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Ladakh

Lovely Ladakh

Ladakh is a kaleidoscope of nature’s extremes – high mountain peaks to cold desert sand dunes, sub-zero temperatures to scorching sun – all interspersed with barren mountains in myriad shades of brown. The beauty of this remote land is so overwhelming that many a traveler is at a loss for words when asked to describe what is often-called the ‘Last Shangri-La’. Also affectionately dubbed ‘Little Tibet’ because of its cultural and geographical proximity to Tibet, Buddhist tinged Ladakh is India’s most remote and sparsely populated region. Indeed, wedged between Tibet and Kashmir, this austerely beautiful land, with Leh and Kargil as its district headquarters, is unique – in India, and in the world. Ladakh is also daunting, no doubt. Its minimum elevation is 2,900 m and its highest regions ascend up to 7,500 m higher even than Mount Everest’s base camp. This ethereal, humbling moonscape is bounded by the Kunlun mountain range on the north and the Great Himalayas to the south. It is often said that here, ‘the earth meets the sky’. Spread across 86,904 sq km. Ladakh is flanked by Xinjiang to the north, Tibet to the east, the Kashmir valley to the west and Lahaul-Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh to the south. Ladakh’s icy lifeline is the Indus river, described as ‘the central thread in the Ladakhi mosaic’ (Michael Gebicki). The Indus, 3,180 km long, originates in the Tibetan plateau, flows north west through Ladakh (where it separates the Ladakh and Zanskar ranges before turning south to flow through Pakistan. The other major river here is a tributary of the Indus called Zanskar, which nourishes the arid, inhospitable Zanskar valley. In winters, a 105-km stretch of the frozen Zanskar river becomes a challenging and beautiful adventure called the Chadar Trek.

History and people

The history of Ladakh is shrouded in myth. Indeed, there is no ‘written’ history of the region until after the 8th century; and yet, Ladakh was known across continents from the most ancient times. The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-425 BC), for example, called this land of sun-kissed mountains and sparkling rivers a ‘country of gold-digging ants’ – perhaps a reference to the Tibetan marmots that were known for digging gold out of the earth. Historical sources suggest that, besides the Dards of Drass (Kargil district) the earliest inhabitants of Ladakh were Changpas, nomadic yak herders. Other important and ancient tribes include the Brokpas (of Kargil) and the Mons, said to be descendants of early settlers from Himachal Pradesh. Interestingly, the Brokpas continue to follow Bon, the original, animist religion of the land while most other tribes are Buddhist. Several historians suggest that Ladakh was part of the Kushan Empire in the 2nd century AD. In the 9th century, the local Buddhist kings, predecessors of the well-known Namgyals, established a kingdom extending all the way from Kashmir to Tibet, guarded by fortresses and vast gompas. During this period, Ladakhi culture and traditions were heavily influenced by their Tibetan neighbours. In 1470, King Lhachen Bhagan of Basgo, a distant cousin of the then ruling king of Ladakh, founded the powerful Namgyal dynasty, whose descendants live even today in Stok Palace. In the 16th century, Namgyal rule was interrupted by Ali Mir of Baltistan, who invaded Ladakh but never ruled the region, until Singge Namgyal (1570–1642) regained the throne and built his capital in Leh. In 1846, Ladakh was invaded once again by the Dogra Rajas of Jammu. Today, Ladakh remains within the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
In 1993, Ladakh was granted the status of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council.

Lakes of Ladakh

The best known lake in Ladakh is Pangong Tso ( ‘tso ’ means lake in the local language). Between 2-10 km wide and 150 km long, Pangong is about 150 km east of Leh, at an elevation of 4,300 m. Its salty waters caress the shores of both India and China – in fact, two-thirds of the lake’s waters are in Chinese territory. The blue skies reflect off the lake with a brilliance that will take your breath away. Though this is more than enough reason to visit the lake, its popularity across India owes a great deal to the 2009 Bollywood blockbuster 3 Idiots. Three chhatri-like structures on the lake’s border mark where the film’s last scene was shot. Many visitors drive to Pangong on a day trip, but it is also possible to camp here, or spend the night nearby in Tanksey (32 kms before Pangong). The road to Pangong goes through the spectacular Chang-la pass. The other great lake in Ladakh is Tso Moriri. Even higher than Pangong, Tso Moriri is perched at over 4,500 m, about 240 km southeast of Leh. The lake is just under 20 km long and 3 km wide, and its water is brackish. In fact, until quite recently, local villages extracted salt from it. Now, the lake is part of a Wetland Conservation Reserve, and visitors may spot rare birds and animals, included the famed Tibetan kiang, bar-headed geese, black-necked cranes and perhaps even a snow leopard or Tibetan wolf. On the way to Tso Moriri, visitors can stop at Tso Kar, a small, freshwater lake that may once have been connected to Tso Moriri.

