Going to Ladakh is like going to another planet! 2000 km over 15 days! To say the least it was it was a mind numbing experience. The azure of the sky, remorseless sun, inhospitable terrain, snowy peaks, deserted valleys, narrow gorges, biting cold, rarified air, colourful culture and smiling people, has left an indelible imprint on our hearts, minds and souls. The region was opened to tourism by the Indian government in July 1974, and since then it has become a sine qua non for every traveller, the world over. That year, forty-two summers ago, just 527 (including 27 Indians) visitors made that trip but today close to 300000 people visit this trans-Himalayan, high altitude desert every year. An aura of mystery and inaccessibility, has projected it as the archetypal Shangri-La.
But, apart from the pristine beauty, the region’s strategic location has played an important part in shaping the history, culture and the very essence of life and people, here. Through its high passes and dusty valleys, ancient trade flourished. In fact, cross-border salt trade with Tibet from the plateau of Changthang, continued till as late as 1960. Ladakh was like an international trade hub and merchants from central Asia, China Tibet and across the Karakoram would either make a pit stop before progressing further or traded their goods with merchants from other parts of the world. Saffron from Kashmir, tea from China, charas from Sinkiang, Pashm from Changthang, apricots from Baltistan, salt from Tibet, the tide of commerce was in full flow.
Map Courtesy: www.thelandofsnows.com
Three parallel ranges of the Himalayas, the Zanskar, the Ladakh and the Karakoram run through the length and breadth of Ladakh. Between these ranges, the Shayok, Indus and Zanskar rivers flow and most of the population lives in valleys of these rivers. The area was an entrepot for the fabled silk route trade between central and south Asia – a global hotspot of sorts, an ancient cosmopolitan. Today the Ladakh division of Jammu and Kashmir is divided into Kargil (14,036 sq km) and Leh (45,110 sq km). District Leh with an area of 45100 sq km. makes it one of the second largest districts in the country (after Kutch in Gujarat). The District is bounded by Pakistan occupied Kashmir in the west, China in the North and east, and Lahaul & Spiti of Himachal Pradesh in the southeast.