20120515-Farming in Suru Valley Ladakh.jpg
Farming in Suru Valley,
Ladakh, near Tibet
Ladakh is one of the world's highest and driest inhabited lands. Sometimes referred to as Shangri La or "Little Tibet," it is located between the world two highest mountain ranges — the Himalayas and the Karakorum range.Until 2019, Ladakh was a region of the state of Jammu and Kashmir but that year, as part of the move to make Kashmir more of an integral part of India, Ladakh became its own separate union territory.

Ladakh is about the size of West Virginia or half the size of England. It state covers 59,146 square kilometers ((22,836 square miles), is home to about 275,000 people and has a population density of 4.6 people per square kilometer. A large portion of the population live in rural areas, some of them quite remote and isolated. Leh and Kargil are the joint capital and largest towns in Ladakh. Leh is home to about 31,000 people and Kargil has about 16,500..

Some parts of Ladakh are so remote they have never been surveyed. The lowest parts of Ladakh are along the Indus River which originates in Ladakh and eventually makes its way into Pakistan. Nowhere does the river drop below 2,000 (6,500 feet) in Ladakh. Some of the highest roads in the world — including one that crosses 5,793 meter (19,005 foot) Umling La and a military supply route over 5580-meter (18,370-foot) Chanla La Pass — are located not far from Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The highest roads are in southern Bolivia and Tibet.

The mountain around Ladakh are so high they block out the monsoons, and consequently the most of the region is a cold, high-altitude desert, receiving less than 7.5 centimeters (three inches) of rain a year. Ladakhis look foreword to dry hot spells because the sun melts glacier ice, their main source of irrigation water. Only one in ten acres of Ladakhi land is arable; and apples, apricots, barely, wheat. peas, beans and mustard (for oil) grow so rapidly in the mountain air that sometimes two crops can be harvest in the summer growing season. The religion, culture and history of Ladakh are closely related to that of Tibet. The main religious groups in the region are Muslims (mainly Shia) (46 percent), Tibetan Buddhists (40 percent), Hindus (12 percent) and others (2 percent). The Muslims and Hindus are mainly in the western Kashmir side of Ladakh or in Leh.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Ladakh (‘land of the passes’) is one of the most elevated (2,900 meters to 5,900 meters msl), and coldest regions (from -30°C to -70°C) of the earth. In consonance with the above description, its topography is barren and population sparse inhabited along the river banks of different valleys namely Indus, Nubra, Changthang, Zanskar and Suru. The mean annual precipitation is less than 50 mm, received mostly in the form of snowfall during winters. The region faces fast blowing winds 40-60 km/hr mainly in the afternoon hours. The soil moisture remains frozen during winters and with low relative humidity during the summer months.Despite such inhospitable conditions for survival, it is postulated that Ladakh has been occupied by humans since pre-historic times, as evidenced in the discovery of Lower Palaeolithic tools, Petroglyphs and other pre-historic art works that mark the beginning of man’s interaction with this cold desert landscape. Evidence of its continued occupation can be ascertained throughout history since then, which is closely associated with Tibet.” [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]

Cold Deserts of Northern India

The Cold Desert Cultural Landscape of India was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015 According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Cold Desert Cultural Landscape of India is situated in the Himalayas and stretches from Ladakh in the north to Kinnaur (in Himachal Pradesh, or H.P.) in the south. Administratively, it can be said to comprise the Leh and Kargil districts of Ladakh and the Spiti region of the Lahaul and Spiti district in H.P. and a part of Kinnaur District in H.P. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]

“The region constitutes a Cold Desert biome with harsh climatic conditions, which can be attributed to two factors. One is its location on the leeward side of the Himalayas, which makes it a rain-shadow zone inaccessible to the annual south eastern monsoon winds that sweep the rest of the country, thus creating desert conditions with low levels of precipitation. Second is its very high elevation (ranging from 3000 – 5000m ASL) that adds to the coldness in its environment.A huge seasonal variation is seen in the climatic conditions, ranging from short and dry summers with harsh sunlight (maximum temperature reaching upto 36˚C during the day) to long, windy and freezing winters (minimum temperature touching -32˚C at night). Blizzards, snowstorms and avalanches are common. The soil is not very fertile and the climatic conditions allow very short growing seasons making it a bare landscape. Water resources are minimal and comprise glacier-fed streams.