The spread of Buddhism

Remote and isolated Ladakh is one of the last enclaves of Tantric Buddhism. From ancient gompas clinging to cliff faces, red-robed monks and synchronous chanting of hymns, Buddhism permeates the land. Walls of stone are etched with the sacred syllables Om Mani Padme Hum, reflecting the submission of the devout in a land so bare and barren that almost the only offering is stone. Indeed, religion is the inspiring force behind people’s lives, a deep and abiding faith that imbues the everyday with sanctity. Before Buddhism arrived here, the people of Ladakh followed the Bon religion, an animistic, faith primarily center on spirit worship. Buddhism came to Tibet in the 7nd century AD though it truly spread through the land in the 8th, thanks to the efforts of Guru Padmasambhava. Also known as Guru Rinpoche, and venerated in the western Himalayas as second only to Sakyamuni Buddha himself, Padmasambhava traveled widely through the region, laying the foundations of Tantric Buddhism here. The story goes that soon after his accession; King Thi Sung began building Tibet’s first monastery at Samye. However, his efforts were constantly thwarted by earthquakes, believed to be the work of per-Buddhist deities angered by this attempt to bring Buddhism here. So, on the advice of the Indian monk, Shantarikshita, the king sent to Nalanda for the great monk, Padmasambhava, who arrived in Tibet in 747 AD with two Dakinis and a host of disciples. Guru Padmasambhava pacified the deities at Samye and also created a sacred Buddhist space by drawing a mandala. On this mandala were laid the foundations of the Samye monastery. Today, Nyingmapa is the only school of Tibetan Buddhism that traces its origin directly to Guru Padmasambhava. It was in the 8th century that Guru Padmasambhava popularized Buddhism in these high mountains, but the religion had come to Tibet a century earlier, when King Strongsten Gampo married Chinese and Nepali princesses, both of whom came from Buddhist families. Strongsten Gampo’s wives converted the king to Buddhism, which then received ample patronage and began to spread across the kingdom. This is known as the ‘First Advancement of Buddhism’, which culminated in Padmasambhava’s teachings, and witnessed the construction of many monasteries, forts and temples in the region. Buddhism received a severe jolt with the advent of Tibetan apostate king Langdarma (r 838-841 AD), who mercilessly persecuted Buddhists and closed all monasteries. He was assassinated by a monk, and the region fell to turmoil and split into smaller kingdoms. The ‘Second Advancement of Buddhism’, from the 10th century onwards, is attributed to King Khorre (988-996 AD). A spiritually-inclined man, Khorre gave up his throne to follow the life of a monk under the name Yeshes-Od. As such, he met Rinchen Zangpo, also known as the Great Translator, and both monks ensured the firm establishment of Buddhism in the region. It was Zangpo who travelled through the Himalayas, accompanied; it is said, by 32 Kashmiri craftsmen, to built 108 stupas and monasteries, of which many stand even today, including Alchi (Ladakh) and Tabo (Himachal Pradesh). In the centuries that followed, many Buddhist sects struggled for prominence – including Druk-pa, Nyingma and Geluk-pa. Today, the Geluk-pa (Yellow Hat) order, introduced by the Tibetan pilgrim Tsongkha-pa in the 14th century, is the most popular in Ladakh.

Important years in Buddhism

566 BC Siddhartha Gautama is born in Lumbini.
531 BC Siddhartha Gautama achieves Enlightenment and becomes Buddha.
486 BC Buddha’s final departure, or parinirvana.
c. 200 -100 BC Buddhism reaches Samarkand in Central Asia.
c. 20 AD Buddhist monks reach China by the Silk Route, and sea-trade carries Buddhism to Southeast Asia.
747 AD Guru Padmasambhava reaches Tibet.
975 AD Lotsava Rinchen Zangpo travels to India and begins translating Buddhist texts and building monasteries across the western Himalayas.
c. 9th-12th Early period monasteries like Alchi and centuries Lamayuru built.
c. 16th century Late period monasteries like Hemis are built onwards 16th century Buddhism reaches Mongolia via Tibet.

