Asia Travel

A Different India: Exploring Ladakh and Kashmir

By: Shamus Sillar

Shamus Sillar recounts some memorable moments of his journey to two neighbouring but entirely contrasting areas of North India: green, fertile, mostly Muslim Kashmir, and dry, sandy, predominantly Buddhist Ladakh.

Day 1: The traveller strikes back

As I’m sure it does for many tourists, India proves a challenge at the outset of my nine-day trip. I’m supposed to fly from Delhi to Amritsar, home to the famous Golden Temple of the Sikhs. Actually, I do fly to Amritsar; only, we can’t land – huge storms are thrashing the city. After circling for an age, our pilot finally announces that we have to return to Delhi. (India 1, Shamus 0.)

The aborted flight changes things somewhat, since I’m on an organised trip with Country Holidays and now my schedule is out of kilter. No matter. A quick call to their team in Singapore and I’m swiftly and efficiently provided with alternative options.

That’s how I find myself in Srinagar, capital of the North Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, two days earlier than intended.

After a fairly rigorous customs procedure at the airport, a cheerful guide drives me along Srinagar’s rutted roads to the edge of Dal Lake where I’m deposited onto the comfortable cushions of a traditional rowboat or shikara. Known as “the jewel in Kashmir’s crown”, the lake is 20 square kilometres of gorgeous natural wetlands, ringed by snow-topped mountains, and full of flowers, fish and birds. One look and you understand why it was a popular summer retreat during the Raj.

It’s also full of famous Kashmir houseboats, all made of carved wood, some a century old. These act as floating hotels, and the one I get rowed to (and where I stay for two nights), is an exquisite thing full of cedar panelling, antique rugs and, chandeliers, and has a charismatic host in Mr Din.

So, just a few hours after the dispiriting mid-air news that Amritsar is a no-go, I find myself enjoying tea and biscuits, looking out at kingfishers and lotuses and listening to the swishing oar of the occasional passing shikara. (India 1, Shamus 1.)

Day 2: Blessed by pigeons
While Srinagar’s Dal Lake feels like one of the most blissful spots on the planet, the adjacent Old City is a troubled place. Depending on the political situation in Kashmir – and, frankly, it’s never very good – it can be out of bounds for tour groups. Some skirmishes on the nearby disputed border between Pakistan and India during my visit mean that a curfew is in place in the Old City. But my guide, Mack (whose business card reads “Mack makes all possible!”), assures me it’s no problem for the two of us to take a walk around.

I’m glad about that, too. It’s a fascinating place of old wooden mosques and blackened shops where silversmiths polish pots over open fires. As we explore, Mack and I bond over our love of cricket – he used to be a fast bowler for the Jammu and Kashmir side; he even worked as a guide for Australian cricketers in Srinagar in the 1980s when international matches were played here. The fixtures have long been moved to “neutral” ground, but local willow trees are still used to manufacture cricket bats, and the locals are as nuts about the game as anywhere in India.

The highlight of my morning in Srinagar Old City is Shah Hamdan mosque, not just for its ancient architecture and friendly custodians but also for its feisty pigeons.

“Did you feel the flapping breeze when they flew up?” asks Mack after a zillion pigeons take to the sky around me. “Kashmiri people say this breeze is good for a healthy chest and heart.”

Day 3: Tackling the Zoji Pass

The next morning, I say farewell to Mack and hello to my new guide Sagar, who will accompany me on the 500km eastward journey to Ladakh.

Inside a Raj-style houseboat

By lunchtime, we’ve reached the Zoji Pass, at an elevation of 3,500m. The morning has been spent on precarious switchbacks, with nothing but a few feet of unconvincing grey shale between our right tyres and a perilous drop.

“Why have we stopped?” I ask at one point. We’ve stopped plenty of times already this morning but usually for herds of goats. This time is different – we’re in a gridlock of a dozen 4WDs and construction trucks.

“They need to build the road.”

“Oh, I get it.” But I don’t get it. “Do you mean they need to ‘fix’ the road?”

“No. They need to build it.”

Turns out that a whole section of road has been washed away by the same heavy rain that bucketed down on Dal Lake for the final day or so of my houseboat stay.

“Don’t worry,” adds Sagar, “they build roads very quickly here – they need to, so the army can move around quickly.”

He’s right, too. Within a couple of hours, a team of 20 workers from the pleasingly named BRO (Border Roads Organisation) have put together a reasonably secure surface. Over we go.

