top of page
  • Writer's picturemarikaabba

Ladakh - Little Indian Tibet

Camel of Nubra Valley

After two years of restrictions due to the Covid19 pandemic, the world is once again vast and infinite, no longer limited by municipal, regional or state borders. So, Noemi and I decide to open our atlas of desires and look outside Europe, in search of a particular, unique destination. Our eye falls on India.

You might say: it is a much loved and popular destination, how could it be so unusual and unknown? True, it is certainly a very popular destination for those who do meditation or for those who want to get to know a culture that is completely different from the European one. In my head, however, one name echoed clearly: Ladakh.

During the years I worked in a travel agency, I sometimes came across itineraries or webinars dedicated to this area; I always felt it was a "niche" destination, definitely far away from the glitz, social divide and chaos of Rajasthan's Golden Triangle.

So we rush to buy two tickets to Delhi for early November from Elena and Simonetta of Pangea Viaggi, my previous bosses. We slowly begin to build the foundations of our trip: let the adventure begin!

On the road to Pangong Tso

Our adventure began with a long flight to Delhi, but we didn't stop there. After an hour and a half queuing at Customs to get our visas stamped, we picked up from the ground our "double-shouldered houses", which had been thrown to the ground and walked on by dozens of passengers while we waited, and hurried outside the airport (T3) in search of the shuttle bus to Terminal 1.

Those who have been to Asia before will certainly know that as soon as you cross the exit, you are assaulted by a multitude of men shouting 'taxi!'. Most of them pretend to be real taxi drivers and try at all costs to entice you with a thousand excuses to get you into one of their collaborators' cars, to earn some money.

We ignore them and wait for the shuttle together with two very kind ladies, mother and daughter, who in the meantime give us two tips on how to get around India and, seeing that we are two young girls travelling alone, advise us to avoid certain areas of the city.

The bus arrives, obviously all broken down. We get on and take the first free seats. There are few of us on board, but outside it seems to be rush hour, even though it is 4am. The bus starts and runs very fast, passing cars and motorbikes. Soon, however, comes a sharp bend and the driver takes it at a crazy speed. Rounding the corner - I would say on two wheels - there is an airport police station. The driver seems to have completely forgotten about it, even though it is part of his routine. He brakes abruptly, partly to avoid the bus coming up on our left. The engine floods right in front of the checkpoint barrier. He tries to restart it several times, but nothing, it gives no sign of life. Noemi and I look at each other discouraged: 20 minutes of driving will only be a dream.

Try and try again. On the fifth attempt, the engine timidly restarts. We get back on the road, pick up more passengers and take a straight road: we can make it! Unfortunately it is full of bumps and every time we are about to go over one, the bus switches off. The loop becomes: five restart attempts and two hundred metres of range. I'll spare you the uphill stretch, but we made it and here we are at Terminal 1 departures.

After boarding the backpacks, we do the routine checks and head for the boarding gates: Leh is waiting for us!


Leh airport is very small, spartan, there is only one baggage belt. Everywhere the doors are open and there is a continuous passage of people. The exit is guarded by a military man, sitting roughly with a rifle in his arms, who from time to time lines up the masses.

After having taken a Covid-Test - we were chosen 'at random' from the crowd - we go out and head to the first ATM to withdraw a small sum to cover our first expenses. We discover that it doesn't work and there is absolutely no currency exchange kiosk or other counter around. Even the one at Delhi airport was short of cash: luck does not seem to be on our side.

We head for the city taxi and beg a guy to take us to the first ATM on the street, so we can withdraw a few rupees. Unfortunately, none of the four tried worked. We are starting to get worried. On reaching our destination we pay him in euros and he gives us change in rupees. So begins the hunt for a working ATM, which turns out to be the Jammu&Kashmir Bank (J&K Bank), a short walk from the town centre.

Once we have removed this worry that has been bothering us for a couple of hours, we return to our room, 104, of the Sia-La Guesthouse and throw ourselves into bed to recover a few hours of sleep.

After waking up, we head downtown and begin to explore the streets of Leh. The capital of Ladakh is not really a megalopolis, it seems instead to be made to human scale. We can easily move around, the centre is adorned with millions of colourful Tibetan flags and everything is orderly. In the streets, several women are sitting on the ground intent on weighing and sealing in transparent bags almonds and dried apricots grown in the neighbouring areas.

We decide to spend the rest of the day strolling through the streets of the centre, so that we don't get any more tired and acclimatise ourselves fully. We visit the various shops and start making notes on souvenirs to take home. From time to time, all the lights in the city go out: it is a succession of blackouts here. For us, this is cause for surprise, while for the people of Leh, it is pure normality.