Gompa art and architecture

The gompa, literally ‘solitary place’ in Tibetan, is the fulcrum of the Lamaist Buddhism that is followed in Ladakh. Gompas had their origin in the spartan, rock-cut viharas (‘dwellings’) that monks inhabited during the early stages of Buddhism. Buddhist texts specified that, ideally, a monastery should be set on a hill with a water body nearby and not too far from a human settlement. As Buddhism spread and patronage increased, so monastic establishments expanded. Indeed, in Ladakh, monasteries have long been the main source of employment for locals. The monasteries of the western Himalayas can be roughly divided into two periods, though there is little clarity regarding the exact dates. Scholars claim that the first phase spans the 9th-12th centuries AD, and includes the 108 gompas built by Rinchen Zangpo. In Ladakh, the best known of these is Alchi. These early monasteries were usually built on flat land, away from human settlements, and follow a simple construction plan. In fact, scarcity of material means that most buildings in Ladakh long continued to follow a similar model. Thus, every building from the humblest stable to the monasteries, is made from materials which are immediately to hand – earth, stone and trees – and follows the same construction principles: massive external masonry walls enclosing a timber framework of posts and beams carrying earth floors and roofs. A second phase of gompas were built from the 14th century on wards. These years saw the decline and destruction of monasteries across India because of Islamic invasions and the rise of local Hindu kingdoms. At the same time, cultural links between Tibet and India also weakened. It was only in the 17th century that invasions by the newly converted Buddhist Mongols revitalized the religion in the high Himalayas. The subsequent rise of the Geluk-pa sect led to a fusion of religious and secular authority, and culminated in the institution of the Dalai Lama as the religious and temporal ruler of Tibet. Given the troubled times in which the gompas of the second period were built, their main feature is a strategic shift from flat ground to hill tops, since height gave these monasteries a military advantage. Some important gompas of this period are at Phyang, Thiksey and Hemis. In gompas of both periods, the central feature is the courtyard – the flat space used for communal gatherings and ritual dance performances. Next to the courtyard is the circumlocution corridor that is lined with prayer wheels. From there, one proceeds to the lha-khang (chapel), and the du-khang (prayer room or assembly hall) through the portico, which symbolizes the link between the material and the divine. The main image of the gompa’s presiding deity is always placed at the centre of the du-khang, flanked by images of attendant deities. Usually, the head lama’s room (called the zimchhung) is located above the du-khang, indicating his high status. These rooms are decorated with richly painted thangkas, wooden sculptures and intricate murals. Geluk-pa monasteries also have a gon-khang (chamber of deities), a ‘secret’ chamber, where the chief protector deity, Mahakala Vajrabhairava, is enshrined. Masks, weapons and skulls, all used for protective rituals, are kept here. Only the head-priest is allowed within, that too after a special meditation to shield himself from wrathful deities. Monks usually live in small cells and, given the icy winds that blow here, windows are rarely built, and light is let in through skylights high up in the wall.

Leh

Leh, the largest settlement in Ladakh, is a town of modest bazaars and winding streets, hemmed by rugged hills. Whitewashed buildings surrounded by poplar-lined gardens fringe its outskirts. Threaded by slender lanes and stepped paths, its mud-brick, cheek-by-jowl houses huddle picturesquely beneath Leh palace, which remains largely empty since Ladakh’s royal family moved to Stok in the 1830s. In recent years, the town has been transformed by its growing popularity on national and international tourist circuits. Small, makeshift hotels crowd its lanes, particularly during the four brief months of summer (June-September), when almost every spare room in town is available for rent. All a tourist might need – travel agents, internet cafés, souvenir shops – is available in the main town square. Restaurants feature eclectic menus, with everything from soupy thukpas to chilled frappuccinos. But Leh is no stranger to the bustle of crowds. For centuries it was a hub for traders from Kashmir, the lower Himalayas and Central Asia. Raw pashmina (or cashmere), for which Kashmir is renowned across the world, would traverse Leh on its way to Srinagar, where it was woven. The town was built in the 14th century by Khri-gstug-Lde, though it attained renown and prosperity under the Namgyal dynasty, when Tashi Namgyal (1555-75) declared Leh his capital. Just 6 km north of the Indus and 3,500 m high, Leh is best known for its 9-storeyed Leh Palace. This attractive edifice was built in the first half of the 16th century by Singge Namgyal, and may have been modeled on Lhasa’s 13-storeyed Potala Palace. Such ‘royal’ architecture shares similar features across the region, though Leh Palace is the grandest of all the neighboring palaces such as Shey and Stok. Like most buildings in Ladakh, Leh Palace is built of stone, mud and poplar wood (a rare commodity and used minimally in construction).

The palace is built along the sides of a low hill and has a flat terrace – also typical of the rain shadow region of Ladakh, where the weather is so dry that sloping roofs are unnecessary. Visitors can climb up to the terrace for beautiful views of the town and surrounding landscape. A small prayer room inside enshrines an image of Du-kar, a protector deity usually identified by a white parasol. Leh Palace is being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. Just above and behind the palace, the small Namgyal Tsemo monastery was also built by Tashi Namgyal and contains a Buddha idol made of pure gold! Another of Leh’s historical treasures is the Jama Masjid in the town’s main bazaar. Its pure white façade is flecked with shades of green and blue; while carved wooden and stone decorations, arched windows and its elegant dome create a pleasing air. Jama Masjid was built by King Deldan Namgyal after the 1680s, as part of an agreement with the rulers of Kashmir, who asked for a mosque in return for helping Ladakh fight off a Tibetan attack. The present structure is relatively new.

