Across the Roof of the World to Pan­gong Lake: A Jour­ney in Ladakh

Ladakh is many things to many peo­ple: an adventure play­ground for trekkers; a place for cul­tural tourists to sam­ple the tra­di­tions of an age-old com­mu­nity; a richly spir­i­tual land for those in­trigued and drawn by the rhythms and com­plex­i­ties of Bud­dhism;

Maxx-M - - WHERE TO GO - Text and Pho­tos by Tim Han­ni­gan

The smooth strip of road winds away across a vast, empty land­scape. In the dis­tance iron-coloured slopes rise to jagged ridges; be­yond the vil­lage tawny brown hill­sides de­scend to­wards a nar­row gorge, and above ev­ery­thing arcs a huge sky. There is a sharp breeze from the southeast. It snatches at the thread­bare prayer flags of the thou­sand-year-old monastery and sets a cop­per bell, hang­ing from the thatched eaves of the main hall, ring­ing into the sur­round­ing si­lence. Alpine choughs with glossy black wings twist and tum­ble in the cold up­drafts. I am 3,390 me­tres above sea level, look­ing out from the up­per ter­races of La­mayuru Gompa, a re­mote Bud­dhist monastery in the wilder­ness of west­ern Ladakh. The monastery, perched on an out­crop of toothy rock, and the lit­tle vil­lage of white­washed houses that cling bar­na­cle­like to the slopes be­low, are adrift in a vast and empty land­scape that extends for hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres in all di­rec­tions. I catch my breath in the thin, clear air af­ter the steep climb from the road, then begin my clock­wise cir­cuit of the monastery, spin­ning the prayer wheels set into the ma­sonry as I go. Ladakh lies at the most north-west­erly tip of In­dia, hard against the Chi­nese bor­der, and rid­ing on the backs of the more ac­ces­si­ble moun­tain re­gions of Kash­mir and Hi­machal Pradesh. This is a land apart. Cut off from the mon­soon weather sys­tems of the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent by the full might of the Hi­malayas, lit­tle rain or snow falls here. Bar­ren moun­tains rise above wind­scoured val­leys where bone-white monas­ter­ies cling to sheer cliffs, and where vil­lages hud­dle in stands of glacier-fed poplar and wil­low trees. All of Ladakh, in­clud­ing its main town, Leh, lies more than 3,000 me­tres above sea level. This ex­treme altitude long kept this moun­tain fast­ness iso­lated from the rest of In­dia and the rest of the world. It still does. There are only two roads into Ladakh – one across the stom­ach-churn­ing Zoji La Pass from Kash­mir and an­other south to Hi­machal Pradesh through even wilder coun­try. Win­ter snows keep both of th­ese roads closed for much of the year. Although the In­dian gov­ern­ment first al­lowed for­eign trav­ellers into Ladakh in the 1970s, those rough, tough roads long kept it the pre­serve of hardy back­pack­ers pre­pared to en­dure the bone-shak­ing two-day bus ride from Manali dur­ing the brief sum­mer sea­son. But reach­ing Ladakh is much eas­ier than it once was. The short flight from Delhi to Leh – served reg­u­larly by In­dian Air­lines, King­fisher, Jet and oth­ers – is one of the most spec­tac­u­lar on earth. You can break­fast on parathas and chai in the steam­ing heat of the plains, then head for the air­port, cross the full breadth of the Hi­malayas and set­tle down to Ti­betan-style but­ter tea and mo­mos for lunch in a ho­tel on the roof of the world.

