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Northern India's Cultural Tourism

One of the more passionate proponents of this effort is 43-year-old H.R.H. Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyal. His ancestors ruled this strange, high-altitude desert from A.D. 900 until 1834, when their political power was lost to the neighboring Dogras of Jammu and Kashmir. Yet his family remains committed to cultural philanthropy—in particular a vigorous desire to preserve Ladakh’s monasteries. “Conservation and preservation—it’s only just beginning here,” Wangchuk tells me over tea, describing how in the past buildings might have been torn down rather than rebuilt. With new initiatives being driven by the local community, there’s now hope that Ladakhis will protect their cultural heritage.

Wangchuk’s latest initiative: to raise Ladakh’s profile among discerning visitors. To that end, he has converted three rooms of his ancestral palace—a four-story mud-brick and stone edifice built in 1822—into a modest hotel.

The Stok Palace Heritage Hotel is located nine miles outside Leh. Wangchuk still occupies a large part of the 77-room palace. There are three guest suites, including one in lapis blue and another in ruby red, with balconies overlooking the Indus Valley. (Two more rooms are under way.) The aesthetic is wholly Ladakhi: every detail has been carefully handcrafted, from the Tibetan and Ladakhi rugs to brightly painted woodwork by local artisans. “Wherever there are cracks in the wood, I’ve kept them,” Wangchuk says. “I want to show people the building’s spirit.” There’s also a quirky museum featuring jewels, armor, and an impressive collection of thangka —the painted and embroidered ceremonial scrolls that hang in Buddhist monasteries across the region. Some are more than 450 years old, their colors made from crushed coral and turquoise. His crown, in silk and gold and encrusted with rubies, dates back a millennium. “I want my son to understand the importance of family and history,” Wangchuk says. “I’m trying to teach him the importance of Ladakhi values and the Tibetan script.”

Just as important to this legacy is the hotel’s small scale; to Wangchuk, Ladakh’s future depends on the region not being overwhelmed by volume-driven tourism. This has been the scourge of neighboring Nepal.

Leh is where the Ladakhis will have to work hardest to keep the pressures at bay. The city nestles in a wide, wind-blasted valley in shades of sun-snapped brown, many of its elements unchanged from when I last visited 16 years ago. Boxy Tibetan-style houses with mud-brick walls line the narrow alleys. Vegetables are laid out to dry on flat rooftops, where Ladakhi women gather in circles on stools, their long braids almost touching the ground, arms weighed down in thick silver cuffs and chunks of red coral.

But today, as I walk from the 17th-century palace toward the town center, it feels as though everything’s been reborn a little brighter, the Namgyal Tsemo gompa (monastery) shining a little whiter than I remember, though still whipped by a million prayer flags. Leh has mushroomed into the bowl of the valley: I notice more people, more four-wheel-drives, more billboards in German and French. There are English-language bookshops and pricey antiques stores owned by incoming Tibetans and Kashmiris. I remember a typical meal here in 1992 consisting mostly of momo, steamed and fried Tibetan dumplings stuffed with vegetables and meat. Today, menus offer everything from Italian breads to Israeli breakfasts.

In other words, Leh is beginning to look a little bit like Goa, Kerala, or any number of places in the rest of India where tourism has brought in Internet cafés, yoga retreats, and backpacker hotels.

Perhaps this is why the woman advancing up the hill in Nimoo is so significant to me. As I watch her from the rooftop of the Shakti homestay, she is unaware of my quiet incursion into her village. It seems remarkable that I can witness this scene without her feeling affected by my presence—a rare event in this world of “managed” tourism. I’m being allowed to experience the everyday, the unpackaged, the unremarkable—all at the pace of a walk. For the first time in years I’m being forced to slow down, made to think about how to travel in a place without contributing to its demise. In this moment, I find Sethna’s vision convincing. There are some things, like the little tik-tik of a prayer wheel advancing up a hill, that, in their simplicity, are worth protecting.

Sophy Roberts is the editor-at-large of Departures.

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