Monday, April 19, 2010

Ladakh - Sept 2004

I just spent few weeks in the ummmm...Pashmina (or Cashmere!) capital of India (or the world, actually!). Yes, Ladakh, the northernmost part of India. Popularly known as the Last Shangri la, or Little Tibet, Ladakh is so culturally and geographically isolated and different from the rest of India down south of the Himalayas, it hardly feels like a part of India.

I first got officially introduced to Ladakh in World Issues class in high school in Canada, as an example of a place completely untouched by development, where people were so isolated from the outside world that life was still very primitive. And it's one place that I've wanted to visit eversince. I guess things are slightly different there now, tourism is amongst their largest industries, and development is slowly creeping in. But it's still lightyears away from where most, in fact all, of us come from. Things that we almost take for granted, like electricity and water, for instance, are quite scarce there, and it's not unusual to find yourself walking around with a torch at night or going without a shower for days together. Or if you're like one of my trekmates, going without doing laundry for three weeks, that too living out of a backpack!!!!!

Call me ignorant, but I went there expecting that I'd be surrounded by lush alpine mountains, with no dearth of mountain flora. But really, what makes Ladakh unique is its lack thereof. There's mountains alright, but masses of rock. Stark mountains. Savage almost. A landscape shaped completely by wind and snow erosion. Plain stone but yet so beautiful.

Spent a few days in the region's capital, Leh, and the rest of the time out in the mountains. Met lots of interesting people along the way, ate lots of Tibetan and Kashmiri food, tried lots of different kinds of teas typical of the region, and walked endlessly. Ended up being a great refresher course in geography too!

Trekking is a huge part of the tourism industry in Ladakh and in fact, most people go there to trek. I went on a 7-day trek too, only to cut it short on Day 4 – resulting from a combination of some form of acute mountain sickness (yes, such a thing exists!), fever, and the realization that I needed much more than just 5-10 days of working out to conquer the mountains. The highlight of my trip, therefore, was Day 4 of my trek, when I parted from the trek group to get back to Leh. A day full of adventure is not what I thought of it then, but in retrospect that was certainly the most eventful day in my trip. I trekked back about 15-20km to the nearest village in the hills, only to find that it's inhabited by just 5-7 people (much more than most villages in Ladakh, apparently!) and about 90-100 labourers from the notorious Indian state of Bihar. Was kinda scared to be surrounded by a bunch of sunburnt Indian men all drunk on 5-6 pegs of rum each even at 2pm, and the next bus to any form of habitation was only 4 days later. So I hitched a ride on a "tipper", a truck that carries cement and other building materials, to the nearest village, and somehow managed to hitch a ride back all the way to Leh, with my heart in my mouth almost. A day I can't forget for some time for sure!

A lot of you have expressed interest in traveling to Ladakh / India, and if that's what you still want to do, you have my vote for a few weeks in Ladakh. It's definitely an experience of a lifetime...especially if you can go there before the government commences the thousands of road development projects that are planned throughout the region, almost taking away half the charm of being there. I'd highly recommend taking the overland route from Delhi to Leh via Manali too. It's picturesque...and simply breathtaking!

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