I have cho­sen to en­ter Ladakh the dra­matic, old-fash­ioned way – by road from Kash­mir – and my first stop is the tiny vil­lage of La­mayuru. The monastery here is the old­est in Ladakh. Bud­dhism first spread north from In­dia across the moun­tains to­wards China some time in the first mil­len­nium. It put down strong roots in the chilly world of the Ti­betan plateau – of which Ladakh is a part – mix­ing with the in­dige­nous Bon reli­gion of th­ese up­lands to cre­ate the unique char­ac­ter of Ti­betan Bud­dhism, with its la­mas, prayer wheels and gom­pas, and its wild whorl of demons and pro­tec­tor deities. I am shown around the monastery’s si­lent cham­bers, with their bright mu­rals, smoke-dark­ened silks and of­fer­ing-scat­tered al­tars, by a young monk called Tashi. He tells me the monastery was built by the great Bud­dhist mis­sion­ary Rinchen Zangpo, who spread the faith through­out the west­ern parts of Ti­bet. To­day the place is home to about 200 monks, drawn from vil­lages all over Ladakh. Once Tashi has left me I am alone in the wind be­neath the snap­ping prayer flags. Each flag is stamped with a Bud­dhist mantra, and each time it flaps in the wind its prayer is car­ried heav­en­wards. From La­mayuru I jour­ney on east­wards into the Ladakhi heart­land. Although the re­gion is part of In­dia to­day, it was not al­ways that way. For many cen­turies Ladakh was ruled from Ti­bet; later it was an in­de­pen­dent king­dom. It was only in 1834 that it was an­nexed by the Hindu ruler of Jammu, bring­ing it into the In­dian sphere of in­flu­ence for the first time. But the cul­ture of Ladakh re­mains more closely tied to Lhasa than to Sri­na­gar or Delhi. The reli­gion, the lan­guage and the land­scape here is Ti­betan, and for many vis­i­tors to Ladakh that is its big­gest at­trac­tion. Af­ter a stopover in the lit­tle vil­lage of Alchi, with its poplar-lined ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nels, an­cient monastery and rows of bright brass prayer wheels, I con­tinue east along the banks of the In­dus. This river is the back­bone of Ladakh, en­ter- ing the re­gion from across the Chi­nese bor­der and con­tin­u­ing west to the Pak­istani fron­tier. Fol­low­ing the In­dus I ar­rive in Leh, the cap­i­tal of Ladakh and a place that mixes crea­ture com­forts with age-old colour, where there is fine food, top-notch ac­com­mo­da­tion and air links to the out­side world, but where more than a whiff of the ro­mance of the Silk Route and the days of camel car­a­vans still lingers. Leh was al­ways a cross­roads. It grew up as a junc­tion on the trad­ing routes be­tween Kash­mir, Ti­bet, In­dia and Cen­tral Asia. A cen­tury ago long trains of loaded mules, yaks and twin-humped Bac­trian camels reg­u­larly strug­gled into town un­der loads of Chi­nese silk, In­dian tea and Ti­betan shawl wool. The car­a­van trade is no more, but there is still a buzz about the town with in­ter­na­tional trav­ellers from all cor­ners of the world mix­ing in the old quar­ter’s maze of mud-walled al­leys with monks from nearby monas­ter­ies, Kash­miri sales­men and no­madic Drokpa tribes­men. A rugged, prayer flag-strewn fortress rises over the streets. The city is home to the best ac­com­mo­da­tion on theTi­betan Plateau. A far cry from the days when Yarkandi camel-men bed­ded down in the car­a­vanserais of the old bazaar, the out­ly­ing sub­urb of Changspa – a mesh of quiet, poplar-shaded lanes – has some ex­cel­lent ac­com­mo­da­tion. Ho­tel Omasila is a bou­tique hide­away that has its own brand of “Ladakh style,” with tra­di­tional mu­rals on the walls and fine views from its flower-filled ter­race. There’s good food in some sur­pris­ingly so­phis­ti­cated lit­tle eater­ies, tucked down th­ese same lanes – from hearty Ti­betan sta­ples like momo (meat or veg­etable­filled pasta dumplings) and thukpa (thick noo­dle soup) to cakes and cap­puc­ci­nos that you wouldn’t nor­mally ex­pect to find 3,500 me­tres above sea level. Leh is also the first stop for those who come look­ing for spir­i­tual so­lace in Ladakh. There are yoga and med­i­ta­tion cour­ses, Bud­dhist re­treats and Ayurvedic treat­ment cen­tres amongst the po­plars and wil­lows. I am look­ing for my own soul food out in the wilder­ness be­yond the town. Across the In­dus Val­ley the long white line of the Stok Kan­gri Moun­tains rises; north across the Khardung Pass is the up­land desert of the Nubra Val­ley. But I am head­ing for some­where even more re­mote – on the far side of a dizzy­ing pass, run­ning right across the Ti­betan bor­der, is the long turquoise lozenge of Pan­gong Lake. I set out from Leh, stop­ping at more an­cient monas­ter­ies to see monks per­form­ing morn­ing puja cer­e­monies with conch shell horns and clang­ing gongs, and then I cross the 5,289-me­tre Chang La Pass. This is the third-high­est mo­torable pass in the world. I am trav­el­ling in com­fort in a hired jeep with some fel­low trav­ellers from Mumbai, but the air is so thin at the top that we are all left feel­ing faint. On the other side it’s a long de­scent through a stark, frac­tured land­scape of tum­bled boul­ders, sharp ridges and steep scree slopes. Wild horses watch us from the road­side; plump mar­mots peer from their bur­rows or lounge on smooth rocks in the thin sun­light. And then the lake ap­pears, and we all draw a breath. The colour is in­tense in the sharp light, turquoise in the shal­lows, deep­en­ing to a rich lapis lazuli blue fur­ther out. A breeze is blow­ing and flocks of del­i­cate white wa­ter birds crowd the shores. I leave my com­pan­ions hud­dling over tea and soup at a sim­ple lake­side café and scram­ble up the moun­tain­side. The lake, a nar­row strip of salty wa­ter, runs 130 kilo­me­tres away to the east, cross­ing an in­ter­na­tional fron­tier. The con­spir­a­to­rial clus­ter of white moun­tains I can see ris­ing in the far dis­tance lie deep in­side Chi­nese Ti­bet. It is a stag­ger­ingly beau­ti­ful place, and a suit­able cul­mi­na­tion for my jour­ney through the stark wilder­ness of Ladakh. I but­ton my jacket against the wind, close my eyes and lis­ten to the sound of si­lence.

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