The Himalayan province of Ladakh is India’s most physically remote and culturally distinct region. It only takes an hour or so to fly there from Delhi, but the change of landscape and atmosphere is total. Vast, ice-encrusted mountains of bare brown, ochre and wine-red scree sweep from the floor of the Indus Valley, where the airport and capital city, Leh, is located. As you land, you’ll catch your first glimpse of the white-washed Buddhist monasteries that survey the valley floor from crags near the river, and of the pretty Ladakhi villages huddled around them, wrapped in stands of poplar trees and fields of vivid green or golden barley.
Leh itself is a compact market town whose mud-walled, low-roofed core huddles below a ruined, Tibetan-style palace. In times past, its main bazaar was the hub of the trans-Himalayan trade in pashmina wool, source of the world’s softest, warmest, and most expensive shawls.
These days, however, the town’s main income derives from the tourists who pour through in the summer months. Most arrive overland from Manali or Srinagar, having crossed three of the world’s highest motorable passes in the process. But if you’ve flown in, take it easy for the first few days.
Leh lies at 3,524m (11,561 ft) – the point at which acute mountain sickness can strike – so it’s advisable to spend a while acclimatising in your guest house garden, gazing across the valley at the eternal snows of the Stok Kangri massif with a flask of hot jasmine tea to hand.
Once you’ve grown accustomed to the thin Himalayan air, the town makes a relaxing springboard for trips to the many Buddhist monasteries, dotted around the Indus Valley – repositories of religious rituals and a way of life little changed in several centuries.