Landing at Leh is an experience in itself; it feels like the airplane narrowly skims across the snow-capped peaks of the Himalaya. Ladakh, since 1947 part of India, is a Buddhist paradise and sometimes called the last Shangrila. Myriam crossed its mountains and its valleys, from gompa to gompa and got through to the heart of the Buddhist culture of this Indian Tibet. 

‘Rest, don’t talk too much and drink a lot, the high altitude is treacherous’ says Tashi our guide after he welcomed us with a ‘djulé’ (hello). Sleeping and remaining silent is not really my cup of tea; therefore I immediately go discovering the local bazaar. Leh is a small vivid city from where about everyone starts their journey, so plenty of terraces and fun shops are to be found around. Primitive cheese and butter makers, wool dyers and bakeries sell their products in shops that are mostly not more than a hole in the wall. Breathing takes more effort than I expected. After two hours of strolling through narrow streets I plump down into a chair on a rooftop terrace overlooking the 17th century Leh palace where the last king of Ladakh resided. With its 9 floors it dominates the city. An enormous ruin is all that is left of it. After drinking a couple of glasses of water I am already feeling a lot better. Back at the hotel it turns out that not everyone of the group is coping that well with the altitude difference.

A safe destination. At the place of worship of the Hemis monastery a young man is meditating. The poor sunlight descends into the room and mysteriously illuminates the bright red benches, the colorful thanka’s and the several frescos. Outside women in traditional clothing spin prayer wheels while they continuously mumble mantras. The huge monastery from the Drukpa (Red caps) is the largest and richest of Ladakh. The head lama is as important as the Dalai Lama for the Yellow caps. There are living 330 monks and another 40 younger guys are being trained according to the severe Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism. The museum is a bit old fashioned, but there are some remarkable dancing masks. A steep path leads to the eyrie, a holy place where monks meditate in solitude. Along the way it occurs to me more and more that the roads are in a remarkably good condition. This makes that the army can efficiently guard the borders between China and Pakistan, because there are more soldiers (150 000) than civilians (110 000) living in Ladakh. This mass military presence makes Ladakh a very safe destination.

Ban the desire. ‘Broken moon land’ is an appropriate nickname for Ladakh which is imbedded between the Great Himalaya and the Karakoram mountains. Being in this desolate moon landscape I understand why Buddhists can let go more easily over here, the emptiness is complete. However, I notice some remarkable details. ‘Cremation tables’ says Tashi before I can ask anything. The prayer house next to it has a tiny door because of zimba (reincarnation); it prevents ghosts from escaping to provoke nearby surrounding residents. The most photographed and interesting monastery fortress is the one of Thiksey (1420), also known as small Potala, named after the one of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. In every gompa it seems like I 'm send back in time where the clock is ticking slower; even in the most recent part (1980), where a gigantic Buddha statue with a golden face smiles at me pleasantly. He takes up two floors; I have to go up the stairs to admire his thorax and face. Also here are aspiring monks walking around. One of the youngest explains us in basic English what they all learn around here: the subject ‘tantric wisdom’ makes the largest impression on me, especially when told by an eight year old boy. A distinctive fresco with a bird, a snake and a pig that menace each other attracts my attention. They resemble greed, hate and ignorance; things you have to ban to have an enlightened mind, smiles Tashi. The monastery is famous for its Gustor rituals, which are tantric dances meant to frighten evil spirits, because the good always wins. Like in the 19th century when criminals had to built a stupa as a punishment. This meant they could reflect on their actions while working on something positive and they could start over with a blank slate. I breathe in some more fresh air while I enjoy the breathtaking landscape. The sky is perfectly blue; it practically never rains over here because the Himalaya stops the clouds. That makes Ladakh the highest desert in the world.

What the dog does not eat. A small old lady feeds pieces of nan (Indian bread) to a lame dog at the courtyard of a temple in Leh were we come to watch the renowned mask dances. To make sure we do not miss anything of the preparations we arrived well on time. The dances full of symbolization are announced as mythical and mysterious. The meditation music sometimes degenerates into severe drum roll, accompanied by horns and cymbals. I astonishingly watch the dancing skeletons in ‘masks of the graveyards’ of which the performers seem to be in a trance. In the mean time the old lady came to sit next to me and wants to feed me the old piece of bread that the dog did not like. Through a monologue that I don’t understand, and with a repetitive movement of her arm she makes it clear that she is sick of the dances. But when I take her hand into mine, she has forgotten it all and laughs happily, while she exposes her only remaining tooth.

