We all have one of those places. One of those places you think of and your heart hurts a little because you love it so much.
Well, Ladakh is that place for me.
Tucked away in the Himalayas in the far north-west of India between Kashmir and the Chinese border, the “land of high passes” was peaceful, enchanting and mysterious, filled with 15th century Buddhist monasteries and vistas so bleak and beautiful that you could hardly believe they were on planet earth.
The air was thin, the landscape was raw, barren and lonely, but those stark mountains – with their white capes of snow rising towards the heavens – made me fall deeply in love with this haunting land.
Here’s how I spent my week there. I implore anyone visiting northern India to take the time to do the same.
DAY ONE: ACCLIMATISATION
The flight from Delhi into Leh, Ladakh’s capital, was the most surreal I’ve ever experienced. We floated over snow-capped craggy mountains set against a piercing blue sky, and down into the world’s highest civilian airport at 3,500 metres about sea level.
Pete, my husband, and I were already out of breath and giddy with the high altitude as we stepped off the plane. Luckily, within the hour we were tucked up in bed at Ladakh Sarai, our home for the next few nights. This humble but dreamy property had yurts scattered throughout gardens, with white parachute ceilings and walls covered with local patterned fabrics, small wooden windows overlooking the mountains, hammocks swinging between the trees… so cozy and the perfect place to spend two days doing absolutely nothing.
Which is exactly what you need to do when you arrive in Ladakh, so that you can acclimatize to the altitude. Ginger, lemon and honey teas were brought to us in bed all afternoon as we wrote, read and sipped while the afternoon sunshine spilled over our bed.
We only arose when the sky started to blush pink and orange with sunset, signalling it was time for dinner in the cushion-lined candlelit dining yurt. There, the pint-sized pocket rocket owner Rigzin Namgyal, who drinks, hikes and rides his bike with equal rigour, regaled us with tales of growing up in this harsh landscape, until it was time to head back to bed.
DAY TWO: LEH TOWN
By late afternoon of day two we were finally ready to get out of bed and head into Leh town, one of the world’s highest permanently inhabited cities.
On the drive there we passed clusters of white stupas lining the roadsides, prayer wheels eight feet high, the traditional white flat-topped mud-brick farmhouses, and majestic temples and monasteries crowning the mountain ridges. We arrived and immediately began exploring the towns labyrinthine laneways, which were strung with colourful prayer flags and lined with small shops selling antiques, hiking clothes, fur vests, traditional clothing (I couldn’t resist a gorgeous tie-dyed Tibetan Lingtse cape) and books on Buddhism, meditating and Ladakhi history.
Afterwards we stopped off for a beer, served covertly in a teapot at a rooftop café. There, we watched the crescent moon rise above the 17th-century nine-storey Leh Palace, and wondered if we were dreaming.
We spent the entire morning hiking past packs of braying donkeys with antique bells tinkling on their necks, ancient petroglyphs (rock art) that had been chipped into the rocks centuries ago, and mountains in oranges, yellows, browns and ambers that looked like they’d been pasted over one another.
Truly magical, and barely another traveller in sight.
DAY FOUR: ROAD TO PANGONG
Our visit to Pangong Tso lake, a 134-kilometre lake that sits at a height of about 4,350-metres and straddles both India and China, kind of changed my life.
To get there, we drove five hours along the third highest motorable pass in the world, which was just as terrifying as it sounds. We passed more stunning Buddhist monasteries, local villages with small streams flowing through them (the sole patches of green in Ladakh are the villages, which are built near rivers), a handful of army bases (there’s a pervasive military presence in Ladakh as the Indian Army manages its problematic borders with Pakistan and China) and signs reading, “check your nerves on my curves,” and “driving after whiskey is risky.”
At one point we stopped for tea at 5,300 metres, at Changla Cafeteria where we sat, heads spinning with the altitude, contemplating our place in this world.
Eventually we reached the Changthang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary. Here the mountains start becoming more verdant as you head into the valleys, where clear streams gurgle into small lakes that eventually become Pangong Tso itself.
DAY FIVE: PANGONG TSO LAKE
Pangong Tso feels like the surface of Mars. Or maybe the end of the earth. Either way it’s the most remote – and by far the most beautiful – place I’ve ever been.
I’ve never seen water that clear. Anywhere. As we walked by its shores, we could see every little pebble sitting underneath its surface. The mountains seemed to undulate around us like waves made of sand, and there were small pebble stupas that people had constructed all the way along the shore in reverence to this magnificent lake.
I couldn’t resist taking a dip in the freezing cold water beneath those snow-dusted peaks. Afterwards, I lay on a rug in the sunshine listening to the waves lap the shore and the occasional shaggy yak yakking away in the distance. Sitting in stillness in the presence of something so much bigger than myself completely exploded my ego. I stopped thinking about myself, and realised in that moment that I was connected to the entire universe. In that realisation there was freedom, peace and contentment, three elements I vowed would be part of my life from that moment forward.
Unfortunately, these realisations were accompanied by an acute bout of mountain sickness for Pete, so after spending a rough night in our tent at Pangong Sarai camp, we took the five-hour drive back to lower ground.
DAY SIX: MONASTERY MOMENTS
My final day in Ladakh was spent at a remote Buddhist monastery with a group of tantric monks.
Over a pot of fresh chamomile tea taken in the afternoon sunshine we discussed aspects of the dharma: impermanence, emptiness, nirvana. The monks told me about the schedule of the young monks who were just weeks away from coming out of their three-year retreat. Up at 3.30am, meditating and studying the dharma for 12 hours a day, doing puja and “dream meditation”… A reminder of how many different ways there are to live this life we’ve given.
Afterwards I hiked up the mountain behind the monastery. From the windswept peak I bid farewell to this haunting landscape, thanking it for puncturing holes in my worldview and giving me a glimpse of what lies beyond.
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