North Indian Ladakh — Travelling on the former Silk Road

The legendary Silk Road once led through Ladakh in northern India. Today, the Himalayan region is an insider tip for tourists.

However, traveling through the valleys of the Karakoram is not always easy, and sometimes visitors are faced with tough challenges.

Already the flight to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, over the ice giants of the Himalayas gives us an idea of the magnificent landscape that awaits us in the next weeks.

The immense high mountain desert, numerous monasteries and the Buddhist culture, which still determines the life of the extremely friendly people, remind us of Tibet and the Tibetan plateau.

Be enchanted by idyllic villages and green oases along the Indus and Nubra Valley.

About Ladakh

Ladakh is a mountainous country in northern India between the Himalayas and the Karakoram. Most places are located above 3000m. The capital is Leh. The region is considered one of the highest permanently populated areas on earth.

It is also called ‘LittleTibet’ because it is one of the last retreats of living Tibetan Buddhism. Ladakh still offers many ancient cultural treasures and lonely trekking routes.

Great plateaus, huge gorges, lonely monasteries and high ice giants are waiting for you.

Ladakh is an easy travel destination. The people are friendly, the climate in summer is quite pleasant.

Only the altitude of 3,500m on average worries some. But if you follow only a few rules, you will quickly adapt to the unusual altitude.

The Himalayas and the culture of Tibetan Buddhism have always fascinated people. Ladakh combines both in a harmonious and easygoing way.

“Julley” is the magical greeting word of Ladakh – It will help you ask locals for directions, get delicious food, and make new friends.

Leh - Capital of Ladakh
Leh - Capital of Ladakh

I still often think back to some nights in Ladakh. When spending the night on the mountain ranges of the Karakorum, it is sometimes difficult to breathe the thin, cold air.  The will to breathe is there, but you have the feeling the oxygen would not be enough.

We are at an altitude of over 4000 meters in India’s northernmost region, and the outside temperature is only just above zero. Maybe that’s the reason why so few tourists stray here?

Ladakh - a travel report

Ladakh is not the India you think. You will find neither tropical heat nor Tuk-Tuks here — instead, colossal mountains, grassy green plains, lonely lakes, piercingly frosty air and dizzying altitude.

“Ladakh is unique, more like Central Asia than India,” says Jaspal – our guide. A historian by profession, he was born in central India. “We are on an ancient world highway. People traveled through here thousands of years ago,” he says.

Situated at the crossroads of many important trade routes, along the ancient Silk Road, Ladakh is still a place shrouded in mystery.

The region has always been considered difficult to access. Until the 1970s, Ladakh was closed to tourists; since then, the high mountain passes have kept out foreigners who don’t really have urgent business there.

There is a local saying in Ladakhi: “Only our greatest friends and our worst enemies come to visit us,” says Jaspal.

“The nomads have always been very smart guys,” says Jaspal as he steers our four-wheel-drive vehicle from Leh, the capital of the region, to Lake Tsomoriri in the Himalayas.

At Lake Tso Moriri we plan to spend our first night at extreme altitude, along with six other travelers. It is not enough for the Changpa nomads to stay in this remote part of the world.

On the way on old known migratory routes, searching for pastures for their animals, they face many challenges every day.

You can feel the modernization in subtle ways – some of the Changpa Nomads now own cars – but in many ways, life here has not changed for centuries.

Life in the mountains is tough, thanks to the altitude, low temperatures, ever-fluctuating food and water supplies, as well as wolves and snow leopards that often want to snatch up the valuable livestock.

Changpa Nomad Woman
Changpa Nomad Woman

 

Stopover at Thiksey Monastery

Already after about 30 minutes of driving, we take a break and stop at the Thiksey Monastery. Thiksey is a Buddhist Temple (Gompa), and Monastery Complex located about 20 km southeast of the district capital Leh.

