Ladakh is a land abounding in awesome physical features, set in an enormous and spectacular environment. Bounded by two of the world"s mightiest mountain ranges, the Karakoram in the north and the Great Himalaya in the south, it is traversed by two other parallel chains, the Ladakh Range and the Zanskar Range.
In geological terms, this is a young land, formed a few million years ago. Its basic contours, uplifted by tectonic movements, have been modified over the millennia by the process of erosion due to wind and water, sculpted into the form that we see today.
Today a high-altitude desert, sheltered from the rain-bearing clouds of the Indian monsoon by the barrier of the Great Himalaya, Ladakh was once covered by an extensive lake system, the vestiges of which still exist on its south-east plateaux of Rupshu and Chushul, in the drainage basins or lakes of Tso-moriri, Tso-kar and Pangong-tso. But the main source of water is winter snowfall.
Dras, Zanskar and the Suru Valley on the Himalaya"s northern flanks receive heavy snow in winter, this feeds the glaciers from which melt water, carried down by streams, irrigates the fields in summer. For the rest of the region, the snow on the peaks is virtually the only source of water. As the crops grow, the villagers pray not for rain, but for sun to melt the glaciers and liberate their water.
Ladakh lies at altitudes ranging from about 9,000 ft (2,750 m) at Kargil to 25,170 ft (7,672m) at Saser Kangri, in the Karakoram Range. Summer temperatures rarely exceed 27C in the shade, while in winter they may at times plummet to minus 20C even in Leh. Surprisingly though, the thin air makes the heat of the sun even more intense than at lower altitudes. It is said that only in Ladakh can a man sitting in the sun with his feet in the shade suffer from sunstroke and frostbite at the same time!
Leh Town And Around
Leh town offers a number of sightseeing options for the visitors. A historic town that served as the royal capital of the Old Kingdom, it is dominated by the nine-storey palace built by King Singge Namgyal in the grand tradition of Tibetan architecture, which is said to have inspired the famous Potala in Lhasa built about half a century later. Above the palace, on the Namgyal Tsemo hill, are the ruins of a fort, the earliest royal residence built by King Tashi Namgyal in the 16th century. The associated temples remain intact, but they are kept locked except during the morning and evening hours, when a monk from Sankar Gompa hikes up the hill to attend to the butter-lamps in front of the images.
Down in the historic bazaar, the main sites to visit are the Jo-khang, a newly built Buddhist temple, and the imposing historic mosque founded in the late 17th century standing, almost opposite. For locals and visitors alike, a stroll along the main bazaar, observing the varied crowd and looking into the curio shops is an engaging experience. Behind the main bazaar, Chang Gali is less bustling but has interesting little shops selling curios and jewellery. In the other direction, down the bazaar, are the Tibetan markets where one can bargain for pearls, turquoise, coral, lapis lazuli and many other kinds of semi-precious stones and jewellery, as well as carved yak-horn boxes, quaint brass locks, china or metal bowls, or any of a whole array of curios.
Or one can strike off away from the bazaar, past Zangsti and the Moravian Church to the Ladakh Ecological Centre and appreciate the work being done by this NGO in applying folk technology to meet the demands of modern life in Ladakh. From here a footpath across the fields leads to Sankar Gompa, which is half an hour"s walk away.
Or one can leave the main road from the bazaar near the Moravian Church and turn off to Changspa, an attractive suburb of Leh, lying below the hill on which stands the imposing Ladakh Shanti Stupa, which can be reached by a winding road. Down past the Tourist Information Centre in the old dak Bungalow, follow the Fort Road to Skara, another pretty and prosperous suburb of Leh town, and admire the earthen ramparts of Zorawar Singh"s fort, now housing army barracks. This road continues onward, swinging around the village to meet the main highway near a crossroad, where the roads from Shrinagar and Manali meet. A branch of this road turns southward and traverses the interior of Skara to meet the main highway near the airport, an excellent drive through the heart of the sprawling village.
There are also several attractive sightseeing and walking destinations within a 10-km radius of Leh. Sabu, a charming village with a small gompa, nestles between two minor spurs of the Ladakh range, about 9 kms away from the town. In the same direction, but nearer town is Choglamsar, with the Tibetan refugee settlement including a children"s village, a handicrafts centre devoted largely to carpet weaving and the Dalai Lama"s prayer-ground, Jiva-tsal. And in the opposite direction, about 8 kms on the Shrinagar road, is the turning for Spituk village and its imposing monastery.