Sikh intermezzo. There are only a few monks living in the remote monastery of Hidden Valley because Buddhist rules are applied a bit too strictly over here. For example coming outside in summer is forbidden, because they could possibly kill an insect. The small but colorful monastery consists besides the 500 year old thangka’s also of hundreds of antique prayer books that are only used once a year. A bit further on, the convent Thardot Choling is situated, this time only for women but similar severe rules are applied over here. Stenzin, a young sister, tells us that once they were the slaves of the Rizong monastery and that is why only the die harts remained. Nowadays because they have their own monastery, they are again with 26. She shows us her tiny room (1 by 2m or 3,3 by 6,6ft) that she is sharing with another sister. On the way back we have a brief stop at the Sikh temple. Constructed for Sikh soldiers but everyone is welcome, moreover they serve every visitor free food. Bear food and adorned with an orange headgear we mingle amongst hundreds of believers and ordinary passers-by enjoy the delicacies, which are prepared in huge pots. We keep it to drinking thee. We spend the night in tents at the Ule resort, near the Indus. One ayurvedic massage, although the heights, makes me sleep like a rose.

The owner is God. The mud colored bulgy Indus sways through a wilderness of rocks and sandstone mountains with subtle color shades of grey and beige. In the middle of this harsh landscape on a slope thrones proudly the Lamayuru gompa. The view from the terrace is one of the most beautiful ones in Ladakh. Besides being the oldest one with its 380 monks, it is also the most populated monastery. The Alchi gompa is one large work of art that was declared as Unesco world heritage. The woodcarvings of the six temples are unique and the 11th century preserved frescos are mind blowing. Only natural pigments were used. ‘The yellow was made from urine’ laughs Tashi. On one wall are the thousand positions of a Buddha drawn in small circles. A 13ft (4,75m) high 11th century loam Buddha leans exhausted against a wall. I can admire the head through a whole in the ceiling. Just like at other monasteries the statue was standing there before the temple was. In Alchi I see for the first time a longhaired dzo, a cow crossed with a yak. At the traditional houses in the village the animals reside downstairs, they are inside to keep the building warm in winter together with the kitchen stove. Large bundles dried grass isolate the roofs and red triangles on the walls keep the ghosts away. The stupas, an hemispherical structure around the village are supported by lions that look like cows with sharp teeth. It strikes me that there are more women than men walking around. ‘Double as much,’ says Tashi, ‘that is why they can marry two women over here.’ Everyone is happy, because all alone life is rather hard. At the monastery of Likir, 9,3 miles (15km) further onwards about every Buddha is represented. From Avalkitesvara, the Buddha with 1000 arms and 11 heads is being said that he is supreme. With one arm he can transfer people from hell to nirvana. I cannot immediately feel nirvana over here but we get close when we arrive at a café named ‘The owner is God’. I drink tea while being seated on a plastic chair that has been literally sewed together with large stitches.

High, higher, highest. Ladakh, ‘the land of many passes’ lives up to its name. Today we head over the Khardung La pass, the highest reachable pass in the world (18372ft, 5600m), slowly, because we have to get used again to the altitude difference of 2000m or 6560ft. Close to Khardong we see an oracle house avoided by the surrounding residents because ghosts inhabit it. Once a year they make an exception when a ghost takes possession of one of the residents who can than all of a sudden look into the future. The road to Khardung La is busy and narrow. While army trucks make an attempt at unblocking traffic jams I thoroughly enjoy watching the traffic signs. How about ‘Love they neighbour but not while driving’? Almost at the top a small climb along praying flags and stones that slide away is all that remains. Because of the altitude I feel my heartbeat up to my temple. Just before the top I witness a puja ritual. A couple burns sacrifices for the Daila Lamas birthday. The view across the snow covered Himalayan peaks is overwhelming. Even during the descent the views remain astonishing. Sometimes it looks like pots of paint have been randomly poured over the hills, while the valley resembles a black and white picture. At the Numbra valley, the valley of flowers, at the bottom of the Karakoram mountain range all of a sudden everything turns green. In the villages they live from their cultivated vegetables, cows and chickens. Life the way it is with only smiley faces.

