~Religion and customs~
As a friend commented when I sent an email from Leh, at 3500 m above sea level, there's a sense of being closer to God. Or maybe that's the lack of oxygen! I'm not sure. But since we touched on God, the next thing to move on to is religion.
The religious mix of Ladakh is completely different from the rest of J&K and from India in general. It is the only region of the country where Buddhism is the majority religion (at 52%). There are also a large number of Shi'a muslims who hail from Kashmir but these tend to live in the Kargil area in the west of Ladakh. For the most part, the religions live in harmony although we did meet an American couple who had spent a night in a small town where the Buddhists and Muslims were fighting like cats in a bag. They claimed their campsite was behind razor wire, had an open sewer running through the middle, and all night long they were disturbed by the locals showing off with their Kalashnikovs. As they always say at the end of Crimewatch, this sort of thing is very rare and you shouldn't let it worry you.
Within the Buddhist populations there are a number of different sects and the two we came across when visiting monasteries were the Red Hat Drukpa sect and the Yellow Hat sect. As you can guess, the colour and shape of the hats worn by their lamas distinguish them. The two sects apparently get on very well - in other parts of the world I'm sure decades of war could be started by wearing different hats, but this is Buddhism and they aren't looking for a fight.
Tradition encourages Ladakhi families to send a son or daughter to the monastery to become a monk or a nun. Today with the widespread use of birth control Ladakhi families are smaller and there are fewer offspring to send away. You will however see monks of all ages from small children of seven or eight years old up to elderly men. Unlike some countries where doing your 'monk-internship' is a bit like national service, most Ladakhis join the monastery for life and are celibate. I know that I may get criticised for saying this but many of the monks are extremely handsome. Perhaps it's due to peaceful meditation and not working out in the fields but there's something very serene and stress-less about these men. Our tour leader took us to meet his Uncle (his sister's youngest brother) at the Thiksa monastery and we had 'butter tea' and a good chat. He was an extraordinarily handsome man with 'll be one of the photos if you check at the end.
I read on another website that Ladakhis traditionally practised polyandry - one wife with multiple husbands. This wasn't mentioned when we were there and we didn't see any evidence of this. I believe that the practice was introduced to protect the ownership of precious land - i.e. one woman might marry several brothers, keeping the land together and preventing the farm being broken down into smaller plots. Ladies, if this sounds like heaven, think of all socks we'd have to pick up - I'm sure it doesn't matter how many husbands you have, they still won't know how to change a toilet roll.
There are four key racial groups
- Changpas - originally from Tibet and forming the main population in central and eastern Ladakh. Traditionally these people were nomadic herdsmen
- Mons - these are a nomad group originally of Aryan origin who are very fair skinned with northern European features. They are mostly converts to Buddhism
- Droks - these live in the Gilgit area. They were originally Buddhists but converted to Islam in the 17th or 18th century.
- Baltis - this group are of Central Asian origin and live in the Kargil area. I'm not sure of their religious affiliations
Despite having a population of little more than 200 000 inhabitants, Ladakh has its own language - Ladakhi. Geographic isolation and the challenges of getting around within the country have led to the development of a number of different dialects which can be very different.
There is one word that you really need to know - Julay!
Julay means Hello
Julay means Welcome
Julay means How are you?
Julay means Thank you
Julay means Goodbye
Julay means Have a nice day/evening etc.
Now why can't all languages do that?
As you walk around everyone will talk to you. You say 'julay' and they chorus back 'julay, julay, julay' - typically three times. It's a very sunny little phrase. Everyone says hello and as you wander around and wave at people, they almost all smile and wave back. We tried this as an experiment when we got caught on the side of a road as a convoy of about 80 Indian army trucks went past. Even though they were driving big trucks on hairpin bends, every single soldier-driver waved back.
In the cities - Leh and Kargil - people involved in the tourist trade will understand English. Out in the villages a few of the younger ones may but you'll mostly get by with smiles and sign language.
~Why would I choose Ladakh for a holiday?~
Trekking is undoubtedly the main attraction and the reason for most people to visit. Treks are available in a wide variety of lengths and grades - from the 4 day 'baby trek' we did, up to several weeks. Our trek never got more than a few hours from a road and was supported by a truck moving the tents each day and setting up camp before we arrive. Some of the tougher treks are supported by ponies and may see you cut off from contact with the rest of the world for days at a time. There should be a trek to suit everyone. You can arrange the trek in advance or take your chances when you arrive - get a made to measure trip or look around for other travellers who are seeking to make up numbers.
The summer season is relatively short - second half of June to end September - and relates to the period when road access is least problematic. You can do winter trekking if you are really hard-core but it's a more specialised field.
Those interested in Buddhism and anthropology will also find lots to fascinate - at a tiny fraction of the cost of visiting countries like Bhutan. You can find 'cultural' (i.e. less energetic) tours of Ladakh but for visiting the Himalayas to look at temples and not go trekking would be like visiting the Maldives and not diving. You can do it - but you'd miss out on the main attraction.
~ Other reasons to go ~
1.You've already done the 'obvious' bits of India and want to see something completely different
2.You'd like to go to India but can't face the noise and bustle of the cities
3.You want to go to India but you can only go in the summer months when the lowlands are racked by extreme heat and monsoon conditions
~ A few good reasons NOT to go~
1.You don't like walking (and don't want to trek) or have health problems that will stop you being able to get up steps and walk on uneven ground (if you are considering a cultural trip)
2.You have absolutely no interest in Buddhism
3.You think a holiday isn't a holiday without a beach and a cocktail bar
4.You can't live without a 5-star hotel
5.You have a pathological fear of squat toilets (even very clean and not very smelly ones)
6.You've had a bad past experience with altitude sickness
7.You can't survive without pizza and chips every day (you know who you are!)