Hidden Ladakh

Nepal lays claim to being the adventure hub of the Himalayas. But if you prefer to explore your mountains without the crowds and the rubbish they leave behind, you need to head west to Ladakh.

Camping in Ladakh credit: J&K Tourism

Ladakh — the Land of High Passes — is a high altitude desert. An extension of the Tibetan Plateau, it’s part of India but was out of bounds to foreigners until 1974 due to its proximity to China and Pakistan. Now open from June to October, when the snow’s melted enough to clear the roads, it’s a veritable playground of mountains and rivers, glaciers and passes, ruined fortresses and Buddhist shrines.

The flight into Leh, Ladakh’s only commercial airport, is a nail biter. You can’t see the runway until you’re almost on top of it because ring after ring of snow-topped mountain peaks obscure the view. One minute you’re flying level, and the next you seem to be diving, exhaling the breath you’re holding only once you’ve hit the tarmac and are taxiing to the terminal. Your fellow passengers may indeed break out into applause.

Leh is the gateway to every hidden valley in Ladakh. Flights all arrive early in the morning, so I stepped out onto the runway bleary eyed and squinting into the too-bright sunlight. There was the usual kerfuffle in the terminal building around the baggage carousel, plus additional bureaucratic faff — all visitors have to register on arrival so the Indian Government can try to keep track of who is going where.

The good-natured chaos spills out into the car park, and beyond that onto the road. Overcrowded minivans piled high with goodness knows how many cases and bags honk and swerve around army vehicles, mopeds, pot holes, and disoriented pedestrians. A goat or chicken might wander out, too. The string of primary-coloured prayer flags strung along the way, ragged but still fluttering, does nothing to calm the drivers, or to reassure travellers that all is well: reincarnation here might well come sooner than you’d like.

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The road from Khardung La credit: Maximum Exposure

This wasn’t my first visit to Ladakh: these mountains have an addictive quality. But this time I wanted to travel off the tourist trail, to see something very specific, and the best way to do that is always with a local.

Namgyal gesticulates with great excitement. That’s fine, but sometimes he’s also driving. A guide with Indus Experiences, he was pretty much birthed on the banks of the River Indus (which gives the tour company its name), and he strides up the steepest of mountain slopes as though they were as level as supermarket aisles. Altitude, it seems, is something which only affects others.

We drove north out of Leh, the highway (as it’s flatteringly termed) closely hugging the riverside. I gripped the sides of my seat each time an oncoming vehicle lurched into our carriage way, and looked out the side window until I noticed the vertical drop from the road to the river, and then thought better of it. Looking ahead was the lesser of two evils.

But the further we drove from Leh, the fewer cars we saw. Instead, I looked around me for apricot trees by the roadside, cafes and stalls selling fizzy drinks and snacks, and every now and then a monastery. These whitewashed structures — easily the largest buildings along the road — hold dominant positions throughout the valley. They’re living places of Buddhist prayer and learning, as well as being tourist sites. More than once we stopped to pick up a burgundy-clad monk hitch hiking his way home.

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Basgo Monastery credit: Maximum Exposure

We stopped at The Apricot Tree in Nurla, one of Ladakh’s first eco resorts. It’s in an orchard atop a cliff in a bend in the river. Walking in the shade of the trees, you can hear the rushing of the water far below, but besides that, everything is at peace.

Our destination was further on, however. And it was one until recently completely out of reach. The twin villages of Dha and Hanu lie at the confluence of the Indus and Shyok Rivers. They’re close to the Chinese border, so it’s only in the last few years they’ve been allowed to open up. The advantage of this is that the Brokpa population — who consider themselves to be the original Aryan race and claim descent from Alexander the Great — have managed to keep their culture (and gene pool) largely distinct.

Unlike their neighbours, the Brokpa are Animists, not Buddhists. They practise polyandry (each woman can have more than one husband) and typically marry amongst themselves. Though their hair is dark, their skin is fair, cheekbones high, and many Brokpa have blue-green eyes.

Dha-Hanu is greener, lusher, than the other villages I’d seen along the valley. It was also considerably warmer. Orchards of apple and apricot trees surrounded the houses, and as soon as we got out of the car we were surrounded by children forcing plates of sweet fruit upon us. These apricots are famous across Ladakh and beyond.

Curiosity trumped peckishness, however. Namgyal had arranged for me to meet Sonam, one of the few Brokpa women to have received an education and speak Hindi. We walked over to her home.

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Ladakhi Women credit: J&K Tourism

I was struck by the height of my hostess, her stature accentuated by her towering headgear. Decorated with local flowers in bright colours, a peacock feather, and gold and silver trinkets, it was certainly a dramatic, if weighty, accessory. This tepi (traditional headwear) is said to ward off evil, though undoubtedly it’s also a fashion statement.

As we sat drinking tea, Sonam went item by item through each part of her tepi. Metal coins prevent sickness; the coloured ribbons protect against the adverse effects of an eclipse; and the feather will stop paralysis. The flowers have come from Sonam’s garden, each one chosen because it’s auspicious. Juniper cleanses evil; montho berries will bring love and prosperity.

The afternoon drew on and Sonam’s family members return home. The extended family lives together in one house, and the kitchen is at the centre of the domestic universe. The god Lha is believed to live in the pillars of the building, and he likes everything kept clean. Cooking utensils are polished to a shine and hung upon the walls, and no meat, eggs, or dairy products cross the threshold (except at festival times) else they pollute the home and anger Lha.

Though these traditions remain strong, life for the Brokpa is nevertheless changing, and fast. The Kargil War in 1999 brought the Brokpa into direct contact with the Indian Army, who relied upon their knowledge of the local terrain. There are roads now to the village, and outsiders do come. Brokpa children — including Sonam’s nephews and nieces — are getting an education, and with it a desire to explore further afield. Rigzen tells me he wants to become a doctor, something which if it happens will necessitate leaving Dha-Hanu to study at least a day’s drive away in Srinagar.

During the drive back to Nurla, Namgyal was uncharacteristically quiet. I took the chance to look once again at the mountains, now entirely different colours in the evening light. I thought of the natural barrier they posed, keeping the Brokpa in isolation, and neighbouring communities cut off from one another during the winter months. Now and then I caught a glimpse of an oil lamp flickering in a window, prayers rising with its smoke. In every hidden valley there are stories. Only by travelling there can you hear them.

Words by Stephanie Adams

Steph travelled to Ladakh with Indus Experiences (www.indusexperiences.co.uk). The 13-night Hidden Ladakh tour, which includes Leh, Nurla, and Dha-Hanu, as well as a number of other locations, costs from £2,695 per person. International and domestic flights are included in the price.

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Khardung La credit: Maximum Exposure