The Zoji Pass is the only route from Srinagar to Ladakh. The views are stupendous, but it’s a rugged ride, invariably with delays (and closed in winter). The pass is named after a Tibetan goddess who was slighted by her husband as he headed off to Ladakh. In anger, she turned her back on him. In doing so, she caused Ladakh to dry up and Kashmir to become fertile, which is why the latter is full of forests and the former – as I’m soon to discover – looks more like a moonscape.

Day 4: A stroll in Kargil

Kargil isn’t the prettiest town in the world, and it doesn’t have a pretty history (a 1999 war, for one thing), but it’s a necessary stopover on the route from Srinagar to Ladakh – especially if you’ve just spent more hours than expected on the Zoji Pass.

And you know what? After a walk down to the nearby river – a tributary of the mighty Indus, crossed by Alexander the Great and his armies in the fourth  4th-century BC – and along the main street, Kargil starts to grow on me, even with its military overtones.

Day 5: Prayer session at Thiksey
Once you get through Kargil, things change. Muslim veils give way to Buddhist robes. The vegetation thins out. And the monasteries start to appear.

There are dozens of these in Ladakh, impressive mud-and-stone buildings painted white, red and ochre; many of them located in dramatic positions, jammed against cliff faces or teetering on the edge of hills. Thiksey monastery is particularly breathtaking.

Speaking of breath, you need to have a lot of it to be a monk – all that chanting! I go along to Thiksey to listen to the atmospheric early-morning puja ceremony (don’t miss it), and they barely take a mouthful of air in 20 straight minutes of vocal meditation.

A tour to Ladakh generally includes multiple monastery visits; each is interesting in its own way. I especially enjoy Alchi, a dark and mysterious complex of monastic buildings, a thousand years old, at the end of a dead-end road. We stay next door for the night, in a guesthouse set among shady groves of apricot trees. The apricots find have found their way into a German-style strudel that I purchase from the village bakery. Along with some superb briyanis and stuffed parathas, it’s one of the best things I eat on the trip. (I also get a pretty decent deal on a Tibetan singing bowl from the shop next door.)

Day 6: Waiting for the Dalai Lama

It’s 8am when the whisper begins circling around Leh, Ladakh’s main centre, that the 14th Dalai Lama is in town. This is an opportunity too good to miss. Soon enough, my guide Sagar has gotten the inside scoop: His Holiness will be visiting a small temple in a Leh side-street at around 10.30am.

We join a growing crowd of townsfolk, monks and pilgrims waiting outside the locked temple doors with the Dalai Lama apparently inside. The numbers soon swell, and authorities arrive to ensure the revered leader a safe escape route.

Despite being moved along from my position two or three times by a truncheon-wielding policeman, I end up in a pretty decent spot to catch a glimpse – and a photo – when the Dalai Lama finally emerges. The 78-year-old looks very sprightly as he clings to the side of his waiting vehicle, waving and smiling to the crowd. Then off he goes with his driver, leaving a whole bunch of very contented, bead-rubbing Buddhists – and one happy Aussie tourist – in his dusty wake.

Day 7: Walk clockwise and hope for the best

Circumambulation – the act of ritually walking around an object of veneration such as a Buddhist stupa – is best done in a quiet, meditative fashion. At Namgyal Tsemo monastery in Leh this isn’t entirely possible. Not because it isn’t a mellow place – quite the opposite. Rather, it’s because the monastery is so precariously located that the only way to walk around it is on a slender platform that juts out over the valley below and is held in place by no more than a few wooden struts.

Let’s just say that I spin the prayer wheels a little harder than usual. (Though not so hard that the whole structure starts wobbling.)

Still, unbeatable views!

Day 8: Clandestine beverages

As another spectacular blue sky gives way to night, I plonk myself down on a seat in a rooftop bar overlooking the fascinating town of Leh and, without thinking, ask for a cold beer. I’m dusty from exploring for hours in the heat, so I don’t stop to consider the fact that the consumption of alcohol might be less than encouraged in this heavily Buddhist enclave.

“Here’s your special blend tea, sir,” says the waiter, returning to my table with an empty teacup and an unlabelled plastic jug full of dark liquid.

“But I ordered …”

“Yes, I know. You ordered tea.”

And then the penny drops when I see the guy giving me a knowing look. “Ah, okay,” I say, “thanks for the … tea.”

I had several teas that night, to celebrate the end of a fascinating adventure in a part of India that’s about as far removed from the palaces of Rajasthan, the backwaters of Kerala, and the cricket grounds of Calcutta as one can get.

About the trip

I did a slightly customised version of Country Holidays’ 9 Days Kashmir and Ladakh Splendour trip. Visit their informative website for details of itineraries, accommodation and more.