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Friday, April 1, 2005

Land Of Passes

The Tibetan-like land of Ladakh makes a last stand against the rush of globalization, leaving it as the do-or-die destination for photographers seeking an unblemished Buddhist culture in a Himalayan-scale landscape.

Today, a great many of the fabled caravan cities can be a disappointment to travelers who expect to find remnants of old-world markets decorated by a colorful melting pot of Asian cultures and costumes, stocked by camel- and yak-loads of exotic wares. To my mind, one place nearly lived up to my romantic notions when I first set eyes on it in the early '80s—at least as much as possible in the context of the modern world. Leh, with its derelict palace in the image of Lhasa's Potala, is the gateway to Ladakh. Men wore red goncha robes and curious stovepipe hats. Women wrapped their shoulders in bright-colored silk shawls and necklaces heavy with turquoise and coral circled their necks. Kashmiris ran the market stalls, donkeys wandered the streets, yaks plowed the barley fields and hotels were limited.

The preservation of this Tibetan-like region within the Jammu and Kashmir province of India can be credited to a few simple time-warping factors. Geographically, there's the protective barrier of the Himalayas to the south and the Sinkiang (Xingxian) desert to the north. Politically, there's the ethnically non-repressive policy of the world's largest democracy (compared to the Chinese systemized assimilation of Tibet and dilution of the culture) and, not insignificantly, what has been the off-limits-to-tourism status of much of Ladakh's frontier territory due to enduring border disputes between neighboring Pakistan and China.

Climatically, there always will be the short traveler's season abbreviated by a very late spring and an early winter. In practical terms, the accessibility of this outpost was dramatically changed with the opening of airline service a little more than a decade ago. That and subsequent years of opening remote areas to tourism have made the last quarter century one of substantial change. Presently, there's a mini-boom of property development in the town of Leh and remodeling at the wealthier monasteries.

What this means to the photo traveler is an urgency to visit before over-exposure homogenizes the culture of the region. Every day that goes by finds another goncha replaced by the garments of globalization.

Travel Tips
How To Get There.
The international gateway is Delhi. As it's exactly halfway around the world for people on PST or MST, it's a toss-up between western routes through Asia (Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok) or eastern routes through Europe (London, Frankfurt, etc.). For people on EST or CST, traveling east may work best.

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