Lost in The Land of High Passes
Otherworldly landscapes of arid mountains and jagged rock formations enfold the mystical land of high passes. At altitudes above 3,500 meters (11,480 feet ) against a backdrop of sublime mountainscapes and whitewashed stupas there is an unparalleled wilderness and rugged terrain that will leave you spellbound.
This is Ladakh.
A region that had been at the top of my bucket list for as long as I could remember. It was finally in the summer of 2019 that I embarked on a solo adventure to this cold desert region in North India.
Following in the footsteps of the elusive snow leopard, I spent my days traversing snow capped peaks, crossing glacial rivers and jagged maroon-hued mountains etched into surreal rock formations.
Together with a local guide, I trekked through the vast expanses of the high-altitude, Hemis National Park, located just south of Ladakh’s capital, Leh. Walking over 100 kms across fourteen days, I hiked across an astounding diversity of terrain resembling middle earth.
a typical day…
Mornings began with a cup of steaming tea. The local delicacy: butter tea is prepared with butter and green tea, and usually washed down with freshly made chapati. After breakfast, I would prepare for a new day of hiking dust-laden trails navigated by my expert guide, Spalzang.
Each day we would trek to remote villages scattered across the most magnificent landscapes. Among the vast peaks we were so tiny and everything had a new perspective.
By late afternoon, after several hours of high-altitude trekking, we were welcomed at a different mountain homestay. Nowhere in the world have I ever received such hospitality. Each family welcomed me into their homes as if I were a long lost friend with beaming smiles and unlimited cups of tea.
From sunrise to sunset, each day brought with it a new set of adventures, challenges, learning and exploration. Below are my top 6 highlights from my Ladakhi adventure.
1. night at an apricot orchard
I’m still dreaming about the night spent at Tsogsty: a green oasis in the middle of a barren cold desert. This cosy homestay set among apricot and apple orchards is nestled in a narrow valley by the Zanskar river.
I was surprised to learn that apricots grow in these arid environments. In the summer months, when the landscapes comes to life, these trees grow in abundance and apricots are often dried and stored for the winter months where temperatures can drop to -35.
We spent time with the copper artisan learning about the age-old craft of copper art, which takes exceptional skill to master. The copper artisan spent most of the day in his workshop designing and creating copper and brass items, such as kitchen utensils, ceremonial flasks and tea pots. These traditional skills are said to be on the brink of decline with younger populations leaving their villages in search of better income and the lures of modern convenience promised by urban life.
2. Conquering my first high-altitude pass
This would be without question the hardest day of my trek! Thankfully, the ascent was planned for day 3 of my 14 day trek, which allowed me to tackle the hardest part early on, and leave ample time to recover.
Ganda La Pass was the highest altitude I would be trekking with no prior experience. The pass connects Leh to the Markha valley villages at nearly 5,000 metres (16,400 feet). The pass is often covered in snow or ice and graced by extremely strong winds.
The ascent takes you up a gradual zig zagging path where I was needing to take a breather literally every five steps. At these altitudes the air is thinner and has less oxygen, which makes it more difficult to breathe, and involves taking many breaks in between.
Grazing horses roam carefree on the higher pastures, golden eagles soar high above the towering peaks, and playful Himalayan marmots wrestle each other down the rolling hills.
As we reached the top, little icy snowflakes carried by strong gusts of wind floated towards us. After what seemed like an eternity, the colorful prayer flags that mark the top of the pass finally came into view.
Layers of textured mountains carved over eons by snow, wind and ice stretched into the horizon.
The air was crisp and clean. Even at an altitude of 5,000 metres with reduced oxygen levels, I could bet my lungs were happier than they would ever be in my urban smog-ridden existence back home.
I was definitely glad to have conquered the pass albeit, at a much slower pace than i’m used to. But with high-altitude trekking, this is apparently quite normal. Slow and steady will eventually get you there — with LOTS of heavy breathing and breaks in between.
3. Herding livestock and churning yogurt in a remote mountain-side village
At an elevation of 4,200m, Shingo, is one of the most picturesque villages in Hemis National Park. This quaint village is home to just three small homes and a monastery.
In the afternoon I had the opportunity of visiting one of the villagers cosy kitchen. The kitchen, which was made entirely out of stone is said to have been built around 90 years ago. Here I learnt how to churn yogurt into butter with goat milk! The yoghurt is churned inside a wooden barrel (seen above) until a creamy yellow butter begins to form at the top.
This process involves manually twisting a wooden pole harnessed by a rope inside the barrel for at least one hour. As you can imagine, it is very tiring. I didn’t last longer than five minutes.
As the sun dipped lower into the horizon, colourful silhouettes began to make their way down the sloping mountains. It was the local herdsman bringing his livestock back to the village after grazing in the high pastures.
I helped him round up all the livestock and carefully move them into an enclosed pen for the night; safe from the grips of snow leopards and wolves.
