Ladakh: 9 Memories of Deep Himalayan India

Dan at Gongmaru La Pass, Layers and Layers of Mountains - Ladakh, India
Ladakh, lost in layers.

Ladakh: a place we had dreamed about for well over a decade, a visit packed with expectations. What made this place remarkable wasn’t quite what we expected.

Imagining Ladakh for all of those years, we focused on the landscape. Sure, Ladakh as a setting for just about anything did not disappoint. The physical beauty was more stunning – and more consistently so — than we’d ever imagined.

But that’s not really what made our journey there exceptional. What made it truly remarkable was something that went beyond the incredible vistas. It was the sense of something spanning and broad, a journey and exploration of within and without, an experience that was stitched of encounters with Ladakhi people, their culture, their religion, their homes – coming together in an inimitable coherent sense of place.

That’s Ladakh. And here are a few memories and images that we hope might demonstrate why.

9 Memories from Ladakh

1. Roads that Stun: You Almost Forget That You’re on a Cliff

OK, I know we said it wasn’t all about the landscape. But oh.

Unless you travel there by airplane, which in some cases carries its own drama, getting to Ladakh feels epic. If you go the way we came, it takes two days on a bus from Srinagar, Kashmir to cover about 250 miles (420km). Keep in mind this is not just any old bus, but the so-not-aptly-named “Super Deluxe Bus.” And the roads are not just any old roads, but the sort of horrific roads that will leave you reaching for the spare pare of trousers.

The views almost made us forget the potential fall…almost.

Kashmir to Ladakh roadtrip teaser. Bus got stuck in a traffic jam overlooking this jaw-dropper.
Bus got stuck in a traffic jam overlooking this jaw-dropper.

2. Ladakhi People: A Breakfast Moment

Meal times, as in the world over, were times to bond and get to know one another. Breakfast time with a family in the ten-house village of Skyu, our first homestay stop after the Gonda La Pass was no exception. These grandparents were playing with their granddaughters after an outing to the family garden to pick spinach for our lunch tiffins (boxes) that day. The grandfather’s adoring gaze and a granddaughter’s eyes wide open express something universal.

Ladakhi Family in Skyu Village - Ladakh, India
Ladakhi Family in Skyu Village, Markha Valley Trek.

3. Tibetan Mani: Rocks and Chants

In Ladakh, Buddhism is a part of the wider cultural landscape. The land is infused with it. One visual representation of this: mani prayer stone walls, typically placed within eyeshot of a peak or a sacred space such as a monastery. Imagine hundreds if not thousands of flat stones engraved with the Buddhist mantra om mani padme hum. As I touched the surface of one of these stones and felt the etching, I wondered how many hands had passed since its artist first uttered his prayer as he carved into the stone.

Mani Wall at Hankar Village - Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Mani Wall at Hankar Village – Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh

4. Ancient: Tea Time with the Underground Shepherds

If we had one cup of tea along our trek, we might have had hundreds. It was a morning and evening ritual. But our most memorable was taken in a subterranean shepherd’s hut in the base camp village of Nimaling. The eldest shepherd’s face was wizened, showing weathered signs of bringing animals to high pasture for over fifty years.

Tea Time in Shepherd's Shelter - Nimiling, Ladakh
Tea Time in Shepherd’s Shelter – Nimiling, Ladakh

His daughter offered to make us chai, something one must never refuse, for the experience and the propriety. She fired up a pot of fresh goat’s milk tea courtesy of the goats outside. As their milk came to a boil, they gathered peeking through the small window at the high end of the kitchen.

The scene was smoke-filled, rugged, serene, peaceful, and timeless. In the fast rewind of life that happens just before it ends, this gets a frame.

5. Momos: A Tibetan dumpling-making lesson in a Ladakhi village kitchen

“Do you think we will have momos one night?” I asked Dorjee, our guide, as we walked into Markha, the town after which the famous valley trek is named.

“I don’t know. They are difficult to make,” Dorjee responded.

A couple of hours later: “We’re having momos tonight. They are making them just now in the kitchen.”

Dan and I jumped on the opportunity. Could we watch them? Maybe even join in? The two sisters of the house tirelessly rolled dough and cut circles out of it while Dorjee gave us lessons on how to fold, stuff, and tuck the dumplings into quick yet elegantly decorated half-moons.

