An Indian tour company now takes travelers used to high thread counts and high tea on treks through the the Ladakh region of India, a Himalayan region that's been the destination of trekkers and religious pilgrims willing to trade comfort for the hope of transcendence.
The little boy in the maroon robe had me at “Jule.”
As his friends flitted about pouring yak-butter tea into tourists’ bowls, he limped toward the back of the windowless Thiksey monastery’s prayer hall, heavy copper pot trailing behind him. He offered a small serving of the creamy broth, a flash of Chiclet-like baby teeth and that Ladakhi greeting. Then he slipped back into his row and began to sway to the rhythm of the surrounding chants.
This window into life in Ladakh (and access to the 13th-century temple) had been arranged by Shakti, a two-year-old Indian company that takes travelers used to high thread counts and high tea on treks through the Himalayas — a region formerly the exclusive province of trekkers and religious pilgrims willing to trade comfort for the hope of transcendence.
Still, located in Kashmir, in the northernmost region of India, Ladakh is not for the timid.
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For generations, India and Pakistan have disputed control of this Silk Road valley; border tensions are compounded by China’s control of the eastern edge, where it has occupied a vast chunk of desert since 1962. It is not uncommon to see rows of army barracks along the highway and hear the crack of gunshots from soldiers at firing practice. And at 12,000 feet above sea level (K2, the world’s second-highest peak, forms the northern border) it can be difficult to acclimate without a prescription for Diamox.
But violence hasn’t erupted in Ladakh since the minor Buddhist youth riots in 2006, and, though the U.S. State Department does warn Americans to avoid Kashmir, it makes an exception for this tiny Himalayan kingdom. Which means that any concerns in Ladakh are far outweighed by the extraordinary surroundings: scorched desert landscape, the milky-blue Indus River, glassy peaks and ancient white monasteries.
Luxury in Ladakh
The journey we took was a half-week of walking and driving for $515 per person per night, starting in Leh and meandering to Stok and Nimoo — towns separated by death-defying overpasses and landslide-scarred valley walls. It promised all the exoticism of Tibet with all the grand service of Raj India.
Shakti (www.shaktihimalaya.com), based in Delhi, is managed locally by Hugo Kimber, an Eton-educated art history expert with a preference for ascots and roll-your-own cigarettes, and local guides facilitate communication. Ours, Jigmed and Pujan, were critical at almost every juncture, especially in navigating the red tape inherent in getting around India.
Each night, my group of four women would take over recently renovated bedrooms on the second floor of a typical Ladakhi home. There were chef-prepared dinners, hot showers and heavenly beds made with Shakti’s own linens. Handmade soaps stood beside the copper bathroom basins. The owners were often in residence downstairs; our guides translated and transported our luggage from house to house.
Each morning, my friends and I rose before the sun, usually to a breakfast of fresh yogurt and pomegranate seeds. Sometimes we’d watch as young men took cows out to pasture, or women with thick braids and layers of heavy wool cloaks would make offerings at a stupa, a religious mound supposedly containing relics of the Buddha.
At midday, Jigmed would lead us on walks through orchards and barley fields, or rock-hopping through dried-up riverbeds. At some point we would discover a hand-embroidered tent laid out with beaten-brass bowls of cucumber salad and banana bread. In the afternoons we might visit a monastery or make a shopping trip to a nearby town.
Guided through the culture
Through the connections of our guides, we interacted easily with the Ladakhi people, who share ancestry and religion with Tibetans. A meeting with a medicine man to cure a ruthless case of Delhi Belly was arranged on the fly. In Leh, Jigmed bargained at the bazaar for us in his native tongue, to great success.
Pujan, all the while, was arranging an unexpected, but major, event, which he announced one day with a question: “What time would you like the oracle to arrive?”
Despite being Buddhist, many Ladakhis cling to ancient animist practices, and there are still three oracles in the nearby valleys. Sure enough, at 7 p.m., the soothsayer turned up. With a splash of water here and a shake of some branches there, she went into a trance. Any skepticism was washed away when she put her mouth to our host’s abdomen and seemed to extract something red — toxins, we were told, as we pulled our chins off the floor.
For the energetic, one day offered the opportunity of a four-hour hike, and the two of us who signed up were rewarded tenfold for our efforts. At every turn the landscape seemed to change, looking at times like the dunes of Arabia, at others like the pockmarked landscape of Afghanistan or the marigold peaks of Arizona. Never did we glimpse another person, though the offerings of thousands, in the form of white stupas, were sprinkled across the scenery like anthills. In the adjacent valleys we could see the faint purple haze of wild lavender. At the top of the final hill, an abandoned 11th-century monastery that was once the home of the king of Ladakh (whom we passed in his SUV a day earlier; he receives visitors in more comfortable housing now), was ours alone to explore.
A spiritual journey? Maybe not. But seeing the shock of a glacial blue river, the improbable fields of green streaking the desert, the trickle of red-cloaked monks streaming out of a hilltop monastery — they’ll have you believing in something, even if it’s only that places like Ladakh can still exist.