You know you’re on a trip of a lifetime when you touch down on an airstrip surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides!
Located in the western Himalayas (and the subject of much dispute between India, Pakistan, and China since 1947), Ladakh is home to breathtaking river valleys, high mountain slopes, unique flora and fauna, old Buddhist monasteries, and numerous nomadic tribes.
It is arguably one of the most beautiful (and sparsely populated) regions in India and has been at the crossroads of important trade routes in the past. Its name is derived from La-dwags (ལ་དྭགས) which means “land of high passes” in Tibetan and Ladakhi, and is fondly referred to as “Little Tibet.”
A popular destination for high-altitude trekking, climbing, biking expeditions, and camping, a typical 10-day itinerary typically covers Kargil, Leh, Khardung-La, Diskit, Hemis, Nubra valley, Pangong Tso, Thiksey, and Tso Moriri.
While I had around the same time at hand, I decided to experience Ladakh a bit differently and gave most of these places a miss.
Instead, I volunteered at an alternate education school near Leh, enjoyed white-water rafting at 11,000 feet, spent time with nomadic tribes in their makeshift homes in the mountains, learned how to harvest peas, and met the shepherds of the glaciers in one of Ladakh’s earliest settlements!
Read on — because the beauty lies in the details 🙂
SECMOL: An Alternate Education School in Ladakh
I was greeted by a gush of cold wind as I stepped out of my flight in Leh. The runway had mountains on all sides — it felt surreal to land in such a setting. I strained my eyes to take in everything — no photography is allowed at the Leh airport due to security reasons, and my only hope was that my brain will store everything I saw around me forever. My two travel companions from Mumbai and a former student of SECMOL greeted me outside the airport. I was meeting all three of them for the first time, but it didn’t feel so.
I’m not usually one for group travel (least of all with strangers), but after memorable group journeys to Assam and Nagaland, I realized that offbeat itineraries run by responsible tourism companies tend to attract like-minded people (from a values perspective). This journey turned out to be yet another case in point.
We got into a local taxi and set off. Our first stop was an alternate education school in Phey, a short drive from Leh town.
SECMOL, short for the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, was founded in 1988 by Magsaysay awardee Sonam Wangchuk (the inspiration behind Aamir Khan’s character in the movie ‘3 Idiots’) and a group of young Ladakhis to reform the educational system of Ladakh. Having attended a similar school when I was younger, it’s been a longstanding wish to visit and volunteer at SECMOL ever since I first learned about it.
As we entered their eco-friendly residential campus, a stream of chirpy students smiled and waved at us, greeting us with a cheerful “Jullay” even though they had no idea who we were.
We settled into a dorm with bunk beds, big windows with a view of the mountains at a distance. Every building on the campus was made from eco-friendly materials, ran on renewable energy, and was naturally insulated from the cold (black paint to absorb heat, thick walls made of clay, roofs made of wood and straw). After some rest and the customary red tea, we learned more about the school, ongoing activities, and general rules of the campus (including abiding by “SECMOL time,” which is an hour ahead of IST).
We spent the next few days exploring the campus and neighbouring areas. The afternoons were dedicated to volunteering at the school; we spent an hour every day participating in their English conversation class, which was an incredible experience. It allowed us to have candid discussions with the students on topics ranging from childhood and gender discrimination to religion and hobbies. Additionally, we helped tutor some of the senior students on subjects known to us. I ended up tutoring a first-year undergrad student on political theory while my companions tutored economics and accountancy.
What I loved about the school was that the students practically ran the campus, from administration to cleaning, cooking, and farming… every two months, a student council was elected and led all efforts with their teachers’ support.
Meals were in a large hall where all 200+ students, teachers, and volunteers gathered. At dinner time, select students spoke on assigned topics to improve their public speaking skills, followed by 10 minutes of news time to remain connected with the outside world.
We also experienced using dry compost toilets here. Popular in Ladakh to conserve water, it’s an age-old method that many Ladakhis follow. Dry toilets are small mud huts with two holes, a pit underneath, a slab of wood to cover the hold, and a chair with a hole to sit on. When one hole/pit gets full, they switch to another, while the old one decomposes. Not a single drop of water is used.
Due to the poor mobile network on the campus, come evening, and the football field has mobile screens glowing in the dark, being the only spot where there’s some semblance of 3G. Interestingly, the ground turns into an ice hockey rink in the winters, attracting ice hockey players, coaches, and volunteers from all parts of the globe to teach the students ice hockey. Apparently, 80% of the Indian ice hockey team comprises students from SECMOL!
During our excursion to nearby areas, we also visited the Ice Stupa that Sonam Wangchuck and the students of SECMOL had built. An artificial glacier in the form of a stupa provides water to over 5000 households in the surrounding villages. There are plans to expand the project to other regions of Ladakh.
We were also lucky to hear Sonam’s first public talk in Ladakh after winning the Magsaysay award. The timing couldn’t have been better for us, as it helped contextualize our experience at SECMOL with the history and present education system of Ladakh. He shared how it was ridiculous for Ladakhi children to learn the English alphabets with rhymes like “F for fan” and “G for giraffe” when they had never seen either in their life! And so he had resolved to do things differently at SECMOL. A line that stayed with me long after the evening passed was a closing remark by a senior bureaucrat, quoting Albert Einstein- “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
White Water Rafting at 11,000 Feet
The next leg of my unconventional sojourn in Ladakh was a somewhat adrenaline-inducing one. After scuba diving up to 60 feet underwater and paragliding at 8,000 feet, I guess white water rafting was the obvious next choice?
