Ladakh - Land of High Passes


Ladakh ("land of high passes") is a region in Jammu and Kashmir that currently extends from the Kunlun mountain rangeto the main Great Himalayas to the south, inhabited by people of Indo-Aryanand Tibetan descent. It is one of the most sparsely populated regions in Jammu and Kashmir and its culture and history are closely related to that of Tibet. Ladakh is renowned for its remote mountain beauty and culture. Ladakh is a region in Jammu and Kashmir that currently extends from the Kuen Lun mountain range to the main Great Himalayas to the south, inhabited by people of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent.

Historically, the region included the Baltistan (Baltiyul) valleys, the entire upper Indus Valley, the remote Zanskar, Lahaul and Spiti to the south, much of Ngari including the Rudok region and Guge in the east, Aksai Chin in the northeast (extending to the Kun Lun Mountains), and the Nubra Valley to the north over Khardong La in the Ladakh Range. Contemporary Ladakh borders Tibet to the east, the Lahaul and Spiti regions to the south, the Vale of Kashmir, Jammu and Baltiyul regions to the west, and the southwest corner of Xinjiang across the Karakoram Pass in the far north. Ladakh is renowned for its remote mountain beauty and culture.

Ladakh is a high altitude cold desert with a low level of atmospheric oxygen. It is, therefore, absolutely necessary that visitors reaching Leh from the plains by air, give themselves sufficient time for acclimatization before engaging in any physical activity. The rarefied atmosphere may cause high altitude ailments like Acute Mountain Sickness, necessitating instant evacuation of visitors who are unable to get acclimatized. Anyone travelling to altitudes above 10,000 ft (2,700 m) is liable to suffer from acute mountain sickness (AMS) unless properly acclimatized. The most common symptoms of acute mountain sickness are headache, disturbed sleep and loss of appetite, nausea, coughing, irregular breathing, breathlessness, lassitude and lack of concentration. If you are reaching Leh by air, it is important to take complete rest for the first 24 hours after arrival. Any kind of physical exertion is to be avoided. Smoking and drinking should also be avoided till you are fully acclimatized. The symptoms of acute mountain sickness generally develop during the first 36 hours, and not immediately upon arrival. Your body should get used to the lower oxygen level of Ladakh after 2 or 3 days if you have taken complete rest for the first 24 hours and as much rest as possible during the next 12 hours.

Sightseeing of the historic monuments and major Buddhist gompas (monasteries) are the main attractions of Ladakh. The Indus Valley, particularly from Upshi down to Khalatse, which is the region's historic heartland, is dotted with all the major sites connected. The important sites of Leh include: Stock Palace, Shey Palace- Monastery. Other famous monasteries include: Thiksey, Hemis, Chemday, Takthok, Spituk, Phyang, Likhir, Alchi, Rizong, Lamayuru.

Leh Palace known as “Lechen Palkhar" was build by Dharmaraja Singey Namgyal in 1600 AD. It has 9 storeys and history says that its completion took three years. In the Leh valley, there is Samkar Monastery which was founded by Skyabrje Bakula Rinpoche. In the center of Leh City is the new monastery called “Chowkhang”. The Ladakh Buddhist Association found it in 1957 AD. Inside there is a sacred image of the Buddha Shakya Muni that was brought from Tibet.


Leh Tourist Attractions:

1) Hemis Monastery: Hemis Monastery is the most popular monastery and tourist attraction in Ladakh. Situated some 45 kms from Leh City, Hemis is tucked on a mountain on the west bank of the serene River Indus. The monastery belongs to Dugpa Kargyutpa order or Red Sect of Buddhism and is said to be enriched with a large number of Thangkas or paintings, which are exhibited during one of the famous festivals in Ladakh, Hemis Festival. During the Hemis Tsechu held in the year of the Monkey of the Tibetan Calendar, one can see the sacred applique work along with tapestry wrought with pearls depicting the image of Guru Padmasambhava. The best time to visit Hemis is during the two-day Hemis Festival, which is held annually in the month of June or July. One can see the famed Cham Dance during the festival and the display of age old Thangkas.

