Notes from the Field: Ladakh

September 2017

Abercrombie & Kent Australia PR & Communications Manager, Serena Mitchell, recently travelled to Ladakh. Upon her return, we asked her a few questions about her journey.

This was your first time in Ladakh, what were you expecting?

I’ll be honest, when I thought of Ladakh I did expect to see dramatic landscapes and high mountain peaks. But nothing prepared me for its jaw dropping scenery and the beautiful people who live there.

What was your first impression?

First impressions are mind-blowing. The flight to Leh from Delhi climbs from the plains to the north of the capital, over the foothills of the Himalaya to the high snow-capped peaks of Ladakh. With a neat last-minute manoeuvre by our pilot over the Indus Valley we are delivered safely to one of the world’s highest commercial airports at 3,500m. Breathtaking in more ways than one.

Did you pick up on any topical issues of interest?

-       Ladakh has a unique geographical location in the Jammu Kashmir region of northern India. Variously part of India and Tibet, at Partition in 1947 the region was adjoined to Jammu Kashmir. In 1949, China closed the border near Nubra blocking the ancient Silk Road from India to Central Asia. Because of its location close to both Pakistan, China and the troubled Kashmir region to the west, a flashpoint between India and Pakistan for over six decades, there are geopolitical sensitivities and a strong military presence but at no time did we feel in any way threatened.

-       Gender equality. Compared with other parts of India, women in Ladakh enjoy a high status in the community filling important roles in administration, rural enterprise and handicraft initiatives.

What wowed you?

First of all, the landscape. No matter where you look, there are dramatic mountains all around. The Indus River flows between the Himalaya and the Karakorum Range, fast flowing from glacial melt and lined with willows and poplars. Dotted throughout the high altitude desert there are lush green oases where towns and monasteries perch precariously on the nearby peaks and brightly coloured prayer flags flutter in the wind.

What made you laugh?

India is renowned for its crazy road signs and Ladakh is no different. Here are a few of my favourites:

Safety is gainful. Accident is painful. 

Hurry makes worry.

I am curvaceous be slow (on the typically windy mountain roads).  

Overspeed is a knife that cut a life.  

Was there something about the destination that you were not expecting?

I had not anticipated the level of sophistication which I experienced at some of our accommodation. Chamba Camp Thiksey and sister property Chamba Camp Diskit are examples of Indian safari chic at its finest. One has white canvas tents, the other traditional khaki. Both have the dreamiest interiors, leather-trimmed campaign furniture, muslin mosquito nets over four poster beds, colourful handwoven rugs, the finest linen and monogrammed brass lanterns. The attention to detail is impeccable. No plastic shower caps here, instead caps made from beautiful block printed fabrics, and refillable sunscreen, hand sanitiser and insect repellent.

Looking back, what type of traveller would be drawn to Ladakh?

It’s a destination that’s going to appeal to many types of traveller. Those wanting to inject some spirituality into their journey will be captivated by the monasteries and the form of Tibetan Buddhism which the resident monks practice. Adventure travellers too will be kept active on a visit to Ladakh. There are so many different hikes and treks to undertake in the summer months or, for the very intrepid, winter expeditions in search of the snow leopard.

What were your top Ladakhi experiences?

-       We had the privilege of meeting Ladakhi film maker, Stanzin Dorjai Gya, at a screening of his documentary ‘Shepherdess of the mountain”. The film, which won a prize at the Banff Film Festival, is a fascinating, and moving, biopic about his sister and her extraordinary life as a shepherd in the high mountains.

-       Joining an early morning prayer ceremony at Thiksey monastery was an incredibly spiritual experience. This is a daily ritual for the 150 resident monks, who belong to the Yellow Hat Buddhist sect, and starts with two young monks blowing the conch shell from the monastery rooftop out over the valley below. We gathered in the prayer hall and the chanting began, the monks of all ages in unison. Yak butter tea is shared amongst monks and visitors alike, definitely an acquired taste!

-       Travelling along the world’s highest motorable pass from Leh to the Nubra Valley is on many a traveller’s bucket list. It is hard core. The road is unsealed and very pot-holed with sharp hairpin turns and steep drops to rocky slopes below. Large convoys of trucks take up the road and make the going slow. Unexpected summer snow falls and wild weather made our first attempt impossible. We were forced to turn back and try our luck the next day. Thankfully, the sun shone for our second attempt and we reached the pass at 5,300m with no trouble.

-       We stayed in the small village of Saboo and, to acclimatise, had a walk around the village and surrounding fields. It was lovely and peaceful and a unique opportunity to see Ladakhi rural life close up. We wandered along the village paths, between dry stone walls, past mudbrick homes and small gardens into the fields where barley and lucerne crops are cultivated (reliant upon glacial melt with a minute annual rainfall of 10mm). 

Was there a person you met who transformed your experience?

Our guide, Rinchen, was a delight. A resident of Leh, he was with us for the duration of the journey. He was very well educated, having enjoyed the sponsorship of a French woman when he was young who sent him to school in southern India. He was knowledgeable and companionable and willing to be drawn on any subject. He really revealed a lot about Ladakhi culture and customs as well as the fascinating history of the area.

Did you learn something special or interesting?

Plastic is officially banned in Ladakh so cloth bags are used. Unfortunately the ban didn’t seem to extend to plastic water bottles which are as much of a scourge here as anywhere. I would really love to see more camps and lodges providing filtered water coolers where travellers can refill their own bottles.

What advice would you give to a prospective traveller?

Ladakh means “the land of high passes” and most of the region is over 3,000m so I would advise travellers to consider altitude medication. In addition, there are many steep walks up to monasteries which can be challenging because of the altitude so a reasonable level of fitness is recommended.

Did you have any surprising or unexpected encounters?

Yes, indeed. I came face to face with royalty over lunch with H.E. Raja Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyal in the Stok Palace. Despite having a purely ceremonial role, he is highly regarded, especially amongst the people of Stok, where he is an important landowner. He is a well-spoken but modest gentleman, raised in Himachal Pradesh and Delhi educated. He is passionate about heritage conservation and has been instrumental in many local restoration works. I extended a personal invitation to him to visit Australia which he's been wanting to do for some time!

Did you buy something special to bring home?

Many of the handicrafts in Leh come from Kashmir with specialities including pashminas, carpets and lacquerware. A pocket sized prayer wheel with prayer beads and miniature prayer flags is one of my favourite mementos.

To find out more about A&K's Hosted Journey to Ladakh, click here.