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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
Update: You can now buy the Ladakh Trekking: A Beginner’s Guide with all the information from this site plus lots of extra details and other goodies (like packing and other preparation) in an easy ebook that you can download and take with you.