Ladakh – the very name evokes images of awesome Himalayan peaks standing like sentinels, century’s old Buddhist Gompas perched on picturesque hilltops that reverberate` with ancient spiritual energy and of a hostile, barren cold desert-like landscape. Wow! From ancient times, travellers have designated Ladakh to be the “Root of the World”.
Ladakh indeed is a gorgeous creation of nature and for century’s together has remained in splendid isolation, which literally means that it has remained virgin and escaped the marauding crowds of visitors. The quality of tourist experience depends one hell of a lot on the quality of the natural and ecological environment of a destination and on this count, Ladakh definitely offers a pristine, uncommercialized and majestic Trans Himalayan experience unlike anywhere else on earth.
Ever since this little speck of paradise opened up for tourism way back in 1974, Ladakh has beautifully metamorphosed into being the capital of India’s Ultra Adventure Tourism. From high altitude trekking to mountain biking and ice hockey to riding on the world’s highest motorable road(5359 m), Ladakh does offer travellers one whale of an experience.
Ladakh is the nerve centre of Buddhism and needless to say monasteries abound in this Trans Himalayan territory. To the outside world, Ladakh’s monasteries are an enigma. Thiksy Monastery, Hemis Gompa, Achi Monastery, The Lamyuru Monastery, Diskit Gompa etc…have all left an indelible spiritual imprint in the minds of spiritual seekers.
What an ethereal ambience it is in the early morning or evening with Buddhist monks reciting mantras like “OM MANI PADME HUN” in the monasteries of Ladakh! In fact, Ladakh’s Buddhist Chanting or recitation of sacred Buddhist texts have been inscribed on the UNESCO’s list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.
In Ladakh, there are primarily two forms of Buddhism – Mahayana and Vajrayana. The four major sects – Nyngma, Kagyud, Shakya and Geluk together constitute the Buddhist society of Ladakh.
For first time visitors, the sight of hundreds of Lamas chanting holy mantras and invoking the blessings of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, deities and rinpoches is truly an uber spiritual tryst. The chanting is mostly performed in groups and Lamas either conduct such chanting sessions indoors or during festive occasions outdoors by merging dance rituals as well.
Many travellers have been so attracted to the Ladakh School of Buddhism that they have accepted Buddhism as their guiding light and come in search of spiritual growth – taking lessons from senior monks, reciting texts methodically etc….. Buddhist Chants in the monasteries of Ladakh are an everyday occurrence, primarily for world peace.
Adventure Capital Of India
Each year, the government – courtesy of the Ministry of Tourism in association with travel and tour operators come out with spectacular new vistas for visitors to explore, like for instance the recently introduced Quad Biking activity that takes place in the vicinity of the stunning Nubra Valley. Just imagine the thrill of driving on a 4X4 Quad Bike on treacherous mountain terrains with jaw-dropping snow and mountain panorama staring straight at you!
Many an adventurer has been bewitched by the thrill of river rafting in Zanskar, one of India’s most turbulent rivers. Yeah! I am talking of rafting at a height of 12000 feet above sea level, which is considered to be the world’s highest rafting point.
The best part of rafting in Zanskar is that it’s not just the adventure, but also the ethereal natural panorama – ancient Buddhist monasteries, hilltop palaces as well as an assortment of Ladakhi villages that kind of propels you to a fairytale-like setting, too good to be true here on earth!
The Ladakh Himalayas are phenomenal, to say the least. To the north, is the awe-inspiring Karakoram mountain range where some of the highest mountain peaks can be seen vying for attention – K2 (8610 m) in particular. Ladakh is the abode of glaciers too and the world’s highest battlefield Siachen Glacier, which is all of 72 Kms. long keeps coming in the news for those frequent Indo-Pak military skirmishes!
First-time visitors to Ladakh should bear in mind that given the harsh climatic conditions as well as the unfavourable geographic topography, the region doesn’t really encourage population growth. In certain places like Kargil the density is as low as 2.
The Tourism Phenomenon
Apart from Tourism, which is emerging as a “Game Changer” when it comes to employment generation, Ladakh is by and large an agrarian region where people are dependent on agriculture, apiculture or horticulture. Sizeable numbers of the population also engage in domesticating yak, sheep and goats, with the world-famous “PASHMINA WOOL” being the prized possession.
