“You like it?” my guide asks as I look out from my roof terrace over Nimoo, a dusty village in far northern India. I nod, only half engaged. I’m too consumed with watching a woman who, like an ant, is climbing a hill in this strange moonscape of silver and gray. I can see a prayer wheel in her hand, can almost hear the little tik-tik as it spins. I wonder where she’s going, for there’s nothing but emptiness ahead. Somehow the scene deeply resonates. Perhaps it’s because she’s doing exactly as she’s always done—going about her business, nodding another woman good day, tipping her top hat with its corners upturned. Perhaps it’s the noise of children playing in the fields, the smells of roasted corn and boiled milk rising up toward me. Or maybe it’s because I’m not being cut off from the community, which is so often the lot of the Westerner in India.
I’m here in the Indus Valley to see Shakti Ladakh, a network of sophisticated homestays occupying two-story Ladakhi mansions strung across several villages close to the regional capital of Leh. The premise—a rather singular one in India—is to invite visitors to immerse themselves comfortably in a traditional culture that has, for the most part, never been accessible to them before. “I want people to fall in love with India all over again, for them to connect with the essence of the place, its people, its culture,” says Jamshyd Sethna, a Parsi travel specialist from Mumbai who launched Shakti Ladakh last summer.
The homestays are located in the villages of Stok, Taru, and Nimoo, all within 28 miles of one another. They are without question a cut above any other guesthouse in the region. Each has three rooms with huge beds with European mattresses (the same brand that is used by Amanresorts) and duvets like clouds. The pretty cedarwood furniture, by an Italian designer, has been custom-made in Rajasthan. All bathrooms are en-suite and showers are steaming hot. Linens are freshly pressed; the tables laid with impeccable china, beaten-brass cutlery, and burnished brass bowls. Guests are looked after by the Ladakhi homeowners and Shakti Ladakh’s English-speaking guides and hostesses. Visitors can hike six to nine miles per day, or choose to raft, from house to house—you decide your itinerary, walking less if you prefer—following the milky waters of the Indus, visiting monasteries, talking with monks, meeting with rimpoche s, enjoying picnics complete with tables and chairs in orchards of walnuts, apples, and apricots.
“Walking is the best way to achieve intimacy with the landscape,” Sethna insists. And this landscape is nothing like any you’ve seen elsewhere. Geologically, Ladakh belongs to the Plateau of Tibet, watered only by rivers and snowmelt, the white peaks of the Zanskar Range as clear as ice against blue. The Indus snakes through it—liquid mercury flanked by patches of irrigated green that are all the more conspicuous against a landscape where nothing much grows. For this is a 9,850-foot-high Himalayan desert: India’s monsoon clouds are punctured long before they reach Ladakh’s altitude.
It is Ladakh’s bleak emptiness that draws the most intrepid of travelers, along with the brief poplar blossom that looks like snow. One can walk for hours amid the fields of barley and the mulberries strung along the rivers. Under a changing sky, with clouds scudding low across the horizon, the water turns from milky blue to turquoise. Buddhist burial grounds and stupas punctuate the roads that traverse jagged-edge passes such as Khardung La, which marks the boundary between the Indus and Nubra valleys. The people, who are more Tibetan than Indian, have moon faces and eyes that squint in the sun; this makes them look like they’re laughing even when they’re cross. The children are always keen to talk, to swap pens and inspect a mobile phone. The monasteries, many of them newly renovated, are full of chanting and drumming and apprentice monks running around in flip-flops. Prayer halls smell of yak butter and incense and—most important—are filled with living communities.
Which isn’t to say Ladakh is some Himalayan idyll. For six months a year the climate is so bitter, so cruel, with temperatures dropping to minus 22 and below, that there’s little to romanticize. Because of those high mountain passes, there’s no road access between September and June. And unless you take things slowly, altitude sickness can be a real concern.
Politically, the region poses its own challenges. Along Ladakh’s eastern edge lies India’s once contentious border with China; to the west, the Line of Control, disputed territory with Pakistan—hence the military presence, with army bases feeding soldiers to India’s borders. Yet Ladakh remains peaceful. Its foremost challenges are to protect the region’s Buddhist identity (so ravaged in Tibet) and to maintain the Ladakhi livelihood, which remains inextricably tied to ancient rural traditions.