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Report 1932: Ladakh Takes Your Breath Away

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2011

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Page 3 of 25: General Impressions of Ladakh

photo by Michael

Working in the fields

The flight from Delhi takes about 75 minutes, over the top of the Himalayas with fantastic views of the snow covered peaks and ridges. All flights are in the morning as the wind gets up in the afternoon which can make it dangerous to fly. The plane flies up the Indus valley and we could see Leh and the airport below us. It then turns steeply around the edge of a mountain ridge, drops rapidly and comes into land.

At 3500m (11500 feet) Leh literally takes your breath away. The area is high level desert surrounded by steep snow covered mountains. Melt water is collected and used to irrigate fields so there are green oases in the bottom of the valleys. It was noticeable there was less snow on the tops when we left.

Traditionally everyone was a farmer and five acres would feed a family and produce a surplus to sell. Land holdings are surrounded by stone walls with a small entry gate. Inside are apple and apricot trees. Fields are tiny. All work is done by hand. The ground is divided up into small plots about 6í by 3í. Each plot is surrounded by a small bank of earth. The ground looks level but slopes slightly to help with irrigation. Water is taken to each plot along channels and flow is controlled by sluices. Every family is allocated a time slot for water. The water flows into the top of the garden and a small break is made in the wall of the top plot. When the plot is well flooded, the breach is sealed and another made in the next plot. This continues until all the plots have been watered. There is no wastage of water or run off. Weeds growing along the irrigation channels are cut for fodder.

Before the days of refrigerators, families had a root cellar to keep food during the summer. This was a large Ďcaveí dug out of the ground and the hole was covered with a large stone. These can still be seen in places, although are no longer used.

Families keep a cow or yaks which provide milk and may have a donkey for carrying goods. Milk is used to make curd, butter and cheese. Families used to move with the animals to higher pastures for the summer. Now the old go but most of the youngsters move to Leh and work in tourism during the summer months. On the high mountain pastures, male yaks, females with no young and young yaks are left to graze during the summer.

Willow and poplar trees grow everywhere. Poplar wood is used for window frames, rafters, support beams and scaffolding. The willow is coppiced and branches used to line the underside of roofs. Wild pink rose bushes were in flower adding a welcome splash of colour to the scenery.

Houses are all a similar design and made from sun dried mud bricks which are plastered and may be whitewashed. Bricks are made locally and cost about three rupees a brick. Cement bricks are about seven rupees and may be used for the corners of buildings to give added strength. Some newer and more expensive houses have stone bases with mud above.

In the towns the houses are low with small, very dark shops underneath and living quarters above.

Farmhouses are much bigger and many have three stories. Some are surrounded by their fields, others have the fields some distance away. Traditionally the animals were kept on the ground floor and the family lived above. Fodder was stored on top of the roof. Now animals are kept in small sheds and yards by the buildings.

There was a huge living kitchen with wood or dung burning stove which was used in the winter months to provide heat and cooking. The walls have shelves round the walls with all the cooking pots and pans displayed as well as plates, bowls, cups, ladles etc all made from metal. During the summer cooking would be done outside in ovens heated by wood embers. Now houses use small gas rings in the summer. The Ladakhis donít use chairs - they sit on cushions round the sides of the room.

The government provided solar panels for electricity 20-25 years ago. For the last 15-17 years mains electricity has been provided but the supply is unreliable and often cuts out for a few minutes.

Most guest houses have a water supply and flush toilets. However many houses donít have water supplied to the house and all water has to be collected from pumps or from the irrigation channels.

Toilet facilities in many places are best described as basic. The squat toilet is common. The hole in the ground above a long drop may well be experienced in some country areas. These are dug out and contents used to fertilise the land. Hence the need to wash food before eating.

Most of the women still wear traditional dress which looks a bit like a long coat with a gathered waist. Most are made from dark material, with different weights for summer and winter. The older women usually wear a brightly coloured head scarf tied over their hair.

A few of the older men wear the traditional dress. This is a bit like a short dressing gown worn over leggings. Most wear western clothes.

School uniform is western and the baseball cap seems an essential part of the uniform. There is no obesity and children donít eat crisps or sweets on the way to and from school - or use mobile phones.

The scenery is stunning. In places the river valleys are broad and the road runs across flat stoney or sandy desert. In other places the river has cut down into a deep gorge and roads are cut out on a narrow ledge on the hillside with steep mountain on one side and unguarded drop on the other. They are narrow with many bends. They donít seem wide enough for two vehicles to pass but somehow they seem to manage, often at the narrowest bits. Overtaking can be hazardous. The driver sounds his horn and overtakes trusting that the overtaken vehicle will slow down and pull to one side. It usually does. Shrines along the road and the remains of lorries below remind you not all do.

There were very bad floods in summer 2010 which washed out many bridges and roads. Official figures report 500 dead although unofficial figures put this much higher. In Summer 2011, temporary bailey bridges had been built on main roads crossing rivers that had deep scoured channels. On side roads, bridges are still being rebuilt and streams have to be forded. The roads are still in very bad condition in places and locals are employed to repair the roads. Houses were damaged and soil was washed off fields. In other places there are thick deposits of silt.

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