2) Alchi Monastery: In the lower segment of Ladakh nestles the Alchi, a beautiful village comprising monuments dating to periods. Of these monuments, Alchi monastery is the oldest and witnesses a good footfall. As per the facts, the monastery was built somewhere between 958 and 1055 AD by the Guru Rinchen Zangpo. However, the preserved monuments within the monastery tells a different story. They ascribe it to a Tibetan noble called Kal-dan Shes-rab later in the 11th century. The major buildings of the monastery are Dukhang or Assembly Hall, Main Temple (gTsug-lag-khang), Manjushri Temple ('Jam-dpal lHa-khang), and Chortens. Additionally, the temple also has two other important temples -'Lotsabha Lakhang' and 'Lakhang Soma'. The best time to plan a visit to the Alchi monastery will be during the festival celebration like Chotrul Duchen, Dajyur, Galdan Namchot, Losar, Monlam and Sho Dun.

3) General Zorawar Fort: Majestically, this fort sits with pride at the edge of the mountain range overlooking the Leh city. General Zorawar Fort is a must visit attraction when you visit the city. Its impressive structure is made from a local type of clay, sun-dried bricks, stones and wooden frames around the edges. This fort was home to the "Conqueror of Ladakh" late Zorawar Singh Kahluria who consistently struggled against the Chinese Rulers. And even now this major tourist attraction gleams with pride and it is declared as one of the national monuments in the country by Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958.

4) Matho Monastery: The lesser known Matho Monastery is situated at a distance of some 26 kms from Leh City. Matho Monastery of Matho Gonpa or Mangtro Monastery or Mangtro Gonpa, derived its name from the two Tibetan words, ‘Mang’ that means many and ‘Tro’ which means happiness. This monastery in Leh is believed to have been established during the 16th century by Lama Dugpa Dorje, alongside the Indus River and said to be amongst the two monasteries that belong to Sakya or Sakyapa Sect of Tibetan Buddhism in Ladakh. The monastery is situated at the mouth of a deep gorge running out of the Zanskar Range and across the Indus River. Being away from the main road has kept this monastery lesser visited by the tourists, however, it holds great religious importance for the Buddhist and is amongst the most important places for pilgrimage in Ladakh.

5) Spituk Monastery: Overlooking the immensely beautiful and pristine Indus, Spituk Monastery was founded by Od-de, the elder brother of Lha Lama Changchub Od during his visit to Maryul in the 11th Century. Rinchen Zangpo, a translator, was the one who gave the name to the monastery. In the initial face, the gompa used to run on the principals of the Kadampa school (Red Hat sect) but it later came into the fold of Gelugpa order (Yellow Hat sect). The monastery currently is home to about 100 monks.The most iconic feature of the monastery are the icons of Buddha and 5 thangkas sharing space with sculptures and miniature chortens. Unmissable part of the monastery are the collection of ancient masks, antique arms, and fine thangkas. The monastery is quite old but it was recently restored with a series of tiers, courtyards, and steps. The upper section of the monastery is Mahakal Temple, containing the statue of Vajrabhairava, which most of the time remains covered and is unveiled only during the festival.

6) Pangong Tso Lake: Pangong Lake is Ladakh’s most important tourist attraction. This azure stretch of endorheic lake is situated at a dizzying height of 4350 meter and looks as if it is piece of heaven that fell on earth. Surrounded by barren mountains, this lake is probably one of the most beautiful lakes in Ladakh. Pangong is a transboundary lake that is expanded between India and China for almost 134 kms. It is one of the largest brackish water lake in the world. The vistas of the lake are so stunning that several Bollywood movies have been shot here. One thing that attracts tourists here is the way the brackish water reacts when the sunlight falls resulting in different shades of water. This gorgeous lake is the breeding ground for many migratory birds like Bar-headed goose and Brahmini Duck.

Zanskar Tourist Attractions:

1) Nimu: Nimu or Nimmu is a small village situated some 45 kms from Leh in the South East part of Ladakh. It is a popular tourist attraction as one can see the picturesque confluence of River Indus and Zanskar. Also, Nimu is known as the starting point of the famed All India Rafting Expedition that takes place on River Indus. This must visit also houses a heritage hotel called, Nimu House that is ideal for luxury and nature seekers.

2) Stongday Monastery: Stongday Monastery is the second largest and the oldest monasteries in the Zanskar region. Its beauty captivates the beholder with sprawling whitewashed complex soaring above the Rocky Mountains. This 11th-century old monastery is a must visit attraction located about 20 kilometres away from Padum. It displays several artistic works in the seven temples inside the monastery. Amongst the temples Tshogs-khang is beautifully decorated with exquisite paintings of the deities, the paintings are made with a black background which are outlined with gold. Stongday is also a home to over 60 Gelukpa monks. Famous for its wealth of Buddhist relics, the monastery showcases it to the visitors to admire. The auspicious time to visit this popular tourist attraction is during the Gustor Festival which is held on the 28th - 29th day of every eleventh month of the Tibetan calendar in Stongdey monastery.

