Windswept deserts, mammoth mountains, powerful rivers – Ladakh is the story of the everyday struggles of its people in uninhabitable environs. It is the tale of faith fluttering like prayer flags against azure skies and the carefree beats of the drums in monasteries dotting the countryside. It is a triumph of the resilience of human nature exhibited through vibrant songs and dances, mask festivals, and above all, a naturally cheerful disposition.
Thrown open to tourists in 1974 after the Indo-China War of the 1960s, Ladakh has gradually grown from a mystery to a much-favored tourist destination. The word Ladakh comes from la (meaning pass) and dakh (meaning related to). It is part of the State of Jammu & Kashmir in the northernmost tip of India sharing borders with Pakistan, China, and the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The deafening silence of the mountains can be contrasted with the music of the Ladakhis and the gongs that can be heard from the monasteries. The barrenness of the scenic beauty is juxtaposed with the colors you see on the people – the multi-colored prayer flags, the red-cheeked Ladakhi toddlers, deep maroon and yellow Tibetan robes and the bright uniforms of schoolchildren. The seriousness of a life of hardship is easily dismissed here with a single jovial Julley – the one-word greeting to everything from hello, to thank you to goodbye.
No matter what you come looking for, Ladakh has a little bit to offer to everyone. You may want to explore the monasteries with their centuries-old wall paintings steeped in history and thangkas – a form of Tibetan silk painting embroidered with the figure of the Buddha or scenes from his life. You could interact with the monks who have been studying the Buddha, his life, and teachings. The overpowering silence of Ladakh only makes the monasteries seem to come alive with mysticism and unblemished divinity. There are palaces across the region, some of which like the one at Stok is still inhabited by the royal family. Leh town’s Jamia mosque forges the link with medieval India, built as it was under the direction of the last great Mughal, Aurangazeb. Nature springs surprises in the form of so many hues on a single canvas that confounds the senses. The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar, the beautiful lakes and streams, and the changing shades of the mountains are spectacular.
Ladakhi culture has evolved through the centuries. Despite its geographical isolation from the rest of India, it has been on ancient caravan trails on the Old Silk Route connecting Samarkand with China. Tibetan Buddhism, the Bonpo shamans, and Islam have contributed to the enrichment of Ladakhi culture. Now, the government showcases the tradition of the region through a fortnight-long Ladakh Festival that is held in early September every year. There are many smaller celebrations and festivals organized by different monasteries. You can enjoy the vibrant music, mask dances, and more even as you tickle your taste buds with Ladakhi cuisine. Enough has been written about Ladakh over the centuries. It is a journey and not an end in itself. So let’s get on our way to Little Tibet, the Last Shangri-la, or the fabled land of far beyond!
To paint a picture of Ladakh in a single stroke is difficult. Its vast and varied natural splendor, with the snow-capped peaks, rugged mountainous terrain, beautiful lakes, cold deserts, mighty rivers, and deep heritage make it a mosaic of natural beauty. We invite you to paint another picture of Ladakh rich in the warm hospitality of the Ladakhis and explore the hidden untouched charm of this place as you join us, Himalaya on Wheels, to experience Ladakh. We aim to bring together unique and authentic experiences that represent Another India rich in the diversity of its culture, crafts, and cuisine.
Ladakh is a celebration of the human spirit over the harshness of nature. Challenging the barren landscape is a colorful culture that makes music and dance a medium to express its joie de vivre and invincibility. The Ladakhis showcase their cultural traditions through many festivals. Specific to the monasteries that have been harbingers of the Tibetan and Buddhist traditions in the region are their individual festivals. These are difficult to monitor as astrologers plan every calendar on a yearly basis.
However, the Ladakh Festival, organized by the Jammu and Kashmir tourism department in collaboration with the Kargil and Leh district administrations is an opportunity to make the most of what the Ladakhis offer. It is held from September 1 to 15 in Leh every year and gives the tourists a glimpse of the Ladakhi heritage that has survived over the ages. One can expect to see the famous mask dances as well as Bactrian camels.
Besides this, the Singhey Khabab Spring Festival is held in June every year to honor the mighty Indus. The event showcases handicrafts, thangka exhibitions, and polo among others. Other cultural events are organized from time to time by the administrative authorities for tourists.
Accessibility: The cultural events are held at the palace grounds in Leh. While the palace itself is inaccessible, guests can sit at a height and view the proceedings below with ease.
