Ladakh is a high and dry land on the western fringe of the Tibetan plateau, northeast of the Great Himalaya Range and south of the great deserts of western China. The name itself means "land of passes", for it is in reality only a few habitable valleys--the total population slightly over one-hundred thousand-- separated by seemingly endless ranges of high mountains running from the southeast to the northwest.
Until 1834 Ladakh was ruled by a series of independent kingdoms that at times included Baltistan in the north and Lahaul and Spiti in the south. In that year the Hindu Dogra ruler of Jammu and Kashmir incorporated the region through military conquest. With the Partition (of the British Raj) in 1947, much of Baltistan was lost to Pakistan, followed by the surrender of Askai Chin to China in 1962. Today, while it is administratively part of India's Kashmir & Jammu state, Ladakh remains culturally (if not politically) independent, tied to its Tibetan traditions (hence its sobriquet “Little Tibet”)--and may, in fact, be the last retreat for Tibet's traditional spiritually-dominant way of life, Vajrayāna Buddhism. Ladakh's culture is, to a greater extent, marked by similarities to pre-invasion Tibet in language, religion, dress and life skills needed to survive in their shared high, harsh and unforgiving environment--truly a land in the sky.
Lying on the borders of two major civilizations, India and China, destined Ladakh’s capital Leh, to be a major halt on the southern caravan “silk” routes to the plains. These followed extremely difficult tracks (hence the sobriquet "Bone Trail"), which crossed five passes to reach China, the highest being the Karakoram, at over 18,000 ft.
To the west, the difficulty of travelling between the Vale of Kashmir and Ladakh's Indus Valley was greatly eased with the building of the Kashmir-Leh road--originally for defense purposes--which shortened the ancient 15 stage caravan journey to an overnight hop by jeep or bus. Unfortunately, since the road must cross the Himalaya, via the Zoji-La (11,580 ft.), it is open only from June to November, due to the heavy snowfall. Another longer road has been more recently opened providing access from Manali in the south, but this too must traverse the Himalaya, via the Rohtang (12,970 ft.), and thus is closed from October to May. The only other way to enter or exit is by air which due to weather and heavy bookings is highly unreliable.
While Ladakh's gateways are subject to heavy snows, the inhabited areas, even though lying at more than 9,000 ft., rarely see lasting snow. This is truly a high, desert land and where there is water there is life, often in rich abundance. But where there is no access to the life-giving rivers then existence is hard. Despite, or perhaps because of their material poverty, Ladakhis appeared to this visitor as gentle, welcoming folk.
At the time of my visits, the term "Ladakh", as far as foreigners were concerned, was limited to the Indus Valley and lands lying to the west. Areas, such as Nubra or Shyok were well beyond the "Inner Line", the designated "no-go" by Indian military authorities. This was hardly a handicap for the first-time visitor, as the open areas contained many of the principal architectural treasures, and other points of cultural interest including: Lamayuru, Alchi, the capital, Leh, Stok, Thiksey, and Hemis, to name but a few. This was more than enough to fill many days and many rolls of film.
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