“Ladakhis have little to do with the rest of India,” whispers Tom. Our guide – a young local, and a skilled motorbiker – drives us across Leh. “We are more Tibetan than Indian,” he says, “We are in a Buddhist region, within a majority- Hindu country; For a thousand of years, our Kingdom was an independent monarchy.”
As we rise in the sky of North India’s Himalayas, I’m too consumed with watching the world’s highest mountain range isolate the Indian subcontinent from the rest of Asia. I fly through the high mountain valleys between the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges. The feeling is electrifying and somehow disturbing. An image begins to form in front of my eye: an image of the vast, of the never-ending open desert.
I land in Leh, capital of Ladakh – a high altitude desert in the shadow of western Himalayas – on a sunny afternoon of August. Due to brutal winters with temperatures dropping to minus 30, this is the only time of the year one can attempt the sort of trip we are trying to pull off. June to September is the safest season to travel, as the road passes are no longer blocked with snow. “In the winter time, there is no way we drive the roads of Ladakh,” says Tom, “Instead, we track snow leopards.” This is a place where I am reminded of the power of nature. The weather patterns dictate when to come; the encounter with such a harsh high-altitude wilderness environment imposes limits. Yet I’m aware I’m in the middle of something extraordinary.
I travel with Max, my better half, and our guide, Tom, on a motorbike expedition across the Indus, Nubra and Shyok valleys. We spend the first few days in the countryside of Thiskey – 20km north of Leh – acclimatizing and watching the morning prayers at Thiksey monastery, one of the region’s most important religious sites. Geographically, Ladakh belongs to the Plateau of Tibet, the reason why it is also racially and culturally Tibetan.
The adventure starts the moment we jump on our Royal Enfield motorbikes and drive the Indus Valley along Khardung La – the world’s highest motorable pass – at 5,600 meters altitude. On the high road, there’s no grass, only bare, buff grey rock. To the Ladakhis, the notion of the forest is as alien as the ocean. Streams of water from melting snow washes away parts of the terrace. Buddhist burial grounds and stupas punctuate the crossroad, which marks the boundary between the Indus and Nubra valleys.
A Mecca for motorcyclists. Ladakh’s roads reveal what driving was meant to be: vertiginous, a soul-stirring journey where every turn brings fresh rewards – constantly changing vistas, rolling meadows, bizarre rock formations and remote settlements where life moves on its own rhythm. Driving the road less traveled on a Royal Enfield has its appeal as well. On the motorbike, as we navigate the switchbacks in a zigzag manner, I have 360 degrees open vistas to dramatic mountains and valleys. Under boundless blue skies, I have a chance to look front, back and down, from a great height, and absorb the grandeur and intensity of it all. There is nothing between us and the landscape. A feeling I’m not sure I would experience from inside a car.
We cross the remoteness of Nubra Valley, driving through sun-bleached isolation with nothing but the tracks of an earlier vehicle. In these expanses, though, we often come across soldiers and army barracks. We are in the politically charged state of Kashmir. For generations, India and Pakistan have disputed control of the Silk Road valley – hence the Line of Control to the West. Border tensions are also compounded by China’s control of the eastern edge, where it has occupied a vast chunk of the desert since 1962. Yet Ladakh is a peaceful land.
There is nothing, but emptiness ahead. We pass by tattered prayer flags, monasteries, yaks, and scarlet and orange-robed monks – all of that under the bluest of blue skies. For travelers with a true spirit of adventure, the back of beyond has a lot to commend it. But the journey is also as torturous as it is rewarding. We drive the dirt road for hours, eating dust, and coping with the thin air. I find myself wondering why I am doing that – with no idea where it is going to lead. Then, I look around and see the violent beauty of the place. We arrive in Diskit, which has Nubra’s largest monastery, set precariously on a mountain spur much like the famous Tiger’s nest in Buthan. At The Ultimate Traveling Camp – the same mobile lodge we stayed in Thiksey – I watch, from my tend, the sun fall, and Diskit’s monastery turn orange with the moon’s glow. I have a glimpse of what it means to be irrelevant, but also fundamentally, joyously alive.
We continue the journey to West, crossing the wilderness of Shyok river, until we reach TurTuk village – a few Kilometers from the “Line of Control, in the very border to Pakistan. Turtuk was annexed to India in 1971 during the Indo-Pakistani war, and, as a military border, remained closed to outsiders. If Ladakh welcomed its first visitors in 1994, Turtuk hasn’t seen any tourists until 2010. It’s predominantly Muslim – an anomaly within a mostly Buddhist region. “A village divided by a border,” highlights Tom, “A forgotten place that once served as an important gateway to the Silk Road – the ancient trading route that connected India with China, Persia, and Rome.”
Crossing the same sandy desert terrain on our way back to Leh, I think about Tom’s words as we first landed a couple of days ago. I’ve traveled to other regions in India, but Ladakh’s culture – and landscape – is unlike any other place I’ve been in the country. On the rooftop of human settlement, in the most majestic mountain range in the world, is also the most intact Tantric Buddhist society left on earth. And I feel inspired by being so close to a culture that has, for the most part, never been accessible before.
We travelled to Ladakh in August 2017. We flew from Singapore to Dehli with Singapore Airlines and from Dehli to Leh with Air India; and stayed at beautiful The Ultimate Traveling Camp in Thiksey and Diskit.