More modern attractions in Leh include the Shanti Stupa and the War Museum. The Shanti Stupa on Changspa hill, facing Leh Palace, is a little outside town. Visitors can drive up, or climb the 500 steps to the peak, where they will find a white and gold stupa, built by Japanese monks in the 1980s and inaugurated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Shanti Stupa is best seen at sunset, though its panoramic views of Leh town below are beautiful at any time of day. Just before the ascent to Shanti Stupa are the mud-brick ruins of Tisuru gompa, dated to the 11th century. The War Museum looks a bit like a stupa itself, and is maintained by the Indian Army. With fighter jets, tanks and artillery on display, the museum celebrates the strength and heroism of the Indian armed forces with a particular focus on the battlefield of Siachen. Patthar Sahib Gurudwara, 25 kms before Leh on the Leh Kargil road, is popular with tourists and army convoys. Legend has it that Guru Nanak Dev, who came here in 1516, greatly agitated a local demon. One day, the demon threw a huge boulder at the Guru, but was unable to harm him. Furious, the demon kicked the boulder, only to realize that the rock had turned to soft wax, which sucked his feet in. Trapped, and realizing that the person he had attacked was very powerful, he asked for forgiveness, reformed his ways and began to serve the villagers. The Patthar (or ‘rock’) Sahib Gurudwara is said to have been built on the very spot where Guru Nanak Dev meditated. Two other attractions near the Gurudwara are Magnetic Hill and the Indus-Zanskar confluence. At the Hill, vehicles apparently propel themselves forward without the engine being turned on, though some believe this is merely an optical illusion. Barely a kilometer or so ahead of the hill is the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers.

The many roads to Leh

You can fly all year round from New Delhi to Leh, in about an hour. Landing in Leh is a memorable experience, vividly described by Wendy Driver in the Daily Mail, ‘This is like landing on the Moon. I gaze up at walls of rust red screen encircling a massive, scorched dust bowl. But then the clouds gradually disperse to reveal the glittering, icy peaks of the Himalayas all around us.’ In the summers, you can always be more adventurous and plan a road trip. Leh is connected to northern India by two high altitude roads: the Leh-Manali NH-21 and the Leh-Srinagar NH-1A via Kargil. Since 1989 when it was opened, the 473-km Manali-Leh road has served as a popular entry to Ladakh. Open from mid-June to late October, this road traverses the upland desert plateaus of Rupsho (southeast of Ladakh), where altitudes range from 3,660 m to 4,570 m. There are several high passes en route, including Tanglang La, at 5,325 m. The 434-km Srinagar-Leh road is open from May to November. The most dramatic part of this journey is the ascent up the tortuous, 3,505-m high Zoji-La Pass. The highway also has a historical connection: it traverses the old Central Asian trade route between Srinagar, Leh and Yarkand, also dubbed the Treaty Road, after a commercial treaty signed in 1870 between the Dogra king Ranbir Singh and British administrator Thomas Douglas Forsyth.

