Mystical Ladakh – The land of Divine Beauty

By: Anuja Mavinkurve

Introduction: Spectacularly jagged, arid mountains enfold this magical Buddhist ex-kingdom. Picture-perfect gompas dramatically crown rocky outcrops next to fluttering prayer flags and whitewashed stupas, while prayer wheels spun clockwise release merit-making mantras.

Gompa interiors are a riot of golden Buddhas and intricately colourful murals and home to red-robed monks. It’s a little corner of Tibet marooned in the furthest reaches of India. This alluring and mystic land is blessed with another worldly charm and an incredible topography that comprises of rocky terrains, high altitude snow peaks and lush green grasslands.

The walls of dramatic mountains that hem in Ladakh make for an unforgettable landscape, but be aware that road access requires crossing tortuous high passes, which close from around October to May. This evanescent window of a few months, that this enigmatical land allows people into its mysteries, is from June to September. By the time, October starts, the land goes into a languid hibernation in preparation of a harsh, cold winter. But, with more and more travelers coming into Ladakh, winter months see a lot of adventure seekers coming in, for winter sport activities or winter treks like the grand Chadar trek, over the frozen Zanskar River.

In the second half of September 2018, on a sudden whim we decided to head to Ladakh. Without much of a plan in place, we set off on the arduous journey. Leh airport is one of the most beautiful airports I have ever seen. The airport sits snugly on a tabletop, surrounded by spectacular snow-covered peaks. As you get down from the airplane, the view of majestic snow peaks shines bright with a 360-degree panoramic view, leaving you spellbound. The pulchritude of these majestic giants is indescribable and nothing beats the first view. Throughout our trip in Ladakh, wherever our eyes could see, there was beauty. It is like walking into an incredibly beautiful painting. At times, we just pinched ourselves to believe that this was not a dream. There was so much beauty around us that it could get overwhelming.

Most of the travelers make Leh as the base and plan their excursions from there. It is advised at the airport to stay in Leh for a day or two to get acclimatized. Leh itself is at the height of over eleven thousand feet. After getting down at the airport, you can feel the change in altitude and breathing can get a little laborious.

The next day, we explored the charming Leh market. Leh Market is an ancient market that dates back to the 15th century, during the era of King Singe Namgyal. It is akin to those quintessential Tibetan markets that you see in the Buddhist settlements in Himachal Pradesh.

Leh Market is one of the busiest, most colourful places in Leh, where you can get everything imaginable- from groceries to clothes, jewellery to local street food. It is a perfect representation of the culture of Leh- vibrant and colourful. Exploring a market is the best way to understand the culture of the land.

The market comprises of multitude stalls and shops that are set up in quaint disarray, where you have to navigate your way to discover items to purchase. It is divided into small bylanes, with sections dedicated to handicrafts, spices, dry fruits, woolens, clothes, artefacts, food and souvenirs. Leh Market is acclaimed for a glorious variety of woolens. Scarves, sweaters, jackets, pullovers, you name it and they have it! The cold climate of Leh has ushered in a culture of knitting colourful, hand-woven woolens, which has become a popular local product of Leh.

We walked through the market, bought some artistic curios and incense sticks and a hearty bowl of the local Thupka, a tangy, spicy broth of soup, noodles, vegetables and meat. Vibrantly coloured curios, handcrafted incense sticks and exquisite silver jewellery are a must-buy at the market. In the evening, the market is abuzz with food stalls selling aromatic and piquant local fare and woolens at throwaway prices.

In the market, we tried out the scrumptious and piquant Ladakhi cuisine. Along with thukpas, we also tried their spicy and juicy chicken and pork momos, Skyu – a stew made with barley or wheat dough balls, meat and root vegetables like potatoes, turnips and carrots, Tingmo – a steamed bao eaten with vegetables, meat or dal and Chutagi – a pasta like soupy dish with a rich sauce and vegetables.

Churrpi or Yak cheese is a delicacy in the region and is used as a stuffing for the momos, with bread, as a garnish over thukpas and with just about everything. The cheese is hard, but mild to taste. Churrpi is also served with Khambir, eggs and vegetables for breakfast. Khambir is a traditional fermented wheat-based leavened bread, which tastes exquisite when had fresh and warm.

