If you always assumed that India was 'tigers, taj and tandooris' then Ladakh is not going to be what you expect. The purpose of this short series of reviews is to give you just a small taste of this region and hopefully persuade some of you that it might be worth a visit.
But before I start, a few comments on pronunciation:
Ladakh is pronounced La-dak with La pronounced like in French 'la'. Not Larrrr. And emphasis is on the second syllable.
Leh is the largest city in and is pronounced Lay - like a chicken does with eggs.
Jammu - Jam-oo - jam, like the stuff you buy in jars, oo as in 'ooh, I fancy going there'
Kashmir- come on, you know this one, it’s just the same as cashmere.
Enough of this - onto the review:
~Where is Ladakh?~
The district of Ladakh is part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, or J&K as it's commonly abbreviated. For those who aren't very familiar with Indian geography, J&K is the bit that sticks up in the north - surrounded on three sides by Pakistan, China and Tibet. Never make the mistake (as an ex-boss of mine did) of making a comment to any Indians along the lines of "It looks like it ought to be part of Pakistan". You will get a stony silence at best and a diplomatic incident at worst.
Kashmir was once the summer playground of rich Indians and European ex-pats. Cooler than the lowlands and renowned for its beauty, the mountains gave pleasant respite from the ravages of the Indian summer. Sadly today it's more likely to hit the news for conflict between the Indian and Pakistani military. It hardly sounds like a holiday paradise, does it? However, Ladakh is very different from other parts of J&K and, whilst it has seen military action in the valleys and passes back in the 1990s, today it's the kind of place where visitors will feel entirely unthreatened and will, for the most part, receive a warm and genuinely friendly welcome.
In the past Ladakh was just lumped in with the rest of J&K and locals will tell you that it was forgotten and ignored by the administration. Ladakh was right at the back of the line when the government was handing out any goodies. Whilst it's still not a state in its own right, Ladakh today has greater autonomy in how it generates and spends money and is enjoying a bit of an economic boom - largely due to its popularity as a Himalayan trekking destination.
~What does it look like?~
With even the valleys typically at 3500m altitude, Ladakh is a true mountain land. Indeed the name Ladakh means 'many passes'. It's not like our images of the Alps or other European mountain ranges because it's extraordinarily barren. The area is classified as high altitude desert so once you are out of the rich green river valleys the overwhelming colour is brown with a bit of white snow on the tops of the mountains. This is not a 'Sound of Music' grass and edelweiss landscape. Beautiful Buddhist monasteries (called gompas) can be found clinging to the sides of the mountains often overlooking fish ponds that freeze in the winter and are used for ice-hockey, Ladakh's favourite winter sport.
It rains very rarely in Ladakh - I think I read somewhere that it's less than 6 inches a year - so you could be forgiven for thinking it won't be a great region for agriculture. However, you'd be wrong. The valleys are supplied with copious amounts of melting snow and ice water and locally developed irrigation techniques create lush fields up to a few hundred meters on either side of the rivers. Then when the irrigation channels stop, there's a sharp brown line and you are back in the arid land.
(BE WARNED after a day trekking you may arrive in your campsite and think that a wash in one of these rivers would be a refreshing way to get rid of the dust. The water is so cold it takes your breath away).
Ladakh is sometimes referred to as 'Little Tibet' due to looking a lot like Tibet but unless you've been to Tibet that's probably not a very helpful analogy. Ladakh received a mass influx of Tibetan Buddhist refugees after China's invasion of Tibet. Even the Dalai Lama pops up to Ladakh every year or so to see his people and enjoy the landscape because it reminds him so much of the home he can't go back to. If it's good enough for him then it's good enough for me.
~How do people in Ladakh live?~
Most Ladakhis outside the cities are farmers with smallholdings - a patch to grow vegetables, maybe a field or two, a cow, a few sheep or goats and some chickens. During the short summer they can grow enough food to store away and take them through the winter. The standard of housing is quite high compared to other parts of India and most of the houses you'll see are quite large. Thankfully there are very few people to be seen sleeping on the streets or living in tin shacks.
You could be forgiven then for thinking 'They have nice houses, they have enough food and plenty of water - sounds like an easy life'. Life in Ladakh does indeed look attractive in the summer months but most of the year they are feet deep in snow. These really are very tough people. Electricity is in short supply and they are rationed to just five or six hours a day in the middle of winter - for use in the evening when it's dark. Using electricity for heating is forbidden so they burn wood and dried animal dung in the local version of a wood burning stove. Our guide took us to his parents' farm for lunch and told us that during the winter the whole family moves into the kitchen and sleeps there because it's the only warm room in the house.
Few locals have cars and most rely on the bus services or long hard walks. At one of our campsites half a dozen little kids in school uniform turned up in the morning to help break down the camp and load the support truck. In return they got a ride to the next village where their school was. The walking alternative was a two-hour hike up and down two mountain passes. The same kids had been spotted the evening before whilst we sat by the river. They were hitching a lift back from school in the 'scoop' of a road digger.