Since winters are very severe with temperatures dropping to -5°C to 10°C, from late October to February, the native Ladakhis keep themselves warm and busy by remaining indoors and engaging themselves in activities like knitting and embroidery – all of which are masterpieces in terms of craftsmanship.
With the gradual evolution of a tourism boom, the concept of homestay has caught on the imagination of both the natives as well as the discerning visitors alike. To experience the rugged grandeur of Ladakh in all its totality, it is well neighed pertinent to seek accommodation with Ladakh’s own home-grown hospitality brands on the part of travellers from far off land.
This homestay concept brings out the very best of Ladakh’s rich cultural tapestry, which is steeped in legends and brought to life by way of warm mountain hospitality, unmatched guest services, organic homegrown food and owners who will go that extra mile to see you smile.
Ladakh Home Stay
Most of the homestay properties are family owned and operated, families who have a good social standing in Ladakhi society. The prospect of savouring traditional Ladakhi home-cooked food is a “hard to resist” temptation. Most of the properties have undergone extensive renovation keeping intact the traditional vernacular Tibeto-Ladakh architectural style in place. Many of the properties will even have gardens and orchards.
While choosing a homestay option in such a remote part of India, you need to be sure of the credentials and fact check every nitty-gritty of the trip, for the simple reason that Ladakh is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To assist the discerning world travellers in choosing the right homestay option, RARE India – https://rareindia.com which is basically a Responsible Tourism PR & Advocacy company that promotes the concept of “Conscious Luxury Travel”, have over the years evolved into one of India’s best known conscious luxury travel experts.
Any RARE certified resort or homestay in India has to adhere to the exacting standards and parameters set by RARE. Each resort, lodge or homestay property has to go through on-site audits, participate in creative training sessions and stand up to the PR & Media plan crafted by RARE.
In the words of Ms Shoba Mohan – the woman behind RARE India’s burgeoning growth in the country’s Responsible Tourism landscape – “RARE audits, endorses, advocates and creates awareness and brand merit by taking the story of the hotel and the owners to a diverse market segment and promoters. We believe in building each brand with the best attributes they have so as to keep the discerning visitors light-footed and thereby create a positive impact.
India is a country of stupendous diversity and as you move up North from Lutyen’s Delhi to the Trans Himalayan region of Ladakh, the diversity truly blossoms, both culturally as well as naturally. In terms of flora and fauna, you are likely to date the elusive Snow Leopard, Tibetan Wolf, Urials, Ibex, etc. and the manner in which RARE India presents Ladakh to the discerning world traveller is phenomenal, to say the least.
According to a spokesperson from RARE, who beautifully summed up the Ladakh experience thus – “The fun lies not only in gazing into thick foliage and canopies but staying in classic jungle lodges, riverside cottages and chic hotels, all of them with a single-minded focus – conservation of nature and wildlife and an unforgettable experience for the traveller.
We must issue a famous disclaimer here – Our lodges and nature retreats are fabulous examples of re-wilding, creating natural wild gardens, small sacred forests and including spaces for nature and the wild.” WOW!
There are three outstanding RARE certified properties in Ladakh that have opened their doors to discerning international travellers. Each of them is in a class of their own, playing the role of safeguarding both the cultural and natural treasures of India’s last Shangri-La.
An exhilarating half an hour’s drive from Leh on National Highway 3 via Saboo Village Road takes you to the resplendent Stok Palace. This 1830 built palace is immaculately preserved and post-renovation looks absolutely marvellous in terms of architecture and ambience.
Here at Stok Palace, visitors are offered the prospect of actually living with the royal Namgyal family. One can’t but marvel at the craftsmanship on display – how this unique Ladakhi mud palace has been scientifically preserved. It all began in 2007 and initially the restoration posed a real challenge. However, the present host – Mr Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyal engaged a team of architects who went on to give one of Ladakh’s gems in the hospitality landscape of this mountainous state.
The current host of the property is Mr Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyal. Conservation lies at the heart of the project. The idea was to sustain the mud palace and create awareness amongst the local community to show how this wonderful slice of history could be preserved. He was determined to protect the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of Ladakh.
