Ladakh is the largest district of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, covering more than half the area of the state (of which it is the eastern part). Nevertheless Ladakh is one of the least populated districts in India. It is renowned for its remote mountain beauty and Tibetan Buddhist culture; it is sometimes called “Little Tibet“. The capital is Leh.
Ladakh was once an independent Buddhist kingdom. A breakdown in relations with Tibet in the 17th century resulted in an attempted invasion by the Fifth Dalai Lama. Kashmiri help restored Ladakhi rule at a price – the building of a mosque in Leh and the conversion of the Ladakhi king to Islam. Kashmir later went on to annex Ladakh, ending its independence and in the long run making it part of British India. The kingdom’s former land is now divided between India, Pakistan, and the Aksai Chin district of the People’s Republic of China.
Ladakh is the highest altitude district in India (much of it being over 3,000 m), straddling the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges and the upper Indus River valley.
Historic Ladakh consists of a number of distinct areas (mainly under Indian rule), including the fairly populous main Indus valley, the more remote Zanskar (in the south) and Nubra valleys (to the north over Khardung La in the Ladakh mountain range, the highest motorable pass in the world at 5,602 m or 18,380 ft), the almost deserted Aksai Chin (under Chinese rule) and the predominantly Shi’ite Moslem Kargil and Suru Valley areas in the west (Kargil being the second most important town in Ladakh). The Skardu area, under Pakistani rule and entirely Moslem, is sometimes additionally loosely included in what is geographically referred to as Ladakh.
Unlike the rest of Jammu and Kashmir which is mainly Islamic, Ladakh is a predominantly Buddhist area, with most Ladakhis following the tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism. This is evidenced by the high number of Buddhist monasteries including Shey, Tikse, Hemis, Alchi, Stongdey and Lamayuru (each called locally a ‘gompa’ meaning ‘monastery’). Ladakhis mostly speak a dialect of Tibetan referred to as Ladakhi and there are some minor differences in language, the most obvious one to outsiders being the use of ‘Julay’ instead of ‘Tashi Delek’ for ‘hello’.
With the Jammu and Kashmir crisis making the Kashmir valley a no-go area for tourists, the Indian Government encouraged a shift in trekking and other tourist activities to the relatively unaffected areas of Buddhist eastern Ladakh. Tourism thus became a major source of income for what previously was a subsistence, agricultural economy.
The main corridor for trade and commerce in the area has also shifted from the Zoji-La pass and Kargil route from Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley, to the high altitude Manali-Leh Highway from Himachal Pradesh. There is one airport, situated at Leh, from which there are daily flights to Delhi and weekly flights to Srinagar.
Buses run directly to Leh from either Manali or Srinagar. Enroute to Leh one can stop in a number of places , most will get off in Keylong, the administrative center for Lahaul. Overlooking Keylong is the Kardang monastery. This is the choice that most travellers will want to take due to the tense security situation in Kashmir, however the road is only open from June to mid October due to snow fall.
There are shared taxis from Manali which start early in the morning and reach Leh early next morning.Tourist buses from HPTDC and the local HRTC buses, stop overnight in Keylong. There are also minibuses and shared cabs that make a overnight stop in Sarchu – this comes with a high incidence of altitude sickness, since Sarchu (also dubbed “The Vomit Hilton”) lies more than seven hundred metres higher than Leh, at 4253m. Coming from Srinagar there are a few interesting places to stop en route : Kargil at 2693m (where the buses stop, the best choice for altitude acclimatization), (Lamayuru and Alchi that also offer accommodation).
Daily flights to Leh are run by Air India and Jet Airways from Delhi, Srinagar, Jammu and elsewhere. These are, however, subject to inclement weather and may be cancelled at any time, keep your schedule flexible. Altitude sickness is also a worry given the altitude.
You can ride into Leh between June and mid-October (when the roads are open) on a motorcycle too.
Bikers usually follow either of the 2 routes
1. Delhi -> Jammu -> Patni Top -> Srinagar -> Kargil -> Leh
2. Delhi -> Chandigarh -> Manali -> Sarchu -> Pang -> Leh
Phyang is one of the two Dringungpa Monasteries in Ladakh . This monastery 17-km west of Leh, holds the festival in July/august. Like other monastic festivals, sacred dance-dramas or ‘chhams’ form the core of this festival.
