Tag Archives: Ladakh


Over the last month we’ve spent a lot of time in northern India, especially in the cities of Leh (in Ladakh) and McLeod Ganj (in Himachal Pradesh). These areas are home to many thousands of Tibetan refugees who escaped persecution by the Chinese and have been granted asylum in India.

China began to send people into Tibet in 1949, soon after the World War II, under the guise of providing assistance to this remote nation. Until this time Tibet was a sovereign mountain kingdom, whose geography and leadership kept it generally isolated from the rest of the world. Tibet was politically naïve and accepted Chinese assistance grudgingly until it became obvious that China had intentions to colonize. For China, the country of Tibet was a huge new land area rich in mineral resources into which they could expand. Tibet was hopelessly unequipped to repel the invaders, and in 1959 Tibet’s religious and political leader, the Dalai Lama, was forced to escape over the border into India. Since then over 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed. Move than 250,000 Tibetans came to India at that time or in the period since then. They escape through the Himalayan mountains, usually in winter when snow, cold, and elevation make it difficult for Chinese troops to seal the border. The combination of the natural elements and border patrols make this a life threatening journey.

Here’s a picture of the Dalai Lama – yes, I took it! (Another story…)

McLeod Ganj is the home of the Tibetan government in exile, and they have a parliament that meets twice a year there. It is also the temporary home of the Dalai Lama, until he can once again return to Potala Palace in Lhasa. This year is the 50th anniversary of Tibetan exile. For many years cries of “Free Tibet” were heard in the Western World, but this cause has recently lost both momentum and fashionability, particularly as the Chinese have become a world economic powerhouse and other countries are hesitant to challenge them over human rights abuses.

Since they occupied Tibet, China has actively pursued their policy of “cultural revolution”. They have destroyed over 700 ancient Tibetan monasteries and Buddhist temples, including their libraries and works of art. Tibetan people were forced to change their customs, including personal things like cutting their long hair, and others as petty as switching from their traditional wooden bowls and spoons to another style. There has been a massive movement of Chinese citizens into Tibet so that now there are more Chinese in Lhasa than Tibetans. This dilutes the Tibetan population, watering down its culture and influence.

It is true that the Chinese have invested heavily in Tibet, building factories and schools, but these are Chinese factories and schools, and people who work or study there do so in a Chinese fashion (e.g. speaking the Chinese language, learning Chinese and not Tibetan history, etc.) Tibetans are subjected to strong prejudice making it difficult to find work, do business, or even go shopping, further encouraging them to suppress their language and traditional culture. Tibetan Buddhism, once the cornerstone of everything in Tibet, is no longer pervasive throughout society. Tibetans are under heavy government surveillance, and are regularly thrown into prison for being suspected of subversion, thereby suppressing even peaceful protest.

The combination of these things is resulting in the cultural genocide of the Tibetan people.

Here is an outrageous example of the vindictiveness of China’s control. Tibetans, like Hindus and Sikhs, believe in reincarnation, namely that after a person dies, he or she is reincarnated into the body of a newborn child. Given this, important people like the Dalai Lama can be identified in their next life after a long and complicated search process. The current Dalai Lama is in his fourteenth reincarnation. The Panchen Lama, the second highest Lama in Tibetan Buddhism, is in his tenth reincarnation and was born in 1989 in Tibet. He and the Dalai Lama have worked closely for centuries, with the Panchen Lama providing leadership during the period when the Dalai Lama dies, is reincarnated, and grows up. In 1995 the Panchen Lama was identified and confirmed by the Dalai Lama. Soon afterwards he and his family disappeared. The Chinese, in an effort to exercise control over Tibetan Buddhists and the Dalai Lama, took him away, and if he is still alive, are denying him the training in Buddhist philosophy that is necessary for him to resume the important and sacred position he has held in his nine previous lives. At the age of six, he became the world’s youngest political prisoner.

Here are some Tibetan Buddhist monks in India, including a group of novices.

