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Desert highs in Ladakh

Ladakh is tailor-made for excursions into the wide outdoors. Get a map of the region, circle the places you want to see or routes you want to travel, and let your tour operator connect the dots

Suru Valley in Kargil, Ladakh. Photo courtesy
Suru Valley in Kargil, Ladakh. Photo courtesy

Trekking in Ladakh begins with a serious altitude check. Leh, where most trek operators will have you land/drive to, is at an elevation of 3,500m, almost halfway up some Himalayan peaks. This sudden ascent usually brings on altitude sickness, which, if not addressed in time, can result in serious complications. Acclimatizing and resting, therefore, become key to trekking plans in Ladakh, and most good trek operators will account for that.

So, ensure your trek operator has done certified and up-to-date mountain first-aid courses and carries the best equipment.

Once you are acclimatized, this western stretch of the trans-Himalayas has a lot to offer: a variety of rewarding treks, technical climbs, day hikes, village home-stays, even biking and rafting.

The Ladakh region is divided into the Leh and Kargil districts. All of it is mountainous—the Karakoram range lies to its north and the Ladakh and Zanskar ranges to the south. The eastern part of the district lies on the Tibetan plateau and is considered a desert, a very cold one. Endless brown and barren plateaus and bright green valleys offer more than just a topographical challenge; with medieval Buddhist monasteries and Ladakhi palaces clinging to steep cliffs en route to any trek in the region, it can also be a cultural and historical journey.

Tourist traffic has, in fact, picked up to a point where the “bucket list" concept is in danger of ruining the ecology of the more famous parts, such as Chadar and Pangong Tso.

If you want to visit, however, get a map of the region, circle the places you want to see or the routes you want to travel, and let your tour operator connect the dots.

Get a sense of the different parts of the region before you begin. The Ladakh region’s altitude ranges from approximately 2,500m to over 5,000m (the Nun mountain in Suru valley is the highest peak at 7,135m), and there are treks in every direction. All the treks use horses and mules to transport equipment. Along the way, you will find “parachute cafes"—small tea houses built with parachutes discarded by the Indian Army.

Ladakh is demarcated by its river valleys and historic routes; the ancient Silk Route passed through here. The Indus river and its basin form the heart of the region, and, for centuries, traders have travelled through from Central Asia to China. Leh, which lies close to the Zanskar—a tributary of the Indus—is the most populated part, with the best tourist facilities. Day trips to high points and famous lakes are possible with a base in Leh. The other rivers—Suru, Nubra, Shyok and Markha—carve deep gorges and create trekking challenges as well as rafting opportunities.

There are two trekking seasons. The most popular is the one from May-September, when day temperatures are in the teens. During the monsoon, when most of the Indian Himalayas are not suitable for trekking, Ladakh, which lies in the rain-shadow area, bustles with tourists. The second season is winter, when there are fewer travellers. Roads are often closed and the only way in is by air.

Markha Valley. Photo courtesy

If you want a high-altitude but not-too-challenging trek, opt for the five-day Sham Valley trek. You can do it in both seasons. It has centuries-old monasteries and picturesque villages, with plenty of opportunities to mix with the locals.

The 5,000m Shingo-La (la is Tibetan for pass) trek, challenging but with clearly marked trails, goes from Darcha in Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh (an alternative entry point to Ladakh), to the Zanskar valley.

The Markha Valley trek is a big step up as you cross the over 5,000m Kongmaru La, with views stretching towards the snow-clad Karakoram range. You will pass through the 4,400 sq. km Hemis National Park, home to a large population of snow leopards, and supposedly the only place where the Ladakhi urial lives. For birdwatchers, there are many native species as well as several varieties of vultures and eagles. You can opt for just the 13-day Hemis National Park tour too.

For walking and cultural tours, try the Nubra Valley—formed by the meeting of the Shyok and Nubra rivers—over 150km north of Leh. Visit Panamik, the last village on the frontier, the tall Maitreya Buddha sculpture, the Samstanling monastery, and attempt a camel safari.

Ladkah’s famous “lake district" is the Changthang region, with its high-altitude lakes of Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri. The drive between the two lakes is picturesque, but foreigners are not allowed beyond Man–Merak villages. They must take a more circuitous route. There are a number of shepherd trails in this area that make for popular hiking routes.

The Zanskar valley is a two-day drive from Leh, through many passes. Trekking here involves much more than the popular Chadar trek. Give this trek on the frozen Zanskar river a miss—with global warming and an ever-increasing number of tourists, the number of weeks the river is frozen, and during which one can trek, has come down substantially, and thousands of people camp on its banks, waiting for that window in January-February. Owing to the risk posed by the “semi frozen and unstable" sections of the river, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation issues an annual warning, urging trekkers to go only with reputed operators. This year, Leh’s deputy commissioner has issued orders on medical clearance for trekkers, applicable for the Chadar treks in 2019. Medical insurance has also been made mandatory.

At 6,153m, Stok Kangri is one of the highest mountains in Ladakh and even if you don’t actually summit on the last (11th) day—the final ascent is very steep—getting there is quite an effort. It’s technically challenging and is used as prep for higher mountains. Throughout the trail, the high altitude will slow down your pace, as will the tricky hour-long walk on the Stok glacier.

Try its neighbours too—Golep Kangri, Matho Kangri, Kang Yatze and Mentok Kangri—for equally thrilling ascents.

Ladakh has a variety of adventure and other activities that can be combined: rafting, biking, visits to cultural and historical hot spots. For the rafting community, the Zanskar and Indus offer both rafting and kayaking opportunities. The Tsarap Chu is a classic grade 5 kayaking section—violent and turbulent rapids that require a high level of fitness and rescue provisions.

In fact, in keeping with the grand scale of this mountainous region, the Zanskar river and gorge section is famously known as the “Grand Canyon of Asia".

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