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I stepped out of the aircraft and found myself in a jungle of barren colossal mountains, each kissing the hem of the bluest sky. I felt like I was on a gigantic rooftop with no horizon, or in a towering cage. It was difficult to believe that this high altitude desert was once an extensive system of lakes. “Perfect set for a Fellini surreal sequence!” I thought aloud.

“Juley! Welcome to Leh, memsaab,” A Ladakhi airport guard smiled at me. Shaken out of my trance, I smiled back at the guard, who had sunburnt and wind-chapped rosy cheeks.

All Ladakhis will smile and greet you with “Juley!”—one simple word which encompasses all forms of greeting, including goodbye and thank you, for all occasions.

After checking in to my guesthouse, I visited Hemis Gompa (or monastery), which was founded in 1630 and is among the largest and most important monasteries in Ladakh. There I met a beautiful old devotee who looked as ancient and immortal as the monastery itself. She posed for my camera as we chatted—she in rudimentary Hindi and I trying hard to speak Hindi with a Ladakhi accent. Just as I was about to leave, the devotee asked me for money (suddenly in very fluent Hindi). I was shocked: wasn’t this supposed to be a holy place? Only after I had given her 40 rupees was she satisfied. (This poor artist was then out of change and could not buy water for the rest of the day.)

The driver and I next left for Thiksey Gompa, reputedly the most beautiful Ladakhi monastery. Thiksey houses the renowned three-storied Maitriya Buddha statue. Thiksey Gustor, the gompa’s annual festival, is held in October-November and attracts devotees and tourists from all over the world.

When we arrived, several of the 80 monks residing in Thiksey were rushing for their evening prayers. One of them was a very active 100-year-old lama who yielded to my camera before impulsively deciding to show me his back instead of his face. As soon as he was gone, I saw a young lama talking happily on a cell phone. It was quite surprising to watch a monk using a mobile, even more so in that lovely wilderness setting that seemed untouched by modernity. Like most lamas, he wore a look of renunciation, yet his joyous expression while talking on the phone indicated that he was still very much a part of the outside world.

It is not unusual to see lamas live like common people in Ladakh: they drive vehicles, shop, carry backpacks, run across traffic, and mix with tourists. Their faces, however, always have a somewhat aloof look. It is to assert their austerity, perhaps, that most gompas are situated away from civilisation at high altitudes. Perhaps their location is also a test of religious fervour, as devotees, monks, and nuns alike must laboriously trek uphill or climb hundreds of ancient stairs in order to reach the monasteries.

Back at the Oriental Guesthouse—a wonderful family-run establishment—I had a quick sumptuous dinner of momos, Tibetan vegetarian dumplings and thukpa, Tibetan noodle soup. At 6 a.m. the next morning, after a glass of comforting mint tea and butter toast, I set off for the Nubra Valley (Valley of Flowers).

At 10,000 feet, Nubra is much lower in altitude than Leh; in order to get there, however, you have to first climb uphill to reach Khardung La Pass—the world’s highest motorable road at 18,380 feet—and then take the downhill, relatively temperate drive to the villages of Khalsar, Diskit, and Nubra.

The roads were the worst I had ever encountered and seemed extremely dangerous at such high altitudes. In his highly accented Hindi, Tsering, my guide and driver, explained that all the roads and infrastructure had been built by the army 60 years ago. The army did not seem to bother much about maintenance since its trucks could easily glide over loose rocks and the frequent minor landslides. At low altitudes, we encountered many cyclists. Tsering explained that several professionals training for big events come from all over the world to practice here. If you can cycle in Ladakh, the Olympics and Tour-de-France are cakewalks!

Despite all my precautions, I grew dizzy and desperate to return to Leh. During our rickety ride, we encountered snowy slopes and seasonal waterfalls of melted snow-water causing tiny landslides here and there. Tsering and the drivers of passing vehicles seemed as comfortable as you and I might have been on a Hawaiian beach, whereas the other tourists and I suffered. Excluding the occasional furry mountain dogs, wild donkeys, sheep, and yaks, there were not many signs of life. How herbivores survive there is a mystery to me: there was no sign of grass or even a tree for hundreds of miles. Sometimes, we were told, the dogs are compelled to feed on carcasses or hunt down other herbivores.

