Ladakh

Leh

We didn’t realise the significance of Old Town when we booked our guest house from Manali. And even when we walked our first exploratory steps around the crumbling, dilapidated buildings and lanes, we didn’t fully appreciate yet how important this area of Leh was. In fact, it may well have been our last day in Leh, two weeks later, that we came to understand the significance of Old Town, and how this once central point amidst the hustle and bustle of the ancient trans-Himalayan trade routes, needs continued attention and support.

 

Photos by Ben Journee

Old Town with Leh Palace on the ridge above

Old Town with Leh Palace on the ridge above

It would be a fib to say we weren’t a little disappointed with Leh town itself. Our expectations had been high before arriving, and we’d done enough research about Ladakh to recognize a lacking sense of Ladakhi identity within the city of Leh. The homogenising effects of globalisation seemed to fill our vision. 

There was a struggling underbelly of resistance to this though - Women’s Alliance Ladakh for instance, the LAMO centre and the work being done by Tibetan Heritage Fund in recent years. And yet, after two weeks in Leh, we saw that the voice of these organisations were drowned by the, literally, countless pashmina stores and numerous and equally average ‘international’ restaurants. Equally, though somewhat understandably, as Tibetan Buddhism is the religion of Ladakh, the Tibetan Refugee market stalls, which stand every couple of hundred metres around Leh, and Tibetan restaurants, seem to drown out the far smaller and weaker voice of a specific Ladakhi culture, heritage and history. Where are the Ladakhi restaurants? Where are the Ladakhi craft stalls? Where and what is Ladakh?

Mikayla on the path up to Leh Palace

Mikayla on the path up to Leh Palace

Leh Palace is a nine-story stone structure, bearing similarities in style to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, and was built in the 17th century by the Ladakhi King, Sengge Namgyal, who decided to make Leh the capital of his Ladakhi Kingdom.

The palace is open to the public, but exists as little more than a shell. Visitors really need a torch to explore the narrow, dark and dank passages inside the building, as there is no additional lighting to support the little that comes in through the tiny windows. 

Though compelling in its dereliction, the building that physically dominates over the city, impressing us as we arrived, loses its magnitude and sense of strength as one walks through the neglected structure.

 

The quiet and dark passageways inside Leh Palace

The quiet and dark passageways inside Leh Palace

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It seemed at times as though Leh had taken a year off from its tourist trade. All of the temples around Leh Palace were ‘closed for maintenance’ and when we enquired at tourist agencies about where to find information on the culture and history of Leh, we were met with confused looks and a reply of “there’s nothing like that.” 

Tourist agencies only offered trekking, rafting, and shared jeep trips to see the landscape of Ladakh. We didn’t come on this trip to trek, and our budget limited us in terms of day trips to visit the lakes and valleys (and we’d experienced some of the landscape on our journey up to Leh, which you’d miss if you flew in). 

We wanted to see the traditional dance and music performances that were held every night in summer outside the palace, but we were to learn that these were stopped two years ago after audience numbers dropped and someone in the group passed away. We wanted to see the Women’s Alliance Ladakh festival, but only saw one small flier after it had finished. And when we went to their building the following day, we were largely ignored and found the shop all but empty of stock. There were certainly no signs of a bustling festival the day before. 

The lack of internet in Leh didn’t help our situation (as sad as this sounds), as it was only after we left the city that we found where the Central Asian Museum was. We didn’t know it existed, let alone where it was when we were there. No signage, and no promotion, even the extremely helpful guy who worked at our guesthouse never mentioned it. And, it was our last day in Leh that we found the LAMO centre, where there was a brilliant exhibition on Old Town. 

In several ways, I think we didn’t help ourselves in finding what we wanted. There is real irony that the online information about the LAMO centre, the THF (Tibetan Heritage Fund) and even the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh is so rich and accessible, when the internet in Leh itself is so poor. We were lucky to get a dial up speed connection each day, and it cost too much and was such a nuisance that it made it difficult to browse the web to find these resources whilst we were there. There was little on the ground information, and I think that in hindsight (and what we have learnt from our time there) is to be more proactive about finding out what is there, and what is going on. 