Ladakhi Butter Tea or Gur Gur Chai as the locals name it is a distinct specialty of the region. This traditional regular beverage is had daily and also served at weddings or special occasions. Rich yak butter and salt are added to the boiling water infused with tea leaves to make this delightful drink.

In the hospitable and warm Ladakhi tradition, the host constantly refills the guest’s cup as soon as a few sips are drunk so that the cup is never empty. If the guest has had his fill, he should leave the cup full till he leaves. Such is the charm of their traditions and hearty hospitality.

The Ladakhi people are warm, kind and friendly. In the cold, rigid climate, their amiability is comforting like a hearty, cozy blanket. Children with red cheeks like tiny, cherry tomatoes are ever smiling and they stop to wave at you while you pass by. In today’s world, when good-hearted, kind people are a rare find, to see genuine warmth, kindness and inclusivity is a soothing balm to the soul.

We spent the next couple of days visiting the delightful local sights like Leh Palace and Shanti Stupa.  

Bearing a passing similarity to the Potala Palace in Lhasa (Tibet), Leh Palace’s nine-storey dun-coloured edifice is Leh’s dominant structure and architectural icon. It took shape under 17th-century king Singge Namgyal but has been essentially unoccupied since the Ladakhi royals left for Stok in 1846. Today the sturdy walls enclose some photo exhibition spaces and a small prayer room, but the most enjoyable part of a visit is venturing to the uppermost rooftops for the view.

Interesting structures around the palace’s base include the prominent Namgyal Stupa, the colourfully muralled Chandazik Gompa and Soma Gompa, once home to the monastic printing press. Also nearby is the 1430 Chamba Lhakhang, with its colourful three-storey Buddha and medieval mural fragments. Don’t count on any of these being open though. We were lucky enough.

Next, on our checklist was the astounding Shanti Stupa. Dominating Leh from a high, rocky ridge, this gigantic white spired pudding of a stupa was built between 1983 and 1991 by Japanese monks to promote world peace. The views over Leh are stupefying. Ideally, make the fifteen-minute climb up from Changspa when golden afternoon light still illuminates the city but the steps are already bathed in cooling shadow. We stopped umpteen times just to soak in the beauty of the place and for some quick photographs.

The following day, we visited Pangong Tso, a beautiful endorheic lake, which extends from India right into Tibet. A remarkable feature of this lake is that it keeps changing colours, from different shades of blues, greens, reds and greys, with the changing position of the sun. The lake is exquisitely beautiful. Indescribable beauty. The first glimpse of this alluring lake, just hits you right on your senses. As you are approaching the lake, on one of the steep turns, you catch a first, ephemeral glimpse of this astounding azure beauty, and that might just leave you astounded.

Adorned with a garland of mountains, Pangong Tso makes you completely fall for it hook, line and sinker. We sat at the shore, completely mesmerized, and a couple of hours just whizzed past by. There were a few camp stays but we had planned to return the same day. We reached Leh quite late into the night. Driving at night can get risky, so hire a cab, if you are planning a same day return.

The weather changes dramatically in the region. A bright, sunny day can turn into a cloudy, rainy or snowy day in a matter of minutes. Winters are severe and the lake remains frozen for a good part of the winter.

A good six hour drive from Leh, Pangong Tso treats with sightings of a legion of migratory birds like black-necked cranes, seagulls and many other varieties. For an avid photographer, this place is an absolute delight.

Pangong Tso lies on the Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control and to visit this beautiful lake you need to obtain an Inner Line Permit. Since the lake is situated very close to the border, visitors are permitted to visit only up to a certain area. The last village on the Indian side permissible to travelers is the Spangmik village.

After a good day’s rest, we started early at around 6.30 am for Tso Moriri. The drive to Tso Moriri is long, enervating and physically strenuous. At a distance of around 220 kms from Leh, the drive takes around 7-8 hours. We reached Korzok, the only village located on the shore of Tso Moriri, and planned to stay at a homestay overnight. Due to its proximity to the Line of Actual Control, Inner Line Permit is a must to visit Tso Moriri. We had acquired it before we left Leh.

