For more than two months starting May 99 the world was treated to some rare close-up views on television of the stark beauty of the Kargil region of Ladakh as it watched the Indian army pound Pakistani troops who had illegally occupied Indian territory. In the process, the little heard-of places – Dras, Kaksar, Batalik, Tiger Hills and Kargil, became household names. With peace having been restored after the ouster of the villains, you can now travel to that remote, beautiful land to discover its mysteries; maybe, even get to visit some of the places which were the scenes of fierce battles so recently!
Bounded by the world’s mightiest ranges – the great Himalayas and the Karakoram, Ladakh lies at altitudes ranging from 2750m (9000ft.) at Kargil in the west to over 7600m (25000ft.) in the Karakoram range. It is a vast maze of towering snow-capped mountains, the largest glaciers outside the polar region, and inhospitable wastes. It is a region where you hardly see any trees; where the summer temperature rarely exceeds 27 degrees C in the shade, while in winter it plummets to an average of minus 20 degrees; where the thin, clear air makes the sun even sharper than at lower altitudes. So it is said that only in Ladakh can a man sitting in the sun with his feet in the shade suffer from sunstroke and frost-bite at the same time!
Ladakh occupies an area of 98,000 sq. kms. (as big as South Korea or Iceland) and has a thinly spread population of barely 1,35,000. All habitations are along water courses including the Indus, Zanskar, Dras and Suru rivers. With an annual rainfall of barely 5cm (two inches) Ladakh depends on the snow melt for almost its entire water supply. So, the Ladakhi farmer prays for the sun to shine for watering his crops. Usually his prayers are answered, as the sun shines for more than 300 days in a year, and he grows giant sized cabbage, cauliflower and radish!
Buddhism reached Tibet from India via Ladakh and, even today, central and eastern Ladakh are predominantly Buddhist. The region is dotted with Buddhist monasteries built on the highest mountain tops, many of them seeming to cling precariously to the cliff-side. Western Ladakh is largely Muslim.
Kargil and Leh
– Lying at an altitude of 3350m (11,000ft) amidst starkly beautiful mountains, which gradually merge into an oasis of green fields, is Leh, ancient capital and now the principal township in Ladakh. It has a population of about 10,000 and offers a fascinating glimpse of this secluded land steeped in religion. Forty kms south of Leh lies the Hemis Gompa (monastery), the biggest, best known and wealthiest in Ladakh, built in 1630. It is the site of a major annual festival held in summer to celebrate the birthday of Guru Padmasambhava. During the festival resident lamas perform masked dances in a re-enactment of the magical feats of the Guru.
Kargil (2704m), the second largest town in Ladakh, lies on the banks of the Sum river 204 kms west of Leh – virtually the mid-point on the Srinagar-Leh road. It is the junction of the ancient trading routes linking Afghanistan, Tibet, Central Asia, Sinkiang, Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. With the growing interest in the mystique of the Himalayas as well as adventure tourism in the last few years, Kargil has grown in importance – indeed it is the ideal base from which to avail of Ladakh’s many opportunities for adventure.
The breathtaking harshness of the Pangong Lake, the largest brackish lake in Asia; the serene Tso-Moriri Lake, a haven for rare bird species; the villages of Dah and Biama, home to the colourful Drok-pas, a rapidly dwindling tribe of pure Aryans; and the vast, unimaginably rugged and forbidding landscapes of snow and mountain, are the popular attractions of the region.
However, Ladakh’s greatest attraction lies in the many exciting opportunities it offers for adventure activities. You can go on short, daylong treks to isolated villages or for tough mountain treks lasting upto three weeks in the convoluted terrain of the Zanskar range. River rafting options are available in plenty on the Indus and its major tributaries – easy stretches, professionally guided runs and the relatively challenging routes suitable only for well organised white-water expeditions. Popular mountaineering destinations in the region are the Nun-Kun Massif and the Zanskar Group. These have a large number of peaks over 6000 m including Nun (7135m) and Kun (7087m), all accessible from Kargil.
Leh can be reached by air from Delhi, Srinagar, Jammu and Chandigarh. However, the far more exciting way of going to Ladakh is by road.
The traditional land approach from Srinagar is along the historic Zoji-la motor road which follows the ancient trade route to Leh, once the caravan centre of Central Asia; this road traverses almost the entire inhabited part of Ladakh. The other, more recent approach is from Manali (in Himachal Pradesh) along the northern extension of National Highway 21. Whichever one you take, you get to see the most awesome and spectacular sights enroute – mountain desert, amazing wind-eroded rock towers, deep gorges, or barren, uninhabited, dusty plains covered with scattered boulders in a lunar landscape. The most exciting part is when you go over the 3505m high Zoji-la Pass, when motoring from Srinagar, or the 5325m high Taglang-la (and several others), when travelling from Manali. Taglang-la is the world’s second highest motor able pass.
Caution – The lowest altitude in the Leh region is around 2750m (9000 ft). So going by road also helps you to get acclimatized gradually as your journey takes you higher and higher. When reaching by air you have to waste at least the first day of your holiday just resting for acclimatization, which is a must for preventing acute mountain sickness.