Leh, the capital of Ladakh is situated at a height of 3505
meters and is towards the eastern parts of Jammu and Kashmir. The region is
watered by the Zanskar River, which flows into the Indus River just below.
Spilling out of a side valley that tapers north towards eroded snow-capped
peaks, the Ladakhi capital sprawls from the foot of a ruined Tibetan style
palace - a maze of mud-brick and concrete flanked on one side by
cream-coloured desert, and on the other by a swathe of lush irrigated
farmland. As one approaches Leh for the first time, via the sloping seep of
dust and pebbles that divide if from the floor of the Indus Valley, one will
have little difficulty imagining how the old trans -Himalayan traders must
have felt as they plodded in on the caravan routes from Yarkhand and Tibet:
a mixture of relief at having crossed the mountains in one piece, and
anticipation of a relaxing spell in one of central Asia's most scenic and
atmospheric towns. Leh is a beautiful destination with so many attractions
and is the center of Tibeto-Buddhist Culture for ages. Its colorful gompas
have attracted the devout Buddhists from all over the globe. Besides, it is
also a favorite hiking locale and is known for some of the best hikes in the
country. History of Leh
King Sengge Namgyal who ruled Ladakh during 17th century and during whose
rule Ladakh was at its greatest shifted his court from Shey to Leh. Leh
became the regional capital and very soon the town blossomed into one of the
busiest markets on the Silk Route. During the 1920s and 1930s, the broad
bazaar that still forms its heart received more than a dozen pony- and
camel-trains each day.
Leh's prosperity, managed mainly by the
Sunni Muslim merchants whose descendants live in its labyrinthine old
quarter, came to an abrupt end with the closure of the Chinese border in the
1950's. However its fortunes begin to look up after India rediscovered the
hitherto forgotten capital's strategic value after two wars in quick
succession with Pakistan . Today, Khaki-clad Jawans (soldiers) and their
families from the nearby military and air force bases are the mainstay of
the local economy in winter, when foreign visitors are few and far between.
Gates opened for Tourists
government's decision in 1974 to open Ladakh to foreign tourists was a major
shake-up. From the start, Leh bore the brunt of the annual invasion, as
busloads of backpackers poured up the road Srinagar. Twenty or so years on,
though the main approach is now via Himachal Pradesh rather than Kashmir,
the summer influx shows no sign of abating.
Leh has doubled in
size and is a far cry from the sleepy Himalayan town of the early 1970's.
During July and August tourists stroll shoulder to shoulder down its main
street, most of whose old style outfitters and provision stores have been
squeezed out by Kashmiri handicraft shops, art emporiums and Tibetan
restaurants. Around the TownAround the Town
Leh has nonetheless retained a more tranquil side, and is a pleasant place
to unwind after a long bus journey. Attractions in and around the town
itself include the former Palace and Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, perched amid
strings of prayer flags above the narrow dusty streets of the Old Quarter.
A short walk north across the fields, the small monastery of
Sankar harbours accomplished modern Tantric murals and a thousand beaded
Avalokitesvara (also spelt as Avalokiteshvara) deity.
Leh is also
a good base for longer day trips out into the Indus Valley. Among the string
of picturesque villages and Gompas within reach by bus are Shey, site of a
derelict 17th century palace, and the Spectacular Tikse Gompa. Until one has
adjusted to the altitude, however, the Only sightseeing one will probably
feel up to will be from a guesthouse roof terrace or garden, from where the
snowy summits of the majestic Stok-Kangri massif (6,120m), magnified in the
crystal clear Ladakhi sunshine, look close enough to touch.