trick of the clouds, or pink because
of the presence of minerals.
Pangong Lake itself was at
the very end of the district of Leh as well as at the border
of India. In fact, we were told that whatever we could see without the benefit of binoculars fell into Indian territory; after that was across the Chinese border. No matter where my travels took me, it was a relief to come back to the cosiness of Shambha-La’s upstairs living room with its colourful Ladakhi tables and comfortable sofas and exchange notes with the other guests. The highlight of the evening was the dinner that Tsering Narboo
would have masterminded for us. Tsering is from
Tibetan aristocracy with close family ties to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, while Pinto is Ladakhi. Food tended to be western with a Ladakhi dish of lamb sausage or a hearty Tibetan noodle soup. And when the Narboos dined with the guests at the hotel, conversation would take a surreal turn. Pinto’s father, the late Sonam Narboo, was a minister in the Jammu and Kashmir cabinet and had laid down the plan for the Leh airport. Pinto’s mother and several other high-born ladies used to rhythmically stomp on the airfield to make the mud settle down, in order that the tarmac could be laid! Tsering’s stories of travelling on horseback at the age of three from Tibet to Kalimpong is the stuff that films are made on.
I’m glad that on that first trip I visited all the monasteries I could.
Phyang was where I was let inside the huge cavernous kitchen where two cook-monks worked
mountains of dough for the evening meal. Thikse was where I visited at the crack of dawn for morning prayers.
All those years later, when I close my eyes and concentrate, the almost metallic chanting of sonorous voices comes back to me. Hemis was where the interiors were being readied for the festival, so thangkas were being taken down and rolled carefully. Alchi was where wild roses grew in profusion around a monastery whose walls were painted from floor to ceiling in painstakingly drawn iconography. Chemrey, Spituk, Stakna, Thaktok—I set off to see them all at a stage in the tourism evolution where enthusiasm would get you further than merely proffering a few rupees against a “donation receipt”.
I have been back to Ladakh three times since, but I must confess that the initial wide-eyed wonder had faded. I have walked down the main Fort Road of Leh with the shops selling all manner of exotica, and felt a pang that the merchandise was not as attractive as before. I have wandered around the dun-coloured buildings at the foot of Leh Palace, now crumbling, and sighed that they looked like ruins now, more than living culture than they originally did. I even climbed up the steepest incline in the whole of Leh right up above Leh Palace, to the small gompa where thousands of coloured prayer flags fluttered furiously in the wind, sending messages of peace to the valley below. But the day I chose was far removed from the bright, sunny, breezy day of my first visit, and in the grey clouds, the mass of prayer flags took on a sombre note. Leh is now chock-full of hotels, large, small and luxurious, the better to accommodate the film crews that are now an annual feature. What remains is the genuine warmth at Shambha-La and Tsering’s cooking.