HIGHER POWER; Set near the Himalayas in Northern India, Predominantly Tibetan-Buddhist Ladakh Is a Region of Mountains, Monasteries and Simple Pleasures, Says Sarah Sands

Article excerpt

Byline: Sarah Sands

THE pull of the Himalayas is as strong now as it was to those Victorian adventurers who set out to win the Great Game and control central Asia. But now the British come to trek rather than conquer.

I'd seen the Himalayas before, in Nepal. This time, I fly over the range in northern India to reach Ladakh, known as "little Tibet" and described by one author as a cross between the Scottish borders and the moon.

In an hour's flight from Delhi, the world below changes dramatically. First the fertile plane of India and then up, over and thrillingly close to the Himalayan peaks, above a landscape where there seems nowhere to land, let alone live, until we swoop into the Ladakh valley and the airport at Leh.

The first thing that strikes you is the thinness of the air. Leh is around 3,500 metres high. I scoff at advice to relax for the first day, then find the stairs at our village house leave me out of breath and slightly dizzy. Our guide, the gentle and charismatic Navarino Narah, warns us of altitude victims whose heads had swelled or lungs exploded. I keep an eye on the mirror.

It is hard to believe we are still in India: different landscape, different temperature, different people. The name Ladakh means land of passes and we are squeezed here between two mighty ranges -- the Himalayas to the south and the Karakoram to the north. There are miles of arid peaks, some illuminated by the year's first snow.

Its Tibetan character was initially geographical but has become more political with the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the exile of the Dalai Lama. Old monasteries stand high on these dry, rocky pinnacles, sun glinting off golden Buddhas, the cheerful crimson robes of the monks a slash of colour in a merciless landscape.

The weather changes rapidly during the day: high winds followed by still skies, thick cloud blown away in moments to reveal a glorious blue. They claim you can suffer heatstroke and frostbite on the same day. It barely rains here, though locals say it is getting wetter, a development that threatens the integrity of the traditional building stock, dried mud bricks.

There are lines in the hills cut by water streams and lines of poplars and willows show where streams still run. In these narrow oases, small villages have sprouted, with apricot orchards, pocket-handkerchief cornfields, houses and walls of baked mud.

Over the week, we stay in three, each with a character of its own. Shakti, the travel company, aims to replicate the local experience while creating an element of comfort. It rents whole floors of houses and brings in comfort -- big beds, hot showers, flushing loos -- a chef and staff. We are welcomed home with hot or cold flannels and drinks. There's dinner by candlelight and we go to bed to find a hot water bottle and a wood stove burning.

We awake one morning to the sound of singing and look outside. Below is our landlady, bent and weather-beaten. She shuffles to her gate and hurls a handful of pebbles at the rear of a dzo -- the benign domestic beast that comes from cross-breeding the cow and yak -- walking too slowly to pasture. The dzo, all shaggy black coat and big horns, ignores her.

Ladakh is an ecological dream. …

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