Festivals of Ladakh

Monastic Festivals Almost every gompa in Ladakh is a treasure trove of age-old traditions and practices, many of which are on vibrant display during annual monastic festivals held across the year and feature an array of well-known dance-dramas. These 1,300-year old Tantric dances called chham have their roots in the ancient Bon religion. Around 760-770 AD, the then King of Tibet, Trisong Detsen formally adopted Buddhism and invited Guru Padmasambhava to preach the doctrine to his people. Padmasambhava, an accomplished tantric, was skilled in warding off evil spirits through dance madras. He used this power in the battle between the old, animistic Bon and Buddhism. Today, traces of that ancient acrimony are discernible in the chham dances, which depicts the battle between Buddhist gods and wrathful deities. Some religious scholars have also seen in chham a metaphor for the conquering of the ego, the ultimate aim of Buddhism. An integral part of all important Tibetan monasteries, chham dances are usually performed by monks in a gompa’s courtyard, and have incorporated many scenes from local fables into their portrayal of the triumph of good over evil. Monks wear colorful brocade costumes, with huge and bizarre masks, and sway to the sound of blaring horns and trumpets in a dance that is intense, energetic – and, for the viewer, often mesmerizing. The chham begins with the heraldic call of kangling trumpets from within the gompa. As the atmosphere echoes the shrill note of the clarinets, with the drums forming a muffled undertone, richly attired lamas swirl to the beat while incense-bearers circulate in the audience, purifying the atmosphere. Festivals last two or three days and usually end with a climax in which the evil forces are trapped in an effigy – a human-like figure made of dough – which is then ritually cut into pieces and scattered in the four cardinal directions. This ritual, called Dao Tulva, re-enacts the assassination of the Tibetan apostate king Lang Darma by a Buddhist monk in 842 AD. The Rinpoche, or head lama, of the monastery presides over all the rituals during a festival, sitting on a high throne, placed at the centre of the gompa’s courtyard and facing the du-khang, or main assembly hall. Lamas in ceremonial attire sit on either side of the throne. Makeshift markets selling chunky jewellery, thangkas and other artifacts spring up overnight near monasteries during festivals. Valuable and rare musical instruments, weapons and religious objects are brought out during these performances, often for the only time in the year. Perhaps the best known monastic festival, at least among tourists, is the Hemis Tsechu, usually held in June. Ladakh Festival A week-long extravaganza organised by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department in Leh and Kargil from 20-26 September, the Ladakh Festival is a bouquet of local customs, suffusing the region in frenzied bursts of activity. Ladakhi men in long silk robes and leather hats, women wearing Goncha robes that touch their toes, their headgear embellished with topaz and turquoise, showcase the various facets of the region’s distinct identity. At the inauguration, hundreds of local artistes, belting out popular Ladakhi numbers, are accompanied by dancers in a long-winding procession. Each dance begins with a prayer and gradually gains pace. Such street processions are followed by days of local dances, and unlimited flow of the local brew called chang. Don’t miss out on craft stalls selling exquisite Ladakhi handicrafts. A spectacular display of daredevilry, the motorcycle expedition from Leh to Khardung La, said to be the world’s highest motor able road, is the high point of this festival. Evenings are marked for polo matches, a popular sport in Ladakh. Locals say that polo came to Ladakh from neighboring Baltistan, and historians confirm that polo was brought here by King Jamyang Namgyal in the 15th century, after he married Gyal Khatun, a princess from Baltistan. In the words of one traveler who witnessed a game of polo in 1906, ‘everybody holds their breath while the ball is tossed up and is dropping to meet the unerring aim of the club that sends it flying. Helter-skelter follow the players. ‘Tis both hot and fast, is polo at Leh’. Archery too is a popular community event, for which long-haired young men attired in traditional gonchhas travel from their villages to Leh.

Sindhu Festival

The Ladakh Singhey Khababs Sindhu Festival (12-14 June) a government-sponsored festival, is held on the banks of the Indus or Sindhu river. The festival, which began in 1997, aims to project the Indus as a symbol of communal harmony and unity in India. Participants from across India bring water from the rivers of their own state and immerse it into the Indus. On the first day of the festival, 50 senior lamas conduct prayers on the banks of the river. The second day features a special riverside puja. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister of India, laid the foundation stone of the Sindhu Cultural Center in 2000. The complex boasts an open air theatre, an exhibition room, a library and a music room.

Wildlife in Ladak

Formidable mountain ranges, sub-zero temperatures and sparse vegetation – any wildlife that inhabits this region must brave harsh conditions to survive. And yet, Ladakh has an enviable and exotic variety of fauna: snow leopard, ibex, Tibetan wild donkey or kiang, black-necked crane and brown-headed gull. Blessed with warm, shaggy coats, and other protective evolution, these animals and birds have adjusted to the biting cold, insignificant greenery and lack of shelter; but even so, almost all the region’s mammals descend to lower altitudes for winter. Only a few exceptions, hibernating species like marmots and brown bears, are able to cope with the temperatures in the upper reaches then.

Snow leopard

The snow leopard (Uncia Uncia), also called the white leopard, is an elusive animal. This endangered species with fur like mist, big tail and pale golden-green eyes seems to melt into the landscape, making it almost impossible for explorers – or, indeed, its prey – to see it coming. Only about 200 of these animals survive in Ladakh today, eating goats, ibex and blue sheep – and hunted, in turn, by human poachers who seek profit in its skin.

Kiang

The Equus kiang, largest of the wild donkey, was mistaken for a ‘wild variety of horse’ by the English explorer William Moorcroft (Travels in the Himalayan Provinces), who also noted that the kiang’s ‘activity and strength render its capture difficult’. Most often sighted near Pangong and Tso Moriri lakes, and in the more plains south of Tanglang-la, the kiang lives in herds, which can have over 40 members. To see a group of wild asses galloping across an alpine meadow is a mesmerizing sight.

Blue sheep (or Bharal)

Bharal, locally called Napo, resemble both goats and sheep. Their blue coats camouflage them against the Himalayan rocks that they clamber across with remarkable grace. This ability to climb and hide in rugged cliffs helps them escape snow leopards, who prey upon the bharal.

Yak

Though the majority of the world’s yaks are now domesticated, the shaggy, black-haired wild yak still survives in the highest altitudes of Ladakh and Tibet. Weighing up to a tone, this species of ox is today an endangered animal.