“These physiographic peculiarities and ensuing harsh climatic conditions have led to the emergence of a unique Cold Desert ecosystem as well as Culture of the community, which is unlike any other in the world. Within this one geographic unit lie many settlements, scattered across the landscape at locations that provide marginally improved conditions for habitation, nestled within valleys protected from harsh winds and located near rivulets. The settlements are small, isolated, sparsely populated and their planning a testament to the harsh terrain and environment. The population belongs predominantly to the Indo-Mongoloid (Tibetan) race with some parts of western Ladakh occupied by the Dards, who are intermediaries of Ladakhis and Baltis of the neighbouring Baltistan in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). The property displays a distinct Buddhist culture that is similar to the one of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The people are simple folk used to hard labour with colorful customs, myths, beliefs and conventions that contrast with the barren and harsh environment andform the cultural highlight of this region.

“Despite a common narrative, two distinct regions of human habitation and culture can be distinguished within this cold desert, namely (1) the Leh-Kargil areas of Ladakh (J&K) and (2) Spiti Valley (H.P.). Although they have been closely linked throughout the ages politically and socially, the two regions have different histories attributable to their isolated geographic locations and separate access routes, from Indian as well as Tibetan sides. While Ladakh lay on the trade routes from Punjab to Kashmir, and beyond to Baltistan (Skardo), Kashgar, Yarqand, Khotan (Eastern Central Asia or Xinjiang), Gartok, Lhasa (in Tibet) with Leh acting as an important trade center, Spiti valley was more isolated and split into eastern and western valleys, connected with Ladakh & Tibet on eastern side & Kinnaur and Kulu on western side through high passes.”

Ecosystems of the Cold Deserts of Ladakh and Spiti

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Cold Desert Cultural Landscape of India comprises a stunning bare landscape in the northwestern part of the country beyond the Greater Himalayas that is dotted with lofty mountains kissing the azure blue sky, clear streams in deep gorges and little vegetation that provides uninterrupted breathtaking views; a setting that receives abundant sunlight and snow but little rainfall. This region, spread across parts of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and Himachal Pradesh (H.P.) has been documented to have a unique Cold Desert ecosystem with rare and endangered varieties of flora and fauna, so much so that many national parks and wildlife reserves have been declared here for their protection. The human settlements are small, isolated, sparsely populated and their planning a testament to the harsh terrain and environment. The annual average precipitation for Ladakh and Zanskar (J&K) is only around 100 mm while that of Spiti valley (H.P.) is 170 mm as against the annual national average of 1083 mm. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]

“The natural heritage of the property is equally, if not more, unique. As discussed above, the region constitutes a Cold Desert biome with harsh climatic conditions. It displays an extremely fragile ecosystem that shows a complex relationship of the climatic and geomorphological processes, and exhibits very less but highly endemic diversity. Many rare and special varieties of flora and fauna are found here so much so that many national parks and wildlife reserves have been declared here by the Government for their protection. Furthermore, the Cold Desert has been declared as the 16th Biosphere Reserve of India in 2009 that includes Pin Valley National Park and surroundings, Chandratal and Sarchu, and the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary in H.P. The Changtang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary in district Leh, J&K is another protected habitat for flora and fauna in the region. In H.P., among the floral elements, medicinal and aromatic plants such as Aconitum rotundifolium, Arnebiaeuchroma, Ephedra gerardiana, Ferula jaeschkeana, Hyoscymusniger are very well known, and one of the livelihood options for tribal communities.

“Among the faunal elements, Woolly Hare, Tibetan Gazzle, Snow Leopard, Himalayan Black Bear, Himalayan Brown Bear, Snow Leopard, Red Fox, Tibetan Wolf, Himalayan Ibex, Himalayan Marmot, Himalayan Blue Sheep, Red Billed Chough, ChukarPatridge, Snow Patridge, Blue Rock Pigeon, Snow Pigeon, Himalayan Snowcock, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon, Golden Eagle, Rosefinches, et al are found in the area. Presence of these unique cultural and biodiversity elements in the proposed landscape has high significance at regional, national and global levels.

“The Cold Desert has been declared a Biosphere Reserve of India and comprises an ecosystem of unusual scientific and natural interest. It is home to several rare and endangered species of flora and fauna, especially the Snow Leopard, Tibetan Antelope and Himalayan Wolf, which are included in the Red List of IUCN as Critically Endangered Species. The variety of flora found here has been used traditionally for various purposes by the community including medicinal, and is deemed to be of Outstanding Universal Value for the purposes of conservation.”

