The Nomads Trek Overview
Alpine Ascents is pleased to be offering a series of treks and tours in India’s remote Ladakh region. Often known as “Little Tibet” and the “Land Beyond the Passes” Ladakh is a high altitude, snowcapped lunarscape enmeshed in traditional Buddhism that has existed and developed unfettered for centuries. The small villages, often peppered with apricot and other fruit orchards, are the homes for some of the world’s great monasteries that lie precariously on rocky outcrops above the towns.
Covering an area of about 60,000 square kilometers and ranging in elevation from 2,600 meters to 7,670 meters, Ladakh is sandwiched between two huge mountain systems: the Karakorams to the north and the Himalayas to the south. Ladakh is the Trans-Himalayan region, the region of impact when the Indian subcontinent collided with the rest of Asia 50 million years ago.
The capital Leh is the central market and primary town, not only offering a staging point for treks and nearby monasteries, but a fascinating destination in its own right, sporting palaces, Buddhist gompa’s and curio shops that hearken back to its past as a main trading post and caravanserai. Each of our programs will have visits to the major monastery with outstanding guides, as they share their knowledge of Buddhism, local history and the daily life that has existed for centuries. The villages of Hemis, Alchi and Thikse are the most popular hosts of these great buildings while Stok and Shey lie below the stunning palaces of bygone eras.
Ladakh is one of those curious destinations that offer so much and yet so few travelers make the journey. Once remote and difficult to get to, a 1 hour flight from Delhi, makes Ladakh very accessible.
Our trekking programs will take is unto stunning natural landscapes, endowed with natural beauty and the flourishing flora and fauna of the region. Local animals such as Ibex and Blue Sheep don the trails as our chances our excellent of seeing these mountain animals in the wild. Please see our trekking itineraries below. All trips can also be run at different times on a private basis.
Rupshu and Changthang Region of Ladakh
One of the most stunning of geographic regions formed as a result of a collision of mountain ranges, the Rupshu area, is a dry, high-altitude plateau lying in southeast Ladakh. The region forms part of the larger area of Changthang, which spreads east into Tibet for about 1,500 kilometers and whose landscape is characterized by rolling mountains, vast plains and massive brackish lakes. It is an area which, due to its remoteness and proximity to Tibet, retained much of the character of the Tibetan way of life, with regular trade and barter continuing and trade routes being utilized as they were since they were first discovered. These routes offer exciting avenues for anybody interested in a high-altitude adventure and an appetite for some of the most incredible sights in this far-flung corner of the sub-continent. Prior to trekking we will have a short raft trip and visit the monasteries and sites in around Leh, capital of Ladakh.
Trekking is strenuous, with 12 days on the trail.
Our epic trek is a high-altitude adventure, with camps at around 15,000 feet and crossing passes of up to 18,532 feet. The area is located bellow an array of 20,000 foot peaks. Ponies will be used to carry gear.
Rupshu is a vast area to the south east of Ladakh, on the road from Manali to Leh. The valley lies at an altitude of 4,000 to 5,000 meters. Cultivation is difficult because of the extremely cold and dry climate, though there is ample grazing land. The small population is thus widely spread and consists mainly of nomadic shepherds, called Changpas. The Changpas also engage in trade and work the caravans between Ladakh, Lahoul and Spiti.
Following the Kurna Chu through the beautiful Sorra gorge, the trail goes over 3 passes before ending on the banks of Tso Moriri or ‘mountain’ lake, situated in the middle of the elevated district of Rupsu. The lake is formed by a tributary of the Spiti river. The lake’s name is characteristic of its locale – nestled in the midst of 20,000 foot plus peaks which completely shut the lake in.
The area is rich in wildlife including the kyang (wild ass), Ibex, red fox and the rare, highly endangered snow leopard. Black-necked cranes and bar-headed geese flock to the lakeside for breeding during the summer months. Tso Kar is another brackish lake and this whole region has supported a vital salt industry that allowed the Changpas (nomadic traders) to trade with merchants from the other regions of Ladakh.
Legend of Tso Moriri Lake: Legend has it that a woman riding a yak was carried into the lake. At first the yak swam boldly out and the woman (chomo) was delighted. But after a while the animal grew tired and sank deeper in the water. The chomo became frightened and screamed “Ri Ri, Ri Ri” until the yak sank and she drowned. Since then, the lake has been called Chomo-riri.