Birds of Ladakh

Ladakh is located on the ‘flyway route’ of birds migrating from Siberia to the Indian plains, so much so that 421 species including Turkoman rock pigeons, desert wheatears, buntings, larks, kites, kestrels, finches, ducks, geese and hundreds of other rare Himalayan birds have been sighted in the region. Besides being the sole breeding ground in India for black-necked cranes (see Box), Ladakh’s many wetlands of glacial origin are used by exotic birds like bar-headed geese, brown-headed gulls, great-crested grebes, ruddy shelducks, and lesser sand plover for breeding.

National parks

The Hemis High Altitude National Park Established in 1981 in eastern Ladakh, the Hemis High Altitude National Park covers an area of 600 sq km, making it the second-largest protected area in India after Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve (Uttarakhand). The park, ranging from 3,140 m to 5,854 m in altitude, is only 10 km from Leh. It has vast tracts of barren land with sparse vegetation, and is also known as the ‘snow leopard capital of India’, as this elusive animal is the park’s most prized inhabitant. The other dozen-odd species that live here include the ibex, Tibetan sheep, red fox, Himalayan marmot, bharal and mountain weasel. The park is also home to exotic birds like the golden eagle, and the lammergeyer and Himalayan griffon vultures, making it a birdwatcher’s delight. The streaked rose finch, Tibetan snow finch, Himalayan snowcock and fork-tailed swift are a few bird species that are not found anywhere in India, except in this high-altitude park.

Changthang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary

Part of the Tibetan plateau, the Changthang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary stretches over 4,000 sq km, from eastern Ladakh into Tibet, and encompasses the lakes of Pangong, Tso Moriri, and Tso Kar. At elevations ranging from 4,000 m to 5,791 m, the cold desert region has short summers and Arctic winters. Its spectacular wetlands – which were only opened to tourists in 1994 – host the rare black-necked crane, besides bar-headed geese, great crested grebes, sand plovers and redshanks. You may also see wild animals like Tibetan gazelles, Tibetan sheep, herds of bharal and kiang, and marmots – as well as over 700 species of plants, mostly low thorny scrub,

Tibetan furze and grasses

You need permits to visit the Hemis National Park.
To visit Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, you need an Inner Line Permit.

When to visit Hemis NP:

Mid-June to mid October.
The very adventurous could try their luck in winter, when the snow leopard is most likely to be spotted.

Accommodation Hemis NP:

There are no hotels inside the Park. Homestay options are available in the villages that come under the park: Rumbak, Kaya, Sku, Shingo, Chiling, Urutse.

Changthang WS:

June to September
Several tour operators offer packages for adventures into this area, complete with tented accommodation and other facilities.

Practical information

When to come India is a vast country, stretching across varied climatic zones. While the plains of north and central India experience extremes of climate, the south is more equatorial. Ladakh remains chilly throughout the year. Moreover, since this high altitude land lies in the rain shadow of the Great Himalayas, it receives hardly any rainfall. Highways to Ladakh, both from Srinagar and Manali, are open from mid-May to the end of October. However, the high passes along these roads may be closed subject to weather conditions, even in summer. What to wear Even in the summer months between June and August, temperatures in Ladakh rarely exceed 25º C, while the minimum can touch 10º C. In winters, the minimum plummets below -10ºC and does not raise much above 0ºC. Whatever season you visit Ladakh, therefore, make sure you carry plenty of warm clothing, closed shoes, woolen hats and gloves.

Before to coming in India

There are a few things you need to take care of before travelling to India. Passport Foreign travelers to India must always carry their valid passport with them. If your passport is lost or stolen, you should immediately contact the embassy or consulate of your country.

Visa

A tourist visa is normally given for six months. The 15-day single/ double entry visa is issued only to bona fide transit passengers. Tourist groups of not less than four people travelling under the auspices of a recognized travel agency may be considered for a collective tourist visa. Tourist visas are valid for 180 days from the date of issue and not from the date of entry into India, unless specified otherwise. Visa Extension The 180-day tourist visa is technically non-extendable but can be extended for a maximum of 15 days in case of emergencies. A valid departure ticket must, however, be produced as proof of the intention to depart India. The 15-day extension on the 6-month stay is issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi, the local State Government and the Foreigner’s Regional Registration Office (FRRO). The FRRO is open on weekdays, 9.30 am to 1.30 pm and 2 pm to 4 pm. Registration for foreigners in towns where there are no FRRO offices can be done in the local police commissioners’ offices.

