Ladakh – literally ‘The Land of Many Passes’ and also known as ‘Little Tibet’ – is situated in the northern-most part of India and shares borders with Tibet, Pakistan and the Indian states of Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. Its three main regions are Leh and the Upper Indus Valley (Ladakh’s Buddhist heartland), the isolated Zanskar Valley, and Kargil and Suru Valley, with its ancient Islamic culture.
Ladakh’s Himalayan mountain ranges roll from the southeast to the northwest, reaching altitudes of 7,000m, with an average valley elevation of 3,500m. The 2,000-mile-long river Indus, originating in Tibet, drains the entire region, and is fed by rivers and streams from side valleys.
‘Little Tibet’ is shielded from the Indian monsoon by its marginal mountains, which keep rain-bearing winds out and create a dry, desert-like climate. Short, warm summers are followed by long, cold winters, with little snowfall and temperatures dipping to -35C. Ladakh is one of the highest inhabited areas of the world, and its sparse population has, over the centuries, developed a unique culture, strongly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.
The region’s picturesque village oases, with their flat-roofed mud houses, are surrounded by barley and mustard fields. Fort-like monasteries perch on the Ladakhi hilltops, and dazzling blue lakes contrast with the snowy peaks, vast plains and deep gorges. Plant life flourishes on the plateaus and along the streams of Ladakh. Flowers include anemones, blue poppies and edelweiss. Many medicinal plants grow at altitudes of up to 4,900m and, although there are few trees in the region, poplar, apricot, apple, mulberry and walnut can be found in the villages and lower valleys.
Despite its extreme climate, the region harbours a multitude of wildlife, including yak, ibex, wild goat, blue sheep, Tibetan antelope, wolves, foxes and the endangered snow leopard. Birdlife includes snow cocks, partridges, the rare black-necked crane, griffon vultures, and the bearded vulture.
Situated in central Ladakh, Leh is the second largest district in India. Leh town, at an altitude of 3,500m, nestles in the stunning Himalayan landscape. Its attractions include the deserted Leh Palace, whose architecture was inspired by the Potala Palace in Tibetan capital Lhasa, and Leh Monastery and gompas. South of Leh, in lower Ladakh, the Sham Valley is notable for the 500-year-old Basgo Palace (built by the Namgyal dynasty), the 11th century Likir Monastery, which houses a 25-foot guilded Buddha statue, and the 10th century Alchi Monastery – one of the oldest monasteries in Leh. Sham is also famous for the dramatic confluence of the Indus river, from Tibet, and the Zanskar river, from Zanskar Valley.
Jangthang, in southeast Ladakh, forms part of a high-altitude plateau, the majority of which lies across the border in Tibet. Home to the Chanpa nomads, Janthang was a historically important route for travellers journeying from Ladakh to Lhasa. Jangtang Wildlife Sanctuary sustains many rare flora and fauna, and is enclosed by two spectacular lakes – Tsomoriri and Pangong Tso.
The tri-armed Nubra Valley is located in northern Ladakh, and was originally known as Ldumra – the Valley of Flowers. Its main landmark is the 32-meter-tall Maitreya Buddha statue, which is maintained by Diskit Monastery. Many Buddhist villages lie along the Nubra river, as do Samstanling and Panamik monasteries – the latter noted for its hot springs and isolated Ensa Gompa. Between Diskit and Hundar are several kilometers of sand dunes and seabuckthorn forests, where camels can be seen grazing.
Kargil, Ladakh’s pre-eminently Muslim district, is situated in the far northwest of the state. Attractions include the beautiful Suru Valley, which rises from Kargil town to the source of the Suru river, and Kartse Khar Palace with its seven-meter-tall rock-carved statue of the Maitriya Buddha. The region is also home to many magnificent stupas and Zanskar is buddhist part of Kargil district .
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