"If you're listening, if you're awake to the poignant beauty of the world, your heart breaks regularly. In fact, your heart is made to break; its purpose is to burst open again and again so that it can hold evermore wonders." - Andrew Havey, on Ladakh.
Have you ever wondered why Ladakh is the most beloved destination of India? The Baap of all? What makes throngs of travelers, from both India and abroad, head there every year and some year after year? What is so special about that place that makes those who have been to Ladakh go on and on about it? There must be something right? Something that makes us fall in love madly with that place called Ladakh.
Have YOU been there yet? If you have not, here is me giving you 20 reasons to take a break, head to this trip of a lifetime and fall in love with Ladakh -
- 1 | Unearthly Beauty in Earthly Tones
If you come in through the Srinagar-Leh Highway, you will see the landscape change after crossing Zozi La. If you come in through Leh-Manali Highway, you'll realize it after leaving the Lahaul Valley. The green suddenly disappears to give way to a naked terrain. And yet in those earthly tones of the naked landscape, lies an unearthly beauty. Its ruggedness and ruthlessness will mesmerize you, as much as it would intimidate you under harsh conditions. It is for these naked mountains that you would go back every time, for your soul is lost there, as is your heart.
- 2 | A Photographer's Delight
You would have heard this a zillion times - when you are in Ladakh, wherever you point and shoot, it is going to be an outstanding photograph. Good photography does not happen by accident, but because of it's unearthly terrain, Ladakh sure does increase your chance at that. And who wouldn't love to show off some great landscape shots - of stark blue skies, snow capped mountains, azure blue lakes and low lying clouds! And that's just to start with. Ladakh will surprise you at every angle, in every frame.
- 3 | The Silent Prayer Flags
They sometimes wave gently and sometimes flutter furiously, raged by the mountain wind. You will find them at places with strong wind, mostly on the high passes. You will notice them tied on the bikes; and maybe even the cars. And it will make you wonder, what is so special about these colorful fabrics? Though you are on a closer hearing range from heaven here, the prayer flags are not for communicating your personal prayers to God. They are for the greater purpose of bringing good to all being, be it happiness, peace, wisdom or health. As the wind carries the spiritual vibrations, all those touched by it are blessed. Standing next to these selfless and silent prayer flags, you will feel a little happier and at peace with yourself.
- 4 | Land of High Passes
Nowhere else in the world would you find so many high passes concentrated within one region. The highest and most famed is the Khardung La, at a height of 18,380 feet. Then there is Zozi La, Namika La and Fotu La on the Srinagar-Leh Highway, Chang La on the way to Pangong Tso and Taglang La, Lachulung La and Nakee La on the Leh-Manali Highway. These are of course the well documented ones and the list doesn't end there. For those who love to venture off the beaten track, Ladakh has many more high altitude passes to offer like the Pensi La, Marsimik La, Rezang La or Wari La.
- 5 | The High Altitude Tso
Where else will you find a lake competing with the shades of blue of the sky and win over it. Not long ago had Pangong Tso held my breath as I sat by its banks enchanted. But like the high passes, the list of lakes of Ladakh doesn't end here. There are of course Tso Moriri and Tso Kar, and then there are the lesser known ones like the Chagar Tso, Kiagar Tso, Mirpal Tso, Kyun Tso and Yaye Tso - each with a beauty of its own.
- 6 | The Surreal Combo
If you have been to Nubra Valley in Ladakh and not been awestruck, swear out loud in the comment box. Nubra is an unparalleled combo of nature with mountains, deserts and river, all in one place. It is a sight to behold as you drive beside the Shyok river, walk on the Hunder sand dunes and wherever you turn your head, you see towering snow capped mountains under the blue sky.
- 7 | The Trekking Paradise
Ladakh is a trekker's paradise, no doubt about that. There is a range of options to choose from starting from the most famed Chadar trek to challenging Stok Kangri trek to stunning Markha Valley trek and many more. You'll never run out of trekking options here. Just pack your backpacks, pick a direction and chart out your own trekking route.
- 8 | The Great Indian Roadtrip
Some love trekking, and then there are those who love to test their metal behind the wheel, be it a 4WD or a bike. For them, the road is life. And for those adrenaline junkies, there are no better roads in India for a roadtrip, than the ones in Ladakh. From the excellently laid tarmac to tire cutting road to dirt tracks perfect for off-roading, Ladakh has it all.
- 9 | Land of Gompas
Ladakh has the highest concentration of Gompas in India. These monasteries are like treasure troves of centuries old scriptures, rich Thangka artwork, exquisite murals and ancient relics. Whether you want to silently admire these ancient treasures or want an insight into Ladakh's culture or just want to rejuvenate, a visit to one of these monasteries is a must. And while you are there, don't forget to interact with the shy lamas and nuns, for it is them who have kept this ancient culture alive.