Of course, it didn’t help matters that a large proportion of our time in Leh was spent in reasonable discomfort, being unwell on and off the entire time, which was certainly enough to hold us back. We didn’t know the internet was going to be so poor, and therefore we didn’t pre-plan. We didn’t make a list of things to do/things we wanted to do while we were there, and more preplanning (and pre-internet browsing) would have been better. 

However, all this been said, it was not as though our time in Leh was completely wasted with nothing positive to share! Unlike McLeod Ganj, we don’t have a special Altaf, or Meena experience. But we did, for example, get offered a lift by monks back to Leh after our visit to the stunning Thikse monastery. And we do, of course, have our experience at Diskit gompa. We enjoyed our time at Nubra valley, even though most of it was driving. We loved visiting Stok Palace (where the Ladakhi royal family resettled after being dethroned and exiled in 1834) and exploring the museum there. And I so enjoyed buying and eating the sweet, soft apricots off the Ladakhi women who would sit on Main Bazaar and sell their vegetables and fruit. We later saw photos (in the LAMO centre) of Ladakhi women doing the exact same thing in the 70s, as if nothing had changed over the course of that time. We found solace in Lala’s Cafe and, on our final day in Leh, found a freshness and positivity for Leh in the exhibition about Old Town at the LAMO centre.

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The last trans-Karakoram caravan crossed to Leh in 1953. And the days of Leh as a bustling town and centre for the trans-Himalayan trade route, where caravans would arrive and depart, from and to the perilous and demanding mountain passes with their goods, were over.

The Sanskar Labrang monastery owned a house in Old Town, that was used by monks as offices in which to organise the many trade-caravans passing through the town. The house was originally built around five ancient Buddha stone carvings, which remain on the ground floor of the building as a cave-like vestry. In 2006, THF and LOTI (Leh Old Town Initiative), saved the house from demolition, as it was in a state of serious decay much like the rest of Old Town, and converted it into Lala’s, a tiny cafe and exhibition space in the heart of this historical borough.

Outside Lala’s is a large stone Buddha that was found partly buried in the yard of the Tak family, who agreed to have the stone conserved and moved outside Lala’s, only 40m away, which serves as a placemaker for the edge of the historic town. 

 

Lala's Cafe 

Lala's Cafe 

The ancient Buddha sculptures in the basement of Lala's

The ancient Buddha sculptures in the basement of Lala's

The decay that THF and LOTI found at Lala’s is mirrored around the whole of Old Town, where around 200 stone, mud and timber houses are sandwiched between fragments of the once massive rammed earth walls that enclosed the town. 50% of the buildings, many probably as old as Leh Palace that was built in the 17th century, are in poor condition, and many are still inhabited. Old Town has water supply problems, with only five public water taps in the area. And further to this, the area has problems/no real infrastructure for waste water drainage, or sewage. On top of this, the boom in tourism and subsequent commercialisation of Leh, has meant a severe and damaging increase in non-degradable waste, in a city that has little ability to deal with it and a fragile ecosystem. 

The thousands of tourists who come to Leh each year in summer, wanting regular showers and flush toilets adds to the strain on the natural environment. The lack of water supply and sanitation in Old Town has caused some people, those who are able, to leave and abandon their homes. 

As the Tibet Heritage Fund worded, “the former centre of the country has, in effect, become a slum.” Initially, we assumed the majority of Old Town was deserted, based on our assessment of the condition of the buildings, and were a little surprised to learn they are still inhabited. 

Coupled with the poor quality of living conditions for residents of Old Town, there is also an increasing loss of cultural identity and sense of community due to migration and the rapid changes in economy.