While in McLeod Ganj, we volunteered in conversation classes with several people who had escaped from Tibet. Patrick met with a young man who had been in India for a few years. He is one of eighteen brothers and sisters. His brother and sister are both in prison in Tibet – he for raising a Tibetan flag, and she for communicating with her brother in India, the young man Patrick spoke with. They talked about a range of subjects, including some difficult ones that Patrick raised like, “Do you think that Tibetans can ever evict the Chinese without fighting?” His answer was surprising and appeared to demonstrate a much deeper understanding. He said that both Tibetans and Chinese wanted the same thing, “Happiness”. Patrick was surprised to hear that he intended to return to Tibet, and that he’d already tried once. His reasoning was that if the Tibetans departed, soon there would be no Tibet left to return to. People needed to stay there to maintain their culture and traditional way of life, to say nothing of their claim to their ancient land.

Diane met with two Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Lamdon (38) and Ngawang, both with shaved heads and wearing burgundy robes, and a young woman Sonam who shared a room with them. At first Diane was apprehensive, because she didn’t know what she was going to talk about for two hours with people who had come from extremely different cultures and had painful pasts. Initially the conversation started off with simple things like “Where are you from?”, “How long have you been traveling?”, etc. Lamdon did most of the talking, but her English wasn’t very good. Sonam shared a room with the two nuns, spoke better English and would bridge the communication gap for the nuns when needed. They made tea on an electric cook top that they had in their room.

Lamdon told the story of how she came to McLeod Ganj. After a brief show trial where she had no representation, Lamdon went to prison for two years in Tibet for being involved in a political protest. In prison she was beaten and her blood harvested. Prisoners in China undergo forced blood donations because rates of voluntary donation are low in China. When Diane heard this she started to cry, then Lamdon started to cry and got up and left the room. Ngawang told Diane, “Don’t cry” and offered her a tissue. Diane asked if the Lamdon would be OK, and she nodded. Diane was concerned that Lamdon felt that she had to tell her story, causing her re-live horrific past experiences. Eventually Lamdon returned and continued. After prison, she became a nun and studied in Tibet for two years. She decided to leave and walk to Nepal when the Chinese destroyed the monastery where she lived. Her family is all still in Tibet.

Sonam came to India with her aunt using a Chinese passport, something that most Tibetans cannot obtain. They are a people without citizenship. Their country no longer controls any territory and is not recognized by many other governments, to appease the Chinese. India offers them refugee status, but they are not Indian citizens. Sonam’s uncle is in prison in Tibet for making the film “Leaving Fear Behind” (www.leavingfearbehind.com)

The nuns both seemed genuinely pleased that Diane spent time with them, thanked her for coming, and asked her to come back again.

Speaking with Tibetan refugees directly affected by the theft of their country, systematic destruction of their culture, and mistreatment by the Chinese had a great impact on us. Surprisingly, like the young man Patrick spoke with, the
women didn’t appear to harbour malice toward the Chinese. In an amazingly Buddhist perspective, their outlook was of patience and empathy.

Pangong Lake

While in Leh we decided to do a side trip to Pangong Lake. An Australian guy we’d met in Rishikesh said it was ‘one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen’, which is an unusual amount of sentiment from an Aussie bloke. We had arranged to share the cost of a jeep and driver for the two day trip with the two young Belgians mentioned previously. Everything had been arranged in advance through a local tour and trekking agent.

The trip started off badly when, after the driver picked us up at our guest house in the early morning and took us to the agency, the person we’d arranged the trip with said that it might not be possible to make it to Pangong today due to high water levels at a river crossing. We’d heard of this possibility previously and had raised the question when we made the booking. We were reassured that it would not be an issue. Just a few kilometers before the lake there is a glacier-fed stream that needs to be forded. Water levels change throughout the day based on the temperature and sunshine and run highest in the afternoon. Vehicles often get trapped at the lake overnight until they can make the crossing in the morning. As a result, most people leave Leh for Pangong Lake by 6 AM, so they can complete the five and one half hour drive before noon, while the water levels are lower. It was now 8 AM. He said it was unlikely that we’d be able to make it there today, something he should have known about before he arranged the trip, so we now had an issue. After discussing the options with the owner of the agency, we agreed to proceed as planned, try to cross the river if possible, and if not, stay in a village about 30 kilometers back, then get up very early in the morning to make the crossing and be at the lake for sunrise.

