A week in Ladakh: monasteries, mountains and monks

IMG_6981We arrived in Leh on a very sunny Monday morning in July, after a relaxing flight from Delhi. The plane took off in Delhi and it took us only around 20 minutes to reach the rough outskirts of the Himalaya’s. During the following 50 minutes the pilot gave us the opportunity to experience the beauty of the Himalaya’s, often describing specific area’s or lakes.

Arriving in Leh was spectacular

A lot of travel blogs promised us a very spectacular landing, which was – in real life – much better than we could have imagined. Leh is a military airport so we were told to only capture the landing in our imagination. During the last 15 minutes of the flight, we noticed a green area and a river in a beautiful valley. The pilot made what appeared to be a stark U-turn, flying by the surrounding mountains very close. He then headed towards the huge valley. Some mountains were covered with snow and I even noticed some glaciers. Further downhill, the mountains varied from sandy and round shaped forms to very rocky formations with more than a hundred tones of brown. The dramatic clouds acted as a dominant finisher, often creating a postcard like scenery.

Weird sensation of being on a high altitude

I stepped out of the plane feeling weird; I was sensing a combination of the high of a rollercoaster ride, combined with having smokes some good local hashish. Leh is situated at an altitude or 3500 meters and we had been advised to stay in our rooms for a couple of hours to acclimatize. The ‘light headed’ feeling eventually disappeared but the lack of oxygen gave me some uncomfortable sensations, especially when I climbed up a monastery or walked firmly in and around Leh.

Fine hotel with a great tourguide/manager

Leh is the largest town in Ladakh and serves as the commercial hub for the surrounding areas. Having a souvenir shop in almost every corner of the town, it felt like being a bit spoilt. Luckily we stayed at a very well kept hotel in a very clean and green neighbourhood, just outside the town. The owner, a young and energetic man from Ladakh, wanting to please his guests by offering a lot of tailor-made tours and we asked him to advise us about a 5-day program.

Altitude of 3000 meter

Ladakh is part of the Jammu & Kashmir state. Being almost entirely on an altitude of 3000 meters and higher and having a large population of Tibetan Buddhists, the area could feel like the Indian version of Tibet. In fact, if one travels to specific parts of the area like Pangong Tso Lake it’s easy and possible to observe the borders of China. After two days of relaxation and acclimatisation, we started with a 5-day trip which took us to some of the most beautiful parts of Ladakh.

The highest motorable pass in the world

When one wants to visit Nubra Valley or Pangong Lake, it’s necessary to cross the Khardung La pass. With an elevation of 5600 meters, it claims to be the highest motorable pass in the world. The top itself is nothing special, unless one finds it very interesting to have a hot Indian tea at the ‘Highest Cafeteria in the world’. The main attraction is the road that leads to the pass. We left from Leh and the road was in a very good condition up to around 4900 meters, when the concrete road transformed into a sandy road with slippery parts due to melting snow. The views are breath-taking, especially if one focuses on the changing landscape. At the start – at an elevation of 3500 meters – one could find some green areas. Further uphill the vegetation becomes more brown and at 4000 or above there is almost no vegetation at all. We had seen some horses and yak’s at 4900 meters, almost fighting for the last piece of green vegetation. Besides the horses and yak’s we’d only observed a few birds in these high areas. The conditions at high altitudes are very dense for animals, and humans will also face some challenges by living at such an altitude. We had some bad luck on this day, having a delay of more than 60 minutes due to last minute roadwork. Apparently the local roadworkers had been asked to clear the road. There were some fallen rocks in the middle of the road. Standing outside, waiting for the road to be opened again felt a bit weird. The high altitude made me feel a bit lightheaded. The moon-like landscapes added something spectacular to the feeling, which created a surreal experience. I also encountered a Dalai Lama look alike with a warm and friendly smile. This brought me back to the real world.

Monasteries with colourful temples and astonishing details

Being interested in all kinds of religions, going to a couple of monasteries felt like walking through a candy store as a kid. I’ve been to some Buddhist countries, but the Tibetan Buddhism was definitely new for me. It reminded me of ‘Tintin in Tibet’, the very popular cartoon by  Belgian writer and cartonist Hergé. In contrast to some other religions (like Hinduism), non-Buddhists are allowed to visit every part of their monasteries or temples. We’ve visited at least 8 monasteries in and around Leh and the colourful structures and wonderful monks and priests have done something special to me; the worshipping of the Dalai Lama, the wooden structures, the various religious objects and the unusual instruments….they are all of a unique kind. I’ve never seen anything like that.

Pangong Tso Lake

One of the weirdest an surreal places in Ladakh is definitely Pangong Tso Lake. Being on an altitude of 4200 meters, the water is very cold and the surrounding mountains are brown. The whole setting is very dramatic, especially when one realises that you could see China on the other side of the water. With a length of almost 134km’s, the lake is huge. It is possible to spend the night near the lake, but the facilities are very poor so I would recommend to visit this place as a day trip from Nubra Valley or Leh.

Weird road signs

The roads in Ladakh are being managed by the Border Roads Organisation, the BRO. Don’t ask me why, but they must have had a very humorous boss who ordered his people to create a lot of road signs to encourage people to drive safely. That itself is not the reason for me to mention this. No, I want to mention this topic because of the very weird but funny texts. What about ‘If married, divorce speed’? Or the very popular (also found in Pune) ‘After whisky, driving risky’. The brilliant ‘Better be Mr late then late Mr’ will definitely end in my personal top 3 for his brilliance. And here are some more signs: ‘Driving faster can cause disaster’, ‘For safe arriving no liquor in driving’, ‘Speed thrills but kills’ and ‘Slow drive, long life’.

I would strongly recommend people to spend some time in Ladakh. Come to this place for a minimum duration of 4-5 days during June, July or August. You will definitely love it!

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