For close on 900 years from the middle of the 10th century,
Ladakh was an independent kingdom, its dynasties
descending from the kings of old Tibet. Its political fortunes ebbed and
flowed over the centuries, an the kingdom, was at its greatest in the
early 17th century under the famous King Senge Namgyal, whose rule
extended across Spiti and western Tibet up to the Mayum-la beyond the
sacred sites of Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar.
And gradually, perhaps partly due to the fact that it was politically stable, in contrast to the lawless tribes further west, Ladakh became recognized as the best trade route between the Punjab and central Asia. For centuries, caravans carrying textiles and spices, raw silk and carpets, dyestuffs and narcotics traversed it.
Trade In Ladakh
Heedless of the land's rugged terrain and apparent remoteness merchants entrusted their goods to relays of pony transporters who took about two months to carry them from Amritsar to the Central Asian Towns of Yarkand and Khotan. On this long route, Leh was the halfway house, and developed into a bustling entrepot, its bazaars thronged with merchants from far countries.
The famous "Pashm" (better known as Cashmere) also came down from the high-altitude Plateaux of eastern Ladakh and western Tibet where it was produced, through Leh to Srinagar, where skilled artisans transformed it from a matted oily mass of goat's under fleece into shawls known the world over for their softness and warmth.
Ironically, it was this lucrative trade that finally spelt the doom of the independent kingdom. It attracted the covetous gaze of Gulab Singh, the ruler of Jammu in the early 19th century, and in 1834, he sent his general Zorawar Singh to invade Ladakh. There followed a decade of war and turmoil, which ended with the emergence of the British as the paramount power in neighbouring province of Baltistan was incorporated into the newly created State of Jammu and Kashmir. Just over a century later, this union was disturbed becoming part of Pakistan, while Ladakh remained in India as a part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir.
Caravan Route To Leh
Ladakh's position at the centre of a network of trade routes traditionally kept it in constant touch with the outside world. From Chinese Central Asia, the mightily Karakoram Range was breached at the Karakoram pass, a giddy 18,350 Feet (5,600m).
The trail from Yarkand crossed five other passes, of which the most feared was the glacier-encumbered Saser-la, north of Nubra. Travellers from Tibet could take one of two main routes from the Central part of the country, the Tsang-po valley, they could pass the holy sites of Kailash Mansarovar and reach Gartok, on a tributary of the upper Indus, from where they followed the river down to Leh.
Trade with the 'Pashm'-producing areas of western Tibet flowed by a more northerly route, taking the village of Rudok, a few miles into Tibet, and from there across to Chushul on the Pangong-tso, up the length of the lake to Tangse, then a cross the 18,300feet (5,578m) Chang-la to the Indus, and so to Leh.
Baltistan, joined administratively with Ladakh for 100 years, was linked to it either via the Indus up to its confluence with the Suru-Shingo river, and on up to Kargil: or by the Chorbat-la pass over the Ladakh range, the trail dropping down to the Indus 40 km below Khalatse, and following the river up to Leh.
Still Following The Old Path!
The two main approaches to Ladakh from south of the Himalayas are roughly the same as today's motor roads from the Srinagar and Manali. The merchants and pilgrims who made up the majority of travellers in the pre modern era, traveled on foot or horseback, taking about 16 days to reach Srinagar; though a man in a hurry, ridding non-stop and with changes of horse arranged ahead of time all along the route, could do it in as little as three days.
The mails, carried in relays by runners stationed every four miles or so, took four or five days. That was before the wheel as a means of transport was introduced into Ladakh, which happened only when the Srinagar- Leh motor-road was constructed as recently as the early 1960s.
ROUTE FROM KASHMIR: -
Today, travellers from Srinagar drive on this route in the relative comfort of taxis, local buses or their own vehicles, taking two days and breaking journey at Kargil . It provides the best possible introduction the land and its people. At one step, as one cross the Zoji-la, one passes from the lushness of Kashmir into the bare uncompromising contours of a trans-Himalayan landscape.
Drass - The First Stopover
Drass, the first major village over the pass, inhabited by a population of mixed Kashmiri and Dard origins, has the local reputation of being the second coldest permanently inhabited spot in the world. But in summer when the pass is open and the tourists are going through, the standing crops and clumps of willow give it a gentle, smiling look.