The road to the lake wasn’t what we’d anticipated. For some reason, we were of the impression that this would be an easy drive. We knew that there was one mountain pass that we needed to cross to reach the valley where the lake is located, but we hadn’t given it much consideration. The drive started out lovely and relaxing as we slowly worked our way up into the mountains. As we went higher, the road became a paved track hugging the mountainside which was only wide enough for a single vehicle, with occasional pull-outs where two vehicles could pass. On the uphill side of the road were steep slopes or vertical cliffs of loose rock, and on the other side a precipice. There were occasional blocks of cemented rock or barrels filled with concrete to act as a vehicle guard rail, but they were few and far between, spaced far enough to raise the question, “Why bother?”

The road switch-backed to gain elevation, and the blind corners around rocky outcrops were very sharp and steep, such that it wasn’t possible to see if any traffic was coming, so pictures of musical horns resembling those of the ‘Whos’ from Dr. Seuss’s “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” are painted on the rocks to remind the drivers to honk before each corner to warn any vehicles coming the other direction. Slowing down does not appear to be part of the strategy. Unfortunately the horn on our jeep didn’t work.

With about 20 kilometers to go before the top, we passed an Indian army post, and left the paved road behind. The road got steadily worse, progressing from loose gravel to loose rock. The driver swerved to avoid rocks which had fallen from the loose slopes above.

To our surprise, at this high elevation we ran into a couple of road crews that were reinforcing the road by taking loose rocks from the uphill side and dropping them on the downhill side. They were dressed for the cold, wearing wool clothing and balaclavas, all in darks shades muted with the dust of the surrounding hillside, resembling a post-apocalyptic vision. It turned out that these crews are part of specialist team looking after one of the world’s highest roadways, and taking great personal risk to do so.

We reached the pass called Chang La, and stopped for a few minutes to celebrate arriving safely. Chang La is the 3rd highest motorable pass in the world. At 17,500 feet it is within 2,000 feet of the height of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

We crossed the dreaded high water without too much difficulty,

and got our first view of Pangong Lake.

It was beautiful, but not the most beautiful thing we’ve seen. Perhaps we’re spoiled with too many beautiful lakes and mountains in British Columbia. We bumped and rattled our way down the lakeshore, without the benefit of a road, and began the search for a guest house. There is a luxury tented camp on the lakeshore during the brief summer months (the lake is at over 14,000 feet), but we were looking for something cheaper.

We found space in the home of a woman with a small boy and an absentee military husband. Like the few other buildings near the lake, it was made of stone and mud with a dirt floor, no heat, no electricity, no plumbing and a squat outhouse. Our room had a mattress lying on grass mats that covered the ground. Thankfully we got a mix of new and only-slept-on-once-by-someone-else-but-not-washed sheets.

We walked along the lake to take some photos. Our hostess managed to wrangle up three large beers from somewhere else that we shared with the Belgian couple while the sun was setting. Dinner was rice, dhal, vegetables, and chapatti, served on low tables while we sat on cushions on the floor of the room where she and her son ‘live’. Cooking, eating, and sleeping are all done in the same room. Our guide Raja translated so we could speak with her, and he also taught us a few words of Ladakhi.

We woke very early to walk along the lake and watch the sunrise, but it was cold so we only lasted about thirty minutes and then went back to bed. Breakfast was an ‘omelet’ (which shouldn’t really be called an omelet if it contains only eggs) and chapatti. After breakfast, we loaded our bags in the vehicle, and then starting walking back along the lake until Raja picked us up. It was another long and hair-raising drive back to Leh, but we had a good driver and made it without incident.

Here’s Diane checking out some of local wildlife…


Ladakh is the eastern region of the northernmost state of India, a dry place in the rain shadow of the Himalayas. It is an alpine desert, with high mountains and valleys composed of loose rock, dust, and sand. Ladakh is devoid of trees except for the valley bottoms where rivers and streams run, most notably the Indus River which originates in Tibet, even further north. Ladakh is strewn with snow-capped mountains of high elevation, making it a popular destination for trekkers and mountaineers.

At various points in history, Ladakh was part of the same kingdom as Tibet, as they share the same stretch of the Himalayas. They have a lot of common culture, and Ladakh is home to thousands of Tibetan refugees who escaped, along with the Dalai Lama, when Tibet was taken over by China or to escape Chinese persecution since then.

