Ladakh: the good, bad and ugly sides to India’s ‘Little Tibet’, high in the Himalayas
Tim Pile, Post Magazine, 1 Aug, 2019
: Known as Little Tibet due to a shared cultural and religious heritage, Ladakh, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, is about the size of England, with a population similar in number to that of the Hong Kong district of Wan Chai. The name derives from “la dags” meaning “land of mountain passes” and it’s a region characterised by high-altitude desert hemmed in by the mighty Himalayan and Karakoram ranges.
Cut off from the rest of the country by snow for seven months of the year, India’s northernmost region comes alive in summer. Deserts with the texture of eczema are lubricated by rivers swollen with snow melt and the run-off from dazzling turquoise lakes. Shaven-headed monks emerge from brilliant-white monasteries and squint in the piercing sunlight. Talking of which, Ladakh will soon be home to the world’s largest single-location solar photovoltaic plant. It could certainly do with the extra energy – tourism is booming and has brought tangible economic benefits. In all, 327,366 people visited the city of Leh in 2018, a whopping 50,000 increase on the previous year.
A 475km journey from Manali, in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, takes travellers between razor-sharp peaks and over high passes, including the 5,359-metre Khardung La, along one of the highest paved roads in the world. The drive will become easier next year with the completion of the Rohtang Tunnel, a trans-Himalayan short cut that will reduce travel times and ensure year-round connectivity to Ladakh. A long-awaited railway line from Bilaspur to Manali and Leh will further open up the pristine region by 2022. Besides its temples, markets and monasteries, Leh is a city to observe and absorb. Pick a cafe, order a cup of yak-butter tea, relax and let the sights, smells, noise and colour wash over you. Ladakh’s position at the crossroads of ancient trade routes can be seen in the weathered faces of its inhabitants. Kashmiri merchants rub shoulders with shepherds and Tibetan monks haggle with Punjabi businessmen.
The best-known of Ladakh’s attractions is a six-hour drive from Leh. Pangong Tso is the highest salt lake in India. The beauty spot draws movie buffs and Instagrammers keen to see where the final scene of 2009 Bollywood blockbuster 3 Idiots was filmed.
The farming of barley, wheat and vegetables happens in a hurry hereabouts. No sooner are crops sown in the thin Ladakhi soil than winter starts drawing in and the ground becomes frozen solid for months on end. It’s enough to make villagers throw in the towel and head for the bright lights of Leh. That’s where fortunes are made, after all. Except they’re not. Well, not for most Ladakhis anyway. The aforementioned tangible economic benefits accrue only to a small group of tour operators, hotel owners and merchants, many of whom are from elsewhere in India and come to Leh solely for the tourist season.
Subsistence farmers, who make up most of the population, have seen little improvement in their living conditions but are left to deal with the negative social, environmental and psychological impact of Ladakh’s change from an economy based on self-reliance to one driven by external market forces. Waves of wealthy outsiders descend on the pre-industrial region and leave locals, particularly the younger generation, feeling self-conscious, backward and poor. Tourism industry wages aren’t anywhere near enough for them to emulate the high consumption habits of rich visitors, so illegal means are adopted. Theft, once unheard of in Ladakh, has become a problem, as have children pestering people for money. An estimated 30,000 plastic water bottles are dumped in Leh every day. Like nearly everything else, they were trucked in across the Himalayas from thousands of kilometres away. Then there’s the diesel emitted from cars idling in traffic jams at Khardung La and other high-altitude bottlenecks.
In recent years there has been a surge in the number of domestic tourists drawn up from the baking Indian plains by the snow-capped scenery that appears in television advertisements and Bollywood blockbusters. In fact, 3 Idiots may end up being responsible for more damage to Ladakh’s environment than almost anything else.
Almost. The effects of global climate breakdown are increasingly evident in the ecologically fragile Himalayas – just ask the locals. Ladakhis say they have never witnessed such erratic climatic conditions. Flash floods caused by short but heavy downpours are worrying enough, but a pattern of diminishing snowfall and resulting drought has more serious long-term implications. The glacier on which Leh depends is predicted to melt completely within five or six years and hoteliers are already drilling boreholes in search of elusive groundwater. The shortage isn’t helped by the rush to modernise. Replacing traditional dry toilets with Western flush systems places greater demands on scarce water resources, for example. As engineer and educator Sonam Wangchuk puts it: “If people from the big cities live simply, then people in the mountains could simply live.”
Fly, rather than take the bus, to Leh (3,500 metres above sea level), and the thumping headaches, dehydration and general lethargy that accompany altitude sickness will begin as soon as you reach the baggage carousel. You’ll need to rest for a day or two while the symptoms subside. The cafes are OK but I’d steer clear of the yak-butter tea. Unless it’s for a bet.