x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A world removed

Feature One of the few bastions of Tibetan Buddhist culture is Ladakh, a former sovereign kingdom now part of India only open to foreigners since 1974.

Standing on the rooftop of the monastery where he has lived since the age of 10, Jampa Norphel steps up to the dung-chen, a Tibetan horn longer than a man lying down. From the height of the monastery's crag, it lets out a bellow that soars over Norphel's home village towards the distant Himalayan peaks, summoning his fellow monks to the second day of the annual Goyasamaja mandala ceremony.

It's 6am, and Thiksey monastery in Ladakh, India, is beginning to stir. In the dim light of the temple, pre-teen novice monks and elderly lamas alike begin chanting, surrounded by statues of benevolent Buddhas and the fearsome protector deities of Vajrajana Buddhism. The bass frequencies shake the timber of the sacred 15th-century space, the vibrations recalling countless puja offerings from the past.

Ladakh, a mountainous province in the far north of India, is one of the few places in the world where visitors can still experience Tibetan Buddhism in an original setting. Though Ladakhis are not Tibetan, they have long taken their religious cues from their neighbours to the east, and the similarities in language, dress and cuisine are unmistakable. Under threat in Tibet proper, Tibetan Buddhist culture here is visible in both monastery and hamlet, with villagers and monks leading separate yet symbiotic lives as they have done for centuries.

As Norphel explains later, the Goyasamaja ritual usually lasts eight days, with monks painstakingly creating a sand painting, grain by coloured grain. When it's finished, they destroy it, signifying the fleeting impermanence of all phenomena: all that arises will one day cease. Ladakh itself has survived as a sovereign kingdom for a millennium, and even the invaders of the present, the tourists and trekkers that flood the region during the summer, have failed to upset the basic pattern of life. The region is still inaccessible by road for six months of the year, with the season's first fresh produce arriving in late April when the snow melts enough to cut a pony trail through the mountains.

No surprise, then, that guidebooks have dubbed Ladakh "the last Shangri-La", after the fabled hidden Himalayan utopia. From the mid-ninth century until its surrender to the Dogra rulers of Jammu in 1834, Ladakh retained its independence from Mughal emperors and Dalai Lamas alike. Disputed ground in the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, Ladakh was closed to outsiders until 1974, when authorities in New Delhi decided to open it to tourists even while maintaining a heavy military presence. Today, it is a district with a population of about 270,000, part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

The region's rugged beauty comes into sharp relief in the mountain village of Ulley, a village on a terraced slope of the Ladakh Range about 40km west of Leh, the capital. Clear but for a few cottony clouds, the azure sky reaches down to the jagged white caps of the distant Zanskar Range on the opposite side of the Indus valley. At about 3,500m, the noonday sun calls for sunscreen with an SPF at least twice my age, yet Yangchen Tsering seems immune to the radiation. With a blunt wooden spade called a kimbu, she carves rivulets in the soil without disturbing the recently sown plantings. Tsering's daughter, Dolka, aged two, plays nearby, splashing her hands in the irrigation trench.

Through a programme called Himalayan Homestays, we are here for two days to experience Ladakhi village life. More a farming settlement than a village, Ulley has a population of 38, with no wheeled vehicles and just five houses, some of them separated by a 30-minute walk. All the inhabitants, including four dogs and a slew of yaks, sheep and donkeys, live off the yield of land that is barely arable.

Our hosts, the Norboo family, live on a farmstead surrounded by crumbling stupas, religious mounds that are said to represent the enlightened mind. Little has changed here since the Norboos' ancestors built the house they live in and the surrounding irrigation channels 200 years ago. The only members of the immediate family in residence are Rinchen Namgyal, 19, and his mother, Tsemang Dolma, but a parade of visitors - extended family members, family friends and the village schoolteacher - creates a communal atmosphere.

A programme initiated by the US-based Snow Leopard Conservancy, Himalayan Homestays is designed to enable rural families such as the Norboos to supplement their meagre income, offsetting losses of livestock to the endangered snow leopard and other predators, thereby giving families a stake in preserving wildlife. For about US$8 (Dh30) a day, including meals, guests live and eat with the family, staying in an adjoining room and using an open-air toilet.

As Dolka splashes in the ice-cold water, her mother moves a boulder to open a new water course, plugging up another with rocks, silt and old rags. The hills are latticed with a network of canals and sub-canals that branch off the main stream, the water spinning rudimentary prayer wheels made of tin cans powered by wooden paddles. The age-old system is ingenious in its simplicity, using not rainwater but melted glacial snow and ice to slake the earth's thirst. For all its cold beauty, Ladakh is a desert, with the Great Himalaya Range creating a barrier not only to foreign armies but to India's monsoon rains, too. Crops - mainly barley, for little else will grow at this altitude - depend on the water that gushes down the valley in torrents, melted by the blazing sun.

And what a difference that daylight makes. We had arrived here after dark the night before, following a four-hour ride on a public bus from Leh, over winding dirt roads that seemed narrower than the vehicle itself. Ladakh's transportation hub, Leh is itself a 13-hour ride in a shared Jeep from the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar. Visitors can also come via a domestic flight, but they will need at least a day to rest and acclimatise, as the town lies at 3,500m.

