Ladakh. Just the name conjures up images of snow-capped mountains, vast open indigo skies, crispy cold air, barren yet beautiful valleys and the gentle-faced people who live in this ‘last Shangri-la’. Come summer (which is during the months of June to September), and you will find hordes of tourists and keen trekkers who pour in to experience this land of extremes — extremely high peaks, extremely stunning landscapes and of course, extremely cold climate. I was warned about the cliché of being breathless in Ladakh, but experienced it firsthand only upon reaching there. At first, it is the overwhelming beauty of the land, and then it is the low level of atmospheric oxygen, which together can literally leave you breathless.
As our flight landed at 6.30am in Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport (the highest commercial airport in the world), the splendour of this land opened up in all its glory. It was by far the brightest sunshine we have ever seen at that hour. And as much as you want to get out there and start exploring, it is important to slow down and get acclimatised to the high altitude of 11,000 feet, which could take around a day, sometimes two. Once you get the hang of breathing, other activities such as sightseeing and trekking become relatively easier.
It is advisable to start your day by tanking up on some delicious Ladakhi treats. Our breakfast consisted of piping hot momos and thukpa served with steaming ‘gudgud’ tea. The ever-smiling chef also served us the trademark Ladakhi warmth. Ladakhi people are known for their hospitality, always greeting tourists enthusiastically with “Juley” (meaning, hello), “Haanjanab” (yes sir!) and “Bilkul” (absolutely!). Their eyes smile when they speak and their cheeks are a shade of beetroot red due to the cold weather.
Leh lies in the heart of Ladakh. Once a stop on the medieval Silk Road trading route, Leh is now a busy holiday destination. Known for its trekking, river rafting and monasteries (which are not only holy spots but also places of the richest architectural masterpieces), Leh has all the ingredients for a perfect exploration within Ladakh, and within yourself. Every monastery is worth visiting; some more distinguished from the others, yet all speak of the same serenity that they are known and loved for. Pint-sized elf-like novice-monks with shy, curious smiles are seen running up and down the monasteries, bringing in their impish charm to the agelessness of the monasteries.
Hemis Monastery (or Hemis Gompa) is the wealthiest monastery and houses a rich collection of ancient relics, the marvellous copper-gilt statue of the Lord Buddha, being one of them. Thiksey Gompa, perched picturesquely on a hillock, is the largest. Shey Gompa is located in Shey Village which used to be the summer capital of Ladakh; and Lamayuru Monastery, situated on a huge rock overlooking the Indus River, is the oldest monastery where the wisdom of age is palpable.
The barren mountains come alive with the vibrancy of these mystical monasteries; the energy of prayer flags, carved prayers on the Mani walls, the humming of the rhythmic chants and whirring of prayer wheels all play an important role in a monastery. The prayer flags, we were told, are colourful panels of cloth, often found strung along mountain ridges and peaks high in the Himalayas. It is believed that the flags fluttering in the wind, multiplied by the prayers written on them, are conveyed directly to Lord Buddha. They are used to bless the surrounding countryside, and are also used in healing ceremonies. The prayer wheels also have a significance: the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” is written in Sanskrit on the outside of the wheel, and spinning such a wheel has much the same effect as chanting the mantra. If feelings can ever be ‘felt’, I can swear that I ‘felt’ peace.
Taking in every breath of the divinity, the intensity and the energy of Ladakh, we continued our journey to visit every Gompa that we could find. Curiously, the Gompas seem to have found the remotest places to hide away from the world. Only the determined get to some of the elusive monasteries. Today, most of the monasteries are connected by road, though there are some that only a few able people can approach. Climbing up to a monastery can be quite a task. In the rarefied atmosphere of Ladakh, one gets out of breath even after a few steps.
The drive towards Nimu, which is that spot where the Indus and Zanskar rivers converge is memorable. The Indus is smaller and brownish in colour, while the Zanskar looks like a shimmering grey cascade.
We also went to Kardung-la Pass, one of the highest motorable ways in the world. Nubra river in Nubra Valley, a tributary of the Shyok River, flows parallel to the Indus. Since the valley is at lower elevation, it has a mild climate. This climatic condition has created lush vegetation in the valley and the valley is, therefore, called the “Orchard of Ladakh”. There stands the Buddhist monastery of Ladakh, Diskit Gompa, home to the enormous 110 ft statue of Maitreya Buddha. The statue’s construction was started in April 2006 and it was consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 2010. The statue was built, it is said, to protect Diskit Village, prevent further war with Pakistan, and to promote world peace.
Finally, reaching Pangong Tso was a revelation in itself. Whatever I had read about its immense beauty still didn’t prepare me for what I was about to see: 25 per cent India and 75 per cent China, this stunning lake of clean turquoise water was freezing to touch, yet it is one of the main reasons why people come here. The golden sun creates a rainbow effect on the water and on a clear day, you can actually see nine different shades of blue.
Pangong Tso is not entirely easy to access: it is a five-hour drive from Leh, mostly through rough dramatic mountain roads, which are insanely designed to awe and inspire.
In the heart of this inexplicable and somewhat inaccessible wonder of nature, I stood at a height of 11,000 feet surrounded by the Himalayas, Karakoram, Ladakh and Zanskar ranges. I remembered a quote from Lord Buddha: “Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace”, and that word for me is ‘Ladakh’.
Being enveloped by such majestic beauty compels you to put your focus on the basics of life — to remember to breathe wholeheartedly, to enjoy the ‘now’ and to blend harmoniously with our surroundings.
Whether it was the high altitude or the heavenly ambience that left me breathless, I still wonder…