View of Leh, with deteriorating structures of Old Town in the foreground

View of Leh, with deteriorating structures of Old Town in the foreground

The streets of Old Town

The streets of Old Town

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For these reasons, it was such a thrill to find the LAMO centre (The Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation), and their exhibition called Mapping Old Town. The exhibition included local community projects, where local residents, including children, shared their experiences of where they live. There was also a collection of historical photographs showing Leh pre-tourism, and exhibitions of contemporary artists’ works, displayed amongst the centuries-old rooms and walls. As well, there were personal collections of traditional Ladakhi ephemera that have been saved by a younger generation of locals, and shared for the exhibition.

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Community art projects at the LAMO centre

Community art projects at the LAMO centre

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The other marvel of the LAMO centre was the building itself, and the magnificent restoration of two large Old Town houses, the Munshi and Gyaoo houses, that are now the best remaining examples of domestic vernacular architecture of the 17th century, in what was once the political, commercial and cultural nerve-centre of Leh. And because of the recent changes in Lhasa, Old Town is now the best preserved area of urban Tibetan architecture in the world.

Most people that lived in Old Town were there by virtue of their affinity to the King - his ministers, secretary, horsemen, tailors, jewellers, musicians and cooks - and their accommodation varied, in both proximity to the palace, size and style, according to their rank. The Munshi house was the residence of the secretary to the King, and the Gyaoo house was residence of the upper rank of artisans who performed for the royals. The two houses have been restored, and physically connected. And the LAMO centre inhabits both places and the interesting web of rooms that once served various purposes.

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There has been an impressive amount of initiatives and steps taken to preserve Old Town. Though it really needs a government-funded plan to develop basic amenities, THF and LOTI have successfully managed smaller projects to restore historical buildings, and rehabilitate one of the main roads in Old Town to model a drainage system of slate stone pathways which slope toward a central channel covered by grates. It was also exciting to see so many buildings around Leh harnessing renewable resources, with water tanks (no doubt a necessity) and solar panels on roof tops. And further, an impressive step was taken by Women’s Alliance Ladakh in getting plastic bags banned in Leh in 1998.

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We think the guide books need some revision with regards to Leh. A little less romanticism, and some serious support and more promotion for LAMO (Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation), Lala’s Cafe, Woman’s Alliance Ladakh and the Central Asian Museum (that we so sadly didn’t know existed until we left). These real, life-changing treasures, we feel, deserve more than the back alley of Leh’s tourism. And perhaps with a boost in promotion, there will be a boost in tourist attention, and these small scale initiatives can thrive. 

The highlights of Leh for us were spending time reading and drinking tea at Lala’s cafe, the awesome exhibition at the LAMO centre, right beneath the impressive structure that is Leh Palace, our trip to Nubra Valley and the special time we spent at Diskit monastery, visiting the museum at Stok Palace, and, finally, the stunning and peaceful Thikse monastery.

 

Thikse Gompa

Thikse Gompa

Thikse is the largest gompa in central Ladakh and bears incredible similarity to the Potala Palace in Lhasa (Tibet) with regards to its style. We jumped on a local bus to get there, which was an experience in itself, with passengers playing musical chairs and seemingly sharing children. We arrived (with the help of our fellow passengers who told us when to get off) and the gompa complex was incredibly still and silent. We chose a route to start the climb up to the temples, and wove our way through a warren of monks’ living quarters. 

Once we got up to the temple, there were a handful of tourists, but we hadn’t seen a single one during our ascent. We realised later that we’d come up an alternative route (because most visitors were dropped off by taxis as part of tour groups). We much preferred our way!

Two novice monks 

Two novice monks 

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The first temple was dark and quiet, with visitors struck silent upon entering. There was barely a butter lamp to illuminate the space. As we were entered the temple, a sand storm rolled up the Indus Valley. And so the temple became a kind of bunker, a temporary sanctuary for a few visitors, with a monk manning the door, holding it closed while the wind and sand howled outside. 