From the spot where the bus let us off, the village directly downstream from Ulley, an uphill walk of roughly 90 minutes should have brought us to the Norboo farmstead. So we had been told. Little did we know that a flash flood the previous August had washed away the signpost for Ulley. By the time the photographer and I found the path, the sun was receding behind the mountains. Darkness soon fell, and we climbed for three hours, our path lit only by the light of the moon and a tiny flashlight. The eyes begin to play tricks in the dark, and at one point, I thought I saw a silent shadow alighting down the slope a short distance ahead. Finally, a pinprick of light beckoned in the distance - the Norboo house.

A scene from a gothic fairy tale greeted us when we arrived. Three women gathered around a wood stove preparing dinner, their faces bearing the effects of the Ladakhi sun. Dented copper cauldrons, teapots, ladles and skillets lined the walls, and the beams of the ceiling retained 200 years of soot and smoke. With a persistent rocking motion, one of the ladies churned milk using a device resembling a Stone-Age fitness machine. Grasping two ends of a belt wrapped around a wooden rod sunk into a pear-shaped vessel, she spun the rod one way, then the other. The belt handles were animal bones.

Despite the smiles and repeated greetings of "julay" - the Ladakhi word for hello, goodbye, please and thank you - we couldn't help feeling like Hansel and Gretel. After much toil and trouble, dinner was served; thankfully it was not us, but rather rice, lentils, mutton stew and flatbread. The next day, we try helping with the farm chores: milking the yak, which is much harder than it appears; hand-making a hearty wheat pasta called chiutagi, which resembles oversized, unstuffed tortellini; and stripping the bark from young willow branches to repair the roofs, a strangely satisfying task that can leave the backs of one's hands badly surburnt.

That night, the family's sheepdog, a female named Tommy, starts barking from her pen outside. "Wolves," says Rinchen. The family loses several yaks and sheep every year to predators such as the Tibetan wolf and the snow leopard, he explains. I recall the fleeting shadow from the night before. In the morning we join Rinchen in the family's private gompa, or temple, a small room on the roof. He chants mantras as he lights a bowl of juniper twigs, offering it to an array of deities, the centrepiece a bronze statue representing an 11-headed Avolokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion.

This picture of a remote mountain idyll might give the impression that foreigners are new to the area, but Ladakh has seen travellers throughout its recorded history, with no less than five ancient trade routes converging on Leh. Thousands of pack animals traversed the surrounding passes each year as late as the mid-20th century, hauling Kashmir-bound pashmina wool, salt from Tibet, and luxury goods from western China. Although it took two months to travel from Yarkand, China, to the Punjab via the Karakoram Pass, traders had no other way to get from one place to the other. The Karakoram Pass has been closed since the 1950s, as it lies in the heavily militarised border zone between Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and China.

Interested to see what remains of this ancient caravan trail, we organise an excursion to the northern Nubra Valley, a forked route along the Nubra and Shyok rivers. These valleys lie on the other side of the Khardung-La pass, billed as the highest motorable roadway in the world at 5,600m. (There is now a slightly higher pass nearby, but it is rarely used.) Despite an elevation at which the slightest exertion leaves one short of breath, there's a festive atmosphere at the top of the pass, with tourists from the south climbing into the snow to pose for photographs holding an Indian flag, as though reiterating their claim to this contentious ground.

The military presence is still strong throughout Ladakh, nowhere more so than in the north, owing to a three-way confluence of territorial claims. To the east lies the Aksai Chin, an uninhabitable wasteland occupied by Pakistan in its 1948 war with India and then given to China, even while India still claims the barren plateau as her own; to the north-west, Indian and Pakistani troops are still engaged in a face off at the Siachen glacier, the world's highest battleground. To the north is the Karakoram Pass, now bereft of traffic.

But don't be put off. Travellers are in little more danger than we were of being eaten alive by the local coven. The Nubra Valley is now a tourist route known for its breathtaking scenery and sea buckthorn, a bush harvested for its berries that yield a delicious juice with copious amounts of vitamin C. A French schoolteacher obsessed with Marco Polo joins our Nubra excursion. Like a schoolgirl with a crush, she has spent much of the past four years following the footsteps of the 14th-century Venetian. She is convinced the explorer visited Ladakh en route to Kashmir. Urged on by this groupie, we follow the Nubra Valley route as far north as possible, past picturesque villages and vast amounts of prickly sea buckthorn. Though we reach no military checkpoint, eventually the driver, fearful of landing himself in trouble by entering a forbidden zone, insists on turning back. It is the closest we come to the Karakoram Pass.

On the southern fork of the valley, we follow the route to the Siachen Glacier, where the start of the military zone is clearly marked at a bridge at Hunder. We spend the night here, the next morning finding an old monk murmuring mantras at a small monastery next to the "none-shall-pass" checkpoint, washing and refilling the offering bowls. It's an incongruous pairing - monk and military - but perhaps no more so than the two-humped Bactrian camels living nearby against the snow-capped backdrop.

The descendants of pack animals from western China, the camels now generate income for their owners as a tourist attraction, as bemused Indian tourists pay for the brief thrill of riding a camel in the Himalayas. These beasts no longer ply the mountains passes and likely never will. But like the sand mandala, they are a fitting reminder that despite Ladakh's timeless traditions, all that arises will one day cease. travel@thenational.ae