The Monastery is the biggest in Central Ladakh, it is located at an altitude of nearly 3300 m on a hill in the upper Indus Valley. It was founded in the early 15th century, and it’s presently, about 70 monks belong to the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) Buddhist order.

The monastery complex extends over 12 steps or terraces up the hill. It includes ten temples. In one of them, there is a gilded Buddha statue about 15 meters high. Another temple is dedicated to the goddess Dorje Chenmo.

There are also several holy shrines in the Monastery, a collection of historical Thangkas (Scroll Paintings), and other historical works of art. There is also a guest house for a few years where you can stay overnight.

Staying at Lake Tso Moriri

We have been driving for almost six hours when we see the first group of nomads. They chase by in their jeeps, packed to the brim with tent poles, yak rugs and boxes. Since Leh, we’ve been following the gushing Indus River, toiling past flaxen and mauve slate mountains. No one said that the Tibetan plateau would be easy to reach.

When we arrive at our camp at Lake Tso Moriri, Jaspal’s team has already carefully set up the cone-shaped tents. Behind them, the snow-capped Himalayas already lie in an ominous shadow. The evening hours have already dawned.

The temperature has dropped to an icy seven degrees below zero, and as the red sky turns black and the mercury column continues to plummet, I wonder how the nomads can seriously call this place home.

The answer becomes obvious when we wake up the next morning to a pale blue sky. A brilliant sun glitters between high peaks, next door, a few horses munch golden grass.

I hold a cup of freshly brewed coffee in my hands, my bones have thawed, and most importantly, I can breathe again. During the night, I sometimes had the feeling that I needed a shot from the oxygen bottle, which Jaspal always keeps ready for emergencies.

It’s not uncommon to struggle for breath at this altitude, especially if you don’t give yourself time to acclimatize.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take enough time to acclimatize because I joined the tour group halfway through their 14-day tour. Our plan on this fresh day is to find the current location of the nomads.

Jaspal’s expeditions, accompanied by twelve staff, are often on a mission to meet nomads or find snow leopards – rather than sticking to a fixed travel route.

The largest high-altitude lake in India’s trans-Himalayan belt, the Tso-Moriri is surrounded by mountains that rise more than 19,685 feet.

Changthang - The West Tibetan Plateau

Tibetan Plateau Lakes

Changthang is the name of the Western part of the Tibetan Plateau in northwestern Tibet. The extensive highland steppes are dominated by green grasslands in summer, which take on a desert-like character in the dry winter months.

The northern and western borders are the mountain ranges of the Kunlun Shan, while in the east, the Changthang merges into the steppe areas of the Yarmothang as well as into the landscapes of Amdo and Khams or Sichuan and Yunnan, which are characterized by the great East and Southeast Asian gorges.

This landscape area extends to an average of over 4500 meters above sea level and includes mostly alpine pastures used exclusively by nomads.

Viewed from Lhasa and cultural-historical central Tibet, they lie to the north, which is why they are called “northern plains (thang).” With a maximum west-east extension of about 1500 km – from the Ladakh Changthang in the west to the grasslands in Yushu and Golog – this often deserted alpine steppe region ultimately occupies more than half of the highlands of Tibet.

The entire Tibetan Plateau is the highest plateau on earth and is also known as the roof of the world. The total area of the region is given as 2.16 million km².1

Migration of the Changthang Nomads | Living with the Changpas of Ladakh

Where we set up camp depends on two things: the availability of clean water and the location of the nomads. Our tents are well equipped for extreme conditions:

  • Camp bed
  • Arctic sleeping bag
  • Thick carpet on the floor
  • Propane gas heating

In another well-warmed tent, buckets of hot water are ready for washing, and steaming chapatis and curries are served in the dining tent.

 

For several days the route goes through the Himalayas – stopping when a landscape, a person or a scene has caught someone’s interest.

Perhaps a nomad leading her Yaks and Pashmina goats up a mountain or a monk absorbed in morning prayer.

