Certain areas of Ladakh, which were formerly closed to
foreigners on account of their sensitive strategic position or proximity
to international borders, have recently been partially opened. Movement
within them however is limited to a number of specifically designated
circuits, and foreign visitors are allowed to go only in groups,
accompanied by a recognized/ registered tour operator. The maximum time
allowed on any circuit is seven days.
Permits must be taken from the deputy commissioner (head of the district administration) in Leh, but citizens of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar will be issued permits only with the prior approval of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi. Foreign diplomats and members of the United Nations and other international organizations are required to apply for permits to the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi.
Achinathang-Hanudo-Biama-Dah and return.
Down the Indus, between Khalase and the Shayok- Indus confluence, live a people, known as Drok-pa, Buddhists in Name, but racially and culturally distinct from the rest of the Ladakhis. Two of the five villages inhabited by them may now be visited, Dah and Biama. The route follows the Indus down from Khalatse, past the villages of Domkhar, Skurbuchan and Achinathang, along a fairly good road.
In the gorge of the Indus the sun's heat, reflected off bare rocks and cliffs, is frequently intense. The same heat makes it possible to take two crops every year from the fields. Fruit such as apricots, apples, walnuts and even grapes are also grown over here. Skurbuchan, Domkhar and Achinathang are attractive villages, with an air of modest prosperity about them.
The Drok-Pa Countryside
But the special interest of this region is less the landscape than its Drok-pa inhabitants. A minuscule community of perhaps no more than a couple of thousand, their features are pre Indo-Aryan, and they appear to have preserved their racial purity down the centuries. Their culture and religious practices are more akin to the ancient pre-Buddhist animist religion known as Bon-Chos than to Buddhism as practised in the rest of Ladakh.
One curious feature is their abhorrence of the cow, or any of its products. They have preserved their ancient traditions and way of life partly through the celebration of the triennial "Bono-na" festival, a celebration of the harvest, and partly through the celebration of the harvest, and partly through their songs and hymns.
One of these is a description of an ibex hunt, for the ibex is specially sacred to them. Another recalls their migration from Gilgit-an event, which must have occurred well before Gilgit came under the influence of Islam. Their languages said to be akin to that spoken in Gilgit, and by immigrants from Gilgit settled in Drass, Such a small and racially and culturally homogeneous community is bound to have much of offer scholars in the fields of ethnology and social anthropology.
Leh-Khardunga-La-Khalsar-Deskit-Hundar And Return.
The upper Shayok and Nubra rivers drain the east and west sides of the Saser Spur, the easternmost outcrop of the Karakoram. The name Nubra is applied to the district comprising the valley of the Nubra River, and that of the Shayok both above and below their confluence where they meander in many shifting channels over a broad sandy plain before flowing off to the north west to join the Indus in Baltistan.
The Highest Route To Travel
The route from Leh takes the traveller over the Khardung-la, the highest motorable road in the world. The line of the road is different from tat of the old pony-trail-longer ad actually higher (18,300 feet/ 5,578m). The view from the top of the pass is amazing. One can see all the way south over the Indus valley to the seemingly endless peaks and ridges of the Zanskar range, and north to the giants of the Saser massif. For several kilometres, on each side of the pass, the road covered by deep snow in winter, is rough; for the rest of the way the surface is good.
At the confluence of the two rivers there is no dearth of water, but the sandy soil is not suitable for agriculture, which is confined to the alluvial fans where side streams debouch into the main valley. The valley floor itself is covered with dense thickets of Seabuckthorn a thorny shrub- which the villagers use for fuel and for fencing their fields; though indeed, there is now less need for this than there was in the days of the caravan trade with Central Asia when up to 10,000 horses a year are said to have traversed the district. The villages are large and seem prosperous and have thick plantations of willow and poplar. The altitude is a little less than that of Leh, varying between 10,000 feet (3,048m) at Hundar, and 10,600 feet (3,231m) at Panamik. Summer temperatures vary between 150 C and 280 C.
The main village is Deskit, which has a regular bazaar consisting of a single line of shops, and a Gompa. This is situated on a rocky spur above the village with commanding views up and down the valley. From Deskit, the tour circuit proceeds down the Shayok to Hundar. Past an area of rolling sand dunes, their contours apparently solid, yet liable to shift with every gale. Here there is a small population of Bactrian camels, shaggy double-humped animals, which in the old days, were used as pack animals on the Central Asian trade routes. During the past 50 years, they have been bred for transport purposes in Nubra; today visitors can take a camel safari out into the dunes from Hundar.