FOOD & BEVERAGE
Restaurants across Ladakh will, in keeping with the influx of the tourism industry, cater to cuisine from across the world. From continental fare to Indian, Mughlai, and more, you can dig into what your heart chooses. Tibetan cuisine such as thukpas (noodle soup) and momos (steamed dumplings), varieties of tea, including the refreshing Kashmiri kahwa, and fresh cream buns … the streets of Ladakh are a foodie’s heaven. Try out the freshly baked local bread at the bakeries around Leh. Do not miss out on the Ladakhi tea, a pink butter tea, also known as the gur-gur chai because of the soft musical gur-gur it makes in the specially designed flasks. And while you take that hot cup of chai from your host, remember the Ladakhis consider it impolite to be too quick in accepting food or drink.
The area of concern, however, is water. It is advisable to carry lots of water from the hotel unless you want to end up buying mineral water bottles wherever you stop. There is another more viable alternative. Dzomsa provides refills of purified, pressure-boiled water and generates income for the local communities. By refilling water at Dzomsa, you will save money and also contribute to preserving Ladakh’s rapidly declining environment. The shop also offers an environmentally friendly laundry service. The clothes are washed away from the pristine streams of the town.
In January 2010, Travel Another India (TAI) was approached by the People’s Action Group for Inclusion and Rights (PAGIR) based in Leh. PAGIR works to ensure livelihoods for persons with disabilities and their families in Ladakh. The main economy of Ladakh is based on tourism. They requested TAI to help them be a part of that economy. For TAI, while this was a challenge, it would be in keeping with the principles of Responsible Tourism – to ensure access to all. And thus, Himalaya on Wheels was set up. While it has activities for guests using wheelchairs, Himalaya on Wheels is inclusive by catering to all those who are interesting in experiencing the real Ladakh.
Himalaya on Wheels is managed and organized with PAGIR’s local expertise and the revenues from this are shared equally with them. Each itinerary is tailor-made by our team in Leh and Delhi to suit your budget, time available, and interests. A sample itinerary is explained below. We will explore art, architecture, and spirituality as we visit the remote monasteries and stop at a Buddhist center of learning. We will camp on the banks of the serene Lake Pangong. We will follow the Indus, the cradle of Indian civilization, as it winds its way through Ladakh. We will talk about the social and ecological issues and the solutions that our hosts have come up with.
You will be lifted from your wheelchair into the vehicle. The vehicles will be SUVs with four-wheel drive to tackle the steep roads. There is a standard seatbelt in front to strap yourself with. Your wheelchair will need to be folded up and stashed away in the boot. The driver and the helper (if you have asked for one) have been trained to ensure that the transfer is smooth.
Toilets are a big area of concern for tourists in this arid region. While all the hotels where you will stay have modern plumbing, toilets are difficult to come by while traveling. Ladakh’s dry toilets are eco-friendly holes in the ground. These sand toilets make minimum use of water but could be uncomfortable for those not used to them. Located on top of ‘collection rooms’ these toilets are inaccessible to those using wheelchairs. Himalaya on Wheels has come up with a specially designed mobile toilet that will ensure maximum comfort for guests. It is a four-panel folding system with a width of 5.5 ft and a height of 6 ft. It is hygienically designed and comes with an easy-to-clean toilet stool. This toilet can be used by attaching the system to a car or as a free-standing toilet with a lock.
You will be met at the airport by a team member and taken to the hotel. If you have asked for a helper, s/he will also meet you at the airport. Both the helper and the taxi driver have been trained to ensure that you are treated with dignity while being moved. You will be transferred into the vehicle by the driver and the helper or our team member.
While the refreshing cool wind of the Himalayas may want you to begin a round of sightseeing as soon as you land, it is strictly inadvisable. This is because Ladakh is located at an altitude of above 9,000ft where the air pressure is low. This causes what is known as altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness, which can prove fatal if left untreated. Taking a flight to a mountainous region can leave you feeling nauseous, weak, or just dizzy soon after you land. Don’t get alarmed. This is normal. Take it easy. Therefore, It is imperative to allow the body to acclimatize to the high altitude. Take rest. Try not to fall asleep till night and drink lots of water, juice, or tea. Alcohol is to be strictly avoided while you acclimatize.
If you experience any problems, do not hesitate to ask for a doctor. You could feel nauseous, lose appetite, have drowsiness, or experience disturbed sleep. The symptoms are caused because of reduced oxygen at high altitudes. Treatment can be as simple as being given oxygen in the initial stages. It is better to raise a false alarm than to be unwell.