After Drass, the valley narrows, becoming almost a gorge. Yet even here it occasionally allows space for small patches of terraced cultivation, where a tiny village population ekes out a precarious existence. This is in deed a mountain desert, greened only by such scattered oases.
From Kargil To Zanskar
On departure from Kargil, the road plunges into the rides and valleys of the Zanskar range over a huge mound of alluvium, now made fertile by a huge irrigation scheme. Mulbekh with its gigantic rock engraving of "Maitreya" (Buddha-to-come) and its Gompa perched high on a rag above the village, is the transition from Muslim to Buddhist Ladakh. It is followed by two more passes, Namika-la (12,200 feet/3,719m) and Fotu-la (13,432 feet /4,094m).
From Fotu-la , the road descends in sweeps and whirls, past the ancient and spectacularly sited monastery of Lamayuru, past amazing wing-eroded rock, down to the Indus at Kahalatse-a descent of almost 4,000 feet/1,219 m in about 32km. The Indus valley from Khalatse up to Upshi, where the road from Manali comes in, is Ladakh's historical heartland.
The road follows the river, passing villages with their terraced fields and neat whitewashed houses, the roofs piled high with fodder laid in against the coming winter. Here and there the observant traveller notices the ruins of an ancient fort or palace or the distant glimpse of a Gompa on a hill a little way from the road. The last of these is Spituk, only 8-km out of Leh. And at last, Leh, the capital town of the region is visible, dominated by the bulk of its imposing 17th century palace.
THE ROUTE FROM MANALI: -
The road from Manali, open barely three months in the year from early July to September, is even more rugged. For much of its length, it passed through country so barren as to be entirely without settled habitation. Lahoul (also spelt as Lahaul) district, consisting of the valleys of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers, is a typically trans- Himalayan landscape, although indeed the Rohtang Pass (13,050 feet/3,978m) crossed soon after departure from Manali, cuts through not the Great Himalaya itself but the Pir Panjal, its subsidiary to the South.
Lahoul houses are built on the Tibetan - Ladakhi pattern, out of sun-dried bricks. Whitewashed and flat-roofed, they stand among the irrigated fields of the villages, which cling precariously to the mountain slopes. Beyond Keylang, the region's main town, the road follows the Bhaga River up towards its source, passing a few more villages, the last till Ladakh is reached.
Now it hairpins up to the Baralacha-la (16,050 feet /4,892 m), a pass that is perhaps unique in being a tri-junction, with a trail from Spiti coming in from the southeast. This is the crossing of the Great Himalayas, the watershed between the Indus and the Chenab. Now the barren landscape becomes Positively lunar, dusty plains covered with scattered boulders, stretch into the distance and only the occasional patch of pasture reminds the traveller of the existence of vegetation in the world.
Across The Zanskar Region
There remains the Zanskar range to be crossed and this takes two more passes, the Lungalacha-la (16,600 feey/5,059m) and the Taglang-la (17,469feet/5,325m). Between them, there is nothing but rock and sand, rolling hills and broad plains scoured by dust-devils, the streams marked on the map being far too insignificant to water the arid land, beyond allowing an occasional spread of sparse pasturage.
There is just about enough to nourish the flocks of the nomadic Chang-pa herds people who are the region's only inhabitants apart from the seasonal entrepreneurs who erect tents and shacks at various points along the road to cater to the needs of travellers following this barren route.
Over To Leh
Once over the Taglang-la the descent to the Indus starts, and soon the first village, Rumtse is passed, the road follows the Gya River down to the Indus at Upshi, from where it is all plain sailing. Past the turning for Hemis, and another almost opposite it for Chemrey, Shakti and Chang-la: past the tourist attractions of Thikse, Stakna and Shey; past the tourist attractions of Thikse, Stakna and Shey; past the Tibetan village at Choglamsar and the Dalai Lama's prayer ground. And finally up the last slope into Leh.
THE AIR ROUTE
Today more and more visitors are opting to reach Leh by air. This too has its rewards in the spectacular panoramas of snow-capped ranges spread out below, and the thrill of identifying particular landmarks. The twin peaks of Nun and Kun stand out high above the general level of the ranges; Tso-moriri lies intensely blue among bare brown hills; the Zanskar River snakes through the mountains, and one line of flight takes one directly above the Zanskar valley with villages and Gompas clearly visible. Far to the northwest, the giants of the Baltistan Karakoram dominate all the other peaks and ranges.