The Zanskar is one of the most remote and beautiful rivers in India, and the only one high enough to raft in the summers. The 120km-long run from Padum (the headquarters of Zanskar) to Nimu (the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar) passes through magnificent mountain gorges and involves some thrilling whitewater. It’s graded 3-4, and has no road support. At the end of each tough day you’ll be camping in utter wilderness. Outfits organizing rafting trips include Himalayan River Runners (011-26852602; www.hrrindia.com), Mercury Himalayan Explorations (011-23346209; www.himalayanadventure.com) and Snow Leopard Adventures (www.snowleopardadventures.com).
2. HIGH PASSES
Ladakh literally means ‘land of the high passes’. Here you will find Khardung La, at 5,602m the highest motorable pass in the world. Just under 40km north of Leh, the pass leads to the Shyok and Nubra valleys and was opened to vehicles in 1988. Historically, traders used the pass to get from Leh to Kashgar in Xinjiang Province. The second highest pass, Taglang La (5,328m) is crossed on the popular 485km drive from Manali to Leh. The pass is 109km from Leh. Chang La (5,270m) is the third highest pass and is the approach to Pangong Tso. The passes are best navigated between June and September. Taxi fares are set by the Leh Taxi Union (01982-252723/253039).
The Hemis High-Altitude National Park and the Changthang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary are the two main designated wildlife areas in Ladakh, but wildlife can be found scattered all over the region. Some of the main species of mammals in the area are the bharal or blue sheep, the great Tibetan sheep, Tibetan antelope, serow, ibex, snow leopard, red fox and the Tibetan wild ass or the kiang. The lakes: Tso Kar, Tso Moriri and Pangong TsoÑare home to the great crested grebe, brahminy duck, bar-headed goose, the endangered black-necked crane and the ruddy shelduck. Himalayan Safaris (01982-252638) and Overland Escape (250858) can arrange your trip.
Ladakh is remote but surprisingly easy to access. The simplest way is to fly in. Both Jet Airways and Indian have flights to Leh from Delhi six days a week for Rs 6,900 one-way. Two highways link Ladakh to the rest of the country: the historic 434km Srinagar-Leh road, over Zoji La, through Kargil and the Zanskar range; and the tourist-friendly Manali-Leh highway over the Rohtang pass and the much higher Taglang La. Buses leave from both Srinagar and Manali. Motorcycling is popular but arduous; carry petrol because you won’t find pumps in Zanskar or Nubra. Mountain biking is increasingly popular. To avoid Rohtang, you could try the route from Spiti to Kinnaur and through to Lahaul via Kunzum La.
5. WHITE SANDS OF NUBRA
The Nubra Valley lies between the Ladakh and Karakoram ranges, its borders touching Pakistan and China. It was on the Silk Route, but China put a stop to the caravans that passed along the Shyok and the Nubra rivers. Now, the double-humped Bactrian camels that roam the white sands near Hunder are the only reminder of the ancient trade route. Hunder, the last point up to which travellers are allowed to go, is a small village in a green valley, which is known for the white sand dunes that come a little before it (with a 4-wheel drive you could venture on to the dunes).
6. THE GOMPAS
Ladakh’ most imposing edifices are all monasteries. At Stakna, Shey or even Lamayuru (the oldest living gompa) you may be content to admire the massive hill-top complexes from a distance. But up-close the monasteries are full of ancient atmosphere and ritual as well as many artistic treasures. Do not miss the large Chon-Kor Maitreya at Thiksey. The main hall (du-khang) of the thriving Hemis Gompa is impressive but even the ruins of Basgo are arresting, and perhaps the greatest works of Ladakhi sacred art are the surviving murals on the crumbling 12th-century walls of Alchi.
One of the most colourful sights in the stark landscapes of Ladakh is the festival that happens here all year round. Every monastery has its own festival where masked dances alternate with ritual chanting — the most famous of these festivals is the one, which takes place at the Hemis gompa (late June/early July). For a complete list of monastery festivals see www.jktourism.org/cities/ladakh/festivals. In addition to these festivals the Ladakh administration also organises the Ladakh Festival between 1-15 September every year, in an attempt to boost the fag end of the Ladakh tourist season. The festival features dances from all over Ladakh, an archery competition and a polo competition that takes place on the Polo Ground in Leh. Losar, the Buddhist New Year, is a winter celebration.