To travel to the many ‘inner line’ areas in Ladakh, including popular tourist destinations like Nubra, Pangong Tso, Tso Moriri and Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, both Indian and foreign travelers need permits from the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council.
The permits are issued at: Deputy Commissioner’s Office, Polo Ground, Leh Ph: (01982) 252010

Travel Insurance

It is advisable to purchase a travel insurance policy covering theft and loss before coming to India. Also buy medical insurance. There are several kinds of insurance policies and a suitable choice can be made after consulting a reliable travel agent in your country.

Travel in India

Traveling by Air Leh is well-connected by air to Delhi, Jammu and Srinagar. Airlines that fly to the region include the state-owned Air India, and private carriers such as Jet Airways and GoAir. The reporting time for flights departing Jammu, Srinagar and Leh is two hours prior to departure, due to stringent security checks. Moreover, on flights departing from Srinagar and Leh, passengers are not allowed any cabin luggage, except for a camera or laptop bag, and a small handbag for women. In all other domestic flights, passengers are allowed one piece of hand baggage each. All baggage is subject to security checks whether carried by hand or booked in the hold. Excess baggage is charged as per the fee available at each airline’s counter.

Traveling by Rail

There is no rail network in Ladakh, but to travel elsewhere across India, log on to www.irctc.in for booking tickets and www.indianrail.gov.in for latest information on train schedules and booking status. International travelers should note that online bookings can only be made by registering Indian mobile numbers.

Traveling by Road

NH 1A connects Srinagar to Ladakh, via Kargil. The other road that connects Ladakh to the rest of the country is the Leh-Manali highway (a part of NH 21), which passes through Baralacha-La and Tanglang-La. Both highways are maintained by the Border Roads Organization (BRO). Buses run frequently from Jammu, Srinagar and Manali to Leh and are a popular mode of transport with tourists. J&K State Road Transport Corporation runs regular buses between Srinagar and Leh, with an overnight halt at Kargil. For other details, log on to www.jksrtc.co.in Due to heavy snowfall from October to May, many roads in Kashmir and Ladakh are closed. So make sure to check before finalizing your travel plans.

Local Travel

Within Ladakh, roads are the only way to explore. They are largely well-maintained, though inclement weather can often make travel difficult. If you are travelling in your own vehicle, carry extra petrol or diesel, as petrol pumps in the area are few and far between. Buses ply across Ladakh, but hired vehicles or taxis – though more expensive – allow greater flexibility. Please approach your hotel desk for information for reliable car or bike rentals and taxi charges. Local J & K Tourism offices will be happy to book a car for you. You can also hire taxis from the Leh Taxi Stand. Those who hire taxis at Srinagar or Leh will have to change into a local one at Kargil, as the Kargil Taxi Union does not permit ‘non-local’ taxis to ply in and around Kargil. For a comprehensive chart of taxi hire rates in Ladakh, visit leh.

Bikes on Hire

Ladakh is extremely popular with biking enthusiasts – its rugged terrain, hairpin bends and high mountain passes provide a truly exhilarating experience. To hire Royal Enfield and other bikes visit: www.enfieldpoint.com (Ph: +91 9906971009) www.bikerentalsmanali.com www.visitmanali.com/bikes.html www.lallisingh.com www.ladakhbikerental.com Tourists are required to give a refundable deposit when hiring a bike. Indians looking to hire bikes in Ladakh must have their driving license handy. International tourists need a copy of their passport and an International Driving Permit to ride through the rugged terrain.

Driving license

A valid International Driving License is necessary if you wish to drive a car or a motorcycle in India and it is advisable to get one before coming. The Automobile Association of Upper India (AAUI), C-8, Qutub Institutional Area, New Delhi (Ph: 011 26965397), extends help to AA members from all countries. If you do not have an International Driving License and wish to drive in India, you can get a Temporary Driving License, provided you are carrying a valid driving license of your country. You may still be required to give a test to check your knowledge of road signs.

Communications

The main post offices in large towns provide a range of facilities like fax and a courier service which operates under the name EMS Speed Post. If you need to dispatch a letter or document urgently, it is advisable to send it by the government-run Speed Post. Parcels by mail should not exceed 35 kg.
Books and printed material can be sent by Book Post which costs less. Post Offices are open from 10 am to 5.30 pm from Monday to Saturday.

Email

Leh has many cyber cafés that charge a nominal fee for internet access. The bigger hotels here offer WiFi connections to their guests.

Telephone

ISD (international), STD (domestic long distance), and local telephone booths are available all over India. The pre-paid SIM card, offered by various local telecom service providers, is the most popular, and arguably the cheapest option for making and receiving calls in India. Note that registration is required to activate the SIM card.

