In a land of mountains and monasteries, Leh offers Andrew Bain a fresh look at an ancient world.
At a glance, the city of Leh seems a long way from India. Desert mountains frame its outskirts, and Islamabad and Tajikistan are nearer than Delhi or Mumbai. Step from a plane and it isn't noise, pollution or touts that greet you, it's the shock of altitude.
Tucked into a side gorge of the Indus Valley, Leh sits on the Tibetan plateau, 3500 metres above sea level. Chortens and mani walls furnish the landscape, and Buddhist monasteries balance atop razorback ridges. The people look Tibetan, and the food tastes Tibetan. It's a small piece of Tibet, without the need to leave India.
In three journeys to India, I've found Leh to be its most likeable city, a place where roads, mountains, cultures and religions meet. Look down from the old palace on the mountain ridge that looms above the city, and the architecture reflects the diversity, with the golden pagodas of the Buddhist monastery and the minarets of the Jama Masjid mosque standing together as twin-city centrepieces.
First, however, you must climb to the mountain ridge, which at this altitude isn't necessarily easy. At this height, there's only 64 per cent of the oxygen you get beside the ocean. Every movement is an effort, with the scarcity of oxygen seeming to deflate your lungs and clamp at your temples. Step off a plane direct from Delhi and this short walk can be like an Everest expedition.
By the time I climb the ridge, I've been at these altitudes for a few days, but still it's a struggle, zig-zagging above the city to the ruined palace as the morning call to prayer sounds across the city.
Modelled on Lhasa's Potala Palace, Leh's now-disused 16th-century palace is the same bare-rock colour as the ridge, so it looks like a geometric extension of the land. Inside, as it's being renovated over a course of years, it's a dark, unlit, empty warren of rooms and corridors. Narrow, vertiginous balconies provide views over the city worthy of royalty. From the palace, trails climb on to the even more breathless tip of the ridge, where prayer flags snap in the wind, sending their prayers out over the rooftops of Leh.
Almost buried within the prayer flags are Tsemo Monastery and a disused fort, commanding the finest views of Leh. Opened to tourism only since 1974, Leh is a blend of contemporary and the conventional. Traditional dress - berry-coloured Ladakhi jackets - is still commonly seen, but so too are monks in flash runners and Gore-Tex jackets. Menus that once contained only Tibetan barley and wheat staples such as thukpas and momos, now have the likes of pizza, baked beans and chips.
Off the palace ridge, there are places around Leh where the heights are primarily spiritual ones. The Indus Valley abounds with monasteries clinging to the rocky tips of ridges and spurs. Few are set more dramatically than Thiksey Monastery, which spills down like a cascade from a spur of razorback rock.
Thiksey is about a 30-minute drive from Leh, and I leave the city in the pre-dawn, setting out to witness the monastery's morning puja (worship).
When I arrive, the sound of trumpets is echoing through the valley, calling the monks to the prayer hall. Old men shuffle into the hall, small boys dashing around them, performing their tasks. I sit against a wall inside the hall, and for an hour I'm surrounded by the melody of chants and the smell of butter tea. Eventually I wander away, into the chilly morning air and into a side hall, where a two-storey-high golden Buddha stares out over the valley.
On the other side of Leh, one enormous high remains. Forty kilometres north of the city is Khardung La, a mountain pass spruiked as the "highest motorable road in the world", sitting a disputed 5602 metres above sea level (GPS surveys suggest it may be as low as 5359 metres).
The road to the pass is rough and unsealed most of the way, cutting stripes across the barren slopes. The pass is visible ahead almost the entire way, notched between towers of rock that stand like totem poles. It's a slow, grinding journey and, after climbing two vertical kilometres, the road finally crests the Ladakh Range, arriving at an altitude most people will never exceed.
Atop the pass, Buddhist chants play out from among a forest of prayer flags. A small glacier seems almost within arm's reach, and the snow-tipped peaks of the Karakoram Range - home to the world's second-highest mountain, K2 - in Pakistan stretch across the horizon.
Though the pass stands above most of the world, it is not above hyperbole. Among the buildings at the roadside are the self-proclaimed highest cafeteria in the world, and the world's highest souvenir shop.
Cross the road and a sign declares it's "not allowed to sacrifice any kinds of animals in the area" of the pass. The very thought of it would make my head ache, if it wasn't already gripped by altitude pains.
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Exodus Travels.
GREENING THE DESERT
For a city so brown, Leh has a surprisingly green footprint, led by an equally surprising force: the Women's Alliance of Ladakh.
Established in 1991 to promote "development in harmony with the ethical and spiritual values on which our culture is based", this union of local women fights against what it calls "a process of rapid and often traumatic integration into an increasingly global and aggressive economy". It's no token institution, with Ladakhi women traditionally holding a higher position in society than in many other cultures.
In 1998, long before Western cities began such schemes, the Women's Alliance banned the use of plastic bags throughout Leh. After years of encouraging local businesses to sell pressure-boiled water (about half the cost of a bottle of water), it has recently led a push towards prohibiting the sale of plastic water bottles.
The alliance — with a cafe and craft store — can be found in a small whitewashed building on Sankar Road, north of the city centre. Pressure-boiled drinking water can be bought at Dzomsa, a laundry and store on Old Fort Road.
Getting there Singapore Airlines has a fare to Delhi from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1203 low-season return, including taxes. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr) and then to Delhi (5hr, 35min). Jet Airways operates 80-minute flights from Delhi to Leh beginning about $125 one-way. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to six months.
Touring there Exodus Travels operates several trips into Leh, including the 16-day A Himalayan Journey ($1925), the 22-day Grand Traverse of the Indian Himalaya ($2730), and the 17-day Manali to Leh Ride ($2280). See exodus.co.uk/au, or phone 1300 131 564.
When to travel Winters are fierce in Ladakh, with roads (including Khardung La) open from about June to September.
More information tourismladakh.com.