“It’s a different kind of travel,” Jaspal says. “You get a lot more out of it; it’s about access to people.” Above all, connections are what Jaspal guarantees his guests:

An incomparable approach to the nomadic communities and landscapes of the West Tibetan Plateau, with which few tourists have come into contact.

Visiting the Changpa Nomads

When we learn that the nomads are only a short drive away from the camp, we get back into our off-road vehicles and follow the rugged path that will lead us to them.

Although the government began paving some roads in Ladakh in the 1990s, many nomadic communities can still only be reached over rough terrain.

We arrive at a collection of round tents held by wooden stakes and fastened with stones. Cautiously we enter one of the tents and are greeted with a shy smile.

The woman in the tent wears a mauve dress and has a shawl wrapped around her head. She is firing up the Thab, her stove, to make the Butter Tea favored by nomads in this harsh climate. In a long, cylindrical barrel, she tamps the boiling, salted butter vigorously into the tea.

The butter tea of the nomads is a salty black tea that is often also boiled with barley and mixed with the butter from yaks. The consistency is more like a thick soup and also initially takes some getting used to. The body is supplied with a lot of energy by this type of tea.

On cold days, butter tea helps to keep the body temperature constant. This is another reason why this tea is very popular among the nomads of the Tibetan Plateau.

The hard life of the Changpa nomads

We drink from steaming cups, and Jaspal and the nomads tell each other stories. We learn that the nomad’s name is “Padma.”

She is curious about how old we are and if we have children. After sipping our tea and otherwise warming to each other, Padma reveals that she wants her children to have a life other than nomadic because it is “too hard.”

Although cashmere wool is still in high demand, it’s not easy to make money from it, and raising livestock up here on the plateau comes with many risks.

The life of the Changpa Nomads has become so difficult that Padma is considering sending one of her daughters away to find a better life as a nun.

The following evening we reach a new camp; Jaspal’s team has set up the tents in a deep valley.  The Changpa are only a few meters away. So we will not only meet their families but spend the night right next to them.

In the morning, the bleating of the yaks wakes me up, and I stumble out of my tent into the fresh air to watch the nomads scramble up the mountains in search of grass.

I squeeze into as many layers of clothing as I can, and we walk together with Jaspal to the neighboring village to watch the morning happenings.

An elderly couple is wrestling with their goats, then tying them in a row and milking them precisely like clockwork. When they are done, they invite us into their tent for tea.

While the woman again prepares the ever-popular butter tea, the old man tells us that they move up to twelve times a year, even when the mountains are completely submerged in snow.

It is an arduous existence but also one he is determined to maintain. “We have absolute independence here,” he says, recounting that he owns a house in Leh and is probably free to make his own decisions, unlike most nomads.

“We stay here because this is our home. While we still can, we live the nomadic life.”

In the afternoon, Jaspal takes us a few hundred meters up to one of the slate mountains. It’s hard to get enough of the stunning beauty of the Himalayas.

A little further above us, the nomads are still grazing their animals. As dusk falls, we all make our way down the mountain to camp, where the temperature has already dropped noticeably.

For the Changpa, it is just another autumn evening. They are now mainly worried about the survival of their animals because with the night comes the preferred hunting season of the wolves.

Some herd their goats and yaks into stone sheds, and others keep it more pragmatic and like they do with everything else in this life: Just hope for the best. This will be my last night in this merciless yet uniquely perfect place that teaches one humility.

Even though we are all happy to sleep in a comfortable bed at home again, we are already planning to come back to Ladakh, this time taking a different route of the Silk Road.

We plan to cross an old camel caravan route, which is today a military road, with the highest passable road in the world, the Khardung La Pass.

We want to visit the legendary Nubra Valley, which for centuries was crossed by huge caravans loaded with Chinese silk, Indian jewelry, Spices, Cashmere and other treasures.

Map – Ladakh 

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  1. The Geological Evolution of the Tibetan Plateau

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