The journey of restoration began in 2007 with only one room and today has Today, visitors are pampered with uber-luxury suites in the palace, which literally recreates the regal ambience of yesteryears, while the more contemporary suites are available at the immaculately maintained Apricot orchard just below the palace.
Most of the working staff of Stok Palace are recruited from Stok village and needless to say, service is intimately Ladakhi. The more adventurous ones have the option of trekking in the fascinating Stok Kangri region or even indulging in a full day of rafting. Immersive experiences like walks to the Stok village in the company of a knowledgeable guide or an extensive tour of the palace and beyond with a historian could be enlightening.
Chulli Bagh Villas
This RARE certified resort is big on the sustainability index. “Villas in the Orchard” is their buzzword. Set in sylvan surroundings in the midst of apricot, willow and walnut trees is a 10 minutes’ walk from Stok Palace.
There are three outstanding Villas and each one oozes with the very best of Ladakhi vernacular architectural features. Bedrooms are spacious and the Villas have an open sitting arena that offers breathtaking sights of the orchard and beyond.
Each of the villas is a mud & wood affair. The best time to be a guest of this outstanding property is during the festival of Tak-Tok, which is generally held in the month of August
The resort doesn’t have WiFi, TVs, air-conditioning or intercoms inside the villas. The use of plastic is veritable NO, NO here at Chulli Bagh and their obsession with sustainability is so high that not even plastic drinking water is allowed inside. Instead, the resort provides discerning guests with water from glass bottles.
Guests can rest assured of a bewildering array of culinary delights, mostly Ladakhi, which the outside world isn’t yet familiar with. Apart from lip-smacking Momos and Thukpas, the Chulli Bagh kitchen rolls out Trans Himalayan delicacies like Chhurpe, Skyu Chhutag and what have you….
Lchang Nang In Nubra Valley
From Leh as you drive past the Indus Valley and all the way up to Khardungla Pass (18,379 feet), the world’s highest motorable pass, the stunning glory of the Trans Himalayan grandeur hits your senses. From Khardungla as your vehicle descends into the Nubra Valley, the ethereal beauty of Ladakh – high mountain peaks, gurgling lakes and picture-perfect Ladakhi villages will draw your attention. And what to say of those Buddhist monasteries that are so beautifully positioned on hilltops!
Travelling to Nubra Valley, you are actually on rarefied heights – 10,000 feet above sea level! This place is of great strategic importance, trapped as it is between Pakistan, Tibet, China. The old Silk Road from China, all the way through the Karakoram Pass makes its way through Nubra Valley. There is another route to Nubra Valley – Warila Pass, which is even more beautiful in terms of panorama and a lot secluded.
The quintessential charm of Nubra valley is that it is a lot greener than other parts of Ladakh, which has a desert-like landscape. It is also one of the best places in Ladakh to savour the pastoral high altitude lifestyle that finds reflection in a cluster of villages – Diskit, Panamik, Sumur, Hunder as well as Charasa.
Lchang Nang is tucked away in a remote rural village of Teggar and is beautifully spread out across orchards of elm, apricot and apples. The resort’s unique identity lies in the fact that it uses solar energy. The extensive use of mud and locally available wood while building this one-of-a-kind resort has earned its accolades galore from the world of sustainable tourism. The property is very much like a Trans Himalayan Cowboy Ranch, with more than 15 acres of grazing land earmarked especially for grazing animals!
The resort is under the supervision of the respectable Kalons family, whose forefathers have been living in Nubra Valley for several generations. Exceptional Himalayan experiences await you at Lchang Nang and it starts the moment you step inside this rugged retreat – the welcome drink, a glass of Sea Buckthorn juice, to ward off any high-altitude sickness you might have!
The Future Ahead
The tourism industry has emerged as Ladakh’s No1 revenue & employment activity.
According to the latest statistical data available, 50% of Ladakh’s GDP is generated from tourism-related ventures. Being a fragile Himalayan zone, all the stakeholders in Ladakh’s tourism industry should be watchful and protect not just the region’s fragile ecosystem, but also the century’s old traditional values and cultural traditions.