Culture of Ladakh and Spiti

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Ladakh and Spiti are on “a trans-Himalayan marginal plateau land and edge region between the Greater Himalayas of India and the main Tibetan Plateau, which is an unparalleled location both physically and culturally. Rooted in Buddhism, the culture of the region is strongly affiliated with Tibet but traces of Indian influences make it unique and one of its kind, which is also manifest in its architecture and intangible traditions that are already world renowned. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]

“The Cold Desert region has a unique culture of its own which is an amalgamation of Indian and Tibetan influences, is reflective in the form of Buddhism practiced here and further manifest in its art, architecture, lifestyle, food, clothing, dance, music et al. The proposed property provides an exceptional testimony to this cultural tradition which has evolved over centuries and is living. The difficult terrain and climate of the region have shaped the location and nature of settlements that are nestled in valleys near rivulets. With a Gompa atop a neighboring hillock, the settlements follow specific patterns of layout, architectural vocabulary, façade treatments et al that are high representations of human interaction with such a difficult environment. In addition to the already difficult living conditions, phenomena such as global warming and Himalayan glacier melting are adding to the challenges being faced by the community and threatening their whole way of life.

“The Cold Desert Cultural Landscape of India has a large repository of exceptional intangible cultural resources ranging from performing arts, crafts, literary works, customs, myths and beliefs. The “Buddhist chanting of Ladakh: recitation of sacred Buddhist texts in the Trans-Himalayan Ladakh Region, Jammu and Kashmir, India”, is already inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

“The intangible cultural heritage of the property is also exceptional and diverse including agricultural and medicinal practices. The “Buddhist chanting of Ladakh: recitation of sacred Buddhist texts in the Trans-Himalayan Ladakh Region, Jammu and Kashmir, India”, has been inscribed since 2012 as one of elements on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Buddhist lamas (priests) in monasteries and villages of Ladakh, Lahul-Spiti and Kinnaur chant sacred texts representing the spirit, philosophy and teachings of the Buddha. The performing arts (traditional dance including mask dance, theater, contemporary plays, folk music), craft-making techniques (thangkas, carpet weaving, pashmina and marino shawls and local quilt weaving, prayer flags of cloth, gold, silver, bronze sculptures, copper objects, wooden furniture including manuscript shelves, stone, stucco and clay), customs (sacred paintings, agriculture farming, kitchen-gardening, culinary, giving birth, wedding, death et al), rituals and beliefs (medicinal ritual called Am-chi), language and literature (heroic accomplishments, folk stories, legends, classical and vernacular language, dialects, songs, poems, ancient scripts), etc. are parts of cultural legacy and well-maintained intangible heritage traditions of the property.”

Gompas (Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries) in Ladakh and Spiti

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Almost all settlements in Ladakh and Spiti “are associated with Buddhist monasteries known as Gompas with a trademark prayer flag fluttering on top.Built either on flat land or atop the neighbouring hillock depending upon local factors, these shrines are the centers of the people’s cultural life and have influenced their religious beliefs for centuries. Men usually fall back on the social security system of the Trans-Himalayan Gompas. The architecture of the region is an interesting amalgamation of Indian and Tibetan influences, and monastic buildings reflect a deeply Buddhist approach. Important Gompas in the J&K region include Hemis, AlchiChoskhor, Lamayaru, Likir, Thikse and Ridzon. Important Gompas in the H.P. region include Dhankar, Ki, Tabo, Mud, Gungri, Lidang, Hikim, Sagnam, Mane Gogma and Giu.[5] Each settlement and its Gompa have their own unique associationand the predominant culture is intensely introverted. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]

“Gompas are constructed at a level ground as well as on higher locations on hills. Established by various kings and scholar lamas throughout history, the monasteries of early period comprising a single large hall or several halls, were enclosed by a boundary wall (Cagas-ri) if constrcuted on plain or low hills. On plan, a simple gompa generally comprises three units: a Lha-Khang (assembly hall containing a statue of the protecting deities), a Du-Khang (a room containing sacred image of Buddhist pantheon, and a chair of the owner of the monastery), and a Gon-Khang (a room for depositing monks’ belongings, including masks and weapons used during festivals). Besides, the monstery has a Chamara (a forecourt) which is used to perform various rituals including mask dance, and other monastic activites. In bigger monastic complexes, there may be many more units to serve of the purpose of more chapels, housing Tangyurs (manuscripts), and others.

