Travel India: A rest stop at Buddha's place

Ladakh's mountainous landscape and spiritual culture are irresistible. But there is a more personal side too.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The padlock that barred me from the main hall of the gompa (Tibetan- Buddhist monastery) was the biggest lock I had ever seen. There was definitely no picking its ample innards - even if I'd known how - but I was intrigued to know what was hidden away inside to deserve such a lock. More rock- steady than heavy metal, its gorgeously ornate bulk hung from the temple doors as comfortably as a VW logo from the neck of a Beastie Boy. Except that this monastery, Sankar Gompa, was sitting in Leh, a primarily Buddhist town, and such obvious flashness sits oddly with the general simplicity of local daily life.

I never did find out what was behind the lock but, after such flamboyance, it would probably have been a let-down. And it didn't matter anyway because the rest of the monastery was well worth the mile-or-so stroll from the centre of Leh.

Sankar Gompa is small but perfectly formed. Smooth but slightly crumbling white walls surround a small garden, its central square filled with rambling wild flowers. The walls are in fact the outsides of the secular monastery buildings and every so often around them, at the top of a flight of steps or balanced on a window ledge, someone had picked the brilliantly coloured blooms and stuffed them carelessly into rusting tin cans to flutter magnificently in the sunshine.

It was still early and the garden was empty except for a pretty cat that was limbering up for the day, and the sound of a young monk hiccuping his way through his morning chores. Outside the walls, a stream of pigtailed children giggled their way to school but, inside, I had the garden to myself and sat down to join the cat on a step and enjoy the peace.

After an introduction to Delhi that had involved lying, cheating and sexual harassment, flying swiftly up to Leh rather than enduring the alternative three-day bus journey seemed a sanity-saving necessity rather than a luxury. Almost as far north as you can go in India, Leh is the main town in Ladakh, a mesmerisingly romantic region snuggled between China and Pakistan and ringed by precipitous monasteries and the dusty mountains of the lower Himalayas.

Ladakh is a good-looking place, a natural star of those glossy geographical films. They pick out its icy winter vistas and intersperse them with sweeping shots of isolated Buddhist monuments, the detail on flimsy pastel prayer flags and bashful smiles on ruddy mountain faces. For the many people who come here to trek, this is undoubtedly what they find but there is another, more personal side to the place.

This is no ordinary Indian town. Because of the severe climate, Leh is really open to visitors only between June and September. In late September, when the snow starts to fall on the high passes, there is a sudden scramble to leave; people put down their cups of coffee at the town's German bakeries, pay their guesthouse bills and head off to the travel agencies to book creaking seats on the convoy of buses that start rolling slowly down to Manali and out of Ladakh.

For the short summer season, though, there's plenty to enjoy in town. And, if you fly in from India, that's a boon since spending some time in Leh is almost a necessity. The altitude is so high (close on three miles high) that you're practically forced into bed by the afternoon headache and the alarming patter against your ribs that hit most new arrivals.

After a few days mooching around the cafes and some gentle exploration through the old town, you suddenly feel acclimatised and can attempt Leh's more energy-sapping sights. The obvious starting-point is Leh Palace, built in the 17th century. In its current dilapidated state (the Ladakhi royal family abandoned it when they were exiled to Stok in the 1830s), the breath-zapping climb is worthwhile only to get your bearings over the town and to peer out on to the busy alleyways and industrious inhabitants of the old town.

Much more impressive are the outlying monasteries. Some people call Ladakh Little Tibet and when you visit the monasteries it's easy to see why. The gompa at Shey, 10 miles south of the town, is the former summer palace of the kings of Ladakh, and its 40-ft-high gold-plated Buddha statue is slowly being restored. A little further on is Tikse, where the steep climb rewards you with a lavish rooftop view of the sun-streaked fields and crumbling chorten (Buddhist monuments) that straddle the valley's meandering river.

I visited on a hot afternoon and, as I looked up at the monastery, its bright whites, yellows and reds stuck out graphically against the blue sky. At 3pm on the dot, the architectural kaleidoscope was joined by a trail of maroon-robed young monks scurrying upwards, cups in hand, for their customary afternoon tea.

But, for many people in Leh, life is changing fast. Since Ladakh was opened up to tourism in 1974 the numbers making their way up here have escalated so fast that there are now real worries about the effects of so many tourists on the area. Walking through Leh, all is calm as the birdsong cuts through the crisp air and cool streams lap their way gently downhill. But the daily video show at the International Society for Ecology building shows a different reality and an empty crisp packet trundling down those same streams. At the same time, the narrator explains how today the water in Leh's streams is undrinkable, because it carries water-borne diseases such as Hepatitis A.

The video was just getting interesting at this point but I had to leave to meet a friend. We'd been waiting for the right evening and tonight's cloudless sky was perfect. We sped off on his motorbike - guiltily aware that we were spewing un-ecological fumes - to catch the view from Shanti Stupa. High above the town, the sun caught briefly on the monument, lighting up the Buddhist carvings surreally as it set down the valley.

Fact File

Getting to India: The cheapest flights to India are generally on airlines from the Middle East or the former Soviet Union.

You can expect to pay around pounds 314 return to Delhi on an airline such as Turkenistan Airlines via Ashkabad, or Syrian Arab Airlines via Damascus for pounds 344, booked through agents such as Classic Travels (0171-499 2222).

Visas: British passport holders require a visa to visit India. If you call the 24-hour visa information service (0891 880800), you will spend a lot of time and money finding out the following details.

For a six-month tourist visa, you can apply in person or by post to the following: the High Commission of India, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA; Consulate-General of India, The Spencers, 19 Augustus Street, Jewellery Quarter, Hockley, Birmingham B18 6DS; Consulate-General of India, Fleming House, 134 Renfrew Street, G3 7ST.

If applying by post, first send a stamped addressed envelope for a visa application form to the Postal Visa Section at the addresses above. Postal applications take up to four weeks. Once completed, send the form with two passport photos passport, and the fee of pounds 19.

"You are advised not to finalise your travel arrangements until your visa has been issued," says the High Commission.

Nagpur: At the Blue Moon Hotel (0091 712 726 063), air-conditioned doubles pounds 7 including breakfast. Flights between Mumbai and Nagpur are operated by Indian Airways and Jet Air. Nagpur can also be reached by bus from Mumbai.

Mumbai: the city has a wide range of hotels. At the top are the Taj Mahal, and the Oberoi, with rooms in the pounds 200 a night range. There are a dozen or so which range from pounds 50 to pounds 30 per night, and at the bottom end are many ranging down to the Salvation Army Red Shield Hostel for pounds 1 (breakfast included).

Ladakh: The Foreign Office says: " We advise against travel to all parts of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, apart from Ladakh. Travel to Ladakh should be by air or via Manali in Himachel Pradesh, not via Srinagar. The road from Srinagar to Leh is presently closed in the Kargil area."

Travel advice: the Foreign Office this week updated its travel advice for India: "India is generally calm and visitors are made welcome. However, we believe that there is an increased risk to British interests in India from global terrorism.

"Visitors to Delhi should take extra care. Bomb explosions occur in public places in the city from time to time. Public transport has been targeted in parts of India including Delhi."