Shangri La commonly evokes images of easy utopia that don't quite describe the barren and rocky desert like character of Ladakh and the hardscrabble life of its cheerful inhabitants. Nevertheless, the awesomeness of its rugged terrain is breathtakingly beautiful and amidst the solitude and thin air, peace prevails. The amazing sky, the eerie silence on the high mountains and the shock of stumbling upon a green valley beside a sparkling stream and the changing colors of its pristine lakes glistening beneath giant bald mountain peaks are experiences that stun, charm and soothe. Hugging the sides of intimidating, crumpled mountain ranges are numerous ancient Buddhist monasteries whose architecture blends seamlessly with that of the land itself. Ladakhis belong to a colorful sprinkling of many ethnicities (Tibetan, Indian, Central Asian and Indo-European tribes like the Hunzas) with people of Tibetan ancestry constituting the vast majority. They are divided nearly equally between Buddhists and Muslims (along with a tiny Christian community around Leh) with the former inhabiting the central and eastern regions and the latter mostly concentrated in the northwestern parts.
Ladakh was once upon a time an important way station along the ancient Silk Route, a vibrant trading network involving China, India, Central Asia and Europe. Known as "Little Tibet," Ladakh saw a steady traffic of traders bearing varied exotic goods during the mild summers as well as its brutal winters (when traders used the frozen rivers as roads) crisscrossing the region. Around the middle of the last century for political and security reasons Ladakh, which shares its borders with China and Pakistan near the disputed territory of Kashmir, became inaccessible to both Indian and foreign civilians. (The invasion of Kashmir by Pakistan in 1948 and the China-India war in 1962 resulted in the sealing of the borders) Only the Indian army could travel there, as also domestic business travelers with permits. The place could only be reached via arduous land routes. The already remote land connected to a couple of Indian states by crude roads over rough terrains and very high mountain passes was mostly forgotten by the rest of the world. Ladakh remained isolated until the mid 1970s when the Indian government opened it up to civilians. But travel remained difficult and only the most adventurous or those with business interests ventured out by cars or buses. The bolder thrill seekers often opted for a more dangerous and strenuous motorcycle ride. For some years past, Leh, the biggest city in Ladakh has become connected to Delhi and Srinagar by air, resulting in a sharp rise in tourist and business traffic, both Indian and foreign. Ladakh once more has become a meeting place of people from different parts of the world, passing through.
I won't go into further details of the history, geography and geology of Ladakh which you can check out in the Wiki link I have provided above. Instead, let me treat this post mostly as a photo-blog and share some pictures of this amazing place that we took during our travels recently during July-August. It was very gratifying that I experienced very little physical discomfort (not even a nose-bleed) in a place of rarefied air where our travels sometimes took us as high up into the Himalayas as nearly 18,000 feet and where my husband convinced me to go up the mountainous roads on the back of a motorcycle. I am glad that we decided to make the trip to Ladakh. A few years from now, we may not have had the confidence to test our strength and endurance in its unforgiving climate and stark landscape of spectacular beauty.
I have posted these photos and some more on my Facebook page. A selection here for readers of A.B. Please click to enlarge.
Update: Please check out this video I uploaded on YouTube (my very first).
This was recorded by my husband in front of the Magnetic Hill outside Leh, Ladakh. I probably wouldn't have believed that the phenomenon is real had I not been in the car myself. The driver parked the car at the bottom of a slope in the road and turned off the engine. The hill is about 500 yards behind. The car started to move backwards up the slope towards the hill gathering speed until the brakes were applied.