On June 2, 1992, I wrote my father a letter from Ladakh, a remote Himalayan province about the size of Maine. I described the difficulty of accessing the high-altitude desert where India rubs against Tibet and Pakistan. Landslides had closed the two-day overland route from Manali, the next significant town south. My access had been further limited by violent clashes on the India-Pakistan border in the troubled region of Kashmir; this had meant that the only other road into Ladakh—from the Mughal-built city of Srinagar—was too dangerous. Instead, I had traveled via Chandigarh, a Le Corbusier– designed city in the Punjab (a plains state in northern India), and boarded a plane headed for Ladakh’s capital, Leh. I was determined to get here, my nagging curiosity for this part of the world derived from a peculiar family tragedy: In 1937 my great-aunt Margot dove into a river up here on her honeymoon and drowned, most likely following a heart attack from the shock of glacial melt.
Last August I returned to Ladakh (which translates to Land of the Passes) to find a region much changed. Not only are travel logistics smoother—the roads are the best-maintained in the entire country; up to seven flights a day are coming into Leh from three Indian cities, including Delhi, a one-hour hop—but new hotels, camps and lodges are also popping up, especially in the main Indus Valley, anchored by Leh. There are decent hiking outfits, like Shakti Himalaya, which has converted a bunch of village houses in the Indus Valley into tasteful whitewashed lodges where walkers can sleep between crisp cotton sheets. There are also some respectable restaurants, which I discovered in the village of Nimmu, where a guesthouse recently opened in the local palace. While the accommodation is not quite up to standard, it is a decent stop for a lunch of paneer pulao (a spiced rice dish with Indian cottage cheese) after a morning of white-water rafting on the Zanskar River or biking down some 6,500 feet of mountain in an hour. Best of all, one can also now travel easily from the Indus Valley into Ladakh’s second big valley, Nubra, using one of two passes: either Khardung La—at 17,700 feet, it is one of the highest motorable roads in the world—or the recently opened Wari La. This single circuitous route allows for a week- to ten-day–long loop of biking, hiking and rafting. (See “Cracking Ladakh,” right.) The combination works well: The Indus Valley delivers the most luxurious places to stay, as well as iconic monasteries—Thiksey, Hemis, Shey—while Nubra is much wilder.
But then Little Tibet, as Ladakh is often referred to after its strong Tibetan Buddhist culture, has turned into one of India’s most fashionable places to visit, the boom partly derived from its role in the 2009 Bollywood blockbuster 3 Idiots, which is doing for northern India what Out of Africa did for Kenya in 1985. The landscape is an easy sell: naturally cinematic where the ragged edge of the earth’s crust grazes the sky. For the first 24 hours, it is hard to breathe at the almost 10,000-foot altitude. It’s also hard to see anything when the midday sun is bearing down upon the naked Himalayas. There are no trees, just rocks that have tumbled into crevices or sit precariously on slopes. Then the sun slinks deeper and hits streaks of river in valley floors. This is where the settlements lie—small hamlets of white-and-oxblood flat-roofed homes among almond trees and tidy terraced fields. Barley is tied into stooks, which villagers carry as golden thickets on their backs. Above them are bone-white Buddhist monasteries still humming with chanting monks. It’s easy to see how Ladakh is to the Indian subcontinent as Marrakech is to Africa in its accessible exoticism.
This cocktail of “otherness” is exactly what makes the Indus Valley’s new Chamba Camp Thiksey—with its Jaipur-made air-conditioned tents, mahogany beds and fancy en suite bathrooms—so appealing to travelers who previously may have thought Ladakh too off-the-map. Chamba has a pricey boutique and chefs in white hats; I have a butler, Wi-Fi and knowledgeable private guides. There are moments, however, when I find Chamba a little too polished, which is why I prefer Stok Palace, an 1820 royal residence, also in the Indus Valley, that’s been refurbished into a six-room guesthouse overseen by Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyal, whose family ruled Ladakh from 900 a.d. until 1834. Stok’s conversion isn’t luxurious in the way Taj or Oberoi hotels have transformed Rajasthan’s former royal fiefdoms. Rather, this is an artist’s house (along with a museum and a small café) that holds in its bones the fragile culture that Namgyal considers his patrimony. The 100-year-old painted furniture in my suite belongs to Namgyal’s Nubran wife. (The family lives in an apartment on the palace’s first floor.) At night I fall asleep to the haunting jingling of wind chimes rolling out from the courtyard until it bounces back off the valley walls. In the morning, I’m woken by mountain light streaming onto the silks of my four-poster bed. When I get up to close the shutters, a storm of swallows flits about the walnut grove below.
From the Indus Valley, it is a day’s travel into Nubra, which is so impenetrable in winter that few people live here. For this part of the trip, we therefore use Kaphila, a new mobile camp made up of tasteful canopied tents furnished with portable wooden beds and Tibetan rugs. There are en suite bathrooms with mahogany washstands and brass sinks. The camp is pitched on an apron of cultivated ground—a crescent of green above the precarious mud track that we have climbed using modern four-wheel-drive vehicles, as opposed to the cheap Maruti Suzukis that I notice occupying a sinister graveyard of fallen vehicles beneath the Nubra switchbacks. Behind our tents, yaks graze the edelweiss-covered slopes. We walk to a nearby hamlet where butter lamps burn faintly in a private Buddhist shrine packed with century-old scrolls. On another walk, the wind catches the prayer flags hanging from a tenth-century statue overlooking an empty gorge. Back at my tent, I take in the Karakoram Range, spanning 300 miles along the borders of Pakistan, China and India. These are mountains on an intensely epic scale. (They include K2, the world’s second highest peak.) There are streaks of green in them and purple; there is a glacier slipping down one side; fresh snowfall dusts the long view.
The Himalayas speak in millennia (the Karakoram formed over the last 65 million years), not the life spans of individuals or civilizations. This is made clear when we enter the Valley of Sorrows, bisected by the river Shyok and covered with stones resembling billiard balls, their distinctive shape molded by the ferocity of water that has flooded nine times in the last 200 years, wiping out every settlement. I think of the local shaman who I visited the day before. The oracle—a woman who worked herself into a trance in the living room of her suburban home—lives in a new town called Solar Colony, which sprung up outside Leh to rehouse survivors of a devastating flash flood that killed 255 people four years ago. It reminds me how quickly foundations we consider solid can be destroyed by the least expected turn.
Over the last few days, I have been dosing myself with coca drops, a natural remedy for altitude sickness. Perhaps I’m therefore a little high when I hear a bird’s wings reverberate in the silence long before I see the creature approach. It unnerves me to hear something in this empty valley where I can see no sign of human life, no animals grazing, no flow of water in the summer drought. I think of my great-aunt’s body, which was never found, and yet as I lie back on the rocks in the sun and listen to the bird’s flight fade away, I’m also not unhappy at this sense of my own vulnerability. Ladakh’s smart hotels and camps are all to be enjoyed, but in the end, it is the Himalayas’ violent beauty that is ultimately so alluring in this age of risk-managed travel, which can so often overpower one’s ability—coca-induced or not—to experience the heartbeat of a place as it was perhaps meant to be felt.