Landscape and Overview
The rarely visited high plains of the Chang Tang are colored in just a few places by beautiful turquoise lakes, such as Tso Kar and Tso Morari – this trekking adventure is the perfect way to view this remote and beautiful landscape. After acclimatizing and Exploring Leh and its surroundings, we set off into the heart of this remote area, inhabited during the summer by nomadic herders and by rare animals such as wolf and kiang (wild ass) year-round.
The rarely visited high plains of the Chang Tang are coloured in just a few places by beautiful turquoise lakes, such as Tso Kar and Tso Morari – this trekking adventure is the perfect way to view this remote and beautifull landscape. After acclimatizing and Exploring Leh and its surroundings, we set off into the heart of this remote area, inhabited during the summer by nomadic herders and by rare animals such as wolf and kiang (wild ass) year-round.
The Gompas of Ladakh
In 1655, in memory of his father, a king built the two-story Shey gompa adjacent to the palace. Hundreds of chortens of all shapes and sizes stand below the palace and gompa. These chortens demonstrate the interest taken in Shey by the Ladakhi kings and queens who succeeded Shey’s original builder.
Located on the second story of the gompa is a large Buddha statue made in 1655 by a Nepalese sculptor who was assisted by three Ladakhi craftsmen. The seated Buddha is 12 meters high and worked of copper sheets gilded with gold. This Buddha was the biggest metal statue in the region and was the largest Buddha statue of any type in Ladakh until Thiksey gompa installed a 15-meter tall Buddha made of clay in 1970. The castings of the statue were made in Leh while the statue’s copper was collected in Zanskar and hammered into plates on large rocks. More than five kilos of gold were then used to plate the copper. The statue was built in parts in the Zanstil Palace (Zans means copper and til means to hammer) in Leh and then transported to Shey where it was assembled and installed.
Sacrificial offerings such as grain or jewels, holy signs and mantras are contained inside the figure. In front of the Buddha is a large bowl of wax with a central flame that burns for one year before being replaced. This flame represents divinity and purity and is present in front of all Buddha statues in Ladakh.
Thiksey Gompa is the most picturesquely situated monastery in Ladakh, perched high on a hill above the Indus. Its buildings are arranged at various levels, leading up to the private apartments of the incarnate lamas on the summit. From here one commands a magnificent view of the valley. The gompa possesses a rich and beautiful collection of hundreds of hand-written or painted prayer books.
A new temple contains a 15-meter tall Buddha statue, constructed in 1970 to commemorate a visit to Thiksey by the Dalai Lama. The statue, made of clay and covered with gold paint, is the largest Buddha figure in Ladakh and took four years to construct. Inside, the statue is filled with the Kandshur and the Tandshur – volumes of Buddhist canonical texts. The statue was made entirely by local craftsmen and represents Maitreya, (“compassion” in Sanskrit) the Buddha of the Future. The prophecy made of the Future Buddha is that the world will be undergoing such chaos that He will teach compassion to the people.
Hemis Gompa is one of the most important monasteries in Ladakh, it is also the largest and wealthiest. The king-architect Singe Namgyal, a great patron of Buddhism, built it in 1620. He filled Hemis with golden statues, stupas set with precious stones and thangkhas brought from many places, including Tibet.
The lamas of Hemis were associated with the Ladakhi royal family and became quite prosperous, owning much land and supervising many smaller, scattered monasteries. Although only about a dozen lamas actually live here, Hemis has several hundred lamas attached to its subsidiary monasteries.
The Rimpoche or spiritual head of Hemis is a reincarnation of the monastery’s founder Stagtshang .phpa. The last Rimpoche was a reincarnation who, as a five-year old child, was being taught in Tibet when the Chinese invaded. There has been no communication with the Rimpoche since the 1960s. During the 1975 festival, Drugpa Rimpoche, a 12-year old youth, became the new Rimpoche as a new incarnation.
Hemis is the location for numerous religious festivals throughout the year, although the most important one is in summer, when a huge thangkha, one of the largest in the world, is hung in the courtyard. It takes about 50 monks to carry the thangkha to its place and unfold it. The thangkha is made of fine heavy silk and embroidered with pictures of various gods as well as of the founder of Hemis. The dances in front of this thangkha represent the forces of good, symbolized by legendary heroes and saints, overcoming demons. Eventually, the violence of the demons is overcome by the superiority of virtue resting on wisdom and the demons are driven from the courtyard. Spectators watch these dances from the upper story verandahs around the courtyard.
