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Trek Ladakh
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Ladakh general description

Ladakh land perched high on the Tibetan plateau is of striking beauty. This high desert studded with oasis contains populations, predominantly Buddhist, which are renowned for their friendliness and kindness; and offer a multitude of ‘out of this world’ trekking. Find here everything you need to know to understand and know Ladakh- The Land of Endless Discovery.

 

Geography

Ladakh

Ladakh is the largest district in the Indian state of Jammu-Kashmir, located in the eastern part and occupies more than half of the area. It is one of the least populated districts of India. Sometimes called Little Tibet, it is famous for its mountain scenery and its Tibetan Buddhist culture. Its capital is the city of Leh.

The Indus and its tributaries irrigate the many lush oases. Ladakh is a district of India, with the highest altitude and the majority of its territory exceeds 3000 m. nombreuses oasis verdoyantes. Le Ladakh est le district de l'Inde le plus élevé en altitude avec une majorité de son territoire qui dépasse les 3000m.

Ladakh-Zanskar comprises several regions :

  • Leh and its surroundings, which constitutes the political and cultural centre of Ladakh and houses many of the most famous monasteries.
  • Purig or lower Ladakh. The landscape in more wild and the valleys are at lower altitudes, so it makes more faming possible, espcecially apricot cultivation.
  • Kargil boasts of a population that is predominantly Muslim, heralding the presence of Kashmir which is located very close to it.
  • The Nubra is made up of Shyok and Nubra. It is reached by the highest motorable pass in the world, the Khardung La (5 600m). The average altitude is lower than in other valleys of Ladakh, so cultures are therefore more abundant and diverse. The Nubra is a branch of the famous Silk Road as witnessed by a few old Chinese Turkestan families and their Bactrian camels.
  • Changtang, is a region of high desert situated near the Tibetan border. The average altitude is 4000 meters, so does not allow for the cultivation of crops. The inhabitants are mostly nomads, called Champas, with their herds of goats, sheep, yaks and dzos (a cross between a yak and a cow). They sell the wool from their goats: Pashmina Wool (warm, soft and expensive!). This is the regions of the lakes (Tso Moriri, Tso Kar...).
  • Zanskar is situated South of the Indus Valley and Kashmir. For the last few years, one can reach there only by car through a track which starts from Khaltse, except in winter. During this season, a very unique way to reach there is opened for just a few weeks, on the frozen Zanskar river (which is called Chadar) and allows passage to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. A road construction project is underway in these highly deep and narrow gorges, but its deadline keeps getting postponed owing to a number of technical and geological issues.

Ladakh Society

Ladakh

‘Jule! Jule!’ That’s how the Ladakhis welcome visitors, with a smile. This vast area of Buddhist culture, with its high dry and desolate landscapes, is an extension of Tibet, geographically as well as culturally. Ladakhi is a traditional Tibetan language form. The second language is Ourdu (close to Hindi), spoken by Muslims. The most important religious community are the Buddhists.

The traditional Ladakhi culture is characterised by a great serenity. The Ladakhis contrast with the harshness and the difficulties of daily life; courage, persistence and a good mood make them sympathetic.

The Ladakhis are mainly sedentary. Farmers and craftsmen live in an oasis, along which torrents coming down from the glacier irrigate their barley, lucerne and wheat fields. They build their houses with mud bricks, hammer the wood with metal and spin and weave woollen dresses. Even if they adandoned their full-time nomadic life, they still have a nomadic spirit at heart and do not hesitate to cover great distances to attend festivals in monasteries or to trade for a few months in a year.

The nomads or ‘champas’, shepherds and caravaneers, cover high plateaux steps to look for mountain pastures for their herds (yaks, sheep and goats) and to deal. They’re the only inhabitants of Rupshu. These Ladakhi wonderers have almost no belongings, except from their herds and they get their money from selling wool. They go down to the low valleys to look for cereals, materials, spices, sugar. In exchange, they bring salt, butter, cheese, meat, and of course some of their animals’ wool. The down gathered from the long hair of their sheep, called Pashmina, is brought down to the Kashmir valley, where it is amazingly weaved and then sold expensively in the West.

The inhabitants of these high lands don’t have an easy life: the work is hard and intense during the four months of summer and the winter is harsh and long.

As all the Tibetan societies, the Ladakhi society is four-party, which means composed of a four strata society :

  • Royal strata
  • Aristocratic strata
  • Ordinary people strata: most of the population, composed of farmers, breeders, craftsmen and the laic religious specialists strata: astrologers, mediums, healing doctors
  • Blacksmith and musician strata

These strata practice endogamy (to marry inside the same strata) and many bans concern the lower strata in the hierarchy, which are related to food, sexual relations, and place of living.

Polyandry (wedding of a woman with many brothers) is a traditional wedding method in the Tibetan world, in order to avoid division of the family land, although now it is practiced much less and less. Concerning the monastic community, the hierarchy criterions are not founded on heredity, according to the social strata system, but on «merit». The monks depend on the monasteries where they received their religious education, took their vows and were ordained priests.

In spite of the pre-eminence of the monk from a religious point of view, he’s not the only specialist to exert the Ladakhis villages count in their population; some laic astrologers, healing doctors (Amchi) and mediums.

Buddhism in Ladakh

Ladakh

Buddhism was introduced to Ladakh via Kashmir in the early Christian era, but only reached the elite. It was not until the 10th century that Tibetan Buddhism, Lamaism, boomed and became widely distributed in all strata of society with the support of local rulers. Since then, Lamaism, which emphasizes the role of the spiritual master – the lama – is firmly established with many monasteries and now has a population of around 2000 members (3.5% of the Buddhist population).

The Lamaist church, an essential part of the Ladakhi society, maintains close links with the laic community, and it is the basis of recruitment and provides material support (donations).

