Ladakh

The mountains of Ladakh - literally 'many passes' - may not be as typically spectacular as some parts of the high Himalaya for, as even the valleys are at an altitude of 3500 m, the summits are only 3000 m higher. Because it is desert there is little snow on them and they look like big brown hills, dry and dusty, with clusters of willows and desert roses along the streams. Yet for thousands of visitors Ladakh is a completely magical place, remote, with delightful, gentle, ungrasping people.

Until recently Ladakhi society has generally been very introverted and the economy surprisingly self-sufficient. An almost total lack of precipitation has meant that cultivation must rely on irrigation. The rivers have been harnessed but with difficulty as the deep gorges presented a problem. Altitude and topography determine the choice of crop and farming is restricted to the areas immediately around streams and rivers. Barley forms the staple food while peas are the most common vegetable and apples and apricots the most popular fruits - the latter are dried for winter sustenance, while the kernel yields oil for burning in prayer-lamps. Because of the harshness of the climate and lack of rain, the cropping season usually lasts from April to October. At lower altitudes, grape, mulberry and walnut are grown.

Livestock is precious, especially the yak which provides meat, milk for butter, hair and hide for tents, boots, ropes and dung for fuel. Goats, especially in the eastern region, produce fine
pashm
for export. Animal transport is provided by yaks, ponies, Bactrian camels and the broad-backed
hunia
sheep. The Zanskar pony is fast and strong and used for transport - and for the special game of Ladakhi polo. Travellers venturing out of Leh are likely to see villagers using traditional methods of cultivation with the help of
dzos
and donkeys and using implements that have not changed for centuries.

Cut off from the outside world for six months a year, Ladakh also developed a very distinct culture. Polyandry (where a woman has more than one husband) was common but many men became
lamas
(monks) and a few women
chomos
(nuns). Most people depended on subsistence agriculture but the harsh climate contributed to very high death rates and a stable population. That is rapidly changing. Imported goods are increasingly widely available and more and more people are taking part in the monetary economy. Ladakh and its capital Leh have only been open to tourists since 1974, but some feel there are already too many; the pitfalls of modern society are all too evident in the mounds of plastic rubbish strewn along the roadsides.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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