Ladakh: An article in Adventure.com
One of my favourite online travel magazines is Adventure.com. The editor, Meera Dattani, brings in a real mix of destinations and subject matter, so it was a compliment when she asked me to write for her.
I’d just been to Ladakh, on my way join a friend for an expedition. Ladakh is the northernmost point of the Indian backpacker trail, but the conflict in Kashmir puts many tourists off. That’s a shame, as Ladakh is utterly different to anywhere else in India. It’s the closest you’ll get to Tibet this side of Nepal.
An edited version of the article that I wrote for Adventure.com is below, or you can see it in it’s original format here.
Deep in the Himalayas in the remote valley town of Leh, one local is teaching his neighbours how to protect their fragile ecosystem against a backdrop of increased tourism and a growing population.
The sunny courtyard of Mr Angchuk’s Goba Guest House is in the narrow backstreets of Leh. Our conversation is occasionally interrupted by a curious cow, trying to nose its way through the gate. Each time, Mr. Angchuk jumps up to shoo it away.
Mr. Angchuk is my host in Leh, a town in the mountainous region of Ladakh, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. We’re talking about the Manali-Leh highway, one of the most dramatic roads in the world, which hugs the cliffs and ravines of the Himalayas.
The highway is more than a road—it’s a piece of tenacious engineering. At the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, it carries goods and people from the lush foothills of the plains, through the Himalayan mountains, into the high-altitude deserts of Ladakh. Far from towns and villages, industrious members of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) live in camps by the side of the road. They are there in all weathers, endlessly repairing stretches of road damaged by rockslides.
“I was sent by the Indian government. I returned to build infrastructure, and helped open Ladakh to the world.”
“The roads were built for the army,” says Mr. Angchuk. “They brought soldiers to defend India from China and Pakistan. And then, adventurous tourists started using motorbikes to get here. That brought jobs and money, so the buses started up, and more people came.”
“The Indian government sent me to study civil engineering at Brunel University, London,” he tells me. “I returned to build infrastructure, and helped open Ladakh to the world. But now we have new challenges. With all the tourists and growing population, there’s pressure on energy and water. Our ecosystem is very fragile, so I’m trying to educate people.”
Mr. Angchuk, like most of the people here, is ethnically Tibetan—the region of Ladakh is often called ‘Little Tibet’. Photos of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, are dotted about the guesthouse. Each morning, I hear the ringing of bells and drone-like chanting, as Mr. Angchuk and his family perform Tibetan Buddhist prayers. But, when it comes to more earthly matters, he sticks to hard science.
His own guesthouse is a case study of environmental sustainability. A parabolic mirror reflect the sun’s rays onto a black water tank, so guests can have warm showers after breakfast. This water then irrigates the fields and vegetable patches, rather than running off into the river. And he’s part of the local Non-Conventional-Energy-Technology group, which encourages people to install solar panels and micro-hydro power, rather than using kerosene stoves or diesel generators.
To get a better sense of the region’s challenges, I take a half-hour walk to Shanti Stupa, a Buddhist structure overlooking the city. Leh itself sits in a side valley, ringed by mountains, with the ridge of Leh Palace overlooking the old town. To the south, the snow-topped Himalayas stand like a vast wall, blocking the monsoon clouds and their rains. So Ladakh is a cold, dry desert. The landscape is harsh, with grey-yellow ridges reaching down from the peaks.
“Well, I guess we’re not really India. Of course, we are part of the country, but just look at the place…”
But standing out against the dusty earth, a shock of green flows through the valley like a river. This is the carefully managed Ladakhi agriculture, where every drop of water is captured and used. I wander back to the old town, via the irrigation channels, where lines of tall cypress trees hold the thin soil together. It’s clever planning, using nature to help nature. It look strangely European, although unlike the rest of India, there are few signs of the colonial British era here.
For up to eight months of the year, Ladakh is cut off by snow on the mountain passes. It’s July now and the passes have been open for a few weeks. The trickle of backpackers and motorbikes turns into a flood, all crossing the mountains to escape the monsoon in the south.
Leh is buzzing, as locals make the most of the short tourist season. Four-wheel drives zip through town, with boats tied to their roofs for white-water rafting ; the rhythmic tapping of tiny hammers echo from jewellery shops; and Kashmiri merchants, laden with carpets, shift their latest deliveries into freshly-painted shop fronts.
Alongside Buddhists and Hindus, Muslims are a significant minority in the town. Behind the central mosque, tiny shops sell tasty snacks for the faithful to take home after Friday prayers. I lean through a wooden window to see a tandoori oven embedded in the floor and a man, sitting cross-legged next to it, slapping freshly kneaded dough against the oven’s wall. A few moments later, he hooks it out with two metal utensils, and hands me a delicious hot naan.
On my last day, Manoj Bali, the agent who has arranged my taxi to Srinagar, gives me a lift to the bus station. He insists on buying me lunch while we wait and as we eat, I ask him why he thinks Ladakh is so different to the rest of India.
“Well, I guess we’re not really India,” he says. “Of course, we are part of the country, but it’s not paddy fields and crowded cities up here. Nature is hard to forget when you are looking at the Himalayas.”
He smiles. “And because it’s so fragile, we are always reminded about the nature of our lives. I think that makes us less anxious, less rushed, and more likely to help others.”
As the taxi pulls away, I feel particularly sad about leaving this magical kingdom in the mountains. Until that is, I spot the quirky message of a Border Roads Organisation sign.
“We cut mountains, but connect hearts,” it declares in black and yellow.
It may be sentimental but it feels appropriate. The hair-raising roads which had brought me to Ladakh may get your pulse racing, but they left a sense of peace in my heart.