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Ladakh, India: Where the earth meets the sky

By Nanda Haensel 26 August 2020

I landed in Leh, the historical capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, a high-altitude desert in the shadow of Western Himalayas, on a sunny August afternoon. The region is known for its long brutal winters with subzero temperatures and heavy snowfall blocking access to roads. June to September is the short window during the year where travel is pleasant and safe.

“In winter, there is no way we can drive on the roads of Ladakh,” says Tom, our young local guide. “Instead, we track snow leopards.” Here, surrounded by the vast wilderness, I am reminded of the power of nature. The weather patterns dictate when it’s safe for visitors and tourism, and one is enveloped by the extraordinary beauty and power of nature in these landscapes.

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“Ladakhis have little to do with the rest of India,” whispers Tom, a skilled motorbiker on these treacherous terrains. As we rode across Leh, Tom shares, “We are more Tibetan than Indian. We are in a Buddhist region, in a predominantly Hindu country. For a thousand of years, our kingdom was an independent monarchy.”

On this trip, Max—my better half—and I made our way on a motorbike expedition across the Indus, Nubra, and Shyok Valleys with our guide, Tom. We spent the first few days in the countryside of Thiskey—20 kilometres north of Leh—acclimatising and watching the morning prayers at Thiksey monastery, one of the region’s most important religious sites. Geographically, Ladakh belongs to the Plateau of Tibet and is home to many Tibetans.

Ascending the North Indian Himalayas, I was drunk on the breathtaking views of the world’s highest mountain range separating the Indian subcontinent from the rest of Asia. We rode carefreely through the deep mountain valleys between the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges. I am humbled by the vast, expansive open desert.

Our adventure started the moment we jumped on our Royal Enfield motorbikes and cruised along the Indus Valley along Khardung La—the world’s highest passageway—with an altitude of 5,600 metres.

Little grows on the highlands; there’s no grass—only bare, buff grey rock. To the Ladakhis who live so far inland on these high plains, the notion of the forest is as alien as the ocean. Buddhist burial grounds and stupas punctuate the crossroads, marking the boundary between the Indus and Nubra valleys.

This terrain is a mecca for motorcyclists. Ladakh’s roads reveal what riding was always meant to be: vertiginous, a soul-stirring journey where every turn brings fresh rewards—constantly changing vistas, rolling meadows, bizarre rock formations, and remote settlements where life moves on its own rhythm.

Taking the road less travelled on a Royal Enfield has its appeal. We navigated the switchbacks in a zigzag manner, rewarded with front row panoramic views of the dramatic rise and falls of the mountains and valleys. Under the clear blue skies, I had unobstructed aerial views, allowing me to marvel at the grandeur and intensity of it all. There was nothing between us and the landscape—it wouldn’t have been the same experience from inside a car.

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We crossed the remote Nubra Valley, riding through a landscape of sun-bleached isolation with nothing but the tracks of an earlier vehicle. The vast desert lay in the politically volatile state of Kashmir, and we often cross paths with soldiers, passing by army barracks. For generations, India and Pakistan have disputed control of the Silk Road Valley to the West. Border tensions have also been compounded by China’s control of the eastern edge, where it has occupied a large area of the desert since 1962.

In spite of the political turmoil, Ladakh is a peaceful land.

We were greeted by never-ending emptiness as we rode ahead, passing tattered prayer flags, monasteries, yaks, and scarlet and orange-robed monks—all of that under the bluest of skies. For travellers with a true spirit of adventure, the thrill of the unknown that beckons is profound and electrifying. The journey is as challenging as it is rewarding. We drove the dirt road for hours, eating dust, and coping with the thin air at high altitude.

I found myself questioning why I am doing this—with no idea where this will lead. Then, I look around and see the beauty around me, and it makes it all worth the while.

We arrived in Diskit, home to Nubra’s largest monastery, set precariously on a mountain spur much like the famous Tiger's nest in Bhutan. At dusk, I watch the sunset from my tent at The Ultimate Traveling Camp, bathing Diskit’s monastery in orange with the moon's warm glow. I have a glimpse of what it means to be irrelevant, but also fundamentally, joyously alive.

We continued our journey west, crossing the wilderness of Shyok river, until we reached TurTuk Village—a few kilometres from the ‘Line of Control,’ the border to Pakistan. Turtuk was ceded to India in 1971 during the Indo-Pakistani wars, and, as a military border, remained closed to outsiders.

Turtuk has a predominantly Muslim community, an anomaly within a Buddhist region, and was not opened to tourists until 2010. “A village divided by a border,” highlights Tom, “A forgotten place that once served as an important gateway to the Silk Road—the ancient trading route that connected India with China, Persia, and Rome.”

Crossing the same sandy desert terrain on our way back to Leh, I reflect on Tom’s words when we first arrived a couple of days ago. I have travelled to other regions in India, but Ladakh’s culture and landscape are unlike any other place I have been in the country.

At the pinnacle of this ancient human settlement of Leh, nestled in the most majestic mountain range in the world, is also the most intact Tantric Buddhist society left on earth. I feel extremely privileged and inspired by this opportunity to be exposed to a culture that has for the most part, never been accessible before.

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Nanda Haensel

Travel Writer

Nanda Haensel, the author of We Love it Wild, writes about remote destinations and adventure travels. She loves to go to those little corners of the world that are far from the touristic drag and sidestep away from the obvious, where remoteness exposes the original way of life. Nanda focuses her work on conservation, culture, and wildlife. To immortalise her travels, she also has a passion for photography.

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