'Timeless land’ and ‘the last Shangri-la’ are names which have been applied to Ladakh, both with a degree of truth. Ladakh is a high-altitude plateau north of the Himalayas, situated geographically in Tibet. It’s a miniature version of Tibet, the people are Tibetan in their culture and religion, and there are many Tibetan refugees living there
The Himalayas are a very effective barrier to rain – few clouds creep across their awesome height and as a result Ladakh is barren beyond belief. Only where rivers, running from faraway glaciers or melting snow, carry water to habitation do you find plant life – hence the moonland label, Ladakh is as dry as the Sahara.
It was only in the mid-70s that Ladakh was opened to outside visitors. Its strategic isolation is matched by its physical isolation – only from June to September are the roads into Ladakh from Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh not covered by snow, although nowadays there are airline flights into Ladakh. The flight is one of the most spectacular in the world.
Ladakh is well worth the effort involved in getting there. It’s an otherworldly place – strange Gompas perched on soaring hilltops, ancient buildings clinging to sheer rock walls, and shattered-looking landscapes splashed with small but brilliant patches of green. But most of all there are the delightful Ladakhis, friendly as only Tibetan people can be and immensely colourful.
At Kargil, on the Srinagar to Leh road, the Islamic influence diminishes and the region becomes predominantly Buddhist. The people follow Tibetan Tantric Buddhism which places much emphasis on magic and demons. All around Ladakh are Gompas, the Buddhist monasteries which are always fascinating to visit.
Permits: Three regions of Ladakh were opened to foreigners in 1994. They are: the Dahanu area, North of the Kargil to Leh road at Kahlsi; the Nubra Valley; and Pangong Tso ( Lake Pangong). For all of these places you have to be officially part of a group of four people, with permits issued at the police station in Leh.