There are some places which are ethereal, which you feel that Mother Nature has zealously guarded, lest mere mortals go into a trance upon stumbling across its divine beauty, Tso Moriri belongs to that kind. The clear waters of the lake reflect the resplendent surroundings, giving it its name Tso Moriri or the Mirror Lake.

Gently cocooned between the mountains, Tso Moriri is a sacred lake for the locals and multicoloured, fluttering prayer flags adds to its spirituality. We could not help being mesmerized by its ethereal exquisiteness. We sat at the shore, just soaking in the magical beauty of the lake, till the last light of the day.

Being part of the wetland reserve under Ramsar site, it is actually known as Tsomoriri Wetland Conservation Reserve and pitching tents or construction near the banks of the lake is not permitted. Due to this very reason, Tso Moriri has not fallen prey to overcrowding and overtourism, managing to retain its untouched, pristine beauty. This ecologically rich region attracts vast numbers of migratory birds, marmots and Tibetan wolves.

The next morning, we bade adieu to our lovely homestay hosts and left for Leh. Since we reached Leh fairly late and were exhausted by the drive, we called it a day almost immediately.

The following day, we planned to go sightseeing around Leh, as we did not want to travel too far and just take a breather. We visited Sangam – the river confluence of Zanskar and Indus, which is nothing short of a glimpse of heaven. The green-tinged Indus River originates in the Tibetan Plateau near the Manasarovar range, whereas the shiny blue Zanskar has its source in the Zanskar valley. Both the rivers meet at the scenic Nimmu valley, which falls between Leh and Kargil.  The rivers are clearly distinguished by their colours and are truly a sight to behold. The Sangam is at about 35kms from Leh and is a comfortable day trip.

Next morning, we headed to the picturesque Nubra Valley, a drive of about 160kms from Leh, through the scenic, high altitude Khardung La, which takes about 6-8 hours.

The deep-cut Shayok and Nubra River Valleys offer tremendous scenery on a grand scale, with green oasis villages surrounded by thrillingly stark scree slopes, and harsh arid mountains. There are sand dunes, monasteries, a ruined palace and the gateway to the mighty Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield. There are many homestays, guest houses and camps in Nubra and we had booked a camp stay for a unique experience.

The next day, we went to the quaint Diksit town. Directly above Old Diskit, a 2km spaghetti of hairpins winds up to the photogenic Diksit monastery complex, much of which dates to between the 14th and 17th centuries. Perched majestically on top, Diksit monastery boasts of sweeping views of the valley. A magnificent Maitreya Buddha statue at the monastery sits facing the Shyok River, is so captivating that it was difficult to take eyes off it. The mesmeric statue is made of 8kg gold and sanctified by H.H. Dalai Lama himself. The gold was donated by the head of Gompa. The statue is said to be built for world peace and to protect the village from war. The monastery is so serene and angelic that you would just not want to leave. We spent a few blissful hours just soaking in the divinity and mysticism of the place.

From there we headed to Hunder sand dunes. The sand dunes were formed after a historical flood in 1927. Today, this ethereally beauteous landscape is a rare topographical wonder. The unique double-humped Bactrian camels dot the landscape. Spend the evening taking a stroll to enjoy the scenic landscape, go for a camel safari or enjoy the evening with folk dance and music by local artists at your camp.

A two day stay in Nubra is a good time to enjoy and explore the region. The next day, we drove back to Leh via Khardung La. At 5602m, Khardung La is claimed to be the world’s highest motorable pass. A plethora of prayer flags festoons a flanking chaos of rocks and there’s permanent glacial ice on the pass’s north face. There’s also a basic canteen and what might be the world’s highest traffic jam. At this altitude, you are likely to feel light-headed. Most visitors content themselves with having their photo taken at the pass sign, a privilege for which there’s often quite a queue. The pass is long, winding, and the terrain is arduous and challenging. But nothing can beat its sheer beauty!

Back in Leh, it was time to head back to our destination, but not without leaving a part of our soul in this mystical land. Ladakh, you will have my heart…always!

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Author: Planet Goa Team
For us at Planet-Goa, our team is driven by that feeling of exhilaration that one gets when discovering that something ‘unique’ and ‘new’ about Goa for our ever-so-discerning readers.

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