Hemmed in by towering mountains on all sides, the Buddhist region of Ladakh is home to what may be India’s least understood culture. Brian Noone spent a memorable week exploring
During the past 142 hours, I have walked clockwise round four Buddha statues, each as tall as a double-decker bus. I have seen two memento mori trumpets made from human thigh bones. I have drunk a minuscule cup of tea at a place that bills itself “the world’s highest cafeteria” and then bicycled down 2000 vertical metres. I have seen an entire city street pause to prevent a car from running over a hapless pigeon. I have seen more road sign puns than I care to remember (“FEEL THE CURVES BUT DO NOT TEST THEM”, “BETTER TO BE MR LATE THAN LATE MR”). And I have seen endless expanses – of rock, sky, snow and mountain – which assured me that no matter what else I might believe myself to be, I am about as significant as a speck of dust.
Even from afar, Ladakh presents an opaque face: the high-altitude pastels on the map are bordered in two places by dotted frontiers, evidence of disputes ongoing with Pakistan in the west – the only active one – and China in the east. In the former, it is the lush and largely Muslim Vale of Kashmir that is the focus, meaning turmoil barely affects the dusty Buddhist region of Ladakh, which ended up in the state of Jammu and Kashmir by curious historical accident.
Not that the region has a closer connection with the rest of India. The flight to Leh, Ladakh’s only city, passes over snow-capped Himalayan peaks, barren valleys and occasional green spots of habitation where still no roads penetrate. It was not a route frequently taken before airplanes, or indeed before 1974, when the government opened the region to both national and international travellers.
The plane loses altitude quickly among the peaks, banking sharply to mirror the slopes underneath just before landing – but passengers never really come all the way down. Perched at 3,250 metres above sea level, it’s like landing on the top of Alpe d’Huez in France or Aspen Mountain in Colorado. At least a full day of rest is necessary to acclimatise, and even then a short burst of jogging can send lowlanders into a hyperventilating wheeze.
But going slow has its advantages. The dun-coloured peaks, radiant with snow at their 6,000m summits, take on new aspects with each glance. Rocks that seem insignificant grow to momentous size with a new perspective, and the shifting light of dawn and dusk exposes countless unseen slopes and layers. Mountains like this act, perhaps surprisingly, as mirrors, reflecting the intensity of your gaze with equal intricacy.
A leisurely pace also ensures you don’t merely notice the smiles on the implacable high-altitude faces of the natives, you smile back, perhaps start a conversation. The Indus Valley, which runs through the heart of Ladakh, bringing in the snowmelt it needs to sustain life, is one of the last remaining places where Tibetan Buddhism is practised freely by a majority of the people, and one understands very quickly, even without seeing the monasteries or hearing the Tibetan-based language, why Ladakh is known as Little Tibet.
And like Tibet and those other Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms – Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan – isolation was for centuries encouraged and enforced. This continues today despite being, in theory, open to tourism.
As a result, tourist infrastructure is, depending on your perspective, woefully underdeveloped or delightfully rustic. Enter Shakti Himalaya, a company founded six years ago with the mission of bringing comfort to mountainous places otherwise inhospitable. Across Ladakh, it now has six village houses, which it has refurbished completely. This has meant, among other things, importing the most comfortable beds in the region and finding local craftsmen to restore the traditional decor, which is aptly complemented by the dignified simplicity of monochromatic bedrooms outfitted with plush fabrics and handmade poplar furniture.
The company hired local drivers and went all out in training the chefs, who can cook an impressive range of Western, Indian and East Asian dishes. Guides, too, were all born in the Himalayas and, more importantly, have come to understand what visitors expect. Itineraries are as fixed or flexible as guests would like, and the range of options is dizzying. In my stay, these are some of the things I couldn’t fit in: a multiday trek in the mountains, camping lakeside at 4,200 metres, riding a camel in the Nubra Valley (opened to tourists in 1994) or motorcycling across the spectacular barren roads.
Instead, in addition to mountain biking and whitewater rafting and an expertly guided shopping expedition through the medieval streets of Leh, I spent much of the time speaking with monks, visiting the monastery museums, which are full of fascinating curios and relics, mostly unlabelled, and often simply wandering the monasteries themselves, comparing, say, the eye-popping colours of the recently painted prayer room at Likkir with those at nearby Alchi, where the 12th-century paintings were said to be last retouched in the 1500s.
Twice I sat down with monks and ended up, in one case, clutching ancient prayer texts brought out of Tibet when the monks fled in 1959. On the other occasion, I emerged with a heady mix of reflections on emptiness, meditation and karma.
And the connection with the landscape always surprises: who would have expected that the Buddhist injunction against killing animals almost comes naturally in Ladakh? At 3,500 metres, there are no malaria-infested mosquitoes, only the stringiest and least delectable mammals and fowl, and the sole predator is the snow leopard, which makes its presence known primarily through footprints.
Buddhists believe that nothing is eternal, and it’s hard to imagine Ladakh staying as it is. Pressure from tourists, from China, even from Mother Nature seems to be pushing it closer to the point of no return. At least the memories will be long-lasting, all 142 hours of them.
Each of Shakti’s six village houses in Ladakh, which guests can choose between each night of their stay, has its own unique charms. Two that opened earlier this year stand out: Likkir and Igoo. The former sits near the top of a narrow valley, offering spectacular panoramas from the bedrooms and terrace (see right), especially at sunrise and sunset. The latter, which dates back around 200 years, making it one of the oldest houses in the region, features elegant decor and pure isolation. Plans are in store for a still more isolated house in the Zanskar River valley, where a hand-pulled zip line across the river is the easiest way to the village, which consists of only three houses.
How to get there
Of the two ways to arrive in Leh, flying from Delhi is the most expedient and comfortable, but the two- or three-day drive from Manali, itself a day’s drive from Delhi, is the more beautiful, passing through spectacular landscapes otherwise inaccessible.
When to go
The houses are open from mid-May through the end of September, though this might soon stretch into October or November, weather permitting. Prices for seven nights, all inclusive, start from $3,898 per person; shaktihimalaya.com.
Shakti began in this stunning and little-known region of the Himalayas, where Nepal, Tibet and India meet, in 2004. Today, three village houses exist, along with the jaw-dropping 360º Leti, a cluster of cottages perched up high with unsurpassed views. Open October to April; prices for three nights start from $1,307 per person.
In this tiny state, a Buddhist kingdom until 1975, Shakti’s houses are entirely off the beaten track amid spectacular views of India’s highest mountain, Kanchenjunga (8,586m). Open October to April; prices for three nights start from $1,974 per person.
Adrenaline-pumping opportunities are not hard to find, but Spiti Ecosphere, (spitiecosphere.com), and Destination Himalaya (trekindia.com) offer more comfort than most on customisable treks. Mercury Himalayan Explorations goes farthest off the beaten track, notably on its ski options (himalayanadventure.com).
Both Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.co.uk) and Cox & Kings (coxandkings.co.uk) offer superior custom itineraries, while London-based Brown + Hudson (brownandhudson.com), plans just 15-20 fully personalised, uber-luxe trips worldwide each year.
For contemplation rather than exploration, Wildflower Hall (oberoihotels.com) near Shimla offers spectacular panoramas, while Ananda in the Himalayas (anandaspa. com), in Uttaranchal, is the Himalayas’ premier spa destination.
Centurion, Q3, 2011
Photos by Sanjay Austa