Ladakh was cut off from the world until 1974, when the Indian government opened up its northern most region to tourism. It took time for outsiders to venture into the “land of high passes” or “Little Tibet” as it is also known, bordering as it does Western China-Tibet and surrounded by the mighty Himalayan mountains.
Today, while the capital Leh is geared towards tourism with plenty of hotels, guesthouses and restaurants, and the markets crammed with Tibetan, Buddhist and Ladakhi trinkets, it is still relatively off the beaten track. This has been a blessing, curbing the region from becoming overly touristic, unlike other Indian mountain retreats like Darjeeling, Dharamsala-Mcleod Ganj, and Shimla, and is due to what has kept the region so isolated for so long: its geography.
Leh is at 3,500 meters, and is an oasis amid a high altitude desert and mountains towering over 6,000 meters that are evident everywhere you go in the capital. With temperatures in the low degrees at night even in the summer, Leh is off-limits during the freezing winter months and only accessible for four months or so of the year, certainly by plane, between June and late September. The only other ways to get in and out are gruelling overland journeys, whether from Srinagar in Kashmir to the South-West, a 20 hour journey to cover just 450 kilometers, or a similarly long bum-breaking ride that traverses 5,000 meter high passes to Manali in the south.
Such altitude requires a few days of acclimatization. Even clambering up 300 meters of stairs to visit the Shanti Stupa – a Buddhist shrine – on the outskirts of Leh requires a few breaks due to shortness of breath and the heart beating like piston as you reach 3,800 meters. There's a similar sensation when you walk up to the 17th century Leh Palace that dominates the skyline of the city, with its nine floors built into the rockface and the architecture a smaller replica of the original seat of the Dalai Lama, the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. The lungs get a further workout when you climb up from the palace to an old castle garlanded in colorful Tibetan prayer flags blowing in the wind.
However, a few days at over 3,000 meters in Leh and day trips to surrounding Tibetan Buddhist monasteries such as Thikse is only minimal preparation for a jeep trip to Pangong Lake, some 160 kilometers away. The route goes over Changa-La, the second highest motorable pass in the world at 5,360 meters (17,586 feet). With that height about half of what commercial airliners fly at, it is no wonder visitors are not recommended to spend more than 20 minutes at the pass.
En route, the road passes through streams heavy with snow melt, past grazing dzo, a hybrid of the big hairy yak and the cow, until reaching Pangong, one of the world's highest brakish lakes at 4,300 meters. Shimmering with seven shades of blue, magical may be an overly used cliche, but such a sight at the rooftop of the world is no understatement, or to describe the wonders of this formerly inaccessible mountainous region.
Text and photographs by Paul Cochrane