The cold desert of India, Ladakh has never failed to fascinate wanderers and adventure seekers around the world. Sakhi Saxena’s mother, Sharmila Saxena backpacked across Ladakh 7 years back, vowing to come back with her daughter someday.
Sakhi, however, found a paradise that struggled to live upto its name.
Here’s her story.
Back in 2011, my mom drove down from Delhi to Ladakh and back with a few of her friends. Since that road trip, she’s been determined to take me to this part of India, constantly emphasizing on the fact that “the place has a magic you have to see with your own eyes.”
We finally planned a short trip in the summer of 2018.
I don’t think I’ve seen a landscape quite as distinct and breathtaking as the one I saw before landing in Leh. The flight navigated between sharp mountain peaks, with deep valleys of brown, and pockets of green, inhabited land.
Ladakh remains a sensitive region of the country, which I first noticed at the airport, which was termed a strict no-photography zone. We covered most of Ladakh by road, in the company of a cheerful local driver by the name of Namgyal. We would pass by army camps and settlements almost every hour or so. My mom was, however, quite surprised to see this. This was very different from the Ladakh she had visited 7 years ago, a place with almost no army presence, and landscapes populated with friendly local faces. Since her time there, tourism had quadrupled and incidents of border tensions with China had significantly gone up, demanding a heavier security blanket over the whole region.
Some of the specific places we had on our itinerary included Nubra Valley, the famous Pangong Tso lake and ofcourse, the capital city of Leh. We traveled in the month of June, when the city was bustling with locals and tourists alike. We had some of the best food and came across the most beautifully crafted earrings, which I couldn’t resist adding to my collection back home.
Our visit to Pangong Tso was heavily anticipated, with me sitting in the back of the vehicle with my DSLR ready to shoot. Seeing the brilliant blue of the lake against the stark backdrop of Ladakh’s signature brown landscape was breathtaking. I switched multiple camera settings, tried using my phone and my mom’s, but it ended up being one of those moments which I’m grateful my eyes could see.
The other well known region of the state, Nubra Valley looked very different to my mother as we approached it. The number of hotels and tourist accommodations had significantly gone up. Areas which were barren land in 2011, were populated with hundreds of live-in tents and restaurants.
Luckily enough, my mom had found us a beautiful place of stay, called the ‘Lchang Nang Retreat’, tucked away near Teggar village. The hotel was located a respectable distance from the huge cluster of hotels we had seen on our entry into Nubra Valley.
During our short overnight stay, we shared dinner with the owner (who coincidentally happened to be from Delhi, like us). We enjoyed an unforgettable stargazing session at night with a local who offered us astronomical expertise and his telescope. Not to mention the exclusive outdoor breakfast set up for us next morning. The hospitality indeed, was too good to be true.
My mom and I brought books along for the trip, which remained in our bags as we spent the vast majority of our time staring at the star-studded sky and ethereal panoramic views.
This trip to Ladakh was a rediscovery of sorts for my mom, and in sharp contrast, my very first experience there. Despite the sharp rise in the presence of the army, the locals remain warm and optimistic. They make you feel safe, cared for and possess a cheerful demeanour that is hard to find in the urban jungle.
However, there’s a downside to this booming tourism industry. The capital city, Leh often becomes overcrowded during the summer months. Tourists at Pangong Tso generate large amounts of trash, which cannot be disposed off on a daily basis due to its large distance from the nearest town. As a temporary solution, this trash is disposed off in landfills which are heartbreaking to come across. Road reconstruction at Leh and Ladakh is an ongoing process, and unfinished roads are treaded upon because roadways are the primary means of transport.
While I am grateful for my trip to this beautiful state, seeing evidence of human ignorance does make me wonder if such gems of nature would be best left untouched.
My mom and I came back with two very different experiences, but one resounding thought and an eagerness- of definitely returning again.