Ladakh is a mountainous region in North-West India and in the area known as the Trans-Himalaya, (the lands beyond the Himalaya: Tibet, Xinjiang and some of northern Pakistan. It's slightly smaller than Scotland, the settled population live between 2700 m and 4500 m, and nomadic encampments even higher, and it's the largest and the least populated region of Jammu and Kashmir. The people are a mixture of Buddhist and Muslim. Buddhists are the majority in the east and a slight majority overall while Muslims have the majority in the west. Travelers are likely to see more of the Buddhists as the majority of the tourist attractions are in the east and directly related to Buddhism.
Ladakh has many nicknames, Moonland, Little Tibet, and various Shangrala comparisons, all have some truth in them.
Ladakh was an independent kingdom for nine centuries, but it was very strongly influenced by Tibet and also influenced to a lesser degree by the neighbouring Muslim lands. Linguistically Ladakhi is very closely related to Tibetan. Tibet has always been where Ladakhi Buddhists would go for higher religous education, which since the incorporation of Tibet into china has meant the Ladakhis have made the much shorter trip to the Tibetan monastaries in India. The architecture of Ladakh is almost identical to that of Tibet, both of residential buildings and of the monastaries. The class structure, or more precisely the lack of a sharply defined class structure is common to Tibet and Ladakh, and is in sharp contrast to the rest of India. Related to this is the relatively high status, freedom and outspokenness of Buddhist women in Ladakh and Tibet.
Importantly, a set of cultural practices that keep the population from growing to be more than the land can suport, and to prevent a farm from being divided up and as such not be able to support a family, is common to both cultures:
However Tibet was far from the only influence on Ladakh. Where Tibet was largely closed off to outside influence, Ladakh was a nation where the caravan trade played an important role. Traders from the neighbouring Muslim lands were a common sight in Leh's bazaar until the 20th century. The folk music is based on the styles of the Muslim parts of the western Himalaya, likewise Polo was imported from these lands and enjoys popularity to this day with Ladakhis regardless of faith.
The Indus valley is the Ladakhi heartland, with the highest population density, and large amounts of agricultural land. Running parallel, roughly north-east south-west with it are a series of valleys and mountain ranges. North of the Indus valley is the Ladakh range, on the other side of which is the Shayok, and Nubra valleys. South of the Indus is the Stok range, clearly visible from Leh. On the other side is the Markha valley, a popular trekking destination. After a series of minor ranges and uninhabited valleys we come to Zangskar, with the Kargyak and the Stod rivers joining at Padum, to form the Zangskar river which bucks the trend and flows north through a narrow gorge to join the Indus. To the south of Zangskar is the Grand Himal range marking the southern limit of Ladakh.
To the east of this series of ranges is the Changtang, a high plateau home to nomads. It is known as Kharnak in the west, Samad Rokchen in the north east and Korzok in the south east. Not a true plateau it has a chaotic assortment of minor mountains ranges not much higher than the wide valleys between them. With no drainage leading out of this area, there are a number of beautiful salt water lakes that make popular destinations for tourists.
The animals of Ladakh have much in common with the animals of Central Asia generally, and especially those of the Tibetan Plateau .
An exception to this, are the birds, many of which migrate from the warmer parts of India to spend the Summer in Ladakh. Birds are also, rather predictably, the easiest form of wildlife for tourists to see, and the only thing tourists who don't leave the paved roads, and villages, can be sure to see. For such an arid area, Ladakh may surprise you with the verity of birds, a total of 225 species have been recorded.
The Indian redstart, and Hoopoe, both summer in Ladakh and are very common. Surprisingly, the Brown-headed Gull is seen in summer on the Indus, and on some lakes of the Changthang. Other migratory water birds, include the Brahimini duck, Ruddy Sheldrake, and the Barhead goose.
The Black Necked Crane is famous due to its extreme rarity, it's found only in Ladakh and Tibet, and is belived to winter locally, but the exact location is unknown. Other specifically high altitude birds are the Tibetan Raven, Red-Billed Chough, Snow-cock, and Chukor.
There are two main raptors in Ladakh. The Lammergeier, a vulture, is relatively common here. It's unusual in that it's head has feathers, unlike most vultures. TheGolden Eagle, is also found in Ladakh, closelly related and outwardly the same as found in North Amarican.
Hunting by British "sportsmen" during colonial rule, and more recently unofficially by the Indian army, has taken its tole on the wildlife population. In recent years however things have been improving due to greater popular awareness of the value of wildlife, an awareness that has spread as far as reaching some members of the army.
The Ibex is found in high craggy terrain, it still numbers several thousand in Ladakh, and trekkers often spot them.