Ladakh’s population is about 80 percent Buddhist, with the remainder primarily Muslim, which accounts for the mosque which wakes us up every morning at 5 AM, after which we promptly go back to sleep. Most of the people look like Tibetans or Nepalis, more Asian than the Hindus from the South or the Muslims from the West. Many people wear traditional Tibetan clothing and Tibetan food, mostly heavy soups and dumplings which we really enjoy, is commonplace.

Leh is the capital city of Ladakh, and has about 30,000 people. It is situated on the banks of the Indus River at an elevation of 3500 meters (11,500 feet), which is why we both experienced some symptoms, primarily headache, of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) when we arrived by plane. These resolved themselves in a couple of days as we acclimatized. The city is dominated by a 500 year old dilapidated palace set on the hilltop above the town, with a Buddhist shrine and small victory fort on the mountaintop further up.

In summer, Leh is a busy place, with tourists coming for the trekking, mountaineering, river rafting, and Tibetan culture. The residents are busy catering to the tourist trade, and preparing for the long winter ahead by cutting and storing wood for heat and grass for their animals (both of which are stored on their rooftops), and harvesting apricots, apples, barley, and wheat during the short growing season. In winter, which lasts about nine months, all roads to and from Leh are blocked by ice and snow and the only way in or out is by airplane.

On our first full day in Leh, we joined a young couple from Belgium on a day tour in a rented jeep with a driver and guide. We visited two Buddhist ‘gompas’ (monasteries) and two palaces, each about 500 years old. Hemis Gompa and Thiksey Gompa have been in continuous use since they were constructed. Buddhist monasteries typically have a walled main courtyard, several chapels adorned with colourful paintings and statues of Buddha and related deities, and the living quarters of the monks called ‘cells’ (they sound cozy, don’t they?). Heading south from Leh, we also passed through Choglamsar, home to thousands of Tibetan refugees, and a ceremonial residence that the Dalai Lama uses when he is in town, which he was on the day we passed by.

Our guide, a young Buddhist man, did his best to explain some of the basic concepts of Tibetan Buddhism (the five things that all Buddhists must do; the Wheel of Life; the three elemental sins – ignorance, anger, and lust; reincarnation; etc.), some of the history, and the elaborate ornamentation of the monasteries. Buddhism, like most religions, seems to be very complex when you delve into it.

Before entering a chapel, you must remove your shoes. Visitors process in a clockwise direction around the room. Most chapels have one or more large statues of Buddha, in some cases two or three stories high. In Hemis Gompa our guide felt the need to remind us that farting in a chapel is not appropriate, after someone, who shall remain nameless, let one loose.

We watched some Monks preparing a ‘mandala’ of brightly coloured fine sand. This is a painstakingly detailed procedure, and risky in that the slightest bump, brush, or breeze can spoil weeks of effort.

At Thiksey Gompa we visited the kitchen where they prepare food for the over 300 resident monks. We saw the massive stove with built-in pots, and we were offered a cup of Ladakh tea, which we accepted, not knowing initially that this was the famous ‘butter tea’ common in the Himalayan regions. Butter tea is made with water and tea (presumably), but also butter and salt. Patrick, after reading many books on Himalayan mountaineering, was excited to get his first taste of the legendary brew. Unfortunately, it left much to be desired. The taste of butter, obtained from variety of potential sources (cow, goat, sheep, or yak) and almost certainly not pasteurized, was overpowering. The drink is very rich, intended to keep people warm during the long Himalayan winters. In the heat of the summer, the buttery taste was overpowering, clinging to the lips and palate, and repeating thereafter.

Stok Palace, the residence of the current King of Ladakh (now purely a ceremonial role) is being converted into a hotel, like many of the palaces of Rajasthan, to bring much needed income to the monarchy. Princess Anne visited there at some point, as evidenced by the dusty black and white photographs on display. We walked right past the King, sitting in his SUV outside his palace, presumably waiting for someone to emerge. We didn’t talk to him, as we always feel so awkward when conversing with royalty.

Leh is a beautiful city with amazing views of the scenic mountains and historic buildings. The rich culture is palpable and we plan to make this area our base for a variety of activities over the next two weeks.

Jammu and Kashmir

After some great machinations in Shimla, we finally agreed on our approach to head further north.