Unhappy Westerners. Way too early in the morning we see two women carefully sweeping a sand track. The head lama of the Red Caps is coming to pay a visit and preparations have already fully started. The lama will only be arriving in the afternoon so I still have plenty of time to make an excursion to a holy lake and to the sand dunes of Hunder were Bactrian camels are walking around with in the background the snow capped peaks of the Himalaya. In the mean time in Chamshen everyone has gotten excited. Women dressed up in traditional clothes are lined up in front of the cathedral and the chefs are busy preparing dinner. I feel the tension rising. Just at the moment that the lama appears with the sound of horns I’m perplex when a rainbow appears above our heads, but nobody else takes notice. We are the only tourists and are immediately offered tea. We are even invited for the buffet in honor of the head lama. His speech, of which I do not understand anything, is apparently about disentangling and cherishing traditions and culture. We are slapped in the face: ‘those westerners have a lot but aren’t happy’. He could have said it a bit subtler but I don’t feel offended. ‘Never give up these festivities, they are a delight for life’ he concludes and that’s right. After his speech I receive a handful of sweet rice. According to a woman the food is holy. ‘It brings luck’, she says ‘and we need it as much as you do’, through which she immediately puts in perspective the words of the lama.

Happy harvesting. Cymbals, bells, singing and mumbling, we end up at the middle of a ceremony. About 12 monks sing mantras in the praying temple of the 700 year old Diskit monastery, the largest gompa in the Nurba valley. They celebrate the finish of their mandala, a Buddhist, highly detailed colored work of art from sand. The ritual takes 48 hours. After 6 days the mandala get thrown into the water without mercy, because becoming attached to it isn’t allowed. The monastery is located on the ancient silk route, in a surrealistic landscape of white sand dunes and capricious mountains, once the Mongolian army stayed over here. According to the legend one of the protectors challenged the Mongolians and won. The impressive temple of this monastery fortress is therefore also the one of the protectors, of which the hero is pictured with 6 skulls and a covered face: because ordinary mortals can’t handle the intrusive look of this holy man. Next to the gompa stands a 32m (105ft) high Maitrey Buddha. The Dalai Lama only initiated him last year. 8 kilogram (18pound) of gold has been used to decorate the statue. He looks to the direction of Pakistan. ‘To prevent a war breaking out with our neighbours, says the old monk that guards the Buddha and who is happy to make a chat. On the way back to Leh we take a stop in Khardong, a village at 4300m (14107ft) altitude. They are harvesting. Everyone is happy and sings. The cantor gets inspirited by the moment and the others participate in the performance. Our djulé resounds through the valley and becomes immediately the subject of the songs. Dzo’s and donkeys are loaded with barley. We barely see tourists around here. Although more and more travellers find their way to this part of Indian Tibet that endlessly excites the senses.



Xplore the Himalaya: Xplore the Himalaya organizes journeys and hikes to Ladakh and other regions in the Himalaya such as Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. You can travel in a group or privately by your own, together with an expert local guide.

More information: 0o 32/288 25 58 or , or join them on Facebook, contact:

Currency: 1 euro = +- 80 rupee; 1 dollar = +- 60 rupee
You need little money when you are there. It is best to have cash to pay for souvenirs and tips. There are ATM’s available in Leh.  

Passport: A Belgian passport has to be valid for another 6 months. Belgians require a visa: 53 euro. Info for requesting a visa:

Mobile: There is no mobile reception. In Leh you can call with a satellite phone quite cheaply. Internet available.

Health: No vaccinations necessary, do take precautions against altitude sickness.

Climate: During European summer it can be very hot in Ladakh: 25°C – 30°C / 77°F – 86°F, in the evening temperatures lower considerably. It rarely rains. 325 days of sunshine.

Time zone: GMT +5:30  

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