Friday, 2 October 2009
Travelling to the Dizzying Heights of Ladakh
A Journey through Ladakh, India, from West to East
Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 30/09/09
I had been waiting at the roadside for an hour, shivering in the thin air. Behind me the poplar trees of the Chemrey Valley looked like a distant oasis; ahead the road swept away over barren slopes towards the mighty 5360-meter Chang La Pass. White lizards scurried over the rocks and no vehicles came past. Beyond the Chang La lay the fabled Pangong Lake, the remote strip of lapis-blue water that I hoped would be the highlight of my journey through Ladakh, northwest India’s high-altitude wilderness. But if I didn’t get a ride soon I would have to turn back. And then I heard the sound of an engine, straining through the switchbacks. I was on my feet in an instant, just at a shiny white jeep rounded the corner…
Ladakh lies hard on the Chinese border in the stark mountains of the Karakoram Range. To the southwest is Kashmir, of which it is technically a part; to the east lies Tibet, to which it is far more closely tied by history and culture. It is one of Asia’s most prized destinations for adventurous tourists.
I had arrived in Ladakh from the west, travelling through hills the color of Tibetan wild horses. My journey would take me to a series of ancient gompas – Buddhist monasteries – and then finally, I hoped, to Pangong Lake.
My first stop was the isolated village of Lamayuru, with its whitewashed gompa perched on a toothy ridge. As I made my way up the steep steps I found myself gasping for breath. Like much of Ladakh, Lamayuru lies well over 3000 meters above sea level, and here in the trans-Himalayan rain-shadow there is little moisture. Buddhist prayer flags snapped in the breeze and glossy black alpine choughs wheeled in the thermals.
I was shown around the silent, incense-scented halls of the gompa by a young monk named Tashi. He told me that Lamayuru is home to some 200 monks from all over Ladakh. The gompa, he said, was over a thousand years old, and had been built by the great Tibetan missionary, Rinchen Zangpo.
Ladakh has long been part of the wider Tibetan world and for many centuries it was ruled from Lhasa. Later it was an independent kingdom under the powerful Nyamgal Dynasty. It was only with its annexation by the Hindu ruler of Jammu in 1834 that Ladakh found itself more closely tied to the Indian scene. But as I looked out from the gompa courtyard on barren mountains that ran all the way to Tibet, lowland India seemed as far away as the Indonesian tropics.
From Lamayuru I continued east along the River Indus, the backbone of Ladakh. I spent a night in the little village of Alchi, a cluster of traditional houses and an ancient gompa between irrigated fields, then pressed on to Leh, the Ladakhi capital.
Leh originally developed as a mountain crossroads, a meeting point of treacherous trade routes from Tibet, India and Central Asia. As late as the 1940s camel caravans were still crossing the Karakoram passes, but Indian independence and wars with Pakistan and China saw the borders sealed. Ladakh was closed to the outside world until the 1970s when the first tourists were allowed to visit. For many travelers today Ladakh is the next best thing to Tibet, or perhaps, with its well-preserved culture, even better.
In Leh the caravanserais of old had been replaced by guesthouses and giftshops, but there was still a hint of historical romance. The town lay in a nail-bed of pale green poplar trees; the mud-walled palace of the Nyamgal kings loomed over the dusty bazaar, and the descendants of Muslim traders from Turkestan still kept small shops in the alleyways.
I found a cheap guesthouse in the old town. Over a cup of salty yak butter tea – an acquired taste to say the least – in the traditional kitchen with its ranks of shiny copper pots and pans, Padma, the charming proprietress, told me of the changes she had seen in Leh over the decades. Despite relying on tourism for a living, she had concerns about sustainability and the speed of development – the outskirts of Leh are already marred by ugly concrete hotels. Also, like many Ladakhis, Padma complained about Ladakh’s status as part of Kashmir State – a legacy of 19th Century treaties between the Raja of Jammu and the British colonialists. Despite sharing no cultural ties, and having no involvement in the political unrest of Kashmir, Ladakhis are ruled from Srinagar. For Padma and many others it would be better for Ladakh to be governed directly from Delhi as a Union Territory.
When I asked in Leh about visiting Pangong Lake, replies were doubtful. Public transport is almost non-existent; a permit is required and regulations demand that foreigners must travel on an organized tour with at least three other people. I wanted to travel alone. The travel agent who helped me arrange my permit looked at me askance when I suggested hitchhiking. “Well, you could try…” he said.
Try I would, and the next day I set out, stopping off to watch a prayer ceremony at the gompa-topped hill of Thikse before catching a rattling local minibus, full of cheerful villagers who welcomed me with the universal Ladakhi greeting – “Joolay!” – up the side valley of Chemrey. The bus dropped me in the last village. The light was shining on the white ridge of the Stok Kangri mountains as I set out walking, picking my way to the lonely roadside beneath the towering hairpins of the Chang La.
The jeep screeched to a halt and a very surprised head in reflective sunglasses appeared from the passenger window.
“Where on earth are you going?”
“Pangong Lake!” I said; “can I have a ride?”
They were a party of wealthy Indian tourists on a daytrip from Leh, and despite their surprise at finding a foreign hitchhiker at this wild spot, they made room for me amongst the picnic baskets. I smiled all the way up the snow-streaked slopes to the dizzying summit of the Chang La Pass. My companions seemed less happy – they were suffering from headaches and nausea, mild symptoms of altitude sickness brought on by the elevation. A little shortness of breath was all I experienced.
Across the pass marmots and wild horses watched us from the roadside as we passed, and then, finally, the lake appeared in a blaze of bright blue. One glance and I knew the journey had been worth it. The Indians dropped me at a little cluster of tented camps at the head of the lake and I picked my way up the steep hillside to take in the view. The waters below faded from aquamarine in the depths to pale turquoise in the shallows. Flocks of delicate white gulls – incongruous here 4250 meters above sea level – flickered over the shore, and beyond there were bony brown hills under a vast sky. The wind from the east cut like a knife and the light was sharper than glass. It was a truly stunning place. The lake here was barely a kilometer across, but it ran eastwards for 134 kilometers, deep into Tibet. The upwelling of white mountains I could see in the far distance were inside Chinese territory, beyond the forbidden frontier. But shivering and smiling on this bleak hillside I was sure that the view from the other side could be no more beautiful than this…
© Tim Hannigan 2009