Beauty of Ladakh is truly mesmerizing …When I say the word slowly in my mind and I find the essence of it lingering in my brain, followed by what seems like the most picturesque surrounding and a gush of cold, fresh air with calming sounds of the sacred drums that monks use for their daily evening prayers, in the background.
This is what I got back from my numerous visits to Ladakh; the culture, the beauty, the sweet faces and the serenity – precisely what makes it the paradise that everyone wants a piece of.
Leh is the first place that comes to mind when one talks about Ladakh and rightly so, with it being the most developed city in the region with the availability of almost every facility (even 4G now!).It cannot be denied that Leh has its own sweet charm but it is a grave mistake to limit the Ladakh experience to Leh alone.
The beauty of this paradise lies in its hidden and sleepy little towns and villages rather than the mainstream places teeming with tourists, who have done more to ruin the ecosystem of the area than contribute toward its development.
I arrived in Leh, for the third time, in the month of May, which was the absolute perfect time as all the apricot trees were in full bloom, which is nothing short of the famed cherry blossoms. This time, I decided to do look beyond the regular tourist spots and explore the nooks and crannies of Ladakh to find its hidden gems and find them, I did.
My base was a tiny town called Nurla, which is about 80 kilometers from Leh, and is close to Saspol and Khaltse. This change of base changed my radius of exploration as well and helped me visit an exceeding number of places far from the mainstream.
Here’s a peek into the best of Ladakh’s hidden gems I explored during this trip
The first and hands down my favourite place in Ladakh was this tiny village with very few natives. It is quite a task to reach this place as you have to trek for 2 hours approximately to finally arrive at your destination. However, the trek in itself will make you see wonders. A small tributary of the indus river skirts through the whole trek and the villagers have constructed small wooden bridges for crossing the river at every point. The trek comprises a mixed terrain of steep slopes and plain patches. At one point, you reach an opening between two canyon-like structures, which you are supposed to go through and climb upwards. These canyons were like huge structures of wonder for me. Their unique character makes them almost sacred.
After finally climbing through the mountains, we finally reached a clearing and saw the most beautiful house surrounded by the most beautiful apricot trees in full blossom. A fascinating sight to behold. We walked a little further and reached the village where we met one old man, and one old man alone. The rest of the villagers had gone out for their daily chores. Despite his age, the old man was enormously sweet and hospitable, tried his best to make us come to his house and have some chai, an offer we politely declined, not wanting to be a burden on him, but his generosity left us touched. The view from the village was nothing quite like I’d ever seen before. The apricot blossoms accentuated the beauty of the place tenfold and left us completely smitten and awe struck. This small village had so much attraction and charm that it has become my favourite out of all the beautiful places in Ladakh solely due to its beauty, serenity and a kind of sacred virginity as it has been absolutely untouched by commercialization.
Alchi is a small town close to Nurla and around 90 km from Leh. The main attractions of this town are the Alchi dam and the Alchi monastery and market. The monastery is one of the oldest in the region and dates back to 985-1055CE. Apart from the monastery complex and the beautiful craftsmanship, one of my personal favourite things about Alchi was the market outside the monastery complex.
Despite it being a small market, the variety of Buddhist and Ladakhi products available here is different and a lot cheaper than what you get in Leh markets, especially the jewellery here is not always found in Leh. I would definitely consider this to be a great shopping destination.
These caves represent the best of Buddhist art from the 13th to 15th century. They are Buddhist meditation caves located on a ridge overlooking Saspol, a village-town close to Alchi. These caves are serene and entering them feels like being transported to ancient Buddhist era.
The peaceful ambience of the caves and the beautiful illustrations will make even an atheist want to kick off their shoes and sit down to meditate. As if this isn’t therapeutic enough, the view from the inside of the caves will simply take your breath away.
The Apricot Tree in Nurla
Nurla, in itself, is a small and humble town, however, if you’re looking to rest and have a peaceful time, The Apricot Tree here should be your destination. The place has a very traditional-meets-modern vibe to it. You will see a lot of paintings that are a modern take on traditional Ladakhi Buddhist painting styles. These masterpieces are personally collected by the owner of the place from local artists. The rooms in the hotel are comfortable and nothing short of 5-star experience. It is not amenities but the striking view of the gorgeous Indus River that make The Apricot Tree the calming destination that it is. I felt like I could spend my entire life sitting in the balcony, looking at the view. As night falls, an occasional bonfire is lit the common area, setting the tone for a cosy night. You treat yourself to some appetizers and snacks sitting around the bonfire before heading out for a traditional dinner at the underground restaurant.
Tia Village and Timisgam
These are two beautiful villages located in the Khaltse district are doused with rich culture and religious history. We had the honour of knowing a local who was also the recipient of a national war honour for his heroic contributions in the Kargil war. Thanks to him, we got to witness the local life up close and learnt about the cultural history of the place.
The main attractions these two villages presented were:
The Tingmosgang Monastery and Castle
This monastery and castle is an important historic landmark, considered sacred by the locals as it houses an ancient holy idol said to have been bestowed upon the king by the gods. The view from the castle is a sight to behold, and if you’re lucky, you might get to pass through an underground tunnel and see the hidden water reserves maintained by the Namgyals as a preparation for the eventuality of a siege. The tunnel is dark and when you finally reach the water, you have to touch it to believe it’s there because of the sheer stillness and clarity (it tastes delicious too!).
Tia Village and Monastery
If you want to witness the beauty of a monastery with its vibrant intricate carvings and paintings accompanied by the most breathtaking surroundings and not a lot of tourists, this is the place to be. Apart from the monastery, some tourists, especially foreigners, come here for spotting snow leopards.
Trek from Tia to Thimisgam
There is also a trekking route from Tia to Thimisgam, that goes through Ang village and Hemis Shukpachan. This route is perfect if you want to interact with the locals and get to know the area better. The small, clean and cosy homestays along the way are ideal places to experience the local hospitality first hand and make a friends with the natives who are the cutest, warmest, most genuine and helpful people I’ve ever met. I would suggest carrying around a handful of chocolates for the children you meet on the way; they are so adorable you will not be able to resist yourself from pulling their cheeks! Also, staying at these homestays provides a person to try out traditional finger licking home food. If you’re a non vegetarian, it is a must to try their home cooked mutton.
The beauty, culture, traditions and people of Ladakh cannot possibly be summed up in words, although many have tried. The experiences and the relationships you make along the way with the people and the place are what leave you mesmerised and longing for more. Ladakh can bring a smile to even the most forlorn souls. While the fresh air of Ladakh acts like a balm on the soul, tourists thronging the place have wreaked havoc on its landscape. Let’s do our bit to give something back to the place that gives us something so precious; a part of itself to carry with us our whole lives. Let’s not ruin the sanctity of Ladakh.