Why we love Ladakh in northern India
What first drew me to Ladakh was its breathtaking scenery: dramatic, snow-capped mountains, imposing monasteries and rivers meandering through wide valleys sprinkled with tiny villages. When I arrived, I discovered that these wild landscapes remain wonderfully unspoilt and untrodden: tourism here only began in the 1970s and, as such, the crowds elsewhere in India melt away and leave you to marvel at the awe-inspiring surroundings in peace. Ladakh’s incredible remoteness is all part of its charm and, despite being so far from civilisation, there are new ways to explore this captivating destination, combining luxury with authenticity.
My adventure began at the small but chaotic Leh Airport, a 90-minute flight north of Delhi. Here, I was met by my guide, Phuntsog, and driven through the Indus Valley to Chamba Camp, nestled in the shadow of the majestic Thiksey Gompa. In a show of legendary Ladakhi hospitality, I was welcomed with some delicious lamb mok mok, the local dumplings, before being shown to my African-style tent, where I spent a leisurely afternoon acclimatising to the altitude. The camp comprised 14 of these tents, each exceedingly comfortable, containing four-poster beds and en-suite bathrooms.
Waking at dawn the next morning to visit Thiksey Gompa for morning prayers was a spiritual experience, and one that I’ll never forget. One of the most impressive examples of religious architecture in Ladakh, Thiksey contains 10 temples and a nunnery built in 12 layers that climb the hillside. At the very top sits the current lama’s private residence while below are the homes and chapels of around 1000 monks.
A more intimate alternative to the camping experience is to travel between private village houses, dotted across the Indus Valley. These houses have often been in the same family for years, passed down through the generations, and are stunning examples of the traditional Ladakhi home. Carefully renovated to meet the expectations of today’s luxury traveller, with log burners, hot running water and a private chef, one portion of the house is rented from the family for guests, creating an experience that combines complete comfort with local charm. When it comes to getting from one village house to the next, mountain biking is a more invigorating alternative to trekking and obviously allows you to cover more ground. We cycled through farmland, villages and schools – I even passed a highly competitive polo match!
Of the Indus Valley’s numerous villages, I was most taken by Alchi, whose population is around 1000. Alchi’s dam supplies most of the villages in the valley with electricity and is also said to contain the only temple in the world where you will find Buddhist art in the Kashmiri tradition. I spent a happy couple of hours wandering around with Rohan, my guide for this part of the journey, who explained the hamlet’s rich history and acted as translator while I chatted with the locals. It was here that I first tasted butter tea – an acquired taste at best. Much of the local cuisine reflects the freezing weather and high altitudes, and, as such, is laden with fat, essential for keeping you warm over the harsh winter months.
It was a visit to the local amchi that left perhaps the most indelible impression. Amchis can be found in every major village and practise one of the most ancient forms of traditional Tibetan medicine. Highly revered, they are deemed representatives of the Medicine Buddha. Their holistic approach to human ailments and ancient curative techniques using Himalayan plants and minerals seemed to me a refreshing example of how pure and strong many aspects of the Ladakhi culture remain, undiluted by globalisation.
For wilderness lovers and pioneering adventurers, young or old, Ladakh is the destination for you. At times, travelling through this Himalayan kingdom felt like discovering unchartered territory, a world away from reality. Phuntsog and Rohan, with their encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhism, brought alive the dustiest corners of every monastery, challenged my way of thinking and were equally skilled at keeping me entertained every evening with stories and games. I left enchanted, my head full of red-robed monks, soaring mountains, flickering butter lamps and some of the most intensely blue skies I have ever come across.