8. THE FOOD
Ladakhi food has a lot in common with Tibetan cuisine but it doesn’t have to be all thukpa-momo. Ask for a thentuk — like a thukpa with small flour dumplings or a kothey — like fried momos but less greasy. Noodles abound of course and it won’t be long before you can tell your thankthuk (short, flat) from you laman (longer) with your eyes closed. Tibetan Kitchen (Fort Road) offers an expansive repast, the gyakok, from a chimney broiler — the gyakho, which may be familiar if you’ve ever had a Chinese fondue. Or call Hotel Snow View in Changspa (9419178598) to order a five-course Ladakhi Tibetan meal (Rs 300 per head). Tired of carbohydrates, vegetables and mutton? Drop in at the venerable Dreamland (Fort Road) for fresh snow trout in garlic butter.
9. JEEP SAFARIS
One of the most exciting ways to see the vast rocky plateau and mountains of Ladakh is to jeep across. Ladakh has an extensive network of roads, thanks to the Army — most of them mountain roads that cling to hillsides above rivers and streams. A number of operators organize jeep safaris — Banjara Camps (26861397; www.banjaracamps.com) organizes extensive safaris with stays in camps — they even offer a Delhi-Manali-Leh-Srinagar-Delhi safari. Far Horizons (011-51602100; www.farhorizonindia.com) also organises safaris in Ladakh. One of the more interesting safaris takes you on a spectacular and often treacherous drive to Padum, the headquarters of Zanskar.
Summer in Ladakh is perfect for camping — the weather is good and the trees are flowering. Tented camps, from spartan to luxury Swiss, spring up all over. Most are ad hoc affairs so inquire at the tourist office in Leh — but there are also a couple of well-established camps and camping areas. Ladakh Sarai, near Leh, is popular (around Rs2,000; call 011-23511483). To stay near a monastery, try either the Gaph-Chow Camp (Rs60-400; 01982-227151) near Likir, or the camp at Hemis (R 75; book through the restaurant near the Hemis gompa entrance). You can also camp near the lakes — at Pangong Tso (Rs800) and near Tso Moriri, at Korzok, where you can stay in the Nomadic Life Camp (Rs800; 01982-254845). You can also camp at Rangdu in Suru and at Chamba Camp (Rs 1,500-3,000; 01983-221140) near Diskit.
Ladakh is indeed not for the acrophobic. The highest airport in the country is at Leh (3,505m); the Leh polo ground at 3,500m is said to be the highest in the world; the world’s highest observatory at 4,517m is in the village of Hanle. But Ladakh also has the dubious distinction of being the home of the world’s highest battlefield, that of Siachen at 6,300m, which is serviced by the world’s highest helipad at 6,400m.
So if you come by air from the plains, you will have to spend some time acclimatizing to the altitude before attempting anything even slightly strenuous. Lack of oxygen in the air can cause breathlessness, lethargy, dizziness, headaches, nausea and insomnia. Take it easy for the first 24 hours, and be sure to drink plenty of water and aim for three to four litres a day. Leh’s water supply is notoriously unsanitary so only drink mineral water. Expect to go to the bathroom a lot. Avoid alcohol, if possible.
Ladakh is an increasingly popular location for movies, ad films and music videos (Kargil, Maruti, Ma tujhe salaam) but it all began with the gritty realism (Bollywood standards) of Chetan Anand’s war movie Haqeeqat (1964).
There are thought to be over 200 living oracles in Ladakh. True oracles are born not made, but once identified they undergo three to six years of tutelage. Famous oracles can be found in the Matho Gompa, a 16th-century monastery 20km from Leh. An annual festival is held here, usually in late February-early March. Many oracles deliver their pronouncements or medical diagnoses in a trance, possessed by spirits. Some healers even suck out disease using straws.
Generally associated with the rich and famous, polo is said to have originated in the Western Himalayas, possibly Baltistan and Gilgit, and is quite popular in Ladakh. According to legend, the game was introduced in Ladakh in the 17th century during the reign of King Sengge Namgyal whose mother was a Balti princess. In the Ladakhi version of polo, teams of six players compete against each other in a game that lasts for an hour. The game is part of Ladakh’s cultural fabric and almost every major village boasts a polo ground, called shagaran. The most enthusiastic games can be witnessed in Drass and in Chushot, a village close to Leh. But it is in Leh that the game has been institutionalised, where teams compete for the Ladakh Festival Cup during the Ladakh Festival (September 1-15).
Chiktan is a small sleepy town, nestled in the middle of snow-covered mountains, and what you notice first about it are the lofty crumbling ruins of the Chiktan Fort (Chiktan-e-Rajikhar). The once majestic fort is now in ruins — its nine floors reduced to a few walls, but the view from the fort is spectacular. Chiktan is 30km from Sanjak, which is beyond Achinathang on the Khalatse-Batalik road. If you have the time, in Chiktan meet grand old man Mohammad Moussa, who’ll tell you tales about the fort.