Having officially been declared H1N1 clear and suitable for transit, our convoy moved into the Ladakh region of Jammu-Kashmir province, India. Sharing and uncanning resemblance to the TAR plateau in both landscape, architecture, and culture (it is an extension of the plateaus, being on the ‘Chinook’ side of the Himalayas) Ladakh is the trekking/outdoor enthusiast capital of India. The two day jeep/bus journey creates a nice buffer between the lost, do-nothing, hippie culture of Manali (or “little Tel-Aviv” as it is known as in India) shielding Leh from those types…although clown pants and travelers in ‘local-dress’ continue to saturate the landscape. Leh/Ladakh is far more of a Bryan travel town.
Dry and dusty are good words used to describe Leh but it is also a good example of how I would have expected Lhasa to look if the Chinese had not entered into the city. Very organic in nature. Tight, dense, old, bizarre street networks combined with heavy modern nuisances like massive traffic, severe white pollution and overcrowding. I’ve decided that cities in India can be summed up as what happens when you place a physically medieval city into the 21st century.
Tourism is massive in Leh, with countless trekking agencies, stores, restaurants, and guesthouse permeating the fabric. Old-timer visitors will lament to one about how the tourism industry has opened and changed this once very isolated area for the worse. I would argue that it was never tourism that opened this area up – that honour goes to the HUGE military presence in the valley and their associated infrastructure projects. Tourism followed. Despite the lament regarding the typical arguments against tourism there are some interesting initiatives regarding bottle less drinking water, women’s employment and indigenous craft/food/music. Such things are often absent in many other places I have travelled.
Still even with the the tourism and associated revenue, it disheartening to see such terrible infrastructure deficiencies in simple things such as refuse collection. Infrastructure and cleanliness leans strongly in China’s favour in a comparison of the two rising powers.
Leh is predominantly Ladahki, a culture which is very Tibetan but not, and I couldn’t tell you the subtitles. A strong Tibetan refugee population exists as well as an assortment of other subcontinent ethnicities.
Numerous mosques can be found through out Leh.
Leh from the hills above. The Indus Valley runs left to right (East to West) and Stok Kangri can be seen as the highest peak in the distance.
A close view of the tight nature of the town fabric.
Restored Buddhist temple above the city.
While the central and inner city of Leh is rough and ready, the suburbs are gorgeous. Each plot appears to be at least a hectare in nature and centred around a traditional Ladakhi-Tibetan two story mud-brick-wood home.
“Main Street” in Leh on a quiet day. Like most street systems in India, it was never designed for what it is now expected to deal with and unlike medieval cities in Europe, demand management is obviously not used – the result be pure chaos, although there is somewhat of a functional feel regarding the chaos, that is from an outside perspective and if you asked me if I would want to live that everyday, I would probably say no.
I spent a few days here organizing my micro-expedition up Stok Kangri. After returning from that climb I was sitting at a cafe on a street not unlike the one above with my gear waiting for my jeep to Srinagar. I knew the Dalai Lama was visiting the area, but I wasn’t expecting to see him. All of a sudden everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) ran out of their shops and lined the road. A couple army jeeps raced by followed by several SUV’s. Staring out the window of one of the trailing SUV was His Holiness the Dalai Lama (I would see him a second time as my jeep fuelled at a petrol station and his motorcade went by again). I don’t pretend to know anything about Buddhism and I am hardly the first person I know who has seen the Dalai Lama…but I though the context of seeing him in an landscape that is probably the closest he will ever get to Tibet was very special.