Making Momos in Markha - Ladakh, India
Making momos at our homestay in Markha – Ladakh

I was challenged – instead of the beautifully outlined crescents, my momos looked something like squished toads. Dan – a man no less — was much better at the folding, stuffing and tucking, which amused the women to no end.

Dan Learns to Make Momos - Markha Village, Ladakh
Dan Learns to Make Momos – Markha Village, Ladakh

6. Timeless Faces, Eyes that Smile

Ladakhis in the Markha Valley, especially the women, have a way of smiling with their eyes. When you find a grandma with smiling eyes and that look of wisdom and experience, you just might feel like you are drawn into the tractor beam of human magic.

Ladakhi Women, Mother and Daughter - Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Ladakhi Mother and Daughter – Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh

7. Wisdom of Young Men: Dorjee Tells of Going Counter-Clockwise

Our guide, Dorjee, a young Ladakhi man wise beyond his 21 years, unknowingly dispensed with wisdom in small doses along our way. He was a living case study in the power of positive communication. His respectful approach to all people opened doors everywhere he went.

Ladakhi House in Markha Village - Ladakh, India
Dorjee prepares for our homestay for the night in Markha village

Anything is possible. You just need to ask first,” he told us several times. Notice that his advice didn’t guarantee certainty, but suggested that the act of asking respectfully might unveil new possibilities.

Another piece of wisdom came during lunch one day when we were hesitant to feed a dog that the mother of the house had been treating very badly. “If she [mother of house] throws stones at him [the dog], she probably doesn’t feed him well. Then the dog needs the food from us even more,” he explained.

Dorjee, our Ladakhi Guide - Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Dorjee, our Ladakhi Guide – Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh

Finally, when we asked whether it was necessary or advised that we circle the Buddhist mani rock walls clockwise as others had done, his response: “Well, only if you believe.”

Much of this could be filed under the general reminder to focus on doing what is right rather than always doing as others do.

8. Novice Monks and Dharma Trumpets: A Buddhist Ceremony

Sometimes, timing is everything. And so it was when we dropped in on Hemis Monastery on our return to Leh from the end of our Markha Valley trek. There, we stumbled upon a novice Buddhist monk ceremony in one of the temples. Monks of varying ages sat lined up with prayer books in front of them to guide them in their chants.

Novice Buddhist Monks at Hemis Monastery, Ladakh
Novice Buddhist Monks at Hemis Monastery, Ladakh

It was a scene of serenity. Then came the music: a cacophony of sounds — like elephant bellows — emanating from long horns; cymbals lightly crashing, traditional flutes and drums. The scene shattered just lightly our image of a peaceful Buddhist chant. Then it made us chuckle. Then we admired their focus. Maybe that’s the whole point of surprise experiences: to shake us from our expectations.

Novice Buddhist Monks at Hemis Monastery, Ladakh
Morning prayers at Hemis Monastery, Ladakh.

9. Hybrid Creativity: When A Cow Meets a Yak

What do you get when you cross a yak with a cow? You get what’s called a zo. Yes, a zo. For lack of a better descriptor, the zo is the “mountain cow” of Ladakh. Zo is a also a good word to know for Scrabble when you’re missing that second “o”.

Zos Grazing at Nimiling - Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Not quite a yak, not quite a cow. It’s a zo!

—–

When we set out for Ladakh we did so with its nature and landscape in mind, but it turns out that was really only the equivalent of a frame to what was truly inside. Ours was a deeply moving experience that involved simple connections to people and their sense of place, a remote place. Ladakh is not easy to get to (although it’s becoming easier), and it’s this feature that has shaped the Ladakhi people and culture through the centuries. For us, Ladakh is a place — a well you might say — from which we’ll continue to draw stories and lessons as our experience sets in.

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Comments

  1. Oliver Asis says

    Beautiful story and great pictures to go along with it. Reading through I can imagine being there along side with you guys. I really loved this: “In the fast rewind of life that happens just before it ends, this gets a frame.” It is such a great visual and metaphor for life.
    Thank you as always for sharing your travels and experience. I truly appreciate it. :)

  2. says

    @Oliver: Glad that this piece and the photos brought you along with us on this journey. And yes, there are so many experiences and memories that get a frame before it ends. This is what creating a story-filled life is all about.

  3. says

    @Kelly: We’ll be writing about the logistics in more detail soon. We did hire a local guide from a trekking agency in Leh. Although we met people who did the whole thing independently, we were happy to have a guide with us…not only so that we didn’t get lost but for providing cultural context.

