The great country of the Taj Mahal, of vast deserts and ancient imposing fortresses, of beautiful coastlines and vibrant cities and the sacred Ganges river. A billion people and more spread amongst the plains, deserts, deltas and cities that is known the world over.
But look to the far north, where the high hills rise and rise to become part of the mighty Himalayan mountain range – resides the small city of Leh at an altitude of 3500m in the Indus river valley, of the beautiful Ladakh region.
Once a hugely important trading city serving as the crossroads between Kashgar in China, Kashmir in India and Tibet – the city of Leh is considered one of, if not the only city in the world where Muslims, Buddhists and Christians live harmoniously together for many centuries; a testament to its diverse and rich history as part of the Silk Road, and seeing trade and influences from both East and West melding together over time.
*One of the many Buddhist monasteries and temples in Leh*
*Posing with the unmistakable Palace of the Kings in the background*
*Leh’s main bazaar was a quiet affair, with many shops closed during winter weekends*
*One of the rare merchants still opened, but during the summer months Leh becomes a bustling marketplace for locals and tourists alike*
The first few days for any traveller or trekker upon arriving in Leh, is acclimatizing for the high altitude. Unlike the start of the Inca trail hike to Macchu Picchu or Everest Base Camp walk which both sit at much lower altitudes to start, upon landing in Leh by plane you are thrust into a much higher altitude from the start, which can be disconcerting to many, even experienced trekkers in the first 48 hours.
The imposing and beautiful Palace of the Kings of Ladakh overlook the small city, this served as our reference point to navigate around the town centre on foot, albeit with the occasional slips and falls due to the icy conditions. Traveling to Leh in mid winter is beautiful, but many shops and restaurants were also closed for the season, but fortunately essentials for trekking and daily comfort is still easily accessible.
*Fitting snow chains outside of Leh before the slippery climb to the monasteries*
I remembered during the hair-raising landing and turbulence coming into Leh, I noticed a huge monastery perched upon a hill away from the city. Upon investigating it was the famous Thikse Monastery – and a day trip was quickly on the cards. For world weary travellers, Thikse Monastery bears a strong resemblance to Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet – in other words, it was a beautiful and sombre sight to behold, and seeing young Buddhist monks no more than 10 years old playing in the icy snow, as older monks carry back supplies from the nearby town before sunset, was an unforgettable experience.
*The silent serenity was beautiful and thought provoking amongst the deep snow*
*Our exploration was not that easy due to our group still acclimatising to the altitude*
*A young Buddhist monk who stopped to say hello after collecting fire-wood*
*Young monks enjoying their free time in the afternoon away from their studies*
*From a high point at Thikse Monastery overlooking the snow covered landscape*
*Thikse Monastery in the background at sunset – it was an unforgettable view*
Perhaps the most unexpected and unusual sight in Leh during our acclimatisation phase, was seeing the Guinness World Record being broken for the highest altitude ice hockey game ever played between two professional Indian teams. We accidentally stumbled onto this sporting event by curiously following large crowds of people heading in the same direction, and it had seemed half of the city’s population was there too, shivering, huddling together but enjoying a tense game of ice hockey at high altitude.
*A huge part of Leh’s population of 30,000 people gathered here to watch this spectacle*
*As this was a Guiness World Record attempt, many officials were there to spectate also*
*It was a surreal view for us in the shadow of the Palace looming over the game*
After several days exploring the city and its surroundings in our high altitude acclimatization period, we were almost ready for the Chadar Trek. Some last minute shopping saw a rush to buy Gumboots for the trek, crucial for the river crossings we will have to face in minus temperature. In hindsight, we should have bought Gumboots back in Australia – as they would have had better cushioning, better traction on the soles, and most of all – insulated fur linings for the extreme cold. The local Gumboots in comparison were of much inferior quality, but we had no other choice but to wear them.
*Buddhist monks returning from the markets before sunset*
Early next morning, it was a 3 hour drive to the famous frozen river and the start of the Chadar Trek, it was to be one of the most unique experiences of our lives.