Most of India swelters in July-August, but there’s no better time to make tracks for India’s ‘Little Tibet’. The Dalai Lama thought so, too.
The fabled land of Ladakh, a geographic and cultural outlier of Tibet, fits somewhat uneasily within the State of Jammu & Kashmir. Ladakh means ‘land of high passes’, and way back in the Eighties I had experienced the two-day bus ride from Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital, up to Leh, Ladakh’s largest town, nestled in the Indus Valley. The Leh-Manali Road, an even longer and more tortuous journey, is now the favoured route (but more of that later).
This year, for my long-anticipated return to Ladakh I chose the soft option of catching a 5am flight up from Delhi. I had not anticipated that a welcoming party of red-robed monks would be waiting at Leh’s modest airport on my arrival at 6:30… no, it was the Dalai Lama himself, the head of their faith, who was expected within the hour.
Before long I joined most of the town’s 27,000-strong population to line the route of His Holiness’ motorcade – a great excuse for one and all to dress up in their best fur-trimmed robes and chunky turquoise necklaces. The saintly visitor was tucked safely inside a police car with tinted windows, so we barely glimpsed him passing by. Another morning, we caught the briefest of glimpses as his entourage departed the inauguration of a new temple outside Leh.
So HH and I could settle down to acclimatise to the 3,500-metre altitude (that’s almost 11,500 ft). Well, he’s a Tibetan born and bred, after all. On leaving torrid Delhi behind, the ambient temperature fell from 36 degrees overnight to 16 degrees Celsius on a typically clear, bright morning.
Here in Leh, snow-capped peaks cluster all around a starkly barren valley, interrupted by bright-green patches of cultivation, fed by snow melt. I settled into a pleasant guesthouse, with apricot trees sheltering a stone-flagged courtyard and picture windows from my room looking out over town to the mountains.