Ladakh - the Wonder Land
The district of Ladakh lies at the border with Tibet at the most eastern corner of the State of Kashmir. Placed at very high altitude this is a region with very low population. It's surrounded by the great mountain chain of Karakoram and Himalaya. It's also called "little Tibet" or "the last Shangri-la". This land shelters a millennial culture where the monasteries and the medieval temples (gompas) which keep invaluable artistical treasures. The true repositories of an ancient knowledge, this land is one of the few places where tradition has been manteined alive until present days.
Leh, the capital, has the highest airport in the world. It's almost the only way to access the area since november until may, because mountain passes are closed.
'Little Tibet', the crescent land and the last Shangri La' are names that have been applied to Ladakh, all with a bit of truth. Ladakh is a high-altiude plateau north of the Himalayan situated geographically in Tibet. It is a miniature version of Tibet, the people are Tibetan in their their culture and religion, and there are many Tibetan refugees.
A land of freezing winds and burning hot sunlight, Ladakh is a cold desert lying in the rain shadow of the Great Himalayas and other smaller ranges. Little rain and snow reaches this dry area, where natural forces have created a fantastic landscape. Surrounded by rugged mountains this land is completely different from the green landscape of many parts of the Himalayas. Bounded by two of the world's mightiest mountain ranges, the Great Himalaya and the Karokaram, it is a land which has no match.
The Ancient Times of Ladakh
From the middle of the 10th century, Ladakh was an independent kingdom, its dynasties descending from the kings of old Tibet... For close on 900 years, from the middle of the 10th century, Its political fortunes ebbed and flowed over the centuries, and the kingdom was at its greatest in the early 17th century under the famous king Sengge Namgyal, whose rule extended across Spiti and western Tibet up to the Mayumla beyond the sacred sites of Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar. And gradually, perhaps partly due to the fact that it was politically stable, in contrast to the lawless tribes further west; Ladakh became recognized as the best trade route between the Punjab and Central Asia.
For centuries it was traversed by caravans carrying textiles and spices, raw silk and carpets, dyestuffs and narcotics. Heedless of the land's rugged terrain and apparent remoteness, merchants entrusted their goods to relays of pony transporters who took about wo months to carry them from Amritsar to the Central Asian towns of Yarkand and Khotan. On this long route, Leh was the half-way house, and developed into a bustling entrepot, itsbazaars thronged with merchants from far countries. The famous pashm (better known as cashmere) also came down from the high-altitude plateaux of eastern Ladakh and western Tibet where it was produced, through Leh to Srinagar, where skilled artisans transformed it from a matted oily mass of goat's underfleece into shawls known the world over for their softness and warmth. Ironically, it was this lucrative trade, the finally spelt the doom of the independent kingdom. It attracted the covetous gaze of Gulab Singh, the ruler of Jammu in the early 19th century, and in 1834, he sent his general Zorawar Singh to invade Ladakh. There followed a decade of war and turmoil, which ended with the emergence of the British as the paramount power in north India. Ladakh, together with the neighbouring province ofBaltistan, was incorporated into the newly created State of Jammu & Kashmir. Just over a century later, this union was disturbed by the partition of India, Baltistan becoming part of Pakistan, while Ladakh remained in India as part of the State of Jammu & Kashmir.
Ancient Routes of Ladakh
For all its seeming inaccessibility, Ladakh's position at the centre of a network of trade routes traditionally kept it in constant touch with the outside world. From Chinese Central Asia, the mighty Karakoram range was breached at the Karakoram range was breached at the Karakoram pass, a giddy 18,350 feet (5,600m). The trail from Yarkand crosssed five other passes of which the most feared was the glacier-encumbered Saser-la, north of Nubra. Travellers from Tibet could take one of two main routes. From the central part of the country, the Tsang-po valley, they could pass the holy site of Kailash-Mansarovar and reach Gartok, on a tributary of the upper Indus, from where they followed the river down to Leh. Trade with the pashm- producing areas of western Tibet flowed by amore northerly route, taking in the village of Rudok a few miles into Tibet, and from there across to Chushul on the Pangong-tso, up the length of the lake to Tangse, then across the 18,300 feet (5,578m) Chang-la to the Indus, and so to Leh. Baltistan, joined administratively with Ladakh for 100 years, was linked to it either via the Indus up to its confluence with the Suru-Shingo river, and on up to Kargil; or by the Chorbat-la pass over the Ladakh range, the trail dropping down to the Indus 40km below Khalatse, and following the river up to Leh.
The two main approaches to Ladakh from south of the Himalaya are roughly the same as today's motor roads from Srinagar and Manali. The merchants and pilgrims who made up the majority of travellers in the pre modern era, travelled on foot or horseback, taking about 16 days to reach Srinagar' though a man in a hurry, riding non-stop and with changes of horse arranged ahead of time all along the route, could do it in as little as three days. The mails carried in relays by runners stationed every four miles or so, took four or five days. That was before the wheel as a means of transport was introduced into Ladakh, which happened only when the Srinagar-Leh motor-road was constructed as recently as the early 1960s.