The Bharal, or Blue Sheep, is even more common, ranging in the Himalayas from Ladakh east as far as Sikkim. Its unusual in that it is neither a true sheep nor true goat, but has characteristics of both.
The Shapu, or Urial, is a goat, found at lower elevations, mostly in river valleys, and therefore is often directly in competition with domesticated animals. They are now rare, numbering about one thousand.
The Argali, or Nayan, is a relative of the Marco Polo Sheep of the Pamirs. They are impressive animals with huge horizontal curving horns. They are extremely rare in Ladakh, numbering only a couple hundred, however they do have a wide range throughout mountainous areas of the Chinese Provinces of Xinjiang, Qinghai, and Gansu .
The Chiru, or Tibetan Antelope, (known in Ladakhi as Stos) is also endangered. It has traditionally been hunted for its wool, which must be pulled out by hand, a process done after the animal is killed. The wool obtained from the Chiru is called Shahtoosh, and is valued in South Asia for its lightweight and warmth, but more than anything else, as a status symbol. Early in the 20th century the Chiru was seen in herds numbering in the thousands, surviving on remarkably sparse vegetation, they are sadly very rare now. The owning or trading in Shahtoosh is now illegal in most countries.
The Kyang, or Tibetan Wild Ass, is one animal that visitors can expect to see from the comfort of a vehicle, if they take a Jeep tour on the Changthang. They favor the rolling grasslands of this area, and with their natural curiosity makes them fairly easy to spot, despite the relatively low numbers, about 1500 individuals. They often seem to be drawn by their curiosity toward a jeep, or trekkers, only to be overcome with shyness and run away. The tendency to repeat this a number of times is most endearing.
None of the predators of Ladakh are a safety concern to trekkers, it is people who are a danger to these animals.
The Snow Leopard, is justifiably famous. It once ranged throughout the Himalaya, Tibet, and as far as the Sayan mountains on the Mongolian, Russian border; and in elevation from 1800m to 5400m. They are extremely shy, and very hard to spot, and as such not well known, it is believed there are about 200 in Ladakh. While tourists are unlikely to see the cats themselves, during winter the footprints and other marks are not uncommon. Tourists that want to see Snow Leopards should visit during the winter, as at this time the cats descend to lower altitudes, and are more active as prey is harder to find.
Other cats in Ladakh are even rarer than the Snow leopard, if not as impressive, the Lynx, numbering only a few individuals, and the Pallas's cat, who looks outwardly like a house cat.
The Tibetan Wolf is the greatest threat to the livestock of the Ladakhies and as such is the most persecuted, there are only about 300 wolves left in Ladakh. They look unremarkable, and outwardly the same as Wolves seen in Europe and the Americas.
There are also a few Brown Bears in the Suru valley and the area around Dras.
Marmots are common; you can even sometimes see them from the road, although they don't look different enough to the marmots common to other mountainous areas of the world to be of much interest.
There are also plenty of voles, hares, and several types of Pika.
Leh's many bookshops offer a wide variety of books on Ladakh, Buddhism, and general reading. Some recommended titles on Ladakh are:
Ladakh, Crossroads of High Asia: Janet Risvi, an entirely enjoyable, meticulously researched overview of Ladakhi Culture, History, economy and Geography. It never lets its precision and accuracy get in the way of its approachability and personalness.
Ancient Futures: Helena Norberg-Hodge, A passionate explanation of, and plea for the preservation of the traditional values of Ladakh. A remarkable work despite its occasional lack of balance, it is an influential book and a must read for all visitors to Ladakh.
The language of Ladakh is Ladakhi, a Tibetan dialect that is different enough from Tibetan that Ladakhis and Tibetans often speak Hindi or English when they need to communicate.
Ladakhis usually know Hindi/Urdu and often English, but in villages without road access neither can be expected. High quality Ladakhi phrasebooks, by Melong Publications, are available in Leh and well worth getting. Not only will any attempts you make to speak the language be appreciated, it will be useful.
Ladakhi is romanised in a similar way to Hindi, the most important thing to remember being that the "Th" represents a "T" sound with a bit more air.
Buses run directly to Leh from either Manali or Srinagar. The sensible choice from Manali is to take the bus that goes as directly as possible as there are few sites worth visiting until near Leh. This is the choice that most travelers will want to take due to the tense security situaton in Kashmir, however the road is only open from June to mid October due to snow fall. Coming from Srinagar there are a few interesting places to stop on route (Lamayuru and Alchi that offer accommodation).
