Ladakh, the land of supernatural landscapes, is for the traveler, not the tourist. Away from the city’s comforts, nature in all its rawness renders a serenity made possible not by a casual visit, but being one with it. You may be a solo backpacker, meanderer, or part of pack of adrenaline hunters, Ladakh has space for all. We are after the road less taken, the destination less sought. Hidden in the farthest corners of this land are gems hidden in valleys, villages, vivid lives of people who live closest to nature.
With the world’s highest astronomical observatory – situated at an altitude of 4500mts – and a 17th century Buddhist monastery, Hanle is about both – looking outside and looking inside. About 275 kms from Leh, these are the only ‘things’ to see. But you are in Ladakh not for what man built, are you? If the only sound you want to hear is the low, heavy thud of your bike engine, Hanle is your paradise. Home to about 300 people and very few guesthouses, this small village is where you lose yourself to find yourself. Since the village is just 20 kms away from the international border, keep that inner line permit ready.
The season here is from June to October. But if you can stand that extra bit of bite in the air come in winter. And be ready to feel slightly off breath; the altitude and the scenic beauty might do that to you. There is need not go to the observatory to gaze at the stars here. Changthang valley has a landscape unique to Ladakh. The night sky in the open wilderness might remind you of Carl Sagan’s words: “We are all stardust”.
The people of Dah-Hanu are proud of their ancestry, which reflects vibrantly in their outfits, headgear and culture. Their Aryan roots, which the Drogpas claim to hold in their genes, make them different from the Ladakhi tribe found in the rest of the area. The few places among the string of six villages the outside world has access to is a treat for photographers – equally because of the people and the place. There aren’t many family-run guest houses, tourist bungalows or PWD rest houses to stay in. The ideal place will be a tent under the open sky, provided you time the month of visit wisely – you don’t want to shiver or sizzle as temperatures vary drastically with the seasons.
No gompas here; this place is about the villages, their lives, their homes, heritage and music. Greener compared to other Ladakhi terrain, the Dah-Hanu villages have apple, apricot, millet and barley fields. Make good of your time here strolling up and down along small streams, sipping some locally-made barley chhang all along! Evenings could liven up with some local dance and folk music performances. About 185km from Leh, visit to Dah-Hanu too requires you to get a permit.
Cave-Castle of Tranquility
There is no hum of the motor here. A trek to the Phugtal Monastery embodies the spirit of self-renunciation, and the pain that get you the gain. One of the most enchanting sites in the whole of Ladakh, the Phugtal Monastery is built in and around a huge cave on the side of the cliff on the banks of Lungnak River. The serenity Phugtal offers comes with a catch! If trekking up narrow, steep passages, sometimes fresh landslide areas is out of your comfort zone, keep away. We are here equally for the destination as the journey!
Built in the 12th century, this gompa is at the centre of the village life in Anmu and Cha. Villagers visit the gompa to offer prayers and for medical needs from the traditional Tibetan clinic operating from inside it. Monks from the monastery visit the village during their events of significance. Inside the monastery the library has ancient scriptures. The temple and the sacred spring are major attractions inside the gompa. The scenic beauty of Anmu and Cha is a bonus. Visit between July and September for optimum experience.
Turtuk is arguably the most beautiful village in the Nubra Valley. Abundance of flora, especially in the form of apricot farms, makes it the greenest place in the region. You can choose one of the homestays or, better still, choose a camping site. It snows here from December to March, and the period between May and September is the ideal one for a visit. And yet, snow-capped mountains are part of the Turtuk experience any time of the year. Hovering over Turtuk’s 300-odd houses is the Karakoram mountain range, home to K2, world’s second tallest peak. The village’s proximity to international border has made its entry onto the wander’s map only recently. This makes Turtuk a wanderer’s wonderland. 2-3 day visits are common, but Turtuk is worth at least another couple of days. Though a long, rough 211-km trip from Leh, a bus service a few times a week make Turtuk quite accessible. Once here, biking is the best way to get around.
The Blue Jewel
Imagine this – a cool blue lake surrounded by hills all around with mighty snow-capped mountains overlooking. That’s Tso Moriri. 28km long, 4-6km wide and a maximum of 248 feet deep, this lake is a jewel. Located in Rupshu valley at an altitude of 16,500 feet, the lake attracts anything from migratory birds, yaks and even Tibetan wolves! It is fed by snow-melts and springs from Changthang plateau. May-September is the best time to be here, since the lake freezes over in the winter. Though 240km from Leh, Tso Moriri is easily accessible by road.