The other circuit proceeds up the Nubra River, taking in the pretty villages of Tirit, Lukung, Tegar and Sumur. Nubra's other major monastery; Samstalling is situated on the mountainside just above Sumur. This was the route taken by the trade caravans, and Panamik, the last village on this circuit, was at that time a busy centre, the last major settlement before the caravans plunged into the mountains of the Karakoram and the Kun-Lu. Here they invariably halted for a few days to make final preparations for getting over the mountains, or to recuperate afterwards.
There would be no supplies, not even grazing for the animals, for about 12 days after Panamik, so they had to carry all their provisions for that time. The Government maintained a granary to sell foodgrains for the men, and even for the horses. But this arrangement was insufficient for the amount of the traffic and the local villagers made a killing, selling grain and fodder-fields for the horses to graze in.
Today, Panamik is a sleepy village, its people quietly going about their work in the fields. Though the granary is still there, converted into a store for miscellaneous supplies, it is difficult to imagine the village's narrow lanes congested with the bustle of the caravan traffic. On the mountainside above, the village has hot water bubbles out of the earth in thermal springs, locally reputed to have therapeutic qualities. And across the river, clinging precariously to the mountain there is a sliver green - a few trees rooted in meagre accumulations of soil among the bare rocks surrounding in tiny Ensa Gompa.
This route takes the visitor past the picturesque villages of Shey and Thikse, and turns off the Indus valley by the side-valley of Chemrey ad Sakti. The Ladakh range is crossed by the Chang-la (18000feet/ 5,475 m) which of the year even in winter, apart from periods of actual snowfall. Tangse, just beyond the foot of the pass, has an ancient temple.
But the main attraction of this circuit is the Pangong Lake, situated at 14,000 feet (4,267m). A long narrow basin of inland drainage, hardly six to seven kilometres at its widest point and over 130-km long, it is bisected by the international border between India and China. Spangmik, the farthest point to some 7-km along the southern shore from the head of the lake, but it affords spectacular views of the mountains of the Changchenmo range to the north, their reflections shimmering in the ever-changing blues and greens of the lake's brackish waters. Above Spangmik are glaciers and snowcapped peaks of the Pangong range.
Spangmik and a scattering of other tiny villages along the lake's southern shore are the summer homes of a scanty population of Chang-pa , Nomadi herds people of Tibet and southeast Ladakh. The Pangong Chang-pa cultivate sparse crops of barley and peas in summer. It is in winter that they unfold their tents ('Rebo') and take their flocks of sheep and Pashmina goats out to the distant pastures.
Leh-Upshi-Debring - Puga- Tso-moriri- Korzok And Return
Leh-Upshi-chumathang-Mahe-Puga-Tso-moriri-Korzok And Return <
The area traversed by the Manali-Leh road, and containing the drainage basins of Tso-Moriri and other lakes is known as Rupshu. Here, the Zanskar range is transformed into bare rolling many-hued hills divided by open high-altitude valleys scoured by dust- devils. It is a landscape quite unlike any other in Ladakh- or else where in India.
Cruising Along The Manali-Leh Route
The first circuit follows the Manali road over the Taglang-la as far as Debring, a Chang-pa camping place. From here it strikes off east on a rough track across the basin of the twin lakes Startsapuk-Tso (fresh water) and the Tso-kar (salt water), over the Polokangka-la (about 16,500feet/5,030m) to Sumdo in the Puga valley - near the site of old sulphur mines, then over a roller-coaster track to the head of the Tso-Moriri, and on to Korzok, a quarter of the way along the lake's 20-km length.
The alternative route, instead of leaving the Indus at Upshi, carries on up the river, as it snakes its way through a gorge between the Ladakh and Zanskar ranges, to the village of Chumathang, where there is a hot spring. At Mahe, some 17-km further, the road crosses from the north to the South bank of the river by a bridge; it ten follows the Puga stream up to join the first circuit at Sumdo.
Korzo, situated at 15,000 feet (4,572 m) with its dozen or so houses along the barren hills, is the only permanent settlement in Rupshu; otherwise the region is inhabited only by nomadic Chang-pa live in tents all the year round, moving in accordance with an old-established annual routine between the pastures that exists wherever an occasional stream carrying snowmelt from the heights makes possible the growth of grass, scanty indeed, but reportedly highly nutritious. The few barley-fields at Korzok must be among the highest cultivation in the world, but there is no guarantee that the crop will ripen every year.
Wildlife In The Bare Land
Even Rupshu's bare hills support a sparse population of wildlife, and the animal most likely to be spotted is the Kyang, the wild Ass of the Ladakh and Tibet plateaux. More plentiful are Marmots (ubiquitous on mountain slopes all over Ladakh), Hares, and an unusual tail-less rat. The lakes are breeding-grounds for numerous species of birds. Chief among them are the bareheaded Goose, found in great numbers on the Tso-moriri, the great crested grebe, the Brahmini Duck (Ruddy Sheldrake) and the brown-headed Gull.