Before nestling under the blankets, we go for a nice plate of steaming Momo at Chimath Tibetan Kitchen, a small restaurant in the centre that is delicious and clean.

Back at the guesthouse, we discover that the room has heating: how wonderful! This detail is something neither to be underestimated nor taken for granted. The houses are not equipped with it, they warm themselves with small bonfires, heavy sweaters and by drinking hot water. Our radiator is rudimentary, but it takes some of the cold out of our bones. When the heating is on, some hot water also comes out of the tap, which we collect in a bucket for showering.


The second day is dedicated to discovering the city. After a breakfast of eggs and spicy chapati, we go out.

November is not high season, on the contrary, many accommodations are closed and stray dogs go in search of miserable food. On the road in addition to them there are cows, calves and sometimes donkeys.

At the top of the hill above the centre stands Leh Palace, the palace that was the official residence of the royal family until around the middle of the 19th century. It was built in the 17th century and is to all intents and purposes one of the symbols of Ladakh. It consists of nine floors and is definitely worth a visit. From up there, you can admire the city and the world around it.

We realise that we are in a unique environment: Leh, in fact, is located at an altitude of 3.500 metres and is set in a kind of high-altitude desert. The whole area is very dry, dusty; high mountains crown it; peaks covered with snow and glaciers contrast with the sand and sediment typical of the valley floor. If you look closely at the world around you, it is not difficult to imagine the action of the glaciers and their course.

We climb back up the slopes, reach a peak full of colourful Tibetan flags and head towards Tsemo Fort, which houses a Buddhist shrine inside. Unfortunately, we find it closed, so we walk down to the centre through the narrow streets of the historic part. Here, the houses are made of mud bricks. They do not give the feeling of being sturdy, on the contrary, very precarious. The roofs have a layer of thatch, just as was the custom in the past in the Alpine valleys of Cuneo.

We walk alongside small white stupas surrounded by prayer wheels and soon find ourselves in front of the mosque, in the heart of Leh. The muezzin's voice begins to echo, carried by the wind. Here Buddhists and Muslims seem to live together in harmony, although it is a rather delicate area, but we will have time to talk about this later.

We go back to eat at the Chimath Tibetan Kitchen, where we meet Matteo, an Italian guy on holiday in India, who decides to join us for the trip to the Nubra Valley.


The November cold scratches our faces; for hours we have been confined in a Toyota dealership just outside the city centre together with our driver. The workshop and the cars inside it are covered by pigeon droppings, and the bathroom is a room of horrors: the stench emanating from the place makes us retch. The only words spoken to us by the driver in response to our requests and questions are 'yes' and 'one minute'. Patience begins to fade, so we try our best to find a new driver.

Fortunately Juma, a young man from the Nubra Valley who speaks excellent English, comes to our rescue. He tells us he is a mountain guide: he leads expeditions to the highest peaks in the region up to 7.000 metres above sea level, but in the off-season he works as a driver. We get into the car and finally the day takes on new, brilliant colours.

We leave the traffic in the centre and start climbing the mountain slopes following a well-paved, but tortuous road. The guardrails are almost inexistent and since we drive on the left, we are perpetually on the side of the precipice. Juma, however, is very caring: as soon as the road surface becomes covered with snow and ice, he slows down and with careful and safe driving leads us up to the 5.602-metre altitude of Kardung-La, the highest road pass in the world.

After showing the Nubra Valley access permit we bought in Leh, we begin the long descent towards Diskit, our first destination. Down the cliffs, on the side of the road, we see car and bus carcasses abandoned after accidents, a macabre spectacle that alerts travellers and invites them to drive carefully. Here and there we start to see large military trucks heading in the direction of Leh.

The landscape is constantly changing and every glimpse leaves us speechless. When we arrive in the heart of the Nubra Valley, I explode with happiness. The river flows slowly, on its sides are stretches of sand, all around immense mountains. Glaciers sparkle in the distance, reflecting the sunlight.

The Nubra Valley borders Pakistan, Tibet and China and is part of the Karakoram Range. The famous Silk Road passes through here and is travelled by a myriad of hikers and cycle tourists in the summer.

We head towards the Diskit Gompa, which is characterised by a white monastery climbing the mountainside and a huge statue of Buddha. The view from here is breathtaking.

The sun is setting and the cold is starting to make itself felt so we walk down to the river to admire the beautiful native camels before nightfall. Juma explains that their owners often leave them wild and put a bell on the herd leader so that the others follow. Distinguishing female from male is very simple: in the former the two humps fall to one side.

We get back into the car and drive to the guesthouse in Hunder, where we will stay for two nights. This area in summer is an expanse of tented camps of all comfort levels.

