Exactly one year ago, I was lost amid the dramatic, barren, snow-capped Himalayas of Ladakh. I acclimatized myself to the high altitude at an eco-luxury camp on the shores of the mighty Indus, hitch-hiked along remote villages in western Ladakh, introspected at a nunnery, witnessed a grand traditional welcome for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, hiked through surreal landscapes, met a tight work deadline on the steps of a monastery (the only place I could find 2G internet!), rode in rickety buses, and partook in the wisdom of Buddhist monks.
So much has happened since – from discovering the secret lives of chocolate farmers in Costa Rica to hitch-hiking through soulful villages in northern Romania – that I almost forgot why traveling in Ladakh broke my heart.
Every time I surf Instagram and see a picture of Ladakh, I can suddenly hear the call of the Trans-Himalayas, and feel myself gripped by a desire to revisit this remote mountain desert.
But then I remember, Ladakh might no longer be the place I visited just a year ago. Here’s why:
Ladakh’s breathtaking geography masks a very fragile ecology
Choose travel companies that respect and conserve it.
This is a region of extreme heat and cold, little to no rain, ingenious agricultural practices, traditional healing, rare wildlife and a heartwarming culture that remained isolated over centuries. As travellers, it is upon us to preserve this surreal place on earth. While choosing a company to plan your trip or trek, ask how they deal with waste, conserve water and energy, support the traditional way of life and contribute to the local community. If we don’t demand these efforts and merely try to save money, it won’t be long before Ladakh is laid to waste like many of India’s “popular” hill stations.
“Homestays” in Ladakh are not the obvious answer
If they offer the urban comforts you expect, you are doing it wrong.
My only “homestay” experience in Ladakh – Gangba Homestay (with fab reviews of TripAdvisor), was a huge disappointment. With a new wing built mostly in concrete, electric geysers for hot water and showers and toilets with gushing running water, there was nothing Ladakhi or environmentally conscious about it. And the only interaction I had with the family was over money, for I decided to cut my stay from one week to one day. I later learnt that the government subsidizes guest houses with cemented floors, tiles, power backup and running water!
Let go of your urban lifestyle for a few days and opt for traditional Ladakhi houses or camps that use solar energy for power and to heat water, offer bucket baths and dry decomposting or low consumption toilets, and generate minimum waste with recycling practices.
We can bond with this magnificent region beyond just sightseeing
Slow down, stay and volunteer.
What better way to experience life in Ladakh than contributing your time and skills to the local community, while deepening your bonds with the warm locals and the majestic mountains? I serendipitously landed up in a nunnery set up by a Dutch foundation, and decided to spend my entire trip informally helping the young nuns with their studies and lending a hand in chores around the attached guesthouse (where the nuns host travellers). I learnt much, about their introspective way of life and how they deal with hardships in this remote region, but even more about my own self and the things I take for granted.
Depending on your skills and time, you can teach, help with photography and documentation, facilitate environmental workshops or coach children in sports. Refer to this list of Ladakh-based organizations, contact them early, and keep your word.
The journey is part of the destination in Ladakh
Reduce your carbon footprint with hitchhiking and public transport.
You already know that journeying along Ladakh’s spectacular moon-like terrain, in the backdrop of snow-hooded mountains, is a unique experience. Now imagine soaking it all in with incredible stories told by co-passengers on a rickety local bus or shared taxi! It’s one of the few places in India where I let my guard down and felt safe hitchhiking alone – I got rides with two monks, a young student, an elderly man from Delhi who confessed he would never give anyone a ride back home (and I confessed I would never ask for a ride in Delhi – Ladakh changes something in everyone!), and people I ended up making friends with and hanging out with later.
I understand that for practical reasons, you might not want to ditch your private transport. The least you can do is let locals (or lost souls like me) hitchhike with you. Never once did a “tourist car” slow down to heed my thumb during my days in Ladakh.
Every drop of water is precious in this cold mountain desert
It’s okay not to bathe everyday!
In the glory of the mountains, its easy to forget that Ladakh is a desert which receives almost no rainfall. Over centuries, Ladakhi people have carefully created irrigation systems that utilize every drop of melting snow. Dry decomposting toilets (a pit that you do your business over through a hole in the ground and shovel mud on) eliminate the need for water and sanitation drains. Water from glacial streams is used for drinking. Then the region is opened up to tourism and with it come demands for running water, flushable western toilets and showers! Ladakh’s water table is falling irrevocably and its glaciers melting away fast.
We ought to reduce our water consumption while in the region – avoid bathing everyday, use a bucket when you must and open yourself to the idea of dry decomposting toilets; I can assure you they are more hygienic than Indian style bathrooms.
We don’t want to turn paradise into plastic-land
Carry all your trash back to the cities.
There is no sight as heartbreaking as kurkure packets and coke bottles littering the shores of a pristine lake or hillside – and especially so in Ladakh, where this trash will ultimately find its way into glacial streams, be dumped in a hapless dumping ground outside of Leh, or be burnt. Carry a good water bottle to refill water rather than buy countless plastic mineral water bottles, and carry all your non-biodegradable trash back home. I tried to pick up wrappers and bottles while hiking too, and was shocked at the plastic I had accumulated (including my own consumption) at the end of a mere fortnight – which I finally dumped in a bin at Delhi airport.
It’s really as easy as having a small trash bag with you at all times.
Being connected by flights doesn’t make it less remote
Forget your city life and be more accepting of the local food and culture.
Many people are shocked to hear that I didn’t travel up to Pangong Lake on my Ladakh trip. I didn’t go because a local warned me of obnoxious travellers who go there in droves all summer, get drunk and play loud music by this tranquil lake! I am assuming none of them are my readers; if you come across such people, please remind them that they are ruining the tranquility and solitude of being somewhere so remote. Open up your taste buds to the local food and flavors, and try to befriend the locals instead of shoving your cameras in their beautiful faces. Tourism is a big source of income for Ladakhi people, but that doesn’t mean we can be demanding, disrespectful or mindless of the region we are in.
After all, to travel is to realize what an incredible world we live in, and our every action can make it more or less so.
What are your thoughts about traveling in Ladakh? If you know of other responsible organizations, accommodations and tips, please share them.
Note: This post is written as part of the Fox Life India birthday campaign. If your birthday falls between June 15-21, tweet to @FoxLifeIndia with #SameSameBirthday; two winners stand to win Fox Life Goodies!