It was nice to find the following words on the front page of an article in the August Edition of China’s Voyage Magazine. This marks my third major publication.
Author / Russ Taylor high Xiaotao | Photography / Russ Taylor Ren Jianjun
I have to admit that I wasn’t quite sure how this was all going to work out when Daisy Huang contacted me about using some of my photographs in an article and then asked me to contribute to the writing of the article. I agreed each step of the way but in the back of my mind I wondered if sending high resolution images through the internet to China would actually result in greenbacks in my hand. We haggled over the number of words written and what would be paid for them. There is indeed a difference in the number of written words in English versus the number of characters in Chinese.
At one point I decided I’d call the cell phone number that Daisy had given me, just to be sure this was all real. I was greeted by a most pleasant voice that reminded me that it was past one o’clock in the morning in Beijing. After a short talk and an apology for the inopportune hour at which I’d called I breathed a sigh of relief. “She’s real, and this article is actually going to happen.” Daisy must have said, “Don’t worry” to me several times throughout this whole process. In the end it all worked out just like you’d hope it would.
The English translation of the article follows along with an image or two used in the magazine, plus one or two that weren’t, which I’ve added to this version. Some of the phrases were written knowing that they’d be translated into Chinese and not necessarily a phrase I’d keep in English. So with that caveat let us begin.
“The land is so barren and the passes so high that only the best friends or fiercest enemies would want to visit us.” – A Ladakhi Proverb
It doesn’t take long to become a friend of Ladakh. Walking along the streets of the capital city of Leh, which sits at 11,500ft (3,505m), the visitor is greeted by the word, “Julley!” It’s a word you hear constantly as it means hello, goodbye, please and thank you. Learn the word Julley and you’re well on your way to making friends with this most hospitable mountain people.
Ladakh is a high desert nestled among the high mountains and valleys of the Himalaya and is surely one of the most beautiful places in all of Asia. Once an independent kingdom, Ladakh is today a part of India’s Jammu and Kashmir State. To the north lies the ancient kingdom of Baltistan in today’s Pakistan and to the east sits the ancient kingdom of Tibet, part of modern day China.
The Tibetan plateau extends into Ladakh and is called the Changtang plateau. Here high lakes rest at altitudes of over 15,000ft, (4,572m) along which nomadic shepherds still tend to their sheep and goats and earn a living by selling pashmina wool to carpet makers in the city of Srinagar.
Semi-nomadic, several times a year the nomads drive their yak herds down from the mountains and load them with all of their belongings. In the darkness of morning, before even a hint of dawn, they begin their journey to new pastures where they stay for several months before moving again.
The Changtang plateau is filled with unexpected wildlife sightings, from the “kyang,” a wild ass, to the black-necked crane, which makes an annual migration to the shores of Tso Moriri Lake and Tso Kar Lake. In the high places, if you are fortunate, you might even catch a glimpse of the Himalayan Condor.
As you wind down the roads from the Changtang you eventually meet the Indus River, one of the oldest rivers in the world. During the fall season the river is turquoise and tranquil, during the winter it is partially frozen and during the summer it is grey with glacial silt and rages enough to be enjoyed by white water rafting enthusiasts.
Following the Indus River Valley you find fields still plowed by yaks and dzos (a cross between a yak and a cow). Traditionally Ladakhis grew barley and traded barley and salt for other needs. Today they are growing a wider variety of vegetables, even using greenhouses to grow tomatoes and greens.
Along the Indus River Valley and built neatly onto the tops of hills are some of the oldest monasteries in the world. Ladakh is traditionally a Buddhist kingdom that has remained largely intact even with the intermingling of Islam from the western part of the state. The monasteries are best visited in the early morning when the monks hold a daily puja, or worship ceremony. Here the chill air inside the monastery is filled with the smell of incense and butter lamps. The monks chanting along with cymbals clashing can be almost hypnotic and somewhat haunting.