3) Panikhar: The ever so scenic Panikhar is part of the equally stunning Suru Valley. At a distance of 75 kms from Kargil, this beautiful destination is an ideal halt for tourists visiting Padum and other places in Zanskar. The place is also said to be the most beautiful inhabited areas in the Trans-Himalayan region and refreshing stopover on the route to Padum. From the nearby Parkachik La one can enjoy the panoramic view of the the glacier and that of the mighty Nun-Kun mountains. Further, Panikhar is a hub for the trekkers as it is a major point for number of trekking routes including the Lonvilad Gali Pahalgam Trail.

4) Zongkhul Monastery: Zanskar is full of surprises. In its list of attractions, the most stunning yet thought provoking has to be the Zongkhul Gompa located just before the trails that ascend to the Omasi-la pass. The monastery belongs to the belongs to the Drukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Constructed like a nest clinging on the hill, the monastery is associated with the famous Indian Yogi, Naropa. According to the legends, Naropaus used to meditate here between two caves around which the monastery is built. The footprint near the ingress of the lower is believed to be of the yogi. Along with architecture, walls are the most stunning feature of the monastery. Thangkas and paintings within the monastery are unique too.

Nubra Valley Tourist Attractions:

1) Yarab Tso Lake: Tucked away in the Nubra Valley, Yarab Tso is Ladakh’s best kept secret. This pretty lake is situated some 15 kms from Diskit Region and is believed as a sacred place in Ladakh. It is a high altitude lake that is hidden in the Sumur Village and can only be reached by trekking. Though it is possible to reach this holy lake by foot from Panamik Village, tourists are asked not to wash or swim in the water of this lake. Yarab Tso is highly revered by the locals and one can also see the colourful flags fluttering around its crystal clear water.

2) Samstanling Monastery: The picturesque village Sumur in Nubra valley region is a charming little gem of Ladakh. Calm and peaceful is what this village is all about and giving it an added beauty is the Samstanling Monastery. Set amidst scenic mountains and greens Samstanling is a popular monastery which showcases the traditional touch with shades of gold, red and white. This must visit attraction is approximately 120 kilometres from Leh and a 45 minutes trek from Sumur village. A blissful tourist interest place is dotted with trees blushed in red and yellow shades, colourful prayer flags, grey and golden mountains and clear blue sky. Inside this famous place lives around 50 monks who daily govern the monastery giving it blessings with morning prayers. The monastery has an intrinsic design of two assembly halls and both have the murals and paintings of Buddha and other aspects of Buddhism.

3) Maitreya Buddha: The impressive 32 meter tall statue of Maitreya Buddha is visible from a distance as soon as one enters the Diskit Region. Perched atop a hillock, facing the Shyok River towards Pakistan and complementing the surroundings, Maitreya Budhha was constructed in 2006 keeping in mind three objectives - protection of Diskit Village, prevention of further war with Pakistan, and to promote world peace. The statue was inaugurated by H.H Dalai Lama in 2010. The imposing and colourful image, also known as Jampa is mounted on a large hall that has a preserved a huge drum and a collection of statues and Buddhist literature. One can see statues of Shakyamuni Buddha and Guru Rimpoche inside the hall.

4) Khardung La Pass: The gateway to the Shyok and Nubra valleys Khardung La Pass is the topmost motorable pass in the world according to BRO (Border Road Organization). This pleasurable and famous 'La' which means pass in Tibetan is one of the most visited landmarks. And only the die-hard ventures can motor the roads in the midst of dramatic landscapes and unspoiled beauty of Ladakh. This pass promises an escape from the regular destinations and it provides a splendour sites for the naked eye. Khardung La (pass) is located on the Ladakh range about 40 kilometres from Leh surrounded by rocks and snow sitting at an altitude of 5,359 metres. It is undyingly a popular place to visit during your adventure tours. It will provide an immense picturesque scenario of the valleys. Besides, how can one not admire the colourful prayer flags that simply add an added charm in your highway to glory.

Strategically 'Khardung La' is an important pass in Leh, Ladakh and it is historically important as well. Since this pass lies on a major caravan route from Leh to Kashgar, it has seen thousands of Bactrian camels climbing up and down the hills during World War II. It was during this time there were attempts to transfer war material to China through this route. However, today you can still see a number of camels at Hunder which are located in the northern part of the pass.