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LADAKH -The Hidden Kingdom

      One who wishes to undertake a trip to Ladakh must be physically fit. The high altitude environment is quite trying. Those afflicted by heart and lung problems better keep off. Even healthy people must take a day off on arrival for acclimatisation. Yet one can suffer from breathlessness, nausea, insomnia, headache, dizziness, loss of appetite etc. These may be common things but if the symptoms persist, one should consult a physician as early as possible. Eventhough the adventurous need not be scary, for Ladakh is for the trekkers. Trekkers better carry a medical kit once they leave towns such as Leh and Kargil. Distances are long and routes meander through uninhabited areas. Local population, if any, has their own system of medical treatment.

     Geography: Tucked away in the westend of the Himalayas, Ladakh is like the Andes of South America. The young fold contours were the result of the great tactonic pressure movements against the Himalayas on one side. And with the Karakoram on the other side, the Ladakh range and the Zanskar range are a geological sensation. The world's largest glacier, Siachen (72 km long), is here. The region abounds in snow-capped peaks, mountain passes and valleys. The high altitude terrain has been cursed, however, by the rain God. The main source of water is snow, it falls in the winter and melts in the summer. Therefore it looks desert-like and vegetation is scanty, except in Kargil roundabouts. The main river is Indus running from Tibet.

     From the physical to the physique: The people look more like Tibetans. In eastern and central region, they have Tibetan origin. Towards the west the population looks Muslim and mixed. There is a divide between the Buddhist Ladakh and the Muslim Ladakh. In the west the structures, people's appearance and dress are Islamic. In the east, all Tibetan and Buddhist. Here the womenfolk can be seen interacting with unrelated men and doing outdoor business rather than confining to the homes like in the west.

     There are various monastic and other religious festivals in the Buddhist areas, mainly in the winter. During summer archery and polo are played. Open air parties and dance are held alongside. The local brew, chang, is consumed on a large scale. Since the 10th century, till the 19th century when Gulab Singh of neighbouring Jammu annexed it, Ladakh had been an independent kingdom. The Ladakhi dynasties had a Tibetan lineage. Being at the centre of a network of ancient trade routes, Ladakh had been in touch with the outside world, irrespective of it being thrown into the mountain folds.

     There are just two routes that connect Ladakh with the rest of India. One from Srinagar (434 km) and the other from Manali (475 km). The Srinagar route is less rugged. It passes through Zoji-la, the gateway to Ladakh, Kargil, the ridges and valleys of Zanskar range, Mulbekh where the population changes from Muslim to Buddhist, Namika-la pass, Fotu-la pass, ancient Lamayuru monastery, Indus at Khalaste in a descent, Upshi, where the road from Mohali joins. This is the heart of Ladakh. Ruins of forts and palaces can be seen. Spituk, a gompa, is seen away. On the end is Leh, where the big seven-storey palace is visible. On Manali route, one can have breaks at Rumtse or Sarchu.

Leh: At a height of 11000 feet, on the banks of the Indus, Leh, a central town, was Ladakh's capital once upon a time. It is accessible only by air half the year. From Leh one can visit the monasteries dotting the terrain from Lamayuru in the west to Hemis in the east. Trekking, boating and river running can be undertaken from here.

Indus river: It enters India from Tibet at Demchok. According to mythology, it sprouts from the mouth of a lion at Mt Kailash. It is also called Sengge-Chhu. Sengge-Sinh-in Sanskrit means lion and Chhu in Tibetan means river. Its main tributaries are Zanskar, Shingo and Shyok.

Lakes: Pengong Tso, 150 km long and 4 km wide is at an altitude of 1400 feet. The water is brackish. Lakes in Ladakh have a peculiarity: They have at the bottom large mineral deposits. Tso Moriri, Tso Kar, Yaye Tso, Kiun Tso and Amtitla are the other lakes.