The owners of the guesthouse host us in their home for an excellent dinner of traditional dishes, then we go to our room. Throughout the night we will be kept company by 'friendly' mice attracted by the heat of the kerosene stove and the crumbs and peanuts left by previous guests under the beds. This is also part of the adventure!


After a hearty breakfast, we load our rucksacks into the car and head for Panamik. Actually, the destination for the day was supposed to be Turtuk, a small village inhabited by a small Balti community, originally from Baltistan in Pakistan. Talking to Juma, however, we decided to do something more special, something more akin to our way of travelling, so he suggested we go as far as the far end of the opposite branch from Hunder and Turtuk.

To make it clearer, you have to imagine the Nubra Valley as a 'Y', at the top on the far left is Turtuk and there flows the Shyok River; on the far right is Panamik and there we find the Nubra River. The junction of the two valleys is at about the height of Diskit.

Beyond Panamik , we, occidental people, are not allowed to go. A lot of military units are stationed in this area, even Hunder there are huge base camps. It is an area completely militarised by the Siachen Indian Army, named after the glacier that marks the border between India and Pakistan, the scene of shootings and conflicts.

We continue on our way, cross numerous rural villages, immense esplanades and reach the Panamik Hot Springs, a place frequented only by local people. We enjoy the hot water flowing from the ground surrounded by majestic mountains, then get back into the car ready for a short hike.

Juma leaves us at the foot of a small massif in the middle of the desert, there is a sacred lake nestled between the rocks. Before leaving us, our driver recommends us to make two loops clockwise around the basin, we agree and we start walking. We decide not to follow the path along its shores, but to aim for the spires above it to enjoy the spectacle of the glaciers in the distance. On the horizon, behind the white peaks, are K12, K2 and the Gasherbrum. What a spectacle of nature!

We return to Juma, who has a surprise for us: everyone in the car, off we go!

We arrive in front of a gate, Juma gets out, opens it and parks next to a house. At the gate are two elderly gentlemen waiting for us, his parents. They do not speak English, but the welcome is special, warm. We go inside and they make us sit on mattresses, then the mother serves us hot spiced tea - delicious - a typical cake and apples from the tree they have in the garden. The kitchen is full of furnishings that are used on feast days and they also have two wonderful churns that they use to make butter. In the end, the lady serves us a bowl with a piece of goat meat in broth.

Juma explains to us that there is a subsistence economy here: everything you eat or use to build houses, comes from your garden or the surrounding environment. The rafters of the roof are made from the trees planted in the garden; the milk used to make butter or tea comes from the two cows that graze in the large enclosure, and so on. People live on a few simple and healthy things.

After this beautiful encounter, we set off again and make a brief stop at a Buddhist monastery, where young monks are educated. At the age of six, children can enter monasteries and become monks; it is a permanent choice, which completely changes their lives. Juma confides to us that it is a choice made freely by the children, but we find it hard to imagine.

Interestingly, 70% of the population of the Nubra Valley is Muslim. This seems a false fact, for everywhere you see Buddhist stupas and monasteries, almost never mosques, yet it is so. Even Juma's parents belong to two different religions: his mother is Buddhist, his father Muslim.

Last stop in the desert dunes, then back to our little mouse friends!


The alarm clock rings very early, the cold is biting, but it's time to say goodbye to our host family and especially to the kitten that hunted and ate the rats in our room during the night. A journey of 250 kilometres to another spectacle of nature awaits us.

Most of the time we travel along the river; at first we travel on a comfortable, perfectly paved road, then as we enter a completely uninhabited area, it becomes unpaved. Some sections are scary: super exposed, under unstable walls. Juma presses on the accelerator to get out of those dangerous places as quickly as possible: a breakaway of rocks and boulders could hit us at any moment.

We return to civilisation and immediately stop at a checkpoint where they check our permits and passports. Everything is ok, we can leave again. If already in Hunder we were surprised by the number of soldiers, here it is really impressive. Kilometres and kilometres of base camps - as they call them - where men of all ages drill every day, waiting to be sent to the front to defend the border.

Several times a week, entire contingents leave in huge military trucks and go to Leh to get supplies. This area is very poor and milk and eggs are often lacking, so the inhabitants of the villages go and buy them directly from the army. Not only that, they also sell blankets, thermal shirts, sleeping bags and much more.

There is one data that makes me think: 65% of the Indian military is stationed in Ladakh, a huge number. This is not the hottest front, it is Kashmir that is a 'red zone'. The closer we get to the border with China, the more massive the allocations are. We often meet a special branch of the army, the BRO (Border Roads Organisation), which is in charge of rebuilding the roads.

