Geography shows that the state of Jammu and Kashmir is the crown of India, and consists of Jammu, Kashmir Valley and Ladakh. Each region is popular for its own charms, be they the shrines of Jammu or the natural beauty of Kashmir. Ladakh, however, is home to a different sort of charisma altogether. Nestled in between the Kunlun range on one side and the mighty Himalayas on the other, Ladakh is a high-altitude desert and one of the most isolated regions in the country! Leh is the capital of Ladakh and also its biggest town. Owing to its strategic importance, Leh also has a massive military presence, which is often welcomed by the locals once the harsh winters set-in and military-civilian interaction becomes critical to survival. Ladakh is accessible by air and road, and summers see a number of daily flights or motorcycle-groups reaching its arms.
As the Indian tourism industry boomed, travellers started going beyond the traditional tourist destinations into places off the beaten track. Leh matched the description to the letter. It has been commercialized in the past decade as the government realized its importance in generating much needed revenue, but inspite of the hotels and tour operators and resorts that have mushroomed all over the town, Leh has still managed to retain an old-world charm that attracts all sorts of tourists from all over the world, be they families or hippies.
The summer brings with it hundreds of thousands of Indian and foreign tourists, who can’t help but gaze wide-eyed at the barren beauty and moonscapes that Leh and its surrounding areas offer. A bird’s eye view of the Leh town from the Thicksey Monastery shows half of Leh lush-green, owing to the mighty Indus, and the other half being a dusty brown, away from the banks of the river! From the monasteries, temples, mosques, chortans, colourful prayer flags fluttering in the wind; to the dozens of restaurants serving delicious Tibetan and Ladakhi food; the tiny souvenir shops scattered everywhere; the quaint post-office; the bikes and cycles available on rent for tourists; the polo ground and palace in the middle of the town…Leh has something to offer to everyone, from pilgrims to adrenaline-lovers. There is a shop in the bazaar where you can sell your used maps or books, or buy delicious squash made of sea buckthorn or even cheap toilet-paper! Or a beautiful, little place away from the bazaar which offers an unforgettable view of the distant peaks as one sits on tables outside, drinking wine and eating hot chocolate-momos.
It is easy to forget oneself while walking around in the narrow streets of Leh Bazaar! It is a beautiful kaleidoscope of colour, culture and mankind. From the noisy vegetable and dry-fruit vendors sitting on the pavement over whom tourists occasionally have to hop, to the Jama Masjid which is in the middle of the market calling the faithful to pray, or the Buddhist monks in their traditional maroon robes smiling benignly at the vibrant chaos all around, Leh engulfs you in its tradition like very few towns can.
Ladakhis are sweet, simple folks who make a living from the tourist-inflow in the summer months, as winters are harsh and cut off the region from the rest of the country for months at a time. Even the world’s highest motorable passes, namely the Khardung La, Tanglang La, Chang La and Baralaccha La (La meaning ‘pass’), which alone connect the region of Ladakh to the rest of India, get snowed in at the onset of winter. In summers, these same roads ferry innumerable tourists in and around Leh to places such as Lamayuru, Kargil, Drass, Pangong Tso, Tso Moriri, etc. It is traditional for all motorists to offer their respect at the respective shrines of all these passes, praying for a safe journey on roads that overlook sheer drops of thousands of feet!
It is almost conventional for the Ladakhi youth to make a career either by joining the Indian Army, or by becoming drivers/tourist guides. Therefore, a number of people working in Leh whether as shop-owners or waiters are from different parts of India. The Pumpernickle German Bakery in the bazaar is owned and run by a kindly Sikh!
It is not possible to run out of things to do in Ladakh. Everywhere one looks, there is a panorama of snow-capped peaks and mountainside waiting to be admired. The Spituk Monastery, which is also the highest point in Leh, overlooks the lone airstrip of Leh airport and aviation-lovers can have a treat standing on the steps of the monastery and watching aeroplanes zoom above their heads before landing, from the traditional civilian aircrafts to the mighty IL-78 of the Indian Air Force. Choglamsar, another part of Leh, hosts the Sindhu Darshan Festival, a vibrant show of communal harmony and peace. The Hemis Monastery hosts the spiritually fascinating Hemis Festival every June, showcasing the rites and rituals associated with Buddhism. Or the famous monasteries of Alchi and Lamayuru, often visited by His Holiness The Dalai Lama himself. The Hall of Fame on the Leh-Srinagar highway offers a sobering experience, dedicated to the fallen soldier who died protecting his country. And at the end of it all, there is always the bazaar to come back to. To eat, shop or simply bask in.
Leh is a traveller’s dream, a photographer’s delight and a pilgrim’s destination.