The first time I went to Ladakh, I was all of eleven years old, and not too interested in fantastic scenery and moth-eaten Buddhist monasteries. So, the fact that I came back totally besotted says a lot for the place. I went back again in 2001, after a gap of seventeen years, and found that a lot had changed. The valley in which the capital, Leh, lies, had been transformed from a barren, treeless plain to a lovely swathe of green along the Indus river, its banks crowded with poplar and willow; Leh town itself had come up in life. The market place, which I remembered as just about twenty stalls selling grubby vegetables and weather-beaten antiques pulled out of local homes, had morphed into a sleek bazaar, crowded with sassy souvenir-sellers and enterprising travel agents. The Buddhist monasteries, which I dreaded going barefoot into (their floors were caked with black grease, the result of centuries of burning yak-butter lamps in front of idols) had begun using refined vegetable oil instead, and everybody - from the boy lamas in Hemis to the toothy waiter at the café next door - knew what they were about when it came to dealing with tourists.
Actually, I’d put Ladakh right on top of my list of the beautiful places I’ve been to; it is arid, treeless, and absolutely spectacular. The sky’s a gorgeous blue - so clear and so deep a hue that all my photographs look "doctored" - and the land, nearly devoid of vegetation (outside the Leh Valley, that is) is perhaps the most colourful anywhere in India - entire rock faces are bright purple, grass green, brick red, bluish-grey and even pink in color. In places where there’s a trickle of precious water, plants spring up - tussocks of scrubby grass or huge bushes of wild roses, loaded with hundreds of pink blooms. It’s wild, barren, beautiful scenery, and here and there, clinging to the mountainside by sheer willpower, are ancient Buddhist monasteries, invariably with a neighbouring village, maybe just about half a dozen tiny houses and a dozen shaggy yaks.
The capital, Leh, holds the distinction of being home to India’s highest civilian airfield - just over 10,000 ft. By Ladakhi standards, Leh’s a metropolis; by all others, it’s a sleepy little town with hundreds of soldiers and just about as many tourists.
Leh is a great place to restrict yourself to if you’re short on time, as we were, because some of Ladakh’s biggest attractions are really close at hand. This time, we were on a short holiday and didn’t have the time to go deeper into the wilderness, so we stayed within Leh and ventured out only on day trips. Among the best was our visit to the Hemis Gompa, Ladakh’s largest Buddhist monastery, just below 50 km upriver from Leh (the river in question is the Indus). We were a bit unlucky - (and I suppose I’ll have to admit also a little careless) in our timing; we missed the Hemis Festival, a two-day extravaganza of masked dancers, madly whirling prayer wheels and traditional music - by just about a week.
We also went around to some of the other gompas (Buddhist monasteries) near Leh - Shey, Thikse and Spituk - and the interesting Stok Palace Museum, just across the Indus. The Shanti Stupa, a dazzling white structure built in the past two decades, was also a rewarding sight: it offered a stunning view of Leh. The best view, of course, is from Khardung La, around 50 km from Leh, and uphill all the way - it’s the highest motorable civilian road in the world (the highest road, also in Ladakh, is at a mountain pass called Marsmik La, but it’s offbounds to civilians, both Indian and foreign).
If we’d had the time, I suppose we’d have done some of the places I’d visited all those years back: the gloriously blue Pangong Tso lake; the refreshingly verdant Nubra Valley, and the strange, cream-coloured moonscape of Lamayoru (Lamayoru is also known for the "Hangro Loops" - more than a dozen hairpin bends which meander down a mountain, and which can actually be seen from the top. We asked our driver, a Ladakhi, what "hangro" meant; he told us that it was the Ladakhi word for a cow, and that the "loops" had been named that because some unlucky cow had toppled over at the top and gone right down to the bottom of the mountain. Gory story.
Perhaps it’s to save themselves from such eventualities (who wants to be brained by a falling cow?!) that Ladakhis are so devout - all across the land are monasteries, chortens, prayer wheels and mani walls covered with smooth river stones, all carefully carved with prayers and polished to a gloss. Faded and torn prayer flags flutter from the most inaccessible of heights, and along every road are the wacky and supposedly inspirational signs erected by the Border Roads Organisation. "Child is the Father of Man" sounds okay but a little out of place on a highway, whereas "Be Mr Late not Late Mr Dead" may be an attempt to caution you to drive slow - although we ended up laughing so hard we nearly banged into an overstuffed mini bus coming full speed down the road.
Three times I’ve been. Three times to this beautiful area, to its gompas and villages and its absolutely incredible beauty. Three times I’ve wished I didn’t have to go back, three times I’ve looked forward to coming back again.