Hemis also has a thangkha, reputed to be the largest in the world, which is displayed once every eleven years. It was last shown in July 1992. The hands of the artist who painted this thangkha are preserved at Hemis as holy relics, though they are not shown to the public.
Travelers note: Each day we will try to have some free time so one is not always on a guided tour. While we often eat meals together, they will not be pre-arranged which will allow us the flexibility to eat at local establishments or at more preferred hours. Hotels are subject to change.
Ladakh Nomad's Trek Facts
India gained independence from the British in 1947. Prior to 1947, the region extending from Pakistan to Burma was part of the British Empire. India’s history is vast and varies greatly from north to south. The most dominant influences are from Persia, Moghul Muslims, Buddhist empires, Great Britain and current western society. Two excellent books on Indian history are Percival Spear’s “A History of India, Vol. II” and the colorful “A Concise History of India” by Francis Watson.
India’s weather is dominated by two monsoon seasons. Late fall means clear and relatively cool weather in northern India. That said, it will be warm.
India offers an outrageous variety of food for both the vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Spices are used to enhance basic rice and vegetables to create an entire gastronomic experience. Often these spices are considered ‘hot’ by Western standards, but once you become accustomed to the subtleties, this food becomes irresistible. For those who still find the food too spicy, those cooking are happy to prepare foods more palatable to Western tastes. Some of the best food is found on street corners, in bus stands and train stations. Markets provide the usual fare of luscious fruits (bananas, papayas, pineapples, lychee, jack fruit, durian fruit, etc.), vegetables and spices. The most common drink is a milky, sweet tea called chai. Chai is drunk throughout the day and is the common denominator in this diverse country. We will explore a wide variety of food, optimizing experience and health.
India has 15 national languages. Most citizens learn their local language first, then Hindi or English. English is the most widely spoken language in India. Learning some Hindi will be useful and rewarding.
India is primarily a Hindu country with great religious diversity. India’s religions include: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, Judaism, Zaroastrianism, Christianity as well as a large number of tribal religions.
India’s riches have provided a wonderful stomping ground for writers. Some outstanding native authors include: Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy , Gita Mehta, Kushwant Singh, Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Anees Jung and R.K Narayan. Non-native authors include: Rudyard Kipling, Salman Rushdie, E.M.Forster and Alexander Frater. For Indian architecture, Phaidon’s “History of Architecture in India” by Christopher Tadgell is an excellent resource. Diana Eck’s “Banaras, City of Light” is a fascinating read. Also to note are works by Octavio Paz and Ved Mehta’s “A Portrait of India.” The fall 1997 edition of Granta is devoted to India. (Also see the New Yorker and National Geographic, Spring 97). We would be happy to suggest a host of modern Indian authors and titles such as “A Fine Balance, Death of Vishnu,” “The God of Small Things” and “Love and Longing in Bombay.”
The most popular film maker is Oscar winning Satyajit Ray, best known for his series “Pather Panchali.” His films have an amazing ephemeral quality to them and are quite moving and poignant. An older and excellent Hindi filmed about village life titled “Murgh Masala” is also quite absorbing. Western films about India include Mira Neer’s ward winning “Salaam Bombay” and Louis Malle’s seven hour epic, “Phantom India” (or the shorter documentary, “Calcutta.”) And of course there are Hindi pop films, an industry bigger than Hollywood and a number of Indian filmmakers producing unique English language films such as “Masala” and “Bend it like Beckham.”
Indian classical music was popularized in the 1960’s. Some wonderful new artists are U. Srivanas, Sheila Chandra and Nadja. Quawali music native to Pakistan is an incredible art form that began in India. Popular performers include Nusraat Fateh Ali-Khan and the Sabri Brothers. Jai Uttal performs traditional Indian songs with a western rhythm. Asian dub, which mixes modern DJ music with classical Indian tunes, has become popular in the US.
This is a highly recommended shortlist and we would be happy to pass on a longer reading list for those interested. These links will bounce to Amazon.com with reviews.
I feel the monasteries of Sikkim are unlike any other.We learned a lot, had a memorable and exotic experience and loved meeting all the people we did! They all worked so hard to make our experience the great time it was, especially Yatish. Thank you for all your advice during the time we were arranging […]