  4. Joanne Joseph says

    The picture of your view during the traffic jam is one of my favorites that you have posted. Jaw dropping indeed! I too, often choose destinations based on the natural beauty and what I imagine will bring wonderful photo opportunities. I continue to be surprised when I return home that my favorite moments are ones no amount of preplanning could deliver.

  5. says

    My husband Dan and I dream of visiting India, especially the north. Ladakh looks like a great destination for photographers. How did you come to decide on visiting this place? And how was the chai?

  6. says

    @Kelly: It’s definitely easy to get tangled in logistics when there is so much to juggle. With this trip we booked our flight from Mumbai to Srinagar in advance and then arranged everything else (bus ticket to Leh, trekking, accommodation, etc.) on the fly once we arrived. If you go in June then this shouldn’t be a problem at all, but we’ve heard that things get busier in July/August. But, all of this will be in the logistics post soon!

    @Linda: Ladakh is definitely a fabulous place for photographers, whether landscape or portrait. As for how we decided to visit here, it goes back to over 15 years ago when Dan saw photos of Ladakh in his neighbor’s apartment in San Francisco and the place was fixed in his mind. The full story is here: http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2013/06/ladakh-dumb-luck-dreams-visa-kung-fu/

    As for the goat’s milk chai, it was pretty darn good. Smelled a bit like French goat’s cheese at first but once you got past that initial odor it had a rich taste. And, all the other chais we had along the way were great, especially the mint teas.

  7. says

    What a fantastic post! My husband and I are both teachers, and we love to travel every summer. We were all set to go to Australia in 2014, but, after reading your posts on trekking in Ladakh, we are seriously considering a change of plans. We are eager to see your posts on your travel logistics, so we can look into planning our own trip. By the way, we hiked Kilimanjaro in July and loved reading your posts about that, too. Your blog is very inspiring!

  8. says

    @Alison: Australia and Ladakh are very different from each other, but are both fabulous places so you can’t go wrong either way. We expect the logistics post that covers transport, choosing a trekking agency/guide, possible treks, gear, etc. to be up in the next 2-3 weeks so keep checking back. And congrats on your climb up Kilimanjaro!!

  9. says

    Nice one Audrey.. India has always been the hot spot for travelers. Due to its vast variety different states and culture.. and the Natural beauty of India can’t be untouched from a traveler.

  10. says

    Such beautiful imagery, both with your breathtaking photos and your precise descriptions of your experiences. Thank you for sharing with us.

  11. says

    @Amit: I think many travelers don’t realize how diverse India is in terms of culture, food and landscapes. Could travel there many times and always experience something new.

    @Shane: You’re welcome. Glad you enjoyed this.

  12. says

    Hi there! I was wondering if you were still planning on doing a logistics post on your Ladakh trip. We are planning on going there next summer and would love to know which local trekking agency you used, cost, etc. Thanks!

  13. says

    @Alison and Nad: Yes, the logistics post is still on. Just returned from a really busy travel schedule so hope to get it up soon. Just quickly, the trekking company we used was Ecological Footprint – http://www.ecologicalfootprint.in/ We had visited several other agencies in Leh, but got a good feeling from this place because the owner sat down with us from the beginning and offered us various options and was flexible with our requests. Also, this is a local Ladakhi company so all the money stays local. Our guide, Dorjee, is really fantastic – can’t recommend him enough!

    Will email you when the full post is live. Thanks for asking!

  14. says

    @Mike: We took a couple of days in Leh to acclimatize before going out on our hike. Then we made sure that we drank lots of water and walked slowly, which are what we’ve done in other high altitude areas. Didn’t have any problems.

  15. says

    Amazing is the only word I have! Totally agree with you – that first image is indeed a jaw-dropper! :) Love the image of that child looking in wonder. :) Ladakh is still a dream for me. I am definitely heading there next year.

    • says

      Thanks, Renuka. We haven’t been able to stop talking about Ladakh, and in particular our trekking experience and interaction with the families living in the Markha Valley. Absolutely worth every moment. If you have questions and when you go, please let us know how it works out.

    • says

      Thank you, Amrita. Glad you liked the image, it was representative for us. We are especially glad you like the storytelling, as the stories and living history of the region are perhaps even greater and more beautiful than the landscape.

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