When an opportunity to teach in Ladakh presented itself, lifelong wanderer Chaitanya Akula moved to the mountains. A true adventurer, he wanted nothing more than to get away from city life, do something different, and explore the extraordinary terrain of Ladakh.
After spending more than six months on the road in New Zealand, I felt the urge to hit the road again after returning to Hyderabad. The lure of the Himalayas and the elusiveness of Tibet got me to make the long journey up to Ladakh. It was all shrouded in mystery, and I had little knowledge about what I was in for!
I always expected to go there as a traveller and documentarian, but when I got the chance to teach and live there, I was more than glad to grab it. I was based in Leh, working at the Moravian Mission School teaching English and organising film workshops. As fun as that was, exploring Ladakh was the primary objective. During the many months I was there, I got to explore the land on numerous expeditions, some planned and others spontaneous.
Leh, the capital of Ladakh, is dotted by the Stok Kangri range, with peaks over 6,000 metres high. The place was buzzing with energy when I got there. The tourist season, which lasts for about five months from May to September, sees the population of Leh swell from about 100,000 to 150,000. Since Leh’s primary source of income is tourism, the city is speckled with cafés, restaurants and guest houses.
The restaurants cater to almost any palate. I would usually start my day with a hearty Israeli breakfast at the World Garden Café, at the bottom of Changspaor. For a lighter option, I’d fill up on tagi (local bread), eggs and a steaming cup of butter tea at one of the many small stores at the end of Nowsher Market.
When the air gets a little nippy, there’s nothing like local food to warm you up. Momos, thukpa, skew, chu tagi, timok, mok-mok, thentuk – most of their food is designed perfectly for the high altitude. That it tastes so good doesn’t hurt either.
The terrain changes as you move across Ladakh, and quite drastically at that. I first noticed this around 35 kilometres outside Leh, near Nimoo at the confluence of the rivers Indus and Zanskar. As I moved towards Srinagar, it suddenly became much greener; the villages were not as spread out as they are in the other parts of Ladakh.
This road took me to my first hike in the region. I hitched a ride to the village of Basgo. After a few more off-road rides, I reached a gorgeous valley called Yangthang. If you don’t believe someone when they tell you that you can spot 3,000 stars in the sky, you must visit Yangthang.
After a couple of nights in and around Yangthang, I was off to explore the area further down the Sham side, which led me to Khalatse on the way to the infamous Kargil. Dotted with a number of Indian Air Force camps, this place was quite intimidating as I entered. But once I made my way into the village, it turned out to be quite dreamy.
Apricots (one of the primary exports here) were all over the tiny streets. It took me a while to get used to squishing perfectly good fruit under my feet, but it had to be done in order to get around. I managed to get further along this route to Thimosgang, a place full of beautiful monasteries.
The first time I made it to Pangong, it was late August (summer in Ladakh). During the winter, I got a chance to live in a quaint little village called Shayok in the Durbuk block en route to Nubra Valley, a small community with 22 houses at an altitude of around 13,000 feet.
Situated in a valley, it is named after the Shayok, one of the most important tributaries of the Indus. As a volunteer with the Youth Association of Shayok, I was lucky enough to get the ultimate Ladakhi experience. I got to live with local families, by far the most progressive people I’ve ever come across. They rely on solar energy for their entire power supply despite being on the grid.
The wildlife in Ladakh is still fairly intact and remains unthreatened by the ever-intrusive human presence. I was lucky to spot some kyang (wild ass) on my way to Pangong. On my trek to Tharsing Karmo, I spotted a family of ibexes. Himalayan Red Foxes would run around Shayok almost like pets.
All living creatures are treated with respect. On one of the treks, we managed to find and follow the paw prints a snow leopard, the most elusive of all Himalayan mammals; but I wasn’t fortunate enough to spot it. But that’s reason enough for me go back to the land of high passes as soon as I can. – Chaitanya