The walls were covered in murals, with surprisingly grotesque imagery, and the little light had a rather eerie and unearthly effect as you circumambulate the sacred space. A narrow space extending from the rear of the temple housed three statues, with a Buddha in the centre, again barely illuminated by the tiny windows.

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 In 1980, a two story high statue of the Maitreya (Future) Buddha was made to commemorate the visit of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, which he consecrated on his visit. It took three years to complete, and is made of clay, gold and copper. And the deity is unusually depicted in the lotus position, compared to the more typical depiction in a standing or sitting posture.

Maitreya Buddha

Maitreya Buddha

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 We adored Thikse. It was the peaceful buddhist sanctuary that we were expecting from Leh and a place I had been dreaming about for several months. The views over the valley from the temple were beautiful, and the cool wind ensured the prayers and mantras on the prayer flags were cast into the world.

View of the Indus Valley from the top of Thikse, with the sandstorm rolling in

View of the Indus Valley from the top of Thikse, with the sandstorm rolling in

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The final story of Leh is yet to be written. We hope that the infrastructure of Old Town is developed to ensure this historical treasure is allowed to survive. And we hope that the history and culture of Ladakh, and Leh, is similarly preserved and promoted. Although there were aspects of the city of Leh that were disappointing for us, we made some special memories during our two weeks on the roof of the world.

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The ladder-like stairs leading to Shanti Stupa

The ladder-like stairs leading to Shanti Stupa

Shanti Stupa, built in 1991 by the Japanese Buddhist, Bhikshu Gyomyo Nakamura

Shanti Stupa, built in 1991 by the Japanese Buddhist, Bhikshu Gyomyo Nakamura

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Soma Gompa behind Main Bazaar in Leh

Soma Gompa behind Main Bazaar in Leh

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Final day of Ramadan on Main Bazaar

Final day of Ramadan on Main Bazaar

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The route to our guesthouse

The route to our guesthouse

A house in Old Town

A house in Old Town

Large prayer wheel near our guest house. We made sure it was kept spinning every time we passed.

Large prayer wheel near our guest house. We made sure it was kept spinning every time we passed.

The walk up to Tsemo Gompa and Fort

The walk up to Tsemo Gompa and Fort

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View of Leh from the top of Tsemo ridge

View of Leh from the top of Tsemo ridge

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Leh Palace by night

Leh Palace by night

The roof tops of Old Town and lights of Leh at night

The roof tops of Old Town and lights of Leh at night

The Milky Way

The Milky Way

Star trails behind Tsemo Gompa

Star trails behind Tsemo Gompa

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Nubra Valley (and some history of Ladakh)

Around fifty million years ago, the Indian-Australian plate broke away from Gondwanaland, drifted north and collided with Eurasia. The Tethys Ocean, which once separated the two landmasses, was pushed up by the plunging Indo-Australian plate, and today is the vast Tibetan Plateau. The ‘roof of the world’ as it is affectionately known, was once an ocean bed. And as the Indo-Australian plate surged upward, with layers of continental crust faulting and folding into mountain ranges, it brought old Gondwana to the highest point on the earth.

 

Photos by Ben Journee

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In Sanskrit, ‘himalaya’ means ‘abode of the snow’. Eventually, the Himalayas grew high enough to become a climate barrier, and subsequently occasioned the name. The mountains to the north of the Himalayan range were to become as parched as the Tibetan Plateau. And to the south, the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers ensured the lands were kept wet.  

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Ladakh, a district of Jammu and Kashmir state, means ‘land of high passes’. And this serves as an accurate descriptor for our experience of the landscape, both in our journey to Leh and in our two day excursion to Nubra valley further north. 

The Ladakh range is bound by the Himalayas to the south, and the Karakoram mountain range to the north. And just north of the Ladakh range lies Nubra valley.

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Before descending into the Nubra district, you first must cross the Kardung La. The local signs at the summit claim it is the world’s highest motorable pass at 5602m, but this height is now disputed by modern measurements. 