4. Walking on alien landscapes
The hike to Sumda-chenmo, a 10th century village in the Zanskar valley is perhaps one the most memorable. I learnt that my guide, Spalzang, had grown up close to this village, just North of Hemis National Park and knew the landscape like the back of his hand.
The trail begins with a precarious path carved into the side of the mountain winding along the Zanskar river with a sharp vertical drop on one side. Here you learn to walk without looking over the edge, as the trail cuts through narrow valleys and deep gorges rising and falling with the natural curvature of the landscapes.
For hours we walked alongside the Zanskar river, which only a few months ago had been frozen and in a matter of weeks would swell with the melted glacial water trickling down from the higher peaks
Most trails are decorated with elaborate “chortens” (shrines) and “Mani” (prayer stone) walls that further exemplify the region’s immersion in Buddhist culture.
Deeper inside the valley we crossed a series of peaks rising abruptly like cathedrals. The colours of these symmetrical spires glistened beautifully in metallic shades under the tenacious sun.
These mighty peaks rich in mineral deposits displayed shimmering ridges that were snow capped on the upper reaches. Landscapes festooned with brushstroke paints of colours in varying hues and saturations. Magenta, ivory, ochre, swampy green and pastel pinks
Colours and textures so vivid that you forget the vast distances traversed and the tiredness slowly creeping into your legs.
5. Living with locals
This is the only way to experience the true essence of Ladakhi culture.
The hospitality, care and attention shown by my hosts was incredible – I have rarely ever felt so well looked after. Considering all of this came in the most remarkable and remote locations, made it even more humbling.
Most homes are traditional mud-brick homesteads that tell a story of simplicity unmarred by the lures of present days advancement.
Rooms are dormitory style with clean beds and plenty of blankets. A sea of chromatic rugs and carpets adorn the floors adding to the ambience and comfort. All homestays have dry composting toilets.
6. Learning to cook like a local
Ladakhi kitchens are the ultimate refuge.
Not only for the wonderful aromas emanating from the cooking pots, but also for the warmth provided by the traditional ‘thaap’ (wood-fired stove). Most evenings we would get comfortable in the classic bedouin-style seating to help prepare dinner or stay warm and discuss the trek planned for the following day.
A seat in the kitchen also provides insider access to the local delicacies and culinary traditions. Some of the home-cooked meals I helped prepare was ‘Shu-tagi’, a local pasta, ‘Thupka’, Tibetan noodle soup, and ‘Mo-Mo’s’, steamed dumplings, which were simple and delicious. Most meals were accompanied by copious amounts of ‘Tsampa’ (roasted barley flour) and ‘Chhang’ (barley beer).
Despite the stark weather, remoteness, and harsh living conditions, Ladakhi people are some of the happiest and most generous people you will meet.
There’s little interaction with the outside world and limited mobile connectivity. It is a quiet life; literally ‘off the grid’. Ladakhi living is the epitome of raw natural beauty, rich cultural heritage and simple living.
Why you should choose homestays
Homestay-based tourism has multifold benefits to the local communities. It allows a consistent flow of travelers to the rural economies thus, creating multiple opportunities of livelihood for locals. By creating livelihood opportunities at these remote villages, they help curb the major issues of urban migration and cultural loss while enabling their aspirations for a promising future.
Thanks to Mountain Homestays, not only did I get to experience the true essence of the mountain regions, I was also able to make a positive contribution towards women’s empowerment, local livelihoods, and the sustainability of the Ladakhi environment and community. I couldn’t recommend them enough!
Ladakh is an extremely sensitive region that is threatened by a rapidly increasing number of visitors each year. It’s not difficult to understand the lure of these rugged mountains, but it’s important to remember that tourism creates many stresses on the local environment and culture.
The cold desert receives little rainfall. In fact, it relies on glacial melt for most of its water. Therefore, it’s imperative that you minimise your use of water and respect local customs and traditions while traveling.
Here are other ways you can be mindful about your ecological and carbon footprint:
- Opt to stay with a local family in a homestay and contribute directly to the local economy
- Pick dry composting toilets over ‘western’ toilets
- Have fewer showers
- Carry your own reusable water bottle (most homestays offer filtered water )
- Avoid single-use plastics & take back non-organic waste with you (Ladakh does not have plastic recycling facilities)
- Reduce your carbon footprint when traveling to and from Ladakh by taking the bus or a shared cab instead of private transport or aircrafts.
When I first began researching my trip, I was overwhelmed by the number of organisations offering personalised travel packages in Ladakh.
I am grateful to the team at Mountain Homestays for putting together the perfect itinerary for my trek. Everything from logistics, to accommodation and adventure was all perfectly curated.
As a solo female traveler, I felt completely safe during my trek. My guide, Spalzang, was extremely knowledgeable about the local environment, culture, and wildlife and turned out to be one of the best travel companions I could ask for. (this is not an ad). I remember how many hours I spent trying to find a reliable, authentic and ecologically mindful company to travel with — so consider this some free advice 🙂