The Western world, clothed in the coarse wool and hemp garments of the Middle Ages, was instantly seduced by the mystical fabric of the East, as though the gossamer threads were spun from the golden hair of angels. And so it followed that numerous caravan trails were pioneered to traverse the vast deserts and mighty mountains of central Asia. Collectively, the many disparate routes came to be known as the Silk Road. This trade in oriental luxury lent its name to the larger exchange of necessities that not only moved east and west, but north and south. Salt from the evaporated lakes of Tibet was exchanged for the grains grown on Himalayan terraces. In an adjunct to the silk trade, caravans brought delicate pashm (cashmere) wool produced in the high and harsh climates to the weavers of Kashmir.
Where the widely dispersed trading routes were confronted by the walls of rock and ice that made up the world’s most formidable mountain ranges—Pamirs, Hindu Kush, Karakorams and Himalayas—they converged to funnel through the passes that became prominent in the legendary movements of traders, armies and adventurers. On both ends of the routes, cities of middlemen formed where caravans outfitted for and recouped from their extreme journeys.
Ultimately, the names of these settlements became ensconced in the lore of far-off places: Jalalabad and Lahore bookending the Khyber Pass; Kashgar (Kashi) at the termination of the northern Mongolian routes; and Leh in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, a sort of redistribution point along the route leading south from the Karakoram Pass. The name Ladakh translates as “land of passes” and so it is that the capital of Leh sits at a relative low point between the Himalayas and the Karakorams. What that means is that traders needed only to press their burdened animals over as many as seven to nine snow-choked passes and glaciers between 18,000 and 20,000 feet to make the complete north-south trip from cities like Yarkand in the Taklimakan Desert to Punjab and northern India. Several trading routes descending from Turkmenistan converged at the crossroads city on the Indus River before splintering again into routes leading to northern India, Kashmir and Afghanistan.
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.
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.
Expert Travel Advice.
Asian Pacific Adventures (http://www.asianpacificadventures.com) was founded in 1986 by photographer and art educator Tovya Wager. Hima Singh, the president and owner, was born in Nepal and educated in India, Europe and the U.S. Tours benefit from Ms. Singh’s almost 30 years of global travel experience, education and training in the travel industry, wide network of overseas partners, family connections and her intimate knowledge of Asia.
Asian Pacific Adventures takes its clients on eye-opening journeys to the less-trodden corners of Asia where they’re among the privileged few to interact with remote tribes and participate in colorful festivals. Travelers are welcomed into private homes, attend fascinating ceremonies and gain invaluable insights into ancient, complex cultures often unknown and inaccessible to Westerners. Smaller groups provide a better travel experience for clients.
When To Go.
The secret to timing it right is to get it a bit wrong. That’s meant to say that the bulk of summer tourists coming from Europe, Australia and Japan target a very specific period between mid-June and mid-August when they can be assured the best weather. Missing that peak time by a week or even a few days can mean the difference between a highly personal or a highly shared experience at hotels, remote camps and monasteries.
The predictability of travel to and from and within Ladakh is fragile. Roads climbing over 18,000-foot passes can get snow in June that delays passage for a few days until it’s cleared or melts. Although Airbus 300-series aircraft make several flights a day from Delhi into the Leh Airport, operations are still limited to VFR (visual flight rules) at the Leh end, so cloud cover even in the summer can delay flights or cause them to be canceled altogether. On your departure, that means that if the plane doesn’t get in, you don’t get out, and if yesterday’s passengers were stranded by weather, they have priority the next day. All this is further complicated by the airport’s 11,000-foot altitude, which limits flights to cool morning hours and limits the airplanes’ useful load.
Airport carry-on checks are largely performed by hand and the criteria can seem inconsistent. For our arrival flight, travelers were asked only to remove all batteries from their cameras and camcorders—ostensibly so that one couldn’t take photos of politically/militarily sensitive areas. On our departure flight, the recommendation was changed to “transfer all loose batteries from your hand luggage to your checked luggage, but batteries left in electronic gear are okay.” Imagine our panic when security began to confiscate all batteries from all of our cameras, flash units, flashlights and CD players, as well as all wires related to headphones, battery chargers and the like. All were placed in a plastic bag, recorded with our name, hopefully to be retrieved at the end of the flight—a flight that we nearly missed because of this delay. Long story short, there was a happy ending, but not without some additional gray hairs.
It’s probably better to pack questionable electronics in your checked luggage rather than risk confiscation and, if traveling with others, pack essential items in more than one piece of luggage to dilute the risk.