LEH, INDIA — I COULD tell Ladakh was no ordinary place even before the Indian Airlines flight touched down. Ninety minutes after we took off from New Delhi, the plane began to bank sharply, slaloming between the huge granite peaks of the Himalayas. The pilot, it seemed, was wrestling the Airbus onto the runway at Leh, the capital of Ladakh, India. At 11,400 feet above sea level, it's the second-highest airport in the world.
The landing approach to Leh is so tortuous, in fact, that even a hint of bad weather prompts Indian Airlines to cancel its daily flight - the only link between the small, northern Indian region of Ladakh and the rest of the world for nine months of the year. This day, however, the weather was clear, and the plane finally touched down on the sloping runway to the sound of applause from my fellow passengers.
Stepping off the airplane, I was greeted by a landscape unlike any I had ever seen. Actually, it was a composite of three distinct topographies: rocky desert, snowcapped Himalayan peaks, and an occasional splash of lush green fields. All three were juxtaposed, as if brought together by some sort of trick photography.
As I stepped into the small terminal building a sign on one of the walls alerted visitors to the symptoms of altitude sickness. Ladakh is more than twice as high as Denver, and it takes most people a few days to adjust to the thin air.
A land without time
India prides itself on its diversity. (Some say it's a mixed blessing, given the country's history of ethnic violence.) And Ladakh is a far cry from the India most often evoked in the minds of armchair travelers.
There are no spice markets here, no snake charmers or maharajahs' palaces. In fact, except for my wallet full of rupees and the occasional Hindi film poster, I saw little evidence of ``mainstream'' India.
Driving from the airport into Leh, I noticed a picture of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, pinned to the taxi's dashboard. While most of India is Hindu, Ladakhis are mainly Buddhists.
And while the rest of India is beginning to bop to MTV and guzzle Pepsi, Ladakh's physical isolation has helped to preserve its culture. Most Ladakhis still wear traditional clothing, an outfit that looks like a cross between a costume from ``The Wizard of Oz'' and a Star Trek uniform: pointed hats curved upward at the brim and long black robes tied with a cotton sash. The Ladakhi language is closer to Tibetan than to any Indian tongue, and I quickly grew fond of the traditional Ladakhi greeting of ``Jullay.'' Ladakhis don't so much say this word as sing it.
In a country with 900 million people crammed into an area smaller than the continental United States, Ladakh offers a pleasant dose of elbow room. Only 240,000 people live in all of Ladakh, 15,000 of them in Leh. The region wasn't opened to foreign travelers until 1974, and airlines only began flying here in 1979.
Sandwiched between China and Pakistan, Ladakh has been the unwilling focus of several international tug-of-wars. The frequent rumble of Indian Army convoys attests to the fact that Ladakh remains a sensitive border region.
Most Ladakhis, however, simply ignore the large military presence and go about doing what they do best: coaxing a surprisingly abundant harvest from this stingy land. Ladakh receives very little rain, making it as barren as the Sahara, but glacial melt from the Himalayas, along with man-made irrigation, enable Ladakhi farmers to make a comfortable living.
Leh, the capital, has grown in recent years, but it still feels like a frontier town. There is only one main street, and it's crowded with Ladakhi farmers, Indian soldiers, Kashmiri merchants, backpacking tourists, and a handful of beggars - who shadow the backpacking tourists.
Modern tourism has arrived in Leh. No Hiltons or InterContinentals (at least not yet), but Ladakhis have embarked on an enthusiastic, if somewhat errant, effort to cater to Western tastes. Restaurants in Leh now serve everything from bad falafel to bad spaghetti. (The German Bakery, however, has the best cinnamon rolls in South Asia.)
Adapting to outside influences
Ladakhis aren't quite sure what to make of the herds of earnest backpackers who visit their region, many of them from Israel. The tourists have brought money and, in turn, better jobs for some, but also pollution and a jangle of cultures - Buddhist monks wearing Ray-Ban sun glasses and digital watches. There are fax machines but no electricity to run them.
Eager to escape the cultural mishmash of Leh, I signed up for what was billed as a ``baby trek.'' I soon discovered, however, that in the rarefied air of Ladakh, even crossing the street can leave you winded.
For five days, we huffed and puffed our way through mountain passes, from one village to the next. Donkeys carried our luggage; the Ladakhi scenery carried our spirits. The highlight of the trek was a series of visits to gompas - Buddhist monasteries perched on mountaintops. Nearly every town in Ladakh has a gompa, and almost all are open to travelers. The monks, dressed in maroon robes, go about their business, unfazed by the visitors.
Clearly, however, some of the West has rubbed off on the monks. At one gompa, in the town of Tikse, the monks run a small refreshment stand, serving - what else? - Snickers candy bars and Coca-Cola. A sure sign that Ladakh's isolation may not last much longer.