With its Tibet-influenced traditions and astonishing landscapes, northern India’s remote Ladakh region is as genuine as a destination can get. But visitors don’t necessarily have to trade comfort for authenticity, thanks to a well-seasoned network of village homestays that allows them to get immersed in the local culture without roughing it.
Photographs by Jenny Zarins
The former Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh may be only 80 minutes by air from New Delhi, but it feels like it inhabits another dimension. Blame the elevation, perhaps: at 3,500 meters the brain struggles for oxygen, let alone reason, and shortly after stepping off the plane in Leh I’m mystified by the region’s alien moonscape of barren, crumpled mountains and hilltop monasteries that rise so naturally from their desert peaks they might have been sculpted by the elements. Struggling to put to words my sudden sense of dislocation, I recall a passage from Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind that captures my feelings precisely. Going to the mountains, the British travel author and mountaineer writes, is an experience “not only of moving upwards in space, but also backwards through time.”
That impression of otherworldliness, of other-timeliness, is heightened along the circuit of village houses run by Shakti Himalaya, a tour operator established more than a decade ago to promote homestays in India’s remote mountain regions. Today, Shakti rents eight Ladakhi houses in valleys carved by the Indus and Zanskar rivers. Though the upper floors of each property have been converted into chic guest quarters, they are still owned and occupied by local families, so guests are surrounded by living culture as well as epic scenery. One of my hosts swings a censer of smoldering juniper through the hallways at dawn to ward off evil and please the lakatho, or house spirit. Another two are brothers who married the same woman in order to keep their family’s precious landholding from being split up. (Polygamy and polyandry persist in this remote society, despite being officially outlawed.) Yet another homeowner is the village churpon, the man elected to regulate water rights in this high-altitude desert.
In Ladakh, timeworn customs trump 21st-century distractions. There is no Internet access outside the main town of Leh—and there only on rare occasions when the stars and satellites align. Smartphones are useless for all but photos. I’m told that the Indian Army restricts foreign phone reception “for security reasons,” meaning the taut geopolitics of these disputed borderlands with China and Pakistan. (Though Ladakh lies in the troubled state of Jammu & Kashmir, the disputed areas are a lengthy drive away over the highest roads in the highest mountains in the world. So being here feels perfectly safe despite—or perhaps because of—the overwhelming Indian Army presence in the Leh Valley.) But the enforced digital shutdown comes as a blessing. It frees the mind to focus on the here and now.
Rohan Dhar, my eloquent Shakti guide, acts as cultural interpreter, inducting me into the customs and curiosities of Ladakhi life. During my prescribed first day of rest to acclimatize to the altitude, we chat over cups of tea and snacks on a roof terrace dwarfed by the massed peaks of the Stok and Ladakh ranges.
In Ladakh, Dhar tells me, the houses have names, not numbers. “If you travel anywhere in Ladakh you don’t ask for the family name, you ask for the house name.” This one, an hour’s drive west of Leh in Nimmu village, is known as the House of the Medicine Man because its owner is a 14th-generation amchi (traditional healer). Fourteen generations. It seems like an eternity, but against the ancient backdrop of the Himalayas, it’s a mere speck in time.
Traditions endure here like few other places on earth. Families still help each other with agricultural work—sowing, harvesting, irrigation—under a system known as langde, the sharing of community resources. Helping your neighbor, looking out for one another, is an article of human faith in the Leh Valley.
In the village of Alchi, an emerald oasis cradled by lilac mountains, we visit a monastic complex that has withstood floods, fires, and Muslim raiders for a millennium. Dhar recounts how dozens of Kashmiri craftsmen were brought here to decorate the 11th-century Sumtsek Temple with a fine woodwork entrance influenced by the Gandhara style, an artistic legacy that, I’m told, was extinguished with the arrival of Islam to Kashmir in the 12th century. That makes Alchi not only a priceless treasury of rare Buddhist art, but also a relic of a human endeavor that no longer exists.
Ladakh’s vibrant expressions of Tibetan Buddhism also feel ageless, particularly when such tradi- tions are vanishing in neighboring Tibet. There are older gompa (monasteries) than Alchi—the 10th-century Lamayuru, for one—and to visit them today, for a prayer service in the half-light of the worship hall, with monks swathed in crimson cloth sipping butter tea and finger-spooning rice into their mouths, is to witness a scene that has probably played out daily for centuries and centuries. Only the characters change.
The one word visitors to Ladakh need to know is julleh. It’s pronounced ju-lay, and it means “hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” and “thank you,” among other things. It’s a very useful word. A magic word, like abracadabra. It dissolves cultural barriers. In Ladakh, you use julleh a lot.
I greet Rinchen Palder with a cheery “Julleh” when Dhar and I visit him at his home in Chilling, a hamlet of coppersmiths within Hemis High Altitude National Park, India’s biggest national park and home to the world’s most robust population of snow leopards. Originally from Nepal, the craftsmen’s ancestors were brought to Ladakh in the 15th and 16th centuries by the region’s former royal family, the Nyamgals, who were so pleased with their metalwork that they granted them this desert village that now blooms with wild pink roses and watery-blue irises.
Paldar, a wiry 85-year-old with just two remaining teeth and a small earring in his right lobe, leads us to his tiny mud-walled workshop via a vertical arrangement of rough-hewn steps and makeshift branch-bridges connecting the stone buildings of his cliffside home. The setting feels positively medieval, but the outlook is superb, spanning brilliant fields of barley to mighty peaks and glaciers beyond. In Ladakh, even the view from a humble coppersmith’s house is one of infinite majesty.
