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Expat Blog: Adventure in Ladakh by Ian Slater

Through contacts made via ExpatLife, four ExpatLife members made an unforgettable trip to Leh, Ladakh in August. The trip started in earnest at Leh Airport, the approach to which is unforgettable due to the difficult approach, nestled as it is in the mountains at 10000+ feet elevation. Unusual for an airport, there is only one direction for both take-off and landing so air traffic control is critical!

Given the elevation of Leh, it was necessary to have a day of acclimatisation at our first hotel. Even getting up the stairs to our rooms was a challenge. So we took it easy on Day 1 and got ourselves physically and mentally ready for subsequent activities.

In total, we were in Ladakh for eight days. In that period, we visited several beautiful monasteries and heard much about the Buddhist faith in a history that dated back to 11th century. At Diskit Monastery, we were shown what are said to be the skull and forearm of the warrior Genghis Khan who was killed in battle in the Nubra Valley.

We were taken on two longer trips over high passes with overnight stops at camps. The first was via Khardung La (18,300 feet), which is claimed to be the highest "motorable pass" in the world. Even in summer, it was a challenge! The roads, maintained by the army, are in variable conditions due to the combined effects of weather and frequent landslides. Having seen the roads and experienced the effects of altitude, I have lost all interest of riding on a motorcycle. Despite my own misgivings, this is still a hugely popular challenge ride and there were many brave individuals who gave it a go – most of them on trusty Royal Enfields.

The views were exceptional and we were treated to wonderful blue skies throughout. But the ferocity of the mountains was made plain when we passed through a village on the approach to the Nubra Valley that had been largely washed away by a flash flood only a few days before. It was sobering to see.

In the Nubra Valley, we stayed at a tented camp and, as we were the only customers, we were able to dictate when the lights went out so we enjoyed watching a beautiful star-lit sky in complete darkness. Timing couldn’t have been better as there was no moon at that particular time either. The Milky Way was particularly beautiful and we saw a smattering of shooting stars and one or two satellites going overhead.

Our second high altitude mountain pass took us through to Pangong Lake – a glacial water lake that is partly in India but mainly in Tibet. Surrounded by mountains and having a deep blue colour (depending on the sunlight) it is a beautiful location. The people living there eke out a very meagre lifestyle depending as they do on tourism and agriculture for survival. Despite the difficult conditions, we found them friendly and welcoming and, like everywhere else on this trip, we ate and drank well. Again we were staying in tents – more basic than in Nubra Valley – and due to the cold wind, we were all glad of the many blankets on the beds. Sunrise was a disappointing affair as it was cloudy for once and there had been light snowfall on the mountains on either side of the lake. This was not enough to deter one member of the party who walked for an hour alongside the lake in the direction of Tibet before turning back for breakfast.

On our last full day, some of the party did a white-water rafting trip on the Zanskar River. The river had plenty of water in it and we faced some quite sizeable stretches of white water. But the equipment was good, we had been well briefed, and our boat master was in control. So we all emerged unscathed after an exciting 60 minutes or so on the water.

There were various opportunities to shop whilst in Leh and around it, but the best shopping (in my view) was at Alchi Gompa – a thousand-year-old monastery with very interesting paintings but also a thriving market having many interesting artefacts for sale. I also had an enormous piece of apricot pie from a German Bakery for the princely sum of 80 rupees. That got my day off to a calorific start.

All in all, it was a fantastic experience! We were blessed with beautiful weather, good company and excellent support from our guide (Sonam) and driver (Tensing) and I would recommend the trip to anybody who thinks they can handle the altitude, the intense UV dose, the jaw-dropping scenery, the threat of landslides, the unprotected drops to the valley from a road that clings to the mountainside and the surprises (good and bad) that lurk around virtually every corner.