David Rich 700 Words
G e t t i n g L e h - e d
I jeeped into Leh, capitol of Ladakh ("land of passes"), at dusk as the setting sun cast its reddest rays along the colossal ridge rising vertically over the city. Atop the ridge perched Leh Fort strung with Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind across a chasm to an adjacent hill. Below the Fort sat Leh Palace, model for the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. This copying stands to reason because Leh was an ancient capitol that under the 14th Century Namgyal Dynasty stretched to the outskirts of Lhasa. The Dynasty exists today and its queen (of Stok) was elected to the Indian Parliament. Though part of India, Ladakh remains an estranged Tibetan province, isolated from tourism by the highest motorable passes on earth.
Leh sits near the Line of Control manned by China to the east and Pakistan to the north, where troops remain eyeball to eyeball at 18,000 feet among the most spectacular glaciers outside the Polar Regions, lobbing the occasional howitzer shell at each other. Unless you fly in, which is the only way you can get to 3520M (11,600 feet) Leh eight months of the year, it'll take two days by bus or a 20-hour day by jeep leaving at 2 am from either Manali in Himachal Pradesh Province, India, or from Srinagar in Kashmir Province. Either route offers spectacular greenery and snow-capped peaks because the area is criss-crossed by four mountain ranges: the Great Himalayas, Zanskar, Ladakh and Karakorams. Scrambling over the high passes across these ranges you're suddenly in Ladakh, the highest desert on earth.
In Ladakh you'll find dozens of monasteries and ancient forts sited precariously on the knife-edged spine of jutting hills, a dozen Meteoras seemingly teleported directly from Greece and plopped down in the high desert of Ladakh. During my visit the Hemis Monastery, as it does once every twelve years, celebrated the birth of Guru Padmasambhava who whipped a cadre of demons to protect the locals. In return the locals perform sacred dances in fancy costumes and demon masks, displaying the Monastery's massively heavy silk thangka, a beautifully embroidered tapestry of pearls and brightly colored threads. Though Hemis is the largest and richest monastery in Ladakh, stuck up on a green hillside with spectacular mountain views, it's rivaled by a dozen other precariously perched monasteries with equally spectacular views, from Lamayuru and Alchi Choskor (a sprawling complex rich in ancient art and founded in the 11th Century) in the west to Thikse (next to Stok where the Queen resides) between Hemis and Leh in the east.
The Ladakhi mountains are uniformly 6000 meters (20,000 feet) and up while the passes include one from Manali to Leh, Tanglangla, at 5360M (17,688 feet), the second highest motorable pass in the world: the highest is Khardung La at 5602M (18,486), on the old Silk Road between Leh and the Nubra Valley to the northeast. The Nubra Valley is a don't miss destination in Ladakh, exotically populated with Bactrian-two-hump camels meandering across sand dunes like a half-baked idea of a Rube-Goldberg sailing vessel. The dunes tower over orchards of apples, almonds and apricots and are in turn dwarfed by sheer granite cliffs with the occasional gompa on top. After a hot and sweaty camel ride you can repair to the ancient Silk Road junction village of Panamik, last stop before Central Asia and the Stans, where it's anciently famous red-sulphur hot springs will wash away the dust and sand. Then book a jeep to one of the world's highest longest lakes, seventy five miles long and a few miles wide, mostly in Tibet, a fact that restricts tourists to it's furthest western tip surrounded by a rainbow of earth, mountains in sienna and chartreuse.
Ladakh is a land of amazing contracts, from cascading glaciers and snow-capped peaks to sand dunes tracked by primordial camels left over from Silk Road caravans, precariously sited monasteries and copious orchards of fruit and nuts. Go figure, or better yet, go get Leh-ed.