Paldar has worked his craft since the age of 12. His snug workshop is cluttered with tools and cloths and tiny hammers; there’s a cut-off tin drum piled with lumps of coal and a lambskin bellows to fan the embers. He demonstrates the bellows for us and blasts dust and ashes into the air, onto our clothes, and up our noses. Then he opens a padlocked chest and takes out a selection of spoons for me to admire. Decorated with leaf and dot patterns, they each take two days to make. He offers to sell me one for 300 rupees (less than US$5).
Work has become easier for Paldar in recent years. He no longer has to make the long trip into Leh to sell his wares; customers come to him. Mostly they are trekkers chilling for a day or two in Chilling. Many local families have hung out the “homestay” shingle hoping to earn extra cash during the short summer tourist season. Dhar tells me that in small settlements such as this, villagers will take turns hosting foreign guests so everyone shares the benefits. There’s that neighborliness again.
Each of Shakti’s village guesthouses was chosen for its sublime outlook. At the newest addition to the network, a four-bedroom residence southeast of Leh, the Indus River rushes by in the foreground, the 16th-century Stakna Monastery looms like a white fortress in the middle ground, and the backdrop is an impenetrable wall of glacial peaks. And that’s just the view from the bathroom.
Complete with a dedicated household staff to attend to every whim, the accommodations are also supremely comfortable. Shakti added extensions, modern conveniences, and sophisticated but sympathetic interiors by designer Eleanor Stanton to convert all the houses into luxury abodes. While they’re still replete with traditional features like bukhari wood heaters and ceilings of poplar beams and willow twigs, guests can also expect chic furnishings that might run to a gilt-framed quiver of porcupine quills and rustic parquetry floors in the Ladakhi shin style.
Yet it’s the less tangible things that stick fast in the memory: tea delivered promptly to your bedside each morning; the crackling fires and hot salty popcorn and games of Scrabble; the staff’s unwavering attention to every detail. In such an isolated destination, this is true luxury.
The Shakti experience typically involves staying at three or more of the houses, with days spent exploring the Leh Valley by car and by foot, with guide, driver and porters at your disposal. Village walks are a key element of the itinerary; the cultural immersion is more direct and powerful when you move among ordinary people. It’s also possible to do more strenuous multiday camping trips, hiking higher into the Himalayas. Or guests can opt to go white-water rafting on the Indus or Zanskar rivers, cycle around the kingdom’s former summer capital at Shey, visit a traditional healer, and do yoga and meditation with a Mahabodhi-trained monk.
Come evenings, candlelit dinners unfold in ornate home kitchens. At the house in Nimmu we dine beside an antique hearth decorated with gold, turquoise, and rubies. There is a vast array of shelves stocked with gleaming pots, and urns and jugs and fancy serving things. Ladakhis always keep their treasures in the kitchen, close to the heart.
At Likir, a village of 152 houses in a rose-gold moonscape of crenellated cliffs backdropped by the Zanskar Range, I feast like a Nyamgal king on chef Diwan Mehta’s refined Indian dishes. He opens with a silky, lightly spiced cauliflower soup fragrant with coriander. Then comes yogurt and coriander mutton, vegetable kofta, pots of black lentils and spinach, chapatis, and a warmed carrot halwa that makes the eyes glisten with pleasure. Lying contentedly in bed afterward, gazing out onto a starry night and the ghostly silhouettes of snowy mountains, I listen to the tin chimney pot creak and crack from the heat of burning logs. It’s the coziest sound I’ve ever heard.
Dawn brings new sounds: the scape of a twig broom in the courtyard; doors opening and closing as the house wakes; sparrows and pipits gossiping in the willows; footsteps on stairs. There’s a pleasant smokiness in the air from the fire outside heating water for my shower. At 6.30 a.m., one of the staff arrives promptly with a steaming pot of masala chai and just-baked biscuits. The tea’s base notes of cardamom kick in as the first sunrays gild the highest peaks of the Zanskar Range.
Most mornings on the Shakti trail hold the promise of a monastery visit. So it is in Thiksey, whose hilltop gompa we visit at dawn for the call to prayer, broadcast across the upper Indus Valley through conch shells. Here I meet a monk named Chamba, who stuns me when he says he knows what he will be doing every year for the rest of his life. Monks’ roles are so precisely prescribed that Chamba, who is currently a supply clerk, knows he will soon join the kitchen and cook for 12 months. Then he will play the flute for two years, then the horn for two years, then spend two years doing office work. And so on.
“All the responsibilities are fixed,” Chamba explains cheerfully.
Who, in 2016, can possibly know what every year of their life will involve? I feel envious of the certainty of his existence.
This is what Ladakh will do to you. It will make you think. It will challenge your beliefs. It will inspire you. It might even change you, for the better, if you give it enough time.
Shakti Himalaya’s (91-124/456-3899) Ladakh Village Experience runs between May and September and while itineraries can be tailored, a minimum of six or seven nights (depending on the month) on the circuit is required. Priced from US$5,775 per person, the seven-night package includes homestay accommodation, all
meals, beverages, and activities, guides and porters, and local airport transfers. Shakti also runs similar programs in Sikkim and the Kumaon Himalayas of Uttarakhand.
This article originally appeared in the October/November print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“At Home in the Himalaya”).