We sped downhill through narrow serpentine roads where you couldn’t see the on-coming traffic. I fell in and out of sleep until we reached the tiny hamlet of Khalsar, adjacent to the North Pullu army base—a crucial army point controlling the Kashmiri border. After a simple and wonderful lunch of wild rice with kaali daal, we resumed our journey and reached the quaint village of Diskit.

Diskit is full of beautiful ruins and seems to have been sleeping in an eternal time warp. The people of Diskit live without telephones, cable television, or electricity. Yet the village also has its own politics and an Urdu newspaper. Ladakh is mostly Buddhist, but there is a considerable Muslim population, especially in Diskit.

The next morning I went further into Nubra Valley. The valley is truly a geographical marvel with sand dunes, mountains, and a running river all in one place. Additionally, there are endless wild roses, tulips, or lavenders, depending on the season. Nubra was surprisingly warm despite being just about 100 km from Siachen, the world’s highest battlefield. You might spot the endangered double-humped Bactrian camel that is otherwise found only in China and Mongolia.

Upon returning to Leh the next evening, I went to Agling, a small Tibetan refugee village on the outskirts of Leh, where Tibetans had built houses and shops of sun-baked clay and rocks. Signs of poverty burst through Agling’s cracked glass windows and the cracked smiles of its inhabitants. A little morose now, I approached the tranquil Indus River. It was beautiful. Donkeys grazed on the river’s banks and a few Ladakhis were having a picnic. One of them grew inebriated drinking shang and started to dance and sing to the grazing donkeys. He then settled himself in the shallow waters and sang from there. His party doubled up with laughter as the donkeys brayed in response.

Ladakh is situated in eastern Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), at an altitude of 9,000-25,000 ft above sea level. Two of the world’s sturdiest mountain ranges—the Himalayas and the Karakoram—border Ladakh from all sides. Its capital, Leh, is India’s highest civilian airport and one of the most difficult airports in the world in which to land.

AIR: Indian Airlines, Air Deccan, and Jet Airways fly regularly from Delhi to Leh. ROAD: You can rent local taxis or board HRTC and J&KSRTC buses that run daily from Manali to Leh and back, covering a scenic 473 km journey in about 19 hours.

It is best to make Leh a base camp and undertake short trips from there. Leh has several reasonably priced and comfortable guesthouses. Family-owned guesthouses offer the best Ladakhi hospitality.

IN AND AROUND LEH: Old Leh market, Shey Palace, Shanti Stupa, Hemis, Thiksay, Takthok and several other monasteries.

TSOMORIRI & PANGONG LAKES: Beautiful lakes on the Chinese border flanked by the lovely mountains and clear blue skies. At 14,000 feet, Karzok at Tsomoriri boasts the highest agricultural fields in the world.

NUBRA VALLEY (VALLEY OF FLOWERS) and a geographical marvel via Khardung La Pass.

DHAHANU: These villages are located 163 km southwest of Leh house Drokpas, arguably the world’s last race of pure Aryans. Their religion and culture resembles Bon-Chos, an ancient pre-Buddhist religion.

WHAT TO EAT: Thanks to its global clientele, Leh offers all kinds of global cuisine—Israeli, Korean, Italian—albeit with a Ladakhi touch. Try the sour Ladakhi bread, yak cheese, and Ladakhi mint tea. If you are lucky, you might find Tibetan butter tea and salt tea. If you are even luckier, you might find shang—an alcoholic drink made from wheat. Try the Ladakhi-Tibetan vegetarian fare like Chutagi at monasteries. Café Jeevan at Leh Market has the best food around … you might have to queue up for dinner though.

Rituparna Chatterjee is an independent writer and photographer.