The originality of Lamaism is mainly because of the appropriation of the magical beliefs and practices of the ancient Tibetan world.

Many elements of the ritual and symbolic Bon (the ancestral religion of Tibet) have been assimilated in Lamaism, which explains the ferocious look of the many gods, originally demons of the Bon religion, and which are specific to Tibetan pantheon.

MONASTERIES

Lamaism includes four great schools: Kagyupa, Sakyapa, Nyingmapa (Red Hats), and Gelukpa (Yellow Hats). In Ladakh, most of the monasteries belong to Nyingmapa and Gelukpa associations (directed by the Dalai Lama). There is no competition or antagonistic spirit between these orders.

The monasteries are called ‘gompas’. Frequently built next to a village, their height position shows the distance that separate them from the villagers world with which they maintain close and daily relationships.

Every great monastery includes a Dhukhang (meeting room), a Lhakhang, ‘House of God, choir room reserved for the main divinity, and habitation cells. The Dhukhang is the biggest room, furnished with pillows and low tables where the monks sit during the prayers and ceremonies. In the small monasteries, there is only one room which serves as a meeting room and a choir room.

Most of the time, at the entry there is an iconograpic represention of the Wheel of Life and inside it, a Buddha statue surrounded by disciples and guards. Monks and believers gather together during big festivals of the Lamaic calendar.

Monasteries in the Indus Valley

Royal palace of Leh and Namgyal Tsemo: the remains of a magnificent palace still dominates the city of Leh, capital of Ladakh. Built in the 17th century, at the time when the king was reigning over all of western Tibet, the Palace is a miniature replica of the famous Potala Palace of Lhasa (Tibet).

Namgyal Tsemo monastery, built at the beginning of the 16th century, is located above Leh Palace. Unbelievable view of Leh and the Indus valley.

Stok (10 Km from Leh): this small village on the left bank of the Indus became the residence of the royal family almost two centuries ago. The palace shelters a small museum where we can admire old tangkas, ceremonial clothes and objects belonging to the royal family.

Shey (15 Km from Leh): this palace was the ancient capital of Leh until the 15th century.

Tikse (20 Km from Leh): this fantastic architectural ensemble of the Gelukpa order, was built in the 15th century. It covers from the top to the bottom of a hill halfway between Leh and Hemis. A hundred monks live there.

Matho (30 Km from Leh): built on a hill, it is the only Ladakhi monastery of the Sakyapa order. From the Gompa the view over the valley is unbelievable.

Hemis (43 Km from Leh): located in a lateral valley on the left river bank of the Indus, Hemis is now the biggest monastery in Ladakh with 500 monks. Founded in 1602 by a monk of the Kagyupa order.

Spituk (7 Km from Leh): dominating the Indus, the Gelukpa Gompa was built in the 15e century and offers a wide view over the valley.

Phyang (17 Km from Leh): founded in 1530, the Kagyupa monastery, is affiliated to Lamayuru and is home to three temples.

Alchi (88 Km from Leh): the oldest monastery in Ladakh (11th century) and it represents at the iconographic level, the most interesting parts of the region. The paintings belong to the tradition of Kashmiri artists.

Likir (58 Km from Leh): this Gelukpa monastery has been well preserved since being built in 1065. The superior is a young brother of the Dalai Lama. A hundred monks live there.

Rizong: the ‘mountain fortress’. This Gelukpa monastery perched on a fantastic site is the most recent one of Ladakh, and was built there a little more than a century ago.

Lamayuru: is one of the most ancient ladakhi monasteries (10th century). It offers extraordinary views of the Indus valley and the mountain chain that overhangs it.

Some precautions to be observed when visiting a monastery are :

  • Visitors are asked to remove their shoes before entering an area of prayer
  • Members must be covered
  • Do not disturb the monks who are praying, and always ask permission before taking photographs
  • Do not touch religious objects
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke
  • Avoid talking loudly or disturbing the peaceful atmosphere
  • Most of the monastery entries are free but a small donation is always welcome...
  • In the monastery your course must always be to the left, that is to say, in a clockwise direction
  • Do not step over a person or a religious object
  • Do not place a religious object on the ground

Climate

Ladakh

In Ladakh the seasons are highly pronounced :

  • Winters are extremely harsh, with temperatures reaching -35°C, and complete isolation owing to the snow (both the routes linking Ladakh go through passes located at more than 4000 m altitude).
  • In the summer temperatures are very mixed, from 0°C at night to +35°C in the daytime, and it is extremely dry as the monsoons are obstructed in the south by the Himalayas.
  • The trekking season begins early May (end May for passes above 4500 m) and ends around mid November (mid October for the passes).
  • Two exceptions however, the Chadar: this is the Zanskar river when it becomes frozen. The frozen river is open for treks for around one month when winter is at its coldest (January, February). The Sham Valley also allows for winter walks.

Food

Ladakh

Tibetan food is mainly vegetarian. The major specialties are :

  • Momo : steamed or fried dumplings.
  • Chang : local beer from barley.
  • Goor goor : Tibetan salted butter tea.
  • Chai : tea made of water, milk and spices.
  • Thukpa : noodle and vegetable soup

You can also find a variety of vegetables which is rather surprising in such an arid environment, but the Indus valley is quit fertile.

Shopping

Ladakh

These are among the ‘classic’ purchases that you can take home with you :

  • Prayer wheels and flags, as well as thangkas (Buddhist paintings on fabric) in the Tibetan Market, sold by Tibetan refugees
  • Pashminas shawls- note the different qualities and prices
  • Semi-precious stones and engraved silver
  • Dried apricots, jam and apricot kernel oil

Remember to carry a minimum of cash with you when you arrive in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, because the two ATMs are often unavailable.

Festival

Ladakh

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