Once again I had a great opportunity to venture to one of the world's most remote corners, with 12 intrepid travellers at my side. Our destination: Ladakh, the celebrated last outpost of Tibetan civilization. Though politically Indian, Ladakh is emphatically and enduringly Tibetan, religiously, culturally, and geographically. This is a heart-grabbing place, simultaneously warm and austere, intimate and vast. Bounded by two of the world’s mightiest mountain ranges, the Great Himalaya and the Karakoram, Ladakh is a western enclave of the Greater Tibetan Plateau untouched by Chinese occupation and home to all four sects of Tibetan Buddhism. This is the highest, most remote and least- populated region in the whole of India, and the lifeline here is the major waterway of the Indus River.
I remembered once being told that I would run out of words when I first visited Ladakh, and this could not have been more true. It was partly because of the thin air at that altitude, but mostly it was the stunning beauty of the landscape and the warmth and hospitality of the Ladakhi and Tibetan people.
There was just so much to see, and I wanted to show the group as much as possible. Luckily they were all up for it, and everyone had his or her own highlight. For some it was driving over the Khardung La Pass, the highest vehicular pass in the world. Words cannot describe the thrill, let alone the view. For others the highlight was visiting the many Gompas (monasteries) scattered throughout the valley along the Indus, all within a day's drive of Leh. Spiritual life in Ladakh centers around these Gompas, which served both trader and traveller. Each Gompa is a conspicuous high building, and the path leading to it is usually lined with prayer cylinders. These are places of worship, isolated meditation, and religious instruction for the young.
The Gompas also comprise the heart of Ladakhi culture. The religious fervor of the people finds expression in the annual festivals. These generally follow the lunar calendar and therefore their dates vary from year to year. One of the most famous is the Hemis Festival, and our 2005 tour is timed to coincide with this event that takes place at the largest monastery in Ladakh, the spiritual centre of Buddhists. People from all over Ladakh come to attend this two-day long festival which signifies the triumph of good over evil, and marks the birthday of Guru Padmasambhava, the founder of the Red Hat Sect.
Ladakh, though a remote frontier land with virtually no surface communication for more than six months a year, has actually never been totally isolated. Leh, the Ladakhi capital, sits at the southern end of the ancient Silk Road, and continuous cultural and commercial contact existed with the surrounding regions of Tibet, Himachal, Kashmir, and Central Asia. Pashmina, salt, borax, sulphur, spices, brocade, pearls, metals, carpets, tea and apricots were the merchandise exchanged in their markets. Today Leh's airport at 3333 m / 11,000 feet is Ladakh's only link with the outside world for seven months a year.
This is the land of mountains, monasteries, markets, and monks, a place where prayer flags fluttering in the high mountain passes provide a constant reminder of the cultural heritage of 'Little Tibet', also known provocatively through the ages as Moonland, the Last Shangri La, High Asia, and the Land of High Passes.
After our stay in the Indian Himalaya and the dramatic setting of one the highest of the world's inhabited plateaus, it was time to move on to Dharamsala, the main hill station in the Kangra Valley, fertile, undulating, and lying at the foot of the mighty Dhauladhars. This valley is noted for the beauty of its scenery—lush terraces, wooded hills and sparkling streams. The Dhauladhars, or "white mountains", rise 4,000 m / 13,200 ft above the valley floor, providing a dramatic backdrop and Dharamsala, built on a spur of the Dhauladhar range, commands a splendid view of the surrounding country.
This is an enchanting world where the spinning of the prayer wheel is constant, and fluttering prayer flags can be seen from every viewpoint. All the more important is that Dharamsala is the home of the Buddhist spiritual head, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan Government-in-exile.
If you are looking for a truly unique travel experience, and a chance to venture 'off the beaten path', then check out this tour... You wont be disappointed.
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