Sightseeing of the historic monuments and major Buddhist gompas (monasteries) are the main attractions of Ladakh. The Indus Valley, particularly from Upshi down to Khalatse, which is the region"s historic heartland, is dotted with all the major sites connected with the former kingdom"s dynastic history, starting with Leh, the capital, since the building of its nine-storey Leh palace in the early 17th century. A few kilometres up the Indus is Shey Palace, the most ancient capital, with its palace and temples. Down river, Basgo, right on the road, and Tingmosgang, a short distance up a side-valley, both served as royal capitals when the Old Kingdom was temporarily divided into two parts in the 15th century. Both these places have the remains of forts and temples dating from the period of their brief glory. Just across the river from Leh lies Stok, the village with which the deposed royal family was compensated for the loss of the throne. Stok Palace, where the royal family now lives, houses a museum of artefacts associated with the dynasty.
The central area of Ladakh has the greatest concentration of major Buddhist monasteries or gompas. Of the twelve situated on or near the Indus, the oldest monastery is that of Lamayuru, which is believed to have been a sacred site for the pre-Buddhist religion known as Bon. The monasteries of Phiyang, Hemis and Chemrey were all founded under the direct patronage of members of the ruling Namgyal dynasty. Stakna, dating from a slightly earlier period, was endowed by the Namgyal kings at various times. All these belong to the Red Hat (Kargyud-Pa) sect of Tibetan monasticism.
The reformist Gelugs-pa, or Yellow-Hat sect, is also well represented in central Ladakh by the monasteries of Thiksey, Likir, Ri-dzong and Spituk, the last of which has branch monasteries at Stok, Sabu and Sankar. Ri-dzong, situated a few kilometres up a side-valley from Uley-Tokpo, was founded only a century and a quarter ago by a devout layman-turned-lama, with the purpose of following the strict monastic rules of the Gelugs-pa sect.
Tak-thok and Matho gompas represent the smaller but much older Nying-ma-pa and Saskya-pa monastic sects respectively.
But the jewel among Ladakh"s monastic foundations is Alchi. Abandoned centuries ago as a place of active worship, it has been lovingly maintained by the monks of Likir, the nearest functioning monastery. Known as Chos-kor, or religious enclave, it comprises five temples, the richest in paintings and images being the Du-khang (assembly hall) and the three-storey Sum-tsek. Its murals, dating from the 11th and 12th centuries, pre-date the Tibetan style of painting seen in all the other gompas of the region.
Note for visitors to monasteries - The monasteries of Ladakh are the fountainhead of Buddhist religion and culture. They are also the repositories of the region"s centuries old artistic and cultural heritage. Visitors are advised to respect their sanctity and appreciate their heritage importance. Shoes may have to be removed before entering some of the temples, while ladies are not allowed to enter the Gon-Khang or the room dedicated to the guardian divinities. Smoking is anathema to the monastic atmosphere, while loud action and improper dress may disturb the tranquil ambience characteristic of such places of worship. Most of the region"s principal monasteries are open throughout the day and a caretaker lama is there to show visitors around. Some of the less visited establishments have special opening hours as in the case of the Namgyal Tsemo, Shey Palace etc. Check the timings in the Tourist Office before proceeding to these places. Also, most monasteries charge a small entrance fee.
The New Tour Circuits
Certain areas of Ladakh, which were formerly closed to foreigners on account of their sensitive strategic position or proximity to international borders, have recently been opened. Movement within these areas, however, is limited to a number of specifically designated circuits, and foreign visitors are allowed to go only in groups, accompanied by a recognised / registered tour operator. The maximum time allowed on a circuit is seven days. Permits must be taken from the Deputy Commissioner, Leh, but citizens of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar will be issued permit only with the prior approval of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi. Foreign diplomats and members of the United Nations and other international organisations are required to apply for permits to the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi. The newly opened circuits are
The Drok-pa Area Circuit
Khalatse-Domkhar-Skurbuchan-Achinathang-Biama-Dah and return.
The Nubra Valley Circuit
Leh-Khardung-la-Khalsar-Tirit-Tegar-Sumur-Panamik and return.
Pangong Lake Circuit
Leh-Karu-Changla-Durbuk-Tangtse-Lukung-Spangmik and return.
Tso-Moriri Lake Circuit
Leh-Upshi-Debring-Puga-tsomoriri-korzok and return
Leh-Upshi-Chumathang-Mahe-Puga-Tsomoriri and return.