The main attraction for the devotees is the pilgrimage to the hug. Thangka of Skyabje Jigten Gombo, founder of the Dringungpa monastic order, which is kept on exhibition during the two-day festival.
There are also several attractive sightseeing and walking destinations within a 10-km radius of Leh. Sabu/Saboo, a charming village with a small gompa, nestles between two minor spurs of the Ladakh range, about 9 kms away from the town.
Shey is the oldest palace of Ladakh. At a distance of 16 km on the Leh-Manali road. The Shey Gompa is situated on a hill, and there is a 7.5 mtr high Buddha image in this temple. The statue of the Buddha is made of copper, platted with gold, and is the biggest metal statue in Ladakh. A lamp with butter burns always in front of the statue.
Tiksey : It is 25km south of Leh. This is considered as one of the most imposing monastery in Ladakh. It is a 12-storey monastery painted in red and white and ochre. It has 10 temples surrouned by typical tapering walls. 60 lamas and a nunnery reside at the hill-side below.
The complex contains numerous stupas, wall paintings, tankas, statues, large pillar engraved with Buddha teachings and swords. The interior of new temple dominated by a giant 15 meters high Buddha figure.
Ladakhi buses run from Leh to the surrounding villages. They are often overcrowded and generally disorganised and poorly run. Daily buses or mini buses run to Alchi, Basgo, Dha-Hanu, Likir, Nimmu, and Saspul; twice daily to Chemray, Hemis, Matho, Stok, and Tak Tok; hourly or more often to Choglamsar, Phyang, Shey, Spituk, Stakna, Thiksay.
You will find in Leh a number of local taxis, that will take you to the surrounding monasteries much faster and more comfortably than Public transport. Rates are fairly steep compared to elsewhere in India.
Trucks often stop for hitchhikers, who are usually expected to pay half the bus fare, bargaining may be necessary. They are slower than the buses and sometimes stop for long periods to unload cargo.
In Leh there are a number of shops that will rent motorbikes, mostly the Royal Enfield, still made in India today (350 and 500 cc model). Rents are fairly cheap, and if you are used to old bikes and left hand side driving, it is certainly a great way to move around if short of time, and far cheaper than local taxis. Be sure to check your rented bike before you leave so that you don’t end up getting stranded in the middle of nowhere. As always in India, drive carefully, as other drivers often lack caution.
Things to note:
1. In most sections of the journey, the road are in a bad condition but in certain conditions the roads are literally non-existent. Bottom line is that BRO (Border Roads Organisation) has done a good job, with what ever little resources that are available, in making these difficult terrains accessible to vehicular traffic.
2. Though there are many mechanics in Leh who deal with many bikes, the availability of spares is limited. So before you leave please be sure to get your bike serviced (also get all cables checked/ changed, set chain, get oils topped up, brakes inspected etc.) and also carry all necessary spares (cables, chain link, bulbs etc.)
3. Make sure to carry the originals of all your bike’s documents.
4. Glaciers tend to melt as the day progresses and flow (at some places across roads). So be sure to plan to reach and cross these glacier melts commonly known as nalas (for example Pagal nala, Khooni nala, Whiskey nala, Brandy nala etc.) during the earlier part of the day, when the flow is low and the depth of the water is still easily passable.
5. When you encounter a Military convoy, always pull over and let them pass. It might be a good idea to find out from the locals as to when the convoy goes uphill and downhill and try to time your trip accordingly.
The scenery would be magnificent at the pace of a bicycle, however one would need to be well prepared with full camping equipment. There is a bit less than 1000km of paved roads in Ladakh. The Manali-Leh-Srinagar road makes up about half of that, the remainder being spurs off it. As such it’s not possible to string together a loop, and the only route that would avoid backtracking would be to follow the Manali-Leh-Srinagar road. You would need to check the current situation and think carefully to decide if travelling in Kashmir at bicycle pace is more of a risk than you want to take.
In addition to the paved roads there are some trekking routes that would be possible to ride a lightly loaded sturdy mountain bike on, perhaps hiring a horse and handler to take your baggage. Padam to Darcha, via Shingo La (pass) would be a good route for this, though you would still need to push your bike over the pass itself. Ask trekkers in Ladakh for more options.
All pictures by the author
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