By Gavin Foo
ALAND like no other. Ladakh, set in the western edge of the Tibetan plateau, is a cold desert with little rainfall and sunshine almost all the time.
The Ladakh region is about 64 times the size of Singapore andhas a population of less than 300,000.
Located in the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir, bordering China, Ladakh is surrounded by the spectacular mountain ranges of the Great Himalayas in the south and Karakoram in the north.
Because of its close proximity to Tibet, the Ladakhi people bear similar traits as their neighbours. Their clothes and dialects are similar to the Tibetans. Buddhism is the dominant religion and there are Buddhist monasteries perched on mountain tops. It's an awe-inspiring sight.
Leh, the capital of Ladakh, is at an elevation of about 3,500m above sea level. It's a high-altitude desert with low levels of atmospheric oxygen. Acclimatisation is necessary to prevent acute mountain sickness, which can leave you feeling dizzy, nauseous and short of breath.
An hour-long flight from New Delhi takes you over breath taking snow-capped summits of the Himalayan ranges.
For the more adventurous, I'd recommend the longer - but more breathtaking - route by road. Take a bus from New Delhi to Manali, a town in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh. From there, you can hire a private jeep for about $400.
A three-day journey from New Delhi takes you through lush pine forests and raging rapids, before plunging into rugged and barren mountain landscapes. The Manali-Leh highway, which opens only from June to mid-September, takes you over some of the highest mountain passes in the world, one of which is Taglang La, at a dizzying height of 5,359m above sea level.
During the other months of the year, the highway is closed due to heavy snowfall.
Street food and trekking
In this mystical land, don't be fooled by what you see.
Behind a shoulder-high mud brick wall you may spot a luxury hotel. Up an old flight of stairs may be an excellent up market restaurant.
There is no scarcity of tourism-related outfits as well. Local travel agencies and souvenir shops line the main streets.
From Leh, there are numerous jeep safari and trekking options. Overnight trips to Pangong Tso (an in-land salt water lake) and Nubra Valley can be easily arranged.
At Nubra Valley, you'll see and experience an immensely different landscape from the mountainous desert. Lush green agricultural terraces contrast the desert mountain range in the backdrop.
Some areas like Pangong Tso and Nubra Valley require permits to enter. Permits are free, but they have to be obtained before making the trip there and the many local travel agencies can arrange these for you.
If you feel hungry along the way, you can stop by a village for some traditional Tibetan food, such as momo (stuffed dumplings) and Thukpa (soup noodle). Indian food is also widely available in Ladakh.
A lama in costume performs a "chaam" dance during a festival at the Hemis monastery.
During my trip last month, I experienced the Hemis Tsechu Festival which celebrates the birthday of Guru Padmasambhava,or Guru Rimpoche.
Guru Padmasambhava, regarded to be an incarnation of Lord Buddha, has also been credited as the founder of Tibetan Buddhism.
It is one of the most important Buddhist festivals in Ladakh.
Another annual highlight is the Ladakh Harvest Festival, which is celebrated from 1 Sep to 15 Sep every year.
Organised by the tourism department, this two-week long celebration boasts masked dances, archery contests, polo games, music and folk dances, and wedding celebrations.
It starts with a spectacular procession in which various cultural troupes and village contingents in full ceremonial costumes participate in dances to the tune of the traditional orchestra.
This festival is a kaleidoscope of the Ladakhi culture showcasing the blend of Central Asian, Tibetan and North Indian cultures and the art and handicrafts of the region.
(Based on a 20-day trip per person)
Airfare: $450 - $700 to New Delhi
(excludes tax and surcharges)
Accommodation: $800 (for 20-days,
for a 3-star type room)
Transport: $1200 (includes a six-day
hire of private jeep and driver)
Food: $300 (or $15 per day)
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This article was first published in The New Paper on August 22, 2008.