“On elevation, the monastic complex may have a single, double, or more stories. In case of old and more popular monasteries, there are Zimshung (His Holiness’s residential room) which is the private room of the Head Lama. Added to it in big monsteries are Tashaks (small dwelling rooms for laity) attached to the main complex of the monasteries. Tashaks may also be isolated and scattered at a lower level than the monstery. In addition, a monastery may also have a Prayer Wheel, which may be big or small, singular or in a single long row, along the circumambulation path of the monastery for faithfuls to turn the wheels and accumulate merits. Most altars of the big monasteries have on them a neat arragement of silver, jade and amber cups, dorje bells, incense burners which may at times be fashioned like gargyyles, brass and jade figurines, etc. The walls of the monasteries are more or less decorated with frescos depicting Buddhist subjects drawn from Buddha’s life and his ideals. Apart from frescos, walls are also embellished with thankas (paintings on cloth) displaying Jataka stories and other Buddhist themes. An exceptional thanka, believed to be the biggest in the world, having an image of Padmasmbhava in his eight principle forms, and embroider with pearls, is ritually exhibited once in twelve year in the year of “Monkey”, according to the Buddhist Calendar, in Hemis monastery.

There are other architectural manifestations unique to this region. One is the Chorten (‘receptacle of worship’), which are remarkable types of stupas, and the Mani walls, long and thick platform-like row of stones, about 1 to 1.25 meters high and 1.25 meters wide, faced with carved stones inscribed with holy mantras.”

Tourism in Ladakh

Ladakh attract visitors with its Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, temples and stupas, the colorful Ladakhi people and surreal landscape surrounded by cloud-piercing and snow-capped peaks of the Himalayan, Zanskar and Karakoram ranges. There are piercing blue high-altitude lakes and rushing streams that feed the region’s Shyok, Zanskar and Indus rivers. Perched at an average height of over 3550 meters (11,000 feet) above sea level, it attracts adventure tourists with it rugged terrain and wild places to enjoy trekking, river rafting, camping, mountain climbing and biking. In the winter Ladakh become a land snow and ice where frozen rivers serve as roads. The famous wintertime Chadar Trek starts from the village of Chilling and covers 66 kilometers, much of it on the frozen River Zanskar, hiking past icy formations and sleeping in caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites.

Ladakh boasts three gorgeous high-altitude lakes, Tso Moriri, Tso Kar and Pangong Tso. Magnetic Hill is said to defy gravity by pulling vehicles upwards instead of downwards. Prominent Buddhist shrines and important monasteries, some of them featuring the best examples of Tibetan-style paintings adorning,

Ladakh is a cold semi-arid desert. It is cold along the highway even in summer (June onwards); the days are warm in bright sunshine but the nights are very cold. Light woollens are required during the day and thick woollens are required at night. There is no rainfall between Rohtang Pass and Leh even during the monsoon season in July–September as the entire region lies in rain shadow.

Henry Wismayer wrote in the Washington Post: “ Perched on a high Himalayan plateau...this remote Buddhist enclave is the sort of isolated place that holds an irresistible allure for travelers. Flanked by some of Asia’s most stubborn political tensions — in Tibet, Kashmir, Nepal — it seemed from afar to be a mountain citadel lost in time, an archetypal Shangri-La...The window for travel here is short, around three months from July to early September. For the rest of the year, the region’s high-altitude desert terrain is a snowbound hinterland, its people huddling around bukhari stoves to wait out the cold.” [Source: Henry Wismayer, Washington Post, July 31, 2014]

Getting There: By Air: The Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport in Leh is connected to Mumbai, New Delhi, Jammu, Srinagar, and Chandigarh by regular flight services. By Road: Jammu and Kashmir State Road Transport Corporation and Himachal Road Transport Corporation provide regular buses to Leh. It can be accessed from Srinagar (about 421km) and Manali (about 471km) by these bus services. By Train: Leh doesn’t have a railway station. Visitors can take trains to the railway stations at Jammu Tawi (about 700 kilometers), Pathankot (about 765 kilometers), and Chandigarh (about 782 kilometers). Several buses, taxis and private car services ply between these stations and Leh.

Acclimatizing to Ladakh

(Acute Mountain Sickness [AMS]) is something that must definitely be taken into account if you are doing some high altitude climbing or hiking. It causes fluid to form in the brain and lungs and kills by causing the brain to swell and hemorange inside the skull. Many people die of it every year, and there is no rhyme or reason to who it strikes (sometimes fat smokers are unaffected while athletes get sick). According to mountaineering guides the effects of the low oxygen on body tissues are "noticeable above 3,500 meet (11,480 feet) and marked above 5,000 meters (16,400 feet)." Symptoms include headaches, nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness, lassitude, breathlessness, anorexia, fatigue, insomnia, swelling of hands, feet, or face, and decreased urine output.