Daily flights to Leh are run by Indian and Jet Airways from Delhi, Srinagar, Jammu and elsewhere. These are, however, subject to inclement weather and may be cancelled at any time, keep your schedule flexible. Altitude sickness is also a worry given the altitude.
Ladakhi buses run from Leh to the surrounding villages. They are often overcrowded and generally disorganised and poorly run. Daily buses or mini buses run to Alchi, Basgo, Dha-Hanu, Likir, Nimmu, and Saspul; twice daily to Chemray, Hemis, Matho, Stok, and Tak Tok; hourly or more often to Choglamsar, Phyang, Shey, Spituk, Stakna, Thiksay.
You will find in Leh a number of local taxis, that will take you to the surrounding monasteries, some from 2 to 30-40 km from Leh. If you made it to Leh, surely is something you should do. Rates are fairly steep though (for India that is).
Trucks often stop for hitchhikers, who are usually expected to pay half the bus fare, bargaining may be necessary. They are slower than the buses and sometimes stop for long periods to unload cargo.
In Leh there are a number of shops that will rent motorbikes, mostly the world famous Royal Enfield 1948 model, still made in India today (250 and 500 cc model). Rents are fairly cheap, and if you are are used to old bikes and left hand side driving, it is certainly a great way to move around if short of time, and certainly far cheaper than local taxis. Be careful though, this are mountain roads and will surely encounter a great number of Indian army vehicles to and fro.
The scenery would be magnificent viewed from the slow pace of a bicycle, however one would need to be well prepared with full camping equipment. There is a bit less than 1000km of paved roads in Ladakh. The Manali-Leh-Srinagar road makes up about half of that, the remainder being spurs off it. As such it's not possible to string together a loop, and the only route that would avoid backtracking would be to follow the Manali-Leh-Srinagar road. You would need to check the current situation and think carefully to decide if traveling in Kashmir is more of a risk than you want to take.
However, in addition to the paved roads there are some trekking routes that would be possible to ride a lightly loaded sturdy mountain bike on, perhaps hiring a horse and handler to take your baggage.
For the traveler with a number of months it is possible to trek from one end of Ladakh to the other, or even from places in Himachal Pradesh . The large number of trails and the limited number of roads allows you to string together routes that have road access often enough to restock supplies, but avoid walking on motor roads almost entirely. See below in the Do section for more info.
The main tourist sites relate to Tibetan Buddhism, and to the stunning landscape.
Ladakh is not only home to some of the most beautiful and serene monastries you'll ever see, but it also a land of rich natural beauty - and it's this natural beauty that hits you so hard, because it's a barren beauty. And the typical human mind is at loss to understand how something so barren can yet be so beautiful. Be respectful, these are holy places and active monks in a number of them.
Must-see sites include "Moon-land-view" on the Leh-Kargil highway;
Below are a few selected routes:
The Baby Trek
Duration: 2-3 days
Season: Year round
Get In: The trail starts at Likir, there are a few buses from Leh daily.
Description Ladakh's one "tea house trek" is, despite the name, hard work because of the steep and frequent assents and descents. Its highest point is 3750m (unusually low for Ladakh); it passes threw frequent villages, allowing the traveler to sleep in guest houses or peoples homes every night, it is a good introduction to trekking in Ladakh, and way to acclimatize to the altitude. The main attraction of this trek is the large villages of beautiful well made houses, among good agricultural land; the mountains and views from the passes are relatively unimpressive.
Route Likir village - Phobe La (3580m)- Sumdo village - Chagatse La (3630m) - Yangthang village - Tsermangchen La (3750m) - Hemis Shukpachen village - Mebtak La (3720m) - Ang village - Tingmosgam village.
General traveling maps showing the roads and tourist sites are commonly available in India and abroad.
The best quality trekking maps are nowhere near the quality of maps covering trekking areas of Europe or North America. Note that high quality maps of the border regions of India are technically illegal in India for security reasons, your map may be confiscated if you allow security personel to see it. (despite very high quality maps of Indian J&K and the LoC being available from the Survey of Pakistan in Islamabad!)
Ladakhi food has much in common with Tibetan food, the most prominent foods being: Thukpa, noodle soup; and Tsumpa, known in Ladakhi as Ngampe, roasted barley flour, eatable without cooking it makes useful, if dull trekking food.
A dish that is strictly Ladakhi is skyu, a heavy pasta dish with root vegetables.
As Ladakh moves toward a less sustainable, cash based economy, imported Indian foods are becoming more important. You are likely to be served rice with veggies even in villages without road access, and it's standard in Leh.
Ladakh is one of the safest parts of India, the most basic precautions are enough to keep you and your possessions safe; however, if entering the area by road one will pass through the war-ridden region of Jammu and Kashmir.