So just lie back and enjoy the sights of the snow-capped peaks in the distance and breathe in the delightfully pure air of Ladakh for a good 24 hours before doing this. We will send you a soft copy of a detailed guidebook which includes all the places you will visit as well as some details about Ladakh and its history. Use this day to go through that guidebook at leisure.
After breakfast, you can visit the Shey Gompa, the stupas and monastery at Choglamasar, Sindhu Ghat, the Magnetic Hill, and the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar. Break for lunch at Nimoo. After visiting the ancient monasteries and chortens at Likir and Alchi, you can tuck in for the night at Uley Tokpo.
Shey Gompa is a beautiful village about 15 kilometers from Leh. It used to be the summer capital of the Namgyal rulers of Ladakh. The main sights of attraction here are a palace and a monastery. The gompa or monastery is still partially in use. It has a small library and a collection of ancient thangkas and stupas. The walls of the monastery have Manis or stones inscribed with prayers. The main attraction here is a three-story-high statue of Sakyamuni Buddha. It is made of copper and is gold-plated. This is said to be the second largest such statue in the region and was commissioned to be built in 1655 along with the palace.
Along the road, Shey is one of its most ancient monuments. There is a rock carving of the five Thathagatha Buddhas on the edge of the highway. It can be easily missed, so one has to keep a lookout for it or forewarn the driver if you would like to see it.
Accessibility: The car can drive right up to the gompa’s entrance. The alighting ground is free of steps and even. The route to the monastery has been smoothened and leveled out to enable wheelchair users’ comfortable access. The main prayer hall is down a 22cm step and across an 8cm threshold that can be negotiated with the help of a portable ramp that we will provide for you. The large statue of the Buddha is best viewed from a distance. There is also a room that houses ancient paintings. Since the door is too narrow for a wheelchair, the paintings can only be viewed from outside.
Choglamasar is a Tibetan refugee settlement about 9 km from Leh that has evolved as an important center for Tibetan Buddhism and the study of Tibetan culture and history. However, as it has not yet made it to the regular travel circuit, it is the perfect place to delve into the Buddhist tradition. The monks here are friendly and open to satisfy the curiosity of the tourists about various aspects of Buddhism. The main attractions at Choglamasar include a prayer hall with a Buddha statue. Choglamasar also has a Tibetan SOS Children’s Village, where the refugee children are educated and looked after.
Accessibility: At Choglamasar, the car can drive right up to the prayer hall. The ground for alighting is even. The prayer hall has been made accessible by the monastery by constructing a gentle ramp. The main prayer hall has plenty of maneuvering space.
Sindhu Darshan or the Indus is also known as the Singhey Khabab or the river that sprouts from the lion’s mouth. India owes its name to the river Indus or the Sindhu. It was referred to as the Indica by Greek travelers from two millenniums ago. The term Sindhu dates back to the Rig Vedas, where it is mentioned both to convey the idea of a torrential river as well as the Indus specifically. The river, which originates in the Manasarovar Lake in Tibet, flows almost in a straight line across Ladakh before draining off into Pakistan.
A witness to centuries of culture and civilization, right from the days of the Indus Valley Civilization about 3,000 BCE (Before Current Era) to the present day, the river humbles its audience at every point. At the Sindhu Ghat, a beautiful picnic spot has been set up to form the perfect perch to enjoy the mighty Indus as it flows unbridled carrying along many legends.
The three-day Singhey Khabab Spring Festival in June is an annual event organized by the Tourism Department of the Jammu & Kashmir State Government in collaboration with the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council.
Accessibility: The car can drive you right up to the Sindhu Ghat. The ground for alighting is even and provides a comfortable ambiance for a relaxed stop by the Indus.
At Magnetic Hill watch your driver take you up to a spot on the Leh-Kargil-Batalik highway and enjoy the sight of the vehicle rolling up a hill with its ignition turned off. The driver might tell you it’s a supernatural phenomenon. No, this is not black magic. It is just an optical illusion. It works like this: There are some places in the world where a very slight downward slope in a landscape makes the slope appear to be an upward one. This usually happens when the horizon is unclear or obstructed, corrupting the view of the slope. Thus, a vehicle that appears to be moving up a slope is actually doing what it ought to be doing – sliding down the mountain road. Don’t waste your time trying to spot which way the mountain slopes though, for some things are best enjoyed the way they are seen! And don’t let this piece of information spoil the fun of experiencing the gravity-defying ‘pull’ of Mother Nature!
Accessibility: The illusion of the Magnetic hill can be felt while seated in the vehicle itself.