To reach the Nubra Valley in Ladakh most visitors will share a jeep that will churn its way up and around the barren desert mountains until reaching a pass called the Kardung La, which at over 18,380ft is reputed to be the world’s highest motorable road. While that itself is most memorable, you’ll bring back even more memories from the Nubra Valley where the visitor can ride the Bactrian Camels, the same kind of camels that were used for trade along the Silk Road in previous centuries. The camel drivers will take you along the massive sand dunes, reminiscent of the days when the road led north to Yarkand.
Ladakh also has something to offer the mountaineer. Stok Kangri stands proudly at 20,123ft (6,123m) and offers views of the both the Himalayan and Karakoram Mountain Ranges. It is Asia’s most accessible peak and can be climbed in a four day round trip from just outside of the capital city of Leh. On a rare occasion the climber may run across the fabled snow leopard. This writer saw two snow leopards while on an ascent of Stok Kangri in 2004.
The most hearty of travelers will also make the time to visit the Zanskar Valley, one of the most remote and beautiful regions of Ladakh. While it can be reached by a two-day jeep ride from Leh to Padum via Kargil it is perhaps best reached on foot. Ladakh has many travel agencies that are willing to arrange treks complete with ponies to carry the heavy loads, pony men who set up your tent before you arrive at camp and who cook the most delicious of meals. Treks of various lengths can be arranged, and it’s a wonderful way to adapt to the pace of nature.
While the best times of the year to visit Ladakh are between early June and late September, Ladakh saves some of its best for the visitor who braves the harshest cold of a Ladakhi winter. During winter, nighttime temperatures can plummet to nearly -30 degrees (Celsius). It is then, between early January and mid-February that you can trek the frozen Zanskar River, traditionally called the Chadar, a journey that takes about two weeks round trip and follows ancient trade routes.
On this trek you’ll be exploring a region that has been cut off from the outside world for over half the year and can be visited in winter only along the frozen Zanskar River. During the day the warm Himalayan sun helps remove the chill from your bones and holding many cups of Ladakhi tea will warm your hands, while the hospitality warms your heart.
Whether you visit Ladakh for two days, two weeks, or two months you’ll find the finest of hospitality. Visitors are welcomed into homes, served sweet tea and yak butter tea and with the word “Julley!” and an adventurous spirit you’ll leave Ladakh with enough memories to last a lifetime.
Getting there: There are two daily flights from Delhi to Leh by three airlines between May and October. Jet Airways, Air India and Kingsfisher Red all fly two daily flights during the summer months. During the winter Jet Airways and Air India continue almost daily flights. All flights are early morning flights and are pretty reliable, but due to mountain weather some flights may be canceled. When a flight is canceled the airlines are pretty good about putting you up in a hotel room for free.
There are also weekly flights by Air India from Srinagar to Leh (return) on Wednesdays and from Jammu to Leh (return) on Monday’s and Fridays.
Flying is definitely the best way to reach Leh. (I don’t necessarily believe this, but it seemed like the right thing to say to an upscale Chinese audience). The mountain roads are notoriously bumpy, the vehicles crowded, and you’re dealing with altitude. If you are planning to travel during the summer months it is important to book in advance, as tickets are expensive (US $139 – $335).
You won’t save that much money riding in a shared jeep, but if you prefer to travel overland you can do so by shared jeep from Manali (July – September) and from Srinagar (May to November). The road from Srinagar is much more comfortable.
Once you are in Leh and want to travel through Ladakh the main options are to travel by shared jeep or by bus. Those who are up for a little more adventure may want to rent a motorbike (about US $12 per day), usually a classic Royal Enfield Motorcycle. It’s a fun way to get around the countryside, but you do have to watch for large convoys of army vehicles.
Roads to Ladakh close during the winter months due to snow and flying from November through May is the only option.
To view more images of Ladakh please visit the Beneath a Cerulean Sky; The Land and People of Ladakh album.Follow @nomadruss