India’s northernmost state ‘Jammu and Kashmir’ extends north from the rest of the country into a volatile region bordered by Pakistan to the West and Tibet (part of China) to the North. This state is composed of three separate regions – Hindu Jammu, Muslim Kashmir, and Buddhist Ladakh. Many people in the Kashmir region are seeking independence from India. The Pakistan government, also Muslim, supports this to free their Muslim brethren from Hindu oppression and presumably so that an independent Kashmir would be free to join Pakistan. The border between India and Pakistan has been in dispute since the two countries received independence from Britain and were partitioned. In fact, it isn’t even referred to as a ‘border’, but a ‘line of control’, based on who currently controls which parts of the disputed territory. There has been constant bickering and battling between the two countries for the past 50 years.

Jammu and Kashmir has pretty much been off limits to travelers for the past 20 years due to open or clandestine (i.e. terrorist) warfare in the region. The border between India and Pakistan is porous due to the nomadic people who traverse the high mountain passes. The quality of relations between India and Pakistan changes like the seasons, and security in the region changes like the weather. As we considered going to Kashmir, we monitored the situation closely, reviewing national and regional newspapers on the Internet.

In the past there have been attacks on the public and tourists including bombing of public places, trains, buses, etc. In the week prior to our departure, there were daily incidents between rebels and Indian police and military. The rebel strategy seems to currently be focused on agencies of the Indian government, rather than the public or tourists, but this can change quickly, and there is always a risk of getting caught in the cross-fire.

Indian newspapers are obsessed with the acrimonious relationship between the two countries. They report the daily events of border ‘skirmishes’ (i.e. battles), terrorist attacks, and body counts. The Canadian government has recommended a total travel ban for this region. Unfortunately, the Great Himalayan Circuit of Northern India circles through Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. Skipping Kashmir necessitates either retracing difficult mountainous terrain (days of travel on bad buses) or resorting to expensive and difficult-to-book flights.

For this reason and that fact that it contains some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet, some travelers choose to brave the Kashmir region. After much debate, we decided to skip the majority of Jammu and Kashmir (the western side of the state), and instead fly from Jammu’s southernmost city (also called Jammu) to the city of Leh, located in the far north of Ladakh, which makes up the eastern side of the state. Leh is the capital of Ladakh, which is relatively untouched by the violence in Jammu and Kashmir. From here, we could travel south by bus, avoiding most of the hot areas.

To get from Shimla to Jammu, we took a five hour bus ride down the twisting mountain roads to the city of Chandigarh, where we’d been for a day the previous week. For some reason, Indian people seem susceptible to car sickness, and the bus stopped frequently when people walked forward with clear plastic bags of vomit to through out the door.

In Chandigarh, we managed to find a night bus to Jammu, that would arrive a few hours before our flight departed, avoiding the need to spend any more time in Jammu than necessary. We booked a sleeper compartment, which is a small box for two people installed above the seats. The sleeper is equipped with two vertical bars at about chest and knee position to prevent us from rolling off as the bus rocks and rolls, a lovely vinyl sleeping surface, and a curtain to provide some limited privacy. The bus was air-conditioned, with small circular ducts like the ones on airplanes, and which dripped water onto Patrick throughout the night.

The bus dropped us off in Jammu just after dawn, at the side of a road nothing like a bus station. We caught an auto-rickshaw to the airport, which looked nothing like an airport. From the road, all that was visible was high cement walls and gates, crash barriers, spike belts, police, and guns. Seated in front of this fortress, were four young women from Israel, who were scheduled to take the same flight, departing at 9:20 AM. It was currently 6:00 AM, and the airport apparently didn’t open until 8:00 AM. So we sat outside like ducks (sitting ducks, get it?) for two hours.

When we were finally let in, we went through the most rigourous airport security that we’ve experienced. Before boarding the plane, our bags were x-rayed and sealed, we went through three metal detectors, and we were each physically searched four times. No cabin baggage was permitted, and we had to identify our bags immediately before boarding the plane, so that only the bags of those boarding made it onto the plane.

Thankfully, the flight to Leh was uneventful. The landing was exciting as the plane circled close to the mountains to lose the altitude necessary to drop into the airstrip. After a short bus ride to the terminal, we filled out foreigner registration forms (necessary all over India), and received an exception from the Swine Flu screening process due to the fact we’ve been in India for over six weeks.

More on Ladakh in our next installment…