AMS generally affects people who ascend to quickly at elevations above 2440 meters (8000 feet). Those who fly from sea level to a higher elevation should be especially careful. The general rule of thumb is to "climb high and sleep low" and ascend no more than 1000 to 1,500 feet a day and take every third day off. If you ascend more than that rest a day or two. Even if you are super fit that is no guarantee you won't have problems. The only cure for AMS is to descend to a lower elevation. If you experience any of the aforementioned AMS symptoms, descend immediately, the more you don't want to the more imperative it is that reach you lower elevations, even if it is rainy night. Altitude sickness prevention includes eating and drinking a lot. Diamox tablets are taken as a preventative for altitude sickness. It generally only treats the symptoms of mild AMS put does nothing to prevent the condition. Many local people chew on raw garlic.

Henry Wismayer wrote in the Washington Post: “ On the breathtaking flight over the Himalayas from New Delhi, the on-board map is showing an altitude of 21,000 feet, but the pinnacles of Stok Kangri are nearly grazing the fuselage. Then we drop precipitously into the Indus Valley and wheel downward into Ladakh’s dun-colored moonscape. It was a good 24 hours before I felt able to start exploring in earnest. For those flying in, plucked from land and then deposited at an altitude of 11,500 feet, there’s little choice but to spend the first day or so taking things slowly in order to adjust to the rarefied air. [Source: Henry Wismayer, Washington Post, July 31, 2014]

“On my first afternoon, Leh, the dust-blown regional capital, resembled the set of a zombie Western. I could spot fellow new arrivals from the way they shuffled about in a state of perpetual exhaustion. (Even my toiletries were traumatized: When I opened my toothpaste, the pressure change resulted in a foot-long worm of it evacuating onto the floor.)

“It’s now mid-afternoon, two days into my process of slow-motion acclimatization, and I’m standing on a dirt road watching three mothers in vermilion sheep-hide robes “om” impatiently as their children spin a giant prayer-wheel round and round with glee. Standing at my elbow, Sonam, a petite, self-confessed chatterbox with a tendency to impart her enthusiasm for all things Ladakhi with memorable epithets — like: “The yak is very beautiful, much more beautiful than the cow” — is smiling.

People in Ladakh

Most of the 275,000 people in Ladakh lived on only 70 square kilometers of land. The remainder is uninhabited. Most residents are either or indigenous Ladakhis, a Buddhist people who for the most part dress and look like Tibetans and who speak a language similar to Tibetan, Muslims who live on the Kashmir side of Ladakh, and Indian soldiers.

Ladakhis live off if products from grazing animals and barley and orchard fruit produced in valleys in irrigation from glacier meltwater. They live in stone houses in villages with a gompa (monastery). Ladakhi women are known for their interesting traditional clothes, especially their hats.

Most people in Ladakh get around on foot and there is vast network of trails crisscrossing the region. A common sight is men and women laboring with piles of firewood bundled on their back. Ponies, yaks and cow-yak hybrids known as dzos are all employed as beast of burdens. The animal chosen depends on the altitude with yaks being best suited for the highest elevations. As late as the 1960s there were no paved roads, running water or electricity in Ladakh. Movies were shown out of doors with generator-driven film projectors.

Ladakh is now organized into districts: the predominately Muslim western section centered around Kargil, the Central Indus Valley and the Suru and Zanskar valleys; and the mostly Buddhist eastern section centered around Leh.


The Ladakhis are a Tibetan Buddhist people that inhabit Ladakh, which is part of Jammu and Kashmir state but shares a 1,500 mile border with Tibet. Tibet and Ladakh share a similar culture and climate, and vie for the honor of having the highest roads and villages in the world. The region of Ladakh is isolated in the Himalayas and differs radically from the rest of Jammu-Kashmir state in that the majority of the population is culturally, ethnically, religiously, and linguistically close to Tibet not Muslim Kashmir. There also is a Muslim minority. The region has no interest in the separatist and Islamicist sentiments of the Vale of Kashmir.

Ladakhis that live above 18,000 feet suffer discomfort when the descend to Ladakh capital of Leh at 11,550 feet. The temperatures in Ladakh frequently drop below minus 30 degrees F in the winter time and sometimes there is not enough dung, firewood or fuel to heat their mud and stone homes. It is no surprise then that many Ladakhi Buddhists believe that hell is a bitterly cold place and they rarely take baths. On the positive side Ladakh is so cold that few germs can survive and the most common illnesses are eye and respiratory problems caused by smoke and dust in their sealed homes. In the summer the temperatures often rise above 100 degrees , and the extremes of hot and cold are enough to break up the granite mountains and produce a lot dust

Ladakhis have been described as "extraordinarily warm, open, cheerful, pleasure-loving people." The like playing polo, doing archery, drinking barely beer, doing slow ritualistic dances, and partying at weddings. Crime is not a problem. Nobody can remember when a murder was committed and theft is unheard of.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website (, India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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