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The Nubra valley is marked by two large converging rivers, the Nubra the Shyok. Along the Nubra River are small Ladakhi villages. At Panamik, there is a small hot spring, rich in sulfur, which is believed to have curative properties.  

Shyok River with Karakoram Range in the background

Shyok River with Karakoram Range in the background

Panamik hot spring

Panamik hot spring

Between the villages of Kyagar and Sumur, there hides the Samstangling monastery. It’s not particularly old, built in 1841, but the temple is beautiful, richly decorated with fabrics and paintings, and in the back corner we noticed a cabinet full of impressively old looking texts. A rather sweet coupling of a young monk with his pet kitten was also charming. 

Samstangling Gompa

Samstangling Gompa

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Following the Shyok river there are the villages Hunder and Diskit, which are separated by several kilometres of sand dunes. Hunder has become home to a group of semi retired Bactrian (two-humped) camels, who are now employed to give tourists short rides across the high-altitude sand dunes, that feature cool temperatures (in the summer season) and snow capped mountains in the background, which is not the typical image one associates with camels and deserts.  

Mikayla's pretty lady camel

Mikayla's pretty lady camel

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The earliest inhabitants of Ladakh were likely to be nomads of Tibetan origin, and, like the people of Tibet, practiced the ancient animistic and shamanistic Bon religion. It was around the 3rd century BC that Buddhism was first introduced to the region under the reign of King Ashoka, the first Buddhist King who ruled over almost all of the Indian subcontinent.

But another form of Buddhism took hold in Ladakh in the early 10th century AD, with various kings of Tibet bringing Tibetan Lamaism, or the Vajrayana school of Buddhism, to the region, which resulted in the form of Buddhism practiced in the region today. 

Monk by the prayer wheel outside the quiet gompa at Hunder

Monk by the prayer wheel outside the quiet gompa at Hunder

Mani wall at Hunder

Mani wall at Hunder

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View of river at Hunder

View of river at Hunder

Fort at Hunder

Fort at Hunder

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The highlight of Nubra valley is the Diskit Gompa (monastery). Established in the 14th century, it belongs to the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat, order of Tibetan Buddhism. 

Diskit is considered a ‘sub-gompa’ of the larger and more well known Thikse Gompa that lies a little to the south-east of Leh. In the 18th century, Diskit monastery was given to Rinpoche (term given to a high-ranking lama meaning ‘precious one’) of Thikse, and it is still under the management of Thikse today. 

Diskit Gompa

Diskit Gompa

The monastery houses 100 monks, and the complex stands high on a hill, with the Tibetan-style living quarters arranged rather disorderly up the steep rocky slopes. The prayer hall houses a statue of the Maitreya (future) Buddha, and an outstandingly intricate and stunning sand mandala that was one of the focal points of the puja that we were lucky enough to witness.

Dozens of tourists, us included, were allowed to sit around the temple’s edges as the monks congregated to perform their puja, chanting in their deep, resonant tones, and every so often adorning themselves with hats, executing delicate hand movements and using the drum and horns to signify the start of a new prayer. 

Start of puja outside the temple

Start of puja outside the temple

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Butter lamps

Butter lamps

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Sand mandala

Sand mandala

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Diskit also features the massive 106 ft high Maitreya (future) Buddha which catches your eye as you drive toward the town, and indeed demands your attention. 

Maitreya Buddha at Diskit

Maitreya Buddha at Diskit

 Nubra valley itself, as well as Kardung La, was an important point historically, as it was the main route for trade caravans travelling from Leh to central Asia across the Karakoram Range. Ladakh’s position, being roughly in the middle of many mountain ranges, meant it connected India with central Asia, and Tibet with the western Himalayas.

Trade caravans crossed these arduous roads, and merchants traded various and sundry goods: saffron and woolen shawls from Kashmir; textiles, dyes and spices from India; raw silk, tea, hashish and carpets from central Asia and China, manufactured goods from Europe and raw wool from Tibet and Ladakh.

