Ladakh: India's kingdom apart

UNTIL not very long ago, foreigners were forbidden from visiting Ladakh, India's remote Hermit Kingdom, except by special permission of the government. They arrived there only after a journey of several days over frozen riverbeds and some of the highest mountain passes in the world. It is a little easier today - the region was opened to tourism in 1974 - but this ancient land tucked into the Himalayas next to Tibet still retains the exotic feeling of a land apart.

In early times, Ladakh was an important stopping point on the Silk Route, connecting Sinkiang, Tibet, Kashmir, and northern India. It flourished as a commercial center, its markets rich with gold, silk, tea, pearls, cotton, spices, and brocades. And with the trade came religions and their culture and art: first Islam from Persia, then Buddhism from Kashmir and later Tibet, and, centuries afterward, Christianity from Moravian missionaries.

The British used Ladakh as a buffer against Russia in the 19th century, the Indians as a military enclave during their 1962 border clash with China. Now, in calmer days, it forms the northeastern frontier of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and the only invaders to be found are tourists.

The fastest way to get to Ladakh is by plane from Kashmir. But for those with a taste for adventure and a couple of days to spare, the way to travel is by bus on the Srinagar-Leh National Highway, which, reaching 14,000 feet above sea level, is the highest highway in the world.

We make the journey toward the end of the tourist season, so our fellow passengers are nearly all Ladakhis and Kashmiris. I am assigned a seat next to a monk, who interrupts his prayers at intervals to produce apples from under his shawl as if by magic and to bestow them on me with grunts and smiles, since we have no other language in common.

We leave Kashmir's capital of Srinagar, with its gabled houses that date from the British Raj, and drop off some schoolchildren on the outskirts of the city. The road is well maintained and we make good time to Sonamarg, a beautiful town with alpine flowers and ski chalets which improbably make it look like Switzerland.

Our start breeds a false sense of optimism, however, because, just over the Zojila Pass, we enter the bleak Drass Valley. It is a landcape with the dubious distinction of being one of the coldest inhabited spots on Earth. From there, we climb; the bus edges along the side of mountains, which look as if they can't get any higher, but do. On the other side, the cliffs drop straight to valleys a thousand feet below.

When it grows dark, we stop for the night at Kargil. This town grew at the crossroads of three major trade routes, and its warm, wet climate makes possible the mulberry and apricot trees, rice paddies, and willows that line the road.

The next morning, we continue our journey until we reach Leh, the capital city, 11,000 feet up in the Karakoram Range on the plateau formed by the Indus River. Dating from the 1300s, Leh was a favorite site of the medieval Namgyal rulers and became the religious, political, and commercial center of the region. The town is small, with one main street, so it is easily explored. As in most of Ladakh, the buildings in Leh seem to be an extension of the surrounding stone, and the narrow pathways meander among whitewashed walls and, increasingly, shops and hotels.

In town, the 16th-century Leh Khan Palace is worth a visit. This nine-story building looms over Leh and includes a museum containing wall paintings, statues, and ancient Buddhist scrolls called thankas. Leh also has a mosque built by a Buddhist son for his Muslim mother and a thriving bazaar where carpets, silver, copper, turquoise jewelry, thankas, and shawls woven of the luxurious Pashmina wool are displayed in profusion.

As if in defiance of their harsh surroundings, Ladakhis love bright colors, so a visit to the bazaar, or, on the right day, to one of the religious festivals, is a visual treat. Traditional dress is still worn by many and includes sheepskin capes, pointed woolen slippers for the men, and tall quilted hats with winglike brims or elaborate turquoise headpieces for the women, who carry their goods in large reed baskets slung across their backs.

Day trips to the monasteries surrounding Leh are easily arranged, either by the buses that run during the summer or by hired taxi or jeep, with driver. These last are most convenient and, if you bargain well, not expensive. The most interesting monasteries, or gompas, are Hemis, near the Tibetan border; Shey, attached to the summer palace of the Namgyal kings; Thiksey, which is eight centuries old and 12 stories high and has 10 temples, 60 resident lamas, and a nunnery; and Lamayuru, the oldest monastery in Ladakh, which crouches among the rocks just beyond the highest point on the Leh-Srinagar road.

Each gompa offers its own treasures: the highly valued silk thankas which are exhibited only once a year, frescoes, manuscripts, Buddhas with their enigmatic smiles and long earlobes as signs of wisdom, yak butter lamps and votive offerings, the murmur of repeated prayers, the sudden color of prayer flags, or a class of laughing young lamas wearing saffron neckcloths against crimson robes.

Beyond the walls of the monastery are small domed outbuildings known as chortens. These commemorate the dead and house prayer wheels that, when spun, send prayers to heaven in numbers equal to their turns. With their unusual mix of timeless calm and celebration, the monasteries are microcosms of Ladakhi life, in which a favorite saying is: ``The greatest courage is the courage to be happy.'' Practical information

The best time to visit is between May and October, when it is warm during the day, though chilly at night. Bring good walking shoes, a hat, sunglasses and lotion for protection against the sun, and a flashlight; many places don't have electricity.

There are many ``Western style'' hotels in Leh with names such as Yaktail, Dreamland, and Tibet, which offer variety in price and amenities.

Restaurants are found tucked into back alleys, at the main bazaar, and in some hotels. Ladakhi food tends toward the monotonous - noodles, broth, mutton, and a few vegetables in season - but restaurants are beginning to offer Western food.

If you plan to go trekking, you should get permission in advance through India's Department of Tourism. Trekkers must stay within a strictly defined area and get additional permission to scale certain peaks. Leh has some outfitters, but it's a better idea to bring the necessary equipment and to carry the food and water you will need, because it may not be possible to get supplies along the way. The recommended time for trekking is June through September.

Indian Airlines flies to Srinagar from Delhi. The bus trip takes about 32 hours with an overnight stop, and the Srinagar-Leh road is usually open between May and November.

More information, brochures, and a list of hotels are available from the Government of India Tourist Office, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 15 North Mezzanine, New York, NY 10012.

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