Health

No particular vaccination is required for coming to India. However, visitors from designated countries in Africa, South America and Papua New Guinea, even if they are in transit, are required to bring valid Yellow Fever vaccination certificates. Precautionary medication is the best bet against common ailments like diarrhea, dysentery and malaria. Travelers to Ladakh must allow their bodies to acclimatize to the low oxygen levels here, especially those flying into Leh (3,505 m). Altitude sickness or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can be fatal if ignored. Spend at least 24 hours resting after your arrival. If you feel any of the symptoms of AMS (headache, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, nosebleeds), consult a doctor immediately. Oxygen from canisters and cylinders is used to treat mild to moderate AMS. If the symptoms do not abate, then contact your hotel administration immediately. The only reliable treatment for AMS is to descend to a lower altitude. You may carry portable oxygen cylinders, available over the counter at pharmacies across the country. Acetazolamide salt is effective in the treatment of AMS.

Money

The Indian currency is called the Rupee. It is available in denominations of 2000, 500, 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1. One rupee equals 100 paisa. Coins in common use are 10, 5, 2, and 1. While the 50 and 25 paisa coins have become redundant in bigger cities, they might still be in circulation in smaller towns. Credit cards are popular in most cities but it is advisable to carry enough cash when visiting small towns, where ATMs and card-swiping machines are hard to come by.

Banks

Most international banks have branches in major cities, so encashing travelers’ cheques or changing foreign currency is fairly simple. Indian state-run banks are open from 10 am to 2 pm, Monday to Friday and from 10 am to 12 pm on Saturdays. They are closed on Sundays and national holidays. Privately-run Indian banks and international banks have longer and more flexible hours. While all major cities have many banks, small towns are less equipped in banking services. It is thus advised to complete financial transactions from larger cities.

Cuisine

Ladakh’s cuisine is distinctly different from that of the plains. The principal crop is barley, the mainstay of traditional Ladakhi food. The relatively green Nubra valley has fruit orchards, but up on the high pastures, where not even barley grows, people husband cattle, yak or sheep, which also make up their meat-rich diet. Barley is fermented to make chhang (a potent brew!) and various kinds of breads such as tain tain – a thick but soft bread. With the influx of tourists, Leh has acquired many restaurants and cafés serving an assortment of Indian, Tibetan and Continental cuisine. A favorite dish is thukpa, a big, steaming bowl of soup full of noodles, vegetables and meat, garnished with chhurpe (dried cottage cheese). It is accompanied by fluffy, steamed momos, or dumplings, stuffed with meat or vegetables, and served with a fiery chilli sauce. Skyu, a traditional dish made of wheat flour and vegetable roots or mutton, is worth a shot. Travellers to Ladakh must also try the salty gur gur tea, prepared with butter, and an excellent antidote to the cold. In fact, a popular item on the Ladakhi palate is tsampa, roasted barley flour mixed with gur gur and kneaded into a dough. It is usually served with vegetables, yoghurt or chatni. A wild fruit, chesta lulu (seabuckthorn) is used for juices and jams.

Shopping

Shopping in Ladakh is largely limited to Leh. Try HH The Dalai Lama’s Charitable Trust Handicraft Emporium; the Ladakh Art Palace in Akbar Shopping Complex; and the Kashmir Government Arts Emporium in the main bazaar. Popular purchases include thangkas (paintings on silk depicting a Buddhist deity or a mandala), jewellery of silver and precious and semi-precious stones, pashmina shawls and carpets. Pashmina or cashmere evokes images of luxurious shawls, soft and delicately embroidered by Kashmiri weavers. pashmina shawls have become a fashion sensation across the world, with a fast-growing international market for this traditional fibre. The wool comes from a species of goat found at altitudes of 4,000 to 5,000 m in Ladakh, Nepal and Pakistan. In fact, the more harsh and windy the climate they inhabit, the softer grows their undercoat, the source of pashmina wool. One goat produces only 80 to 100 grams of fibre. Such is the demand for this textile, considered a diamond among fibres, that scientists even attempted cloning the animal in 2012!

Pashmina, Ladakhi carpets and other handicrafts are available at the SOS Children’s Village in Choglamsar, and the Handicraft Centre in Leh. The Buddhist Thangka House sells some wonderful souvenirs, from thangkas to turquoise jewellery and wooden choktse (small Tibetan-style tables intricately carved, painted and polished). Tibetan silver jewellery, turquoise trinkets and beaded bracelets are particularly popular in this region. Women wear gorgeous necklaces, bracelets and earrings, complementing their costumes with headgear called perak. Turquoise became popular here in the 7th century, when these precious stones were used as cash, or presented as gifts to appease wrathful deities. It is quite unique, in fact, as it changes color with age. The older the stone, the more green or black it becomes, but in its ‘youth’, it is a bright blue.

Bookshop in Leh

Ladakh Bookshop Main Bazaar

For a wide range of titles on the Himalayas and Tibetan culture. Leh Ling Bookshop Main Bazaar For a variety of books on Ladakh and Tibet. Book Worm Old Fort Road Sells second-hand novels.

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