Take a break from your visits to monasteries and temples for a stop at Nimoo. On the way to the village is a spot that offers the amazing spectacle of the Indus and the Zanskar meeting each other. It is about 8km east of Leh. From your vantage point on the mountains, you can see two distinctly colored rivers flow into each other effortlessly at the foot of rugged terrain. While the melting glaciers render the mighty Indus muddy brown in summer, in winter and spring, the river is a rich turquoise or emerald green. The silver, slate-grey Zanskar complements the Indus and makes the confluence a must-watch point on the itinerary. You can then drive on to Nimoo where lunch and a cup of hot tea can add to the spice of the serene beauty of nature.
Accessibility: The car can drive you up to a comfortable spot where you can sit and enjoy the spectacular confluence.
About 62 km west of Leh, towering over the fields and villages below is a huge yellow statue of the Maitreya Buddha, or the Buddha of the future at the Likir Monastery. The monastery housing the statue was built in 1065 by Lama Duwang Chojse during the time of the fifth king of Ladakh Lhachen Gyalpo. It is the first monastery to be built under the direction of Tibetan monks. It was extensively renovated in the 18th century, leaving behind little trace of antiquity. The Likir monastery is also known as Lukhyil (encircled by water spirits) as the great Naga or serpent spirits, Nanda and Taksako were believed to have resided here. The Likir monastery is still inhabited with about a hundred monks in residence.
Accessibility: Though the main sections of the monastery are inaccessible, the 25-ft high statute of the Buddha is a draw for tourists and can be viewed from the road itself.
Driving on the Srinagar-Leh highway, there is a cluster of low pagoda-roofed structures dwarfed by pale-brown and wine-colored pebbled slopes. The choskhor or religious enclave at Alchi is one of the most significant historical sites in Asia and contains numerous wall paintings and wood sculptures in the five tiny buildings. Alchi is the oldest monastery in Ladakh and is also the largest and most famous among the monuments set up by Rinchen Zangpo, a translator of Sanskrit Buddhist texts to Tibetan. He lived from 958-1055 CE and is credited with setting up hundreds of monasteries. The main image here is of the Vairocana and you can see the five Buddha Families together with their attendant deities. The ancient paintings here are not in Tibetan style but are in the Indian tradition, especially Kashmiri influence, bearing the stamp of Rinchen Zangpo who was on his way from India to Tibet when he built this monastery.
Accessibility: The Alchi monastery is the only one in the region that is located on flat ground, making it easier to visit. The alighting ground as well as the path from the parking area to the monastery is barrier-free. A gentle ramp has been constructed up to the main monastery. This ancient monastery could soon be on the world heritage site list.
Uley Tokpo is a pictorial campsite about three hours away from Leh. It is set in the middle of an orchard with 360-degree views of the mountains above and the Indus flowing below the steep cliffs. You will spend the night here. The camp has tents with common toilets and bathrooms as well as newer cottages with attached bathrooms. The restaurant provides all meals. There is an ayurvedic spa on the campus as well as a lounge with board games, magazines, a TV, etc. The camp has been built with easy ramps making it step-free. While the tents are too small for a wheelchair to maneuver inside, the newer cottages have been built to be accessible. An easy ramp leads inside the room through an 89-cm doorway. The room is spacious enough for a wheelchair, as is the bathroom with a 76-cm doorway. While there is a ramp to the dining room, if it is found to be too steep, food will be arranged in the lounge area for our guests.
After breakfast at 8.30 am, you will visit the Hall of Fame on the way back to Leh and then go sightseeing in Leh, the capital of Ladakh. This will be followed by shopping at the PAGIR shop, a visit to the Shanti Stupa, and lunch. You can continue shopping at the local Moti Market. The day can conclude with a cultural show to give you a flavor of Ladakhi art and tradition. At night you will stay in the same hotel as on Day1.
About 2 km south of Leh on the airport road, the small Hall of Fame Museum has displays on Ladakhi culture on the ground floor and the war with Pakistan over the disputed Siachen Glacier and Kargil on the first floor. It has been built by the Indian army to pay homage to its fallen heroes. Equipment used by the soldiers to combat not just the enemy but also the extreme cold in the region are on display. A visit to the Hall of Fame is sure to strike a patriotic chord.
Accessibility: There are three steps to the ground floor. The ground floor is made accessible using a portable ramp that the driver will carry. There are more than 12 steps to the first floor making it inaccessible.
