India’s Ladakh region is one of the hardest places to get to. There are literally just two roads in and out of the mountainous region in North India and both roads are closed for most of the year due to hazardous conditions, including poorly paved roads and extreme weather. Once you survive the treacherous mountain passes and arrive in Ladakh, you enter a place I can’t describe any better than as “heaven on earth.”
Due to its remoteness, Ladakh was previously visited by only the most adventurous of thrill seekers, but with the worldwide success of recent Bollywood megahit, Three Idiots (which was actually a pretty good film) and the proliferation of the internet and its subsequent sharing of stunning vistas from Ladakh, the region is seeing a boom in tourism, both domestic and foreign.
All roads in Ladakh lead to Leh, a small yet bustling Tibetan mountain village that has turned itself into an outpost for travelers with its numerous guesthouses, bakeries, shops selling trekking gear, and internet cafes (which don’t work half the time – and wifi? Might as well forget about it). There’s still a feel for authentic and traditional Ladakhi life in Leh, though I suspect with more tourism in the area, that may not last for very long.
To travel in and around Ladakh, travelers have basically two options: hire a private car/taxi or take the local buses. While the local bus is the more adventurous and exciting option, do keep in mind that the local buses are not exactly comfortable and are fully packed, you will need to bring your own toilet paper for the long and bumpy ride ahead, and be prepared to do your business anywhere – yes, I do mean, ANYWHERE.
The most famous place to explore Ladakh is Pangong Lake, a highly sacred (no swimming allowed) and gorgeous lake surrounded by the Himalayan mountain range. On sunny days, you can watch the water shift colors from blue to turquoise to green, and even violet.
While the boom in tourism is starting to show development of luxury camping options around Pangong Lake, the most common and affordable accommodation available is a traditional homestay. Bear in mind these are extremely traditional and rustic living standards: a majority of these homes have outdoor toilets, bucket showers, and limited electricity. Don’t be put off by this – it’s a great way to get back to basics and really get back into nature.
While there are plenty of trails and mountains to explore in the region, even the possibility of spotting snow leopards, you will undoubtedly spend most of your time in the kitchen, seated next to the stove for warmth. As the kitchen serves as the focal point of Ladakhi family living, you have a unique opportunity to learn more about them and their lifestyle. In the few days that I spent with the family, I helped make chapatis and even stoked the fire with lumps of goat (sheep, cow – I’m not sure) dung.
It’s an ever-changing world that’s moving towards overpopulation and tech-dependency. Not all of it is bad, but it sure is nice to know that there are still pockets in the world where the idea of an escape truly does still exist. With such staggering beauty around every corner, Ladakh is like no other place on earth.