How to reach: By road it takes two days to reach Leh from Srinagar via Kargil. The distance is 434 km. The journey through the mountains of tremendous heights is a unique experience in a jeep or car. By air it takes half an hour. At Zoji-la pass, 11500 feet, one enters Ladakh from Kashmir. The air is colder and the oxygen in it insufficient. Down, again back to greenery. At Dras temp drops to minus 50 deg C in winter. Life paralyses. Via Dras river, Kaksar, Kargil through rocks and boulders. Kargil is half way. At 9000 ft, on Suru, it has farming and food, unlike other parts in Ladakh. Kargil looks an old town with a junction of historic routes. There are roads going to Afghanistan and Tibet too. One can start from here for Jammu, Himachal, Indus valley and Zanskar. After Suru valley one reaches Pensi La. This pass is open from July to October. From here the journey takes one straight to Padum in Zanskar. In Zanskar one may see Karsha and Zangla. Going by the rope suspension bridge in Zangla is very exciting. Phugtal and Zongkhul are two famous cave monasteries in Zanskar. Western Ladakh areas of Sanku, Panikhar and Parkachik can be visited from Padum. Trekking can be undertaken to Lamayuru and Hemis. Cross Suru and go to Indus valley at Khalsi. The road along Indus takes to Leh. There are regular flights from Delhi, Chandigarh and Srinagar. Bus service is restricted to Jun to Oct: Srinagar-Leh and Manali-Leh.

Local Transport: People live around river valleys. They travel to other places on yak, pony, sheep and the Bactrian two-humped camel.

Agriculture and Economy: The source of water is the melting snow. Barley, apricot, mulberry, walnut and grapes are grown. Willow and poplar are the commonly seen trees. They yield fodder, timber and fuel. Livestock is the backbone of Ladakh's economy. Yak yields milk, meat and hair. The eastern goat has long, fine fleece, pashm - from which the famous pashmina shawls are made. Ladakh does not produce much. It has been dependent on imported stuff for all requirements since time immemorial. It had commercial contacts with Tibet, Himachal, Kashmir, Central Asia and Sinkiang. Pashm, apricot etc used to be exchanged.

What to Buy: Carpets, paintings, woodcrafts, metal crafts and precious stones.

Wildlife: Snow leopard, kyang (wild horse) and musk deer can be spotted in Ladakh.

People & Clothing: Different strains like Mons, Dards, Tibetans and Baltis have almost merged and constitute the physiognomy of Ladakhis. The Ladakhis are simple, hardy and cheerful. Goncha is the popular Ladakhi dress. It's a thick woollen cloth with a cummerbund at the waist. Pyjamas and hats are also worn. Buddhists wear red clothes. During daytime in summer light cottons are worn, and woollen during morning and evening and while trekking.

Recreation: Music, dancing and drinking at social gatherings are the popular forms of entertainment. Archery is a regular event. Polo is as exciting game.

Religion: Central and eastern Ladakh is mostly Buddhist while western Ladakh is mainly Shia Muslim. In the structures in the west there is clear evidence of the influence of the Saracenic and Iranian architectural and cultural influence. Gompas or monasteries are the landmarks of the east. Gompas are places of worship, meditation and instruction. Lamayuru is the oldest monastery in Ladakh. Hamis is known for its annual summer festival. Thikse is large and architecturally exquisite. Others are Spituk, Phyang, Shey, Chemrey, Matho, where the festival of oracles in every March draws all Buddhists, Stok, Basgo, Likir, Tak-Thog etc.

Festivals: Spituk Gustor - 2, 3 Jan; Leh Dosmochey 2, 3 March; Stok Guru Tsechu -13, 14 March; Math Nagrang - 17, 18 March; Hemis Tsechu 9, 10 July; Yuru Kapgyat 16, 17 July; Fiang Tseruk - 31 July, 1 Aug; Dakthok Tsechu 8, 9 Aug; Thiksay Gustor 13, 14 Nov; Chemrey Wangchok 22, 23 Nov.

Trekking & Rafting: Trekking and climbing gear are available at Kargil and Leh. There are tourist offices at Dras and Padum also. There are also wireless communication centres. Season for rafting is June to Sept, on the safe stretches of Indus. The main trekking routes are: Kargil-Padum-Lamayuru, Leh-Lamayuru-Saspol, and Pahalgam-Panikhar-Kargil.

Registration & Regulations: Foreigners travelling by road must get themselves registered at Dras and Upshi and those by air at Leh. For climbing a separate permission is required from the Indian Mountaineering Federation.

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