The impressive white-domed monument was built by a Japanese order keen to spread Buddhism by building temples throughout the world. With some financial assistance from the Japanese government, the Shanti Stupa was opened by the Dalai Lama in 1985. A beautiful three-km winding drive takes you to the top of the hill where it is located. The breathtaking view from the top, especially of Leh below and the Indus Valley is worth a visit. The view at sunset is particularly remarkable. The stupa looms above Leh impressively, when it is lit up at night.
Accessibility: The car can drive you to the top of the hill on which the stupa is located. With special permission from the Lama, the car can take you right up to the stupa. Though the stupa itself is inaccessible because of a flight of steps leading to the main building, one can marvel at the stupa from below and can take in the spectacular views of Leh town and the valley in the distance.
Now we come to the part that will appeal to all shopaholics. Besides the memories you will be taking back from your Ladakh trip, if you are in the mood to buy memorabilia, you can drive around the main bazaar to find things that suit your interest in Leh. During the tourist seasons, the main market with shops on either flank brims with gift items, turquoise jewelry, Free Tibet posters and stickers, prayer flags, and more. Till about 60 years ago, Leh’s main bazaar used to be an important trading spot with nomadic herdsmen bringing in pashmina wool and traders bringing raw silk from across the Karakoram. The market still retains an old-world feel to it.
Accessible Shops using a Portable Ramp
1) For Ladakhi souvenirs, try the Handicrafts Item Gladan Complex, which sells handicraft items at reasonable prices.
2) Leh Pashmina Shawls Emporium offers a variety of Pashmina and Zavery shawls to splurge on.
3) Lehling Bookshop is located near the Post Office in the main bazaar and has a collection of all sorts of books, postcards, and stationery items
4) Dzomsa (which means meeting point in Ladakhi) is a shop of eco-friendly products set up by a cooperative society run by a Ladakhi entrepreneur with women from villages. It sells apricot juice, jams, and dry fruits as well as pressure-boiled water.
You will also visit the PAGIR shop, Jungwa Shrungskyob, to pick up pen stands, pillow covers, lampshades, and other such items made from waste by people with disabilities.
You will visit the beautiful Pangong Lake before you leave the magical land of Ladakh. While you could return to Leh the same day, the lake is best appreciated at sunrise and sunset. You could stay the night at the Martsemik Camping Resort by the side of the Pangong Lake.
The serene Pangong is located at a height of 14,000 ft in the eastern sector of Ladakh. Its name means hollow. Despite the saline water, it freezes completely in winter. The lake is accessible only in summer as the roads are blocked by snow in winter. Sixty percent of the 134-km lake is in Tibet and the Indian Army fiercely guards what remains here. Hence, it is mandatory to get permits to visit the Pangong even for Indian tourists. Our team will arrange that for you in advance.
The lake is a five-hour picturesque drive from Leh through the Chang la (a 17,000ft high mountain pass). Along the way, one can see herds of yaks and wild ponies galloping across mountain streams. There are lush green fields, army cantonments, and even small lakes left behind by retreating glaciers. The lake itself is like a picture postcard. Once you embark on its shores, you will not tire of sitting and enjoying the vast canvas in front of you. The domineering mountains, snow-clad peaks in the distance, soft cotton clouds floating in a sea of blue, and the tiny ripples setting out from the shores from time to time – the Pangong has wooed many photographers and been immortalized by their cameras. And it is a totally different experience being there in person.
Accessibility: The long drive to Pangong can be uncomfortable in some stretches given the poor roads. One can drive right up to the shore of the lake, embark at a suitable point and enjoy the beauty of the Pangong. Overlooking the lake is the Khubsoorat Restaurant, managed by the Indian army. The garden of the restaurant is accessible.
On the way to Pangong, Tangtse is an important stop on the ancient trade routes. It is the last main village before Pangong. There is a small gompa here. Inscriptions, possibly a thousand years old, can be seen on the rocks around the area. Here is a good place to stop for tea and lunch before proceeding onward to Pangong or on the way back.
Martsemik Camping Resort offers a luxury tented camp on the banks of Lake Pangong itself. It provides tented accommodation with private, spacious bathrooms, eco-huts, and a tented dining hall with a TV. Other facilities available on charge include a souvenir shop, sports, meditation, campfire, and space for camping, cultural shows, and horse riding
Accessibility: The tents are accessible for guests using wheelchairs, though assistance will be needed to open and close the zipper for the main entrance and the bathroom. The bathroom is a neighboring tent and assistance will be needed to open and close those zippers. Since there is no running hot water, it is brought for guests in a bucket. This will be placed at a height convenient to you. The water is taken out using a mug. Guests can access the dining tent using the portable ramp that the driver carries. The hosts are very helpful and available for any assistance that is needed.