- 10 | Monastic Festivals
With monasteries, come the monastic festivals. If your timing is apt and you end up at a monastery during one of its festivals, you can chance upon the colorful masked dance known as Cham, and be fascinated by the bizarre-ness of it. Though Hemis Festival of Hemis Monastery is the most famed one, for a less commercialized affair, head to a smaller monastery.
- 11 | Stargazing
Ladakh is among the top places in India for stargazing and astrophotography. I couldn't help but gawp at the night sky at Pangong Tso last July, when I saw billions of stars staring back at me. You can have a similar experience at Nubra Valley too, but for the crème de la crème, obtain a special permit and head to Hanle, which is like a mecca for anyone who wants to photograph the milky way. It also has the Indian Astronomical Observatory which houses the second highest optical telescope in the world.
- 12 | The Exotic Wildlife
Ladakh, lying in the palearctic ecozone, has an unique ecosystem and is home to a range of free roaming exotic wildlife. Though you have to be extremely lucky to get a glimpse of the elusive Snow Leopard, you can easily spot marmots, kiangs (Tibetan wild ass), ibex, bharal, urial, yaks and wild horses in their natural habitat. As for avifauna, there are more than 300 species of birds, both native and migratory. All these makes Ladakh a paradise for wildlife enthusiasts, photographers and animal lovers alike.
- 13 | That Friendly Vibe
Yes, the local mountain folks are extremely friendly. But it is not just about them. There is some kind of magic in the air that makes Ladakh the most friendly destination in India, with friendly locals and even friendly fellow travelers. Wave at a biker and you'll know. Smile at a passerby and you'll know. There is a sense of friendship and camaraderie that is synonymous to Ladakh and I am still trying to unravel how people go and unite there.
- 14 | Witty BRO Signs
"Be soft on my curves", "I am curvaceous, Be slow", "Love the neighbor, But not while driving" (Ouch!). Spot these innuendos on the highways and you'll wonder who is behind these hilarious road signs in Ladakh. These BRO fellows are not just naughty, they are also witty to come up with words like "Safety on Road is Safe Tea at Home", "After Whisky, Driving Risky", "Eager to Last, Then why Fast" and many more. Thanks to their sense of humor, you will end up having a good laugh after every few turns in Ladakh.
- 15 | Bragging Rights
Of course, you can check off Khardung La from your bucket list - the (supposed) highest motorable road in the world. But Ladakh gives you more than just one bragging right. And it is more fun when you can brag to your friends about the whackier ones, like 'I peed at a military toilet at Khardung La - possibly one of the highest in the world'. It is up to you to figure out yours.
- 16 | For the Love of Maggi
Yes Maggi, Not Momos. You will find the momos and thukpas even in Sikkim, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. But nowhere else in India can you see the 2 minute noodle enjoy a more glorified status. At the remotest of corners and the highest of passes, you will find at least one person serving maggi. You'll thank that person and you'll thank Maggi, for being your savior and you'll say, "Bhaiya ek aur maggi dena...".
- 17 | Disconnect to Connect
With the invasion of Androids and iPhones, people have started to care more about these gadgets than they care about their surroundings. Ladakh gives you that rare opportunity to connect with people instead, by disconnecting you from your gadgets and network. If you are traveling solo, you'll get the chance to discover yourself. And trust me, you will love going off the radar for a change.
- 18 | Safest Place for Women Travelers
When I was in Leh, I had often walked from Changspa road to Upper Changspa road late at night, where my hotel was. But not even for once I faced cat calls, eve teasing or attempt to touch or molest. In the cities we live in, would we dare to walk on deserted streets after 10 p.m.? I loved Ladakh more because I had my natural freedom there, where I don't have to run indoors early because of some lurking predator at some dark turn of an alley.
- 19 | Cute Ladakhi Kids
Those red cheeks and heart melting smiles will show you what innocence really looks like. They don't own iPads, androids and Xboxes like the kids in our cities do. They play cricket in their natural playgrounds, find pleasure in scooping out and indulging in Wai Wai noodles and they wave at you when you pass by them. They are living their childhood like it is supposed to be lived like. And they might help you find that lost child in you too.
- 20 | The Explorers, Daredevils and Storytellers
It is that one place in India where you'll find a congregation of the explorers , the daredevils and the storytellers. Head there if you want to meet these wonderful people and be inspired by the stories that they have to tell. They will wonder you, inspire you and make you want to live life their way. Them, along with this ruthless land known to us all as Ladakh, will give you the strength and courage to step out of your comfort zone, if you already have not.
This travelogue was first published by A Traveller's Diary .