Sunday, 5 May 2013


Ladakh is a land like no other. Bounded by two of the world's mightiest mountain ranges, the Great Himalayas and the Karakoram, it lies athwart two other, the Ladakh range and the Zanskar range.

In geological terms, this is a young land, formed only a few million years ago by the buckling and folding of the earth's crust as the Indian sub-continent pushed with irresistible force against the immovable mass of Asia. Its basic contours, uplifted by these unimaginable tectonic movements, have been modified over the millennia by the opposite process of erosion, sculpted into the form one sees today by wind and water.

A Virtually Rainless Area
Today, a high -altitude desert, sheltered from the rain-bearing clouds of the Indian monsoon by the barrier of the Great Himalayas, Ladakh was once covered by an extensive lake system, the vestiges of which still exist on its south -east plateaux of Rupshu and Chushul - in drainage basins with evocative names like Tso-moriri, Tsokar, and grandest of all, Pangong-tso.

Occasionally, some stray monsoon clouds do find their way over the Himalaya, and lately this seems to be happening with increasing frequency. But the main source of water remains the winter snowfall. Drass (also spelt as Dras), Zanskar and the Suru Valley on the Himalaya's northern flank receive heavy snow in winter; this feeds the glaciers whose melt water, carried down by streams, irrigates the fields in summer.

For the rest of the region, the snow on the peaks is virtually the only source of water. As the crops grow, the villagers pray not for rain, but for sun to melt the glaciers and liberate their water. Usually their prayers are answered, for the skies are clear and the sun shines for over 300 days in the year.

Ladakh lies at altitudes ranging from about 9,000 feet (2,750m) at Kargil to 25,170 feet (7,672m) at Saser Kangri in the Karakoram. Thus summer temperatures rarely exceed about 270 C in the shade, while in winter they may plummet to -200 C even in Leh. Surprisingly, though, the thin air makes the heat of the sun even more intense than at lower altitudes; it is said that only in Ladakh can a man sitting in the sun with his feet in the shade suffer from sunstroke and frostbite at the same time!

Central Ladakh
Its mural, dating from the 11th and 12th centuries, pre-date the Tibetan style of painting that is present are reminiscent of the paintings of the far off Ajanta Caves and are presumed to be almost sole survivors of the Buddhist style current in Kashmir during the first millennium AD, along with some in Phugtal Gompa in Zanskar, and Tabo in Spiti

Northern Ladakh
Kargil, the second town of Ladakh, is situated on the Suru River just short of its confluence with the Dras-shingo. Almost equidistant, at a little over 200-km from Leh, Srinagar, Padum in Zanskar and Skardu, the capital of Baltistan, it was in the old days the centre of a network of routes joining these places. After partition, Skardu went into Pakistan, but Kargil remains the main staging-point between Srinagar and Leh, and the Gateway to the Suru valley and Zanskar.

The Suru valley, a greatly underrated part of Ladakh, runs for about 140-km from Kargil up to the base of the Penzi-la pass into Zanskar. Although immobilized in winter by heavy snowfall, its fields, watered by streams fro the surrounding mountains, produce rich crops of wheat and barely. Traditionally, it has been an area surplus in foodgrains.

Irrigation water is plentiful enough to allow the plantation of thick stands of willow and poplar, giving the area lushness rare in Ladakh. About halfway along its length, the river loops its way past a huge mound of alluvium, the last gasp of the Zanskar range, to carry on, past the glaciers of the Nun-kun massif to Rangdum, a Gompa on a hillock overlooking a wide marshy plain.

The lower portion of the valley, its immediate charms apart, offers spectacular views of Nun-Kun and its attendant peaks. Expeditions to it mostly take off from Panikhar, the village just short of the valley's right-angled turn, which is also the base for long treks in the direction of Kashmir and Kishtwar. Other trekking bases are Sanku, further down the valley, and Rangdum.

Two rivers, flowing towards each other along the northern flank of the Great Himalayas, meet in the broad plain of Padum. They become the Zanskar River, which flows off northwards through a gorge in the Zanskar range, to meet the Indus at Nimo. This T-Shaped complex of valleys is Zanskar, opened to motor traffic only in 1980 when a road was built via the Suru Valley and Rangdum and over the Penzi-la.

A Trekkers Paradise
Virtually untouched by the winds of change and modernization till then, Zanskar is now a favourite destination for trekkers. Padum is the centre for hard but rewarding treks to Manali via the Shingo-la (16,732 feet/5,100m); Kishtwar via the Umasi-la (17,828 feet/5,434m); and Lamayuru and Leh via difficult routes through the Zanskar range.

Zanskar is also known as a land of religion and has the greatest concentration of Gompas in Ladakh, outside the Indus Valley. The important ones are Sani, Karsha and Stongde in the central plain, Bardan and Phugtal just off the Padum-Manali trail, and the small hermitage of Dzonkhul on the way to the Umasi-la.