By George Morgan-Grenville
As the aircraft descends into the high altitude military airport at Leh, one’s first glimpse of the Himalayan Kingdom of Ladakh is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Situated in the far north of India on an 11,500ft high plateau, Ladakh is often referred to as ‘Little Tibet’ due to its geographical and cultural proximity to Tibet. However, unlike its neighbour it has remained immune from the destructive antics of the Chinese and the Kashmir territorial conflict. Today, Ladakh maintains one of the most intact Tantric Buddhist societies left on earth. Red Savannah CEO, George Morgan-Grenville, explores this awe-inspiring kingdom.
Before embarking on a walking holiday into a remote region of the Himalayas, many people are naturally concerned that it will be tough, the accommodation probably too basic and the food endowed with the kind of spices that ensures one remains in eyeball distance of a bathroom. The reality however, is completely different. Not only is this quite one of the most magnificent, beautiful and unspoilt places in the world, but there are now a series of small, fully staffed private houses across the Indus valley that can be woven into a magical itinerary. Each one has been carefully restored to ensure that the living experience is both authentic and entirely comfortable. The staff are charming, unobtrusive and delightfully accommodating, producing some of the finest meals imaginable. Best of all, each house can only be taken privately (most have two or three bedrooms) and thus the whole experience is exclusive and never shared with other guests.
Our small party started in the village of Nimoo, a 30 minute drive from Leh passing through stunning scenery including the confluence of the mighty Indus and Zanskar rivers. The change in altitude is significant so the first day is spent resting on the roof terrace amidst plentiful cushions set in the shade underneath a large canopy. The golden rule is to drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol for the first 24 hours. In the early evening, we walked into the village accompanied by Mark, the most informative, interesting and charming guide imaginable. Encountering a bunch of old ladies milling corn by hand, it rapidly became clear that in Ladakh, time has more or less stood still and one is privileged to learn about a style of life that no longer exists in the west. Everywhere we went, we met with the cry of ‘Julai’ (the Tibetan word for ‘Hello’) as the local inhabitants went about their business. It seemed as though we had somehow been effortlessly absorbed into Ladakhi society.
Exploring the village, we learnt that Ladakh reached the pinnacle of its power in the mid 17th century under King Sengge Namgyal (translates literally as ‘victorious lion’) when the kingdom stretched from Skardu (now in Pakistan administered Kasmir) to the border of Tibet. Although plundering raids by Muslims from Central Asia had weakened the state in the 16th century, the ‘lion’ king set about restoring its power and influence by rebuilding numerous gompas and shrines, the most famous being the monastery at Hemis. Sadly, under his son, Delegs Namgyal’s rule, the Kingdom crumbled and the King himself was forced to become a Muslim in return for accepting support from the Mughal army.
The next morning we awoke to a hearty breakfast on the lower terrace consisting of cereal, fresh fruit, toast, coffee and poached eggs, before setting off by car to visit Likhir Monastery, established in 1065 and currently inhabited by 120 monks of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. From there we walked down a gentle valley for two and half hours before arriving in an apricot orchard where a sumptuous picnic lunch with delicious vegetarian salads and samosas had been set up by Prabhat and the house staff. Back in the car and onto Alchi monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh and filled with the most fascinating Buddhist wall paintings in the Indo-Himalayan style. Novice monks provided additional entertainment inventing a game which involved hurling a yellow balloon across a small courtyard which juxtaposed magnificently against their red robes……a game that came to an abrupt end when they were chastised by an angry abbot!
On one beautiful morning we drove up the Zanskar valley to the tiny and very beautiful village of Chilling. A visit was made to the blacksmith whose wizened face told a thousand stories. Together with his sons, he has a small forge and uses the clear stream running through the field behind his house to cool and clean his products which mainly consist of copper tea pots and tea spoons, the former being valued by him at the hefty price of $300, thus ensuring that no sales were forthcoming or even likely! From the village it was possible to raft back down the valley on the Grade III waters of the Zanskar river. A changing tent was erected in the road whilst walking clothes were exchanged for wetsuits and splash gear. A more dramatic journey from a scenic point of view would be hard to imagine – 1,000 feet cliffs rising majestically above the roaring river. Those brave enough were afforded an opportunity to transfer out of the raft into kayaks, bringing an extraordinary sense of adrenalin and excitement. On arrival back at the raft base, the ever faithful Prabhat was waiting with hot tea and cocoa before driving us back for a picnic lunch in a shady filed beneath the house.
During the journey to the house at Likhir, one passes the remains of the magnificent fort at Basgo, the ancient capital, made from rammed earth and thought to date from 1357. Here in the 1680’s the Ladakhi army held out for three years against Mongol invaders, until relieved by 600,000 troops sent by the Nawab of Kashmir. The house itself is beautifully positioned at an altitude of 3,800m at the head of the valley overlooking Likhir Monastery, its dramatic golden Buddha reflecting the evening sun against the snow-capped mountains beyond. The nights tend to be cold at this altitude and thus the rooms are all heated with log fires.
Over the course of the week we found ourselves trying to make sense of the Buddhist culture whilst simultaneously trying to master the art of walking or a riding a mountain bike at high altitude. Whilst it would be fair to say that the intellectual side was probably not grasped in its entirety, the solution to mountain biking was to have them delivered outside the highest monasteries thus ensuring an entirely downhill ride. One marvellous moment was having climbed up to a 15,500ft pass and planted our prayer flags on the top, Mark’s mobile phone rang informing him that we had been granted an audience with the King (although Ladakh is now part of India, the royal family still exist and live in the palace at Stok), a situation which necessitated abandoning any thought of a lazy climb back down and had us descending at running pace.
Morning prayers at Thiksey, the delightful houses at Likhir and Shey, magnificent scenery, delicious food, mountain top monasteries and a stunning melange of walking and sightseeing mean that a journey across Ladakh has no equal. Every day is flexible and can be tailored to each client’s needs and thus for both individuals and families, it is a perfect walking holiday. Most importantly, it is also tangibly restorative and for anyone suffering overwork or stress, it is simply the perfect antidote. So forget spas and go on a walking holiday in Ladakh…..we recommend it unequivocally.
If you want to find out more about the Himalayas or India contact Red Savannah's travel specialists on 01242 787800.