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It would take months to cross the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges, but traders traversed these routes in summer and winter, utilising the frozen rivers in the winter, aided by their camels, horses and yaks. Trade reached its peak in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but with the post-independent struggle in Kashmir and China’s invasion of Tibet and subsequent closing of borders in the mid 20th century, these ancient routes through Asia were finally, and sadly, closed.

And with the ceasing of this trade, the region became isolated from the rest of the world until tourism opened it back up in the 70s. And with this came change on a massive scale for the region, change that permeates the Leh that we experienced. 

 

 

Sources: wikipedia, travel.india.com, Ladakh: a photographic journey (by Nicholas Eakins)

- you can take the girl out of university, but you can’t take the university out of the girl -

 

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Independance Day

We were in Leh for Indian Independence Day on the 15th August and got to watch the celebrations. There was a performance held at the Polo Ground right near our guesthouse, so the week before we were privileged to a sneak peak, and watched the school groups practicing their marching as we walked past. It was a rather sweet event, it had a 'small town' feel with everyone out to watch. The army was there in all their finery, and generally watched along with the rest of the crowd. And it was the only time we really saw any traditional Ladakhi culture, as some of the performances featured traditional dance and dress from the region.

 

Photos by Ben Journee

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The road to Ladakh

The road from Manali to Leh is as beautiful as it can be terrifying. The road is only open four and a half months of the year, as snow makes crossing the high mountain passes impossible, and is 479km long. Our starting point at Manali lies at 2050m metres above sea level, and at its highest point, the road reaches 5328m at the Tanglang La Pass, essentially as high as Everest Base Camp. You eventually settle in Leh at 3500m.

 The first stretch of road from Manali is lush and green, and wild flowers spill through and over the rocky hills. But the landscape changes dramatically after the first mountain pass (the Rohtang Pass). Incidentally, the word Rohtang means 'pile of corpses', named so due to the deaths of people trying to cross the pass in bad weather. We hope this is now only a historical term. The ground becomes dry and dusty, with seemingly more rock than road. There are patches of green but as one drives, the view becomes increasingly bleached, increasingly dry, and increasingly vast.

The road can be pretty harrowing, and the hair pin turns had us at times instinctively holding our breath. The quality of the road is extremely poor in parts, largely unsealed with potholes and large rocks scattering the road. After climbing hundreds of metres, and looking down into the ravines, the land is littered with enormous shards of rock, but from so high, they look more like small, brittle flakes. 

The mountains continue to fill your view and have a monumental presence. It's no wonder that mountains are so often respected as sites of spiritual and sacred importance, as they appear to touch the sky and stand so powerfully, seemingly unmoving and ancient.

The drive allows you to appreciate the isolation of Ladakh, and marvel at the numerous nomads and merchants who used to cross the barren mountain passes with their caravans. The drive allows you to appreciate the changes in landscape, and of course, remember the unyielding power of nature and your vulnerability to it. We were graced with good weather and health for our journey to Leh, it could so easily not have been the case. Though the two days of travelling, 24 hours of driving with an overnight stop, were tough, it was perhaps the only way to understand and appreciate the way that landscape (perhaps more so historically) so much dictates the nature of ones life.

 

Photos by Ben Journee

 

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One of our drivers filling up their water bottles at a spring at the start of the journey in Manali

One of our drivers filling up their water bottles at a spring at the start of the journey in Manali

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Our first pit stop for chai

Our first pit stop for chai

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Our lunch on the road 

Our lunch on the road 

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Man selling chai at Taglang La mountain pass

Man selling chai at Taglang La mountain pass

Ironically, the sign incorrectly states Taglang La is the 2nd highest motorable road in the world. "Unbelievable is not it?!"

Ironically, the sign incorrectly states Taglang La is the 2nd highest motorable road in the world. "Unbelievable is not it?!"

Small temple at Taglang La

Small temple at Taglang La

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Small gompa in a small Ladakhi village near Leh

Small gompa in a small Ladakhi village near Leh

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