As the altitude increases, we begin to see the first tents of Tibetan nomads. Around them, cashmere goats and yaks graze. We stop to take a few photos and stretch our legs, before continuing on.

The dirt road finally leads us to the 4.200 metres above sea level of Pangong Tso, a huge lake one third of which lies in India and the remaining two in China. This enchanting place became famous thanks to the Bollywood film '3 Idiots' (2009). The temperature is about -15°C - perceived I would say -20°C. The wind is strong and sharp, so we decide to go into the small restaurant to eat something warm.

We set off again and reach Chang-La, a pass at an altitude of 5.300 metres. A ritual photo in the snow and ice, then down, back to Leh!

Travelling you have time to look out of the window and let your thoughts and reflections follow one another, and it is while putting in order the moments that have just passed that I wonder how it is possible, at a time reputed to be peaceful, to live as if you were waiting for a war to break out at any moment. For those who were born and raised there it is part of everyday life, it is normal, but for me it is out of all logic.

Here we are again in Sia-La Guesthouse, tomorrow we will take a break for souvenirs and then the next day we will discover a new valley.


We want to live our last day in Ladakh to the full, discovering new corners away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Juma is waiting outside the entrance gate of the guesthouse, we load our backpacks and off we go!

The first destination is Magnetic Hill. A purely touristy place, which Noemi and I are actually not very interested in, but of which Juma and the Ladakhi people are absolutely proud. It is a peculiar phenomenon: you park your car in the middle of the road, put it in neutral, take your hands and feet off the brakes and it magically moves forward on its own.

After the experiment, we drive to a very characteristic place: the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar. The meeting of the two different rivers creates a unique colouring. This area is a paradise for those who love rafting, canoeing or kayaking.

Before entering the Markha Valley, we make a stop at the Sikh temple along the road, wanted by the military. We put on our veils and enter this structure, which from the outside is rather anonymous. We take off our shoes and visit the main hall. There are swords everywhere, portraits and brightly coloured lights. A rather peculiar environment, very far from the classical idea of a religious temple. On our way out, we are offered some hot spiced tea by a young soldier, which is very delicious indeed.

We get back on the road and go up the Markha Valley. As we get closer to our destination, the road becomes narrower, passing through a sort of canyon characterised by singular conformations that remind us of the Ciuciu of Villar San Costanzo (Cuneo - IT) or the Demoiselles Coiffées near Lake Serre-Ponçon (FR).

The village of Rumbak is very small, lies at an altitude of over 3.900 metres and is an important crossing point in long-distance treks. Some families live here all year round, even when metres of snow fall. In early November it is deserted, only the sounds of nature can be heard.

Juma stays to talk to the elderly ladies of the village, to whom he has brought provisions, while we set off. The destination we had planned is a long way away and we are running out of time. So we decide to take it easy and go as far as our legs and, above all, our lungs will allow us to go - the altitude here makes itself felt immediately!

The first section is a sheet of ice, then it becomes a well-trodden rocky path. The valley is majestic, the rocks are all coloured and the glaciers stand proud in the distance. The beauty of this valley is absolutely breathtaking, to say the least!

Along the trail we encounter a large group of partridges, we follow them and at the top of a promontory. Here appear groups of ibex on the other side of the mountain, on one side females with their young and on the other side males.

We are in Hemis National Park, in this area it is possible to spot the famous snow cheetah. We obviously did not see him even out of the corner of our eyes, but he was certainly there, wandering through the snow and ice in search of his prey.

We still fill our eyes with beauty, then descend again to Rumbak. We cuddle the two little calves and say goodbye to the lady sitting outside her house. We get into the car and drive back to Leh.

Tomorrow, we will leave this amazing corner of the world. Julley, Ladakh!


Delhi is pure chaos;

it is architectural beauty;

it is pollution, even noise;

it is history;

it is social divide;

it is a world in itself.

After a week in the mountains and the silence, I was not ready to experience this reality and perhaps, the way I am, I will never be able to fully appreciate it, but it is worth taking a tuk-tuk and touching the highlights of the city. Don't miss the Lodhi Garden and Humayun's Tomb, which inspired the Taj Mahal.

New Delhi, more orderly and innovative, is diametrically opposed to Old Delhi, which I experienced as a punch in the gut: an immense stream of people moving around without me moving a single foot and suffocating me.

There are those who love big cities and go to India in search of their own self in the crowded alleys of Agra, Varanasi or who knows what other megalopolis. I searched for myself among the most unknown mountains, among the silence and solitude, so rare in India's big cities.

An incredible journey, a breath of fresh air after two years of pandemic and a thousand changes. Thank you India, Julley Ladakh!









2 views0 comments


bottom of page