What surprised me was that I wasn’t as nervous as I’d expected to be, although it was my first time rafting, and 11,000 feet was pretty high up in the mountains! I think my near-death experience while scuba diving gave me the courage that this couldn’t be half as hard.
We reached the rafting company campsite and changed into our wetsuits, before proceeding to the rafting spot, which was an hour away by bus. We were split into two groups of 8 people each, and my group had women and men from France, Austria, London, and Singapore!
Once we set off into the Zanskar river and started paddling, it felt surreal. The water was chilly, but the sun provided warmth; massive mountains towered over us on all sides, and occasionally, a strong wind blew against us. It was a humbling moment, acknowledging and bowing down to the power and might of mother nature. We, humans, paddling away with all our energy, seemed like ants amidst our surroundings.
Every few minutes we were hit by a rapid; the adrenaline rush each time the rubber raft wobbled and the chill of the water that splashed all over us was thrilling!
28 kilometres and 4 hours later- we were done! Everyone alive, no bruises. What an experience! Phew.
We got back to the campsite, exhausted, shivering, and starving. But the sight of Maggi dissipated everything. After two bowls each, we were ready to hit the road again.
Experiencing Nomadic Life in Tso Moriri
An 8-hour ride from SECMOL to Tso Moriri was gorgeous.
We reached in the afternoon and the sun rays on the clear water reflected every shade of blue — deep blue on the horizon and a more pungent turquoise towards the shore. It was like a painting.
We were the only ones at the lake and enjoyed much-needed solitude, soaking in the sound of silence.
We couldn’t see stars that night as it was cloudy, but we enjoyed the evening under the warmth of our blankets, our limbs tired from the long car ride.
The next morning, we set out to explore a few nomadic villages higher up in the mountains. We packed some sandwiches for lunch and hiked our way up along the stream. The entire place was so beautiful and peaceful; not a person in sight.
It struck me how hiking teaches us to focus on our immediate steps (short-term goals) while looking out at the mountain peaks ahead (long-term goals). If you gaze too long at the peaks, you’re likely to trip and fall. And if you focus only on the immediate steps, you miss the beautiful views of the mountain from every angle.
In the nomadic villages, the nomadic tribes lived in make-shift tents made of waterproof material and covered with Yak wool to keep them warm at night. Most of them were cattle rearers and travelled every few months to a new location. Some women were weavers and showed us their beautiful handiwork.
It was amazing to spend time with the nomads in their homes and learn more about their life. These are people who live through the harshest of winters, protect themselves and their cattle from snow leopards and other wild animals, forage for food every day, and yet have the kindest eyes and the brightest smiles. It’s truly humbling.
Tryst With the Shepherdess of the Glaciers in Gya
The final destination of our trip was Gya, one of the earliest settlements of Ladakh. A picturesque village close to Tso Kar lake and just off the Leh-Manali highway, we stayed with a lovely family in their home.
After a long car ride and brief stopovers at Tso Kar lake and Tanglangla pass, we were greeted with the kind hospitality of our hosts. While sipping on hot butter tea, we got a tour of their house and farm. The bright yellow sunflowers that lined their house glowed under the afternoon sun, and I already felt at home.
After a delicious lunch, we took a walk around the village with a population of fewer than 700 people. We were also invited to participate in the celebrations of a local resident who had just had a child 🙂
In the evening, we sat in the kitchen-cum-living room and learned how to make momos and tingmo.
The next morning, our host, a passionate organic farmer, taught us how to harvest peas. We spent the rest of the morning hard at work, and with a newfound admiration for farmers. Lunch consisted of a dish made with the same peas we harvested in the morning. Farm-to-food in every sense 🙂
Once again, we were lucky to be in the right place at the right time. That evening, our hosts’ sister stopped by the house for the night. A shepherdess by profession, she is one of the few women from the region to take up this profession after her father. Now 50+, she still sets out for months at a time, walking from glacier to glacier with her herd of 300 sheep that she describes as her loving family. She is the sole breadwinner of her human family, making a living through the sale of cashmere wool. She often walks for days in search of greener pastures for her sheep when the temperature drops below -30 degrees celsius. When she finds one, she pitches her tent and stays there for a few months, braving the harsh weather, difficult terrain, and wild animals- all by herself! Inspired by her, her younger brother made a documentary about her life (titled “Shepherdess of the Glaciers”) that has been screened across the globe and won several accolades.
We were speechless listening to her story and getting the opportunity to interact with her in person. Her soft-spoken nature, immense love and kindness for her sheep, and the sheer strength and grit of her personality is hard to forget and will always remain an inspiration!
One of the reasons I signed up for a curated trip managed by experienced travel companies and didn’t embark on the journey by myself (as I often do) was because I was unfamiliar with the terrain, people, and public transport in Ladakh. Although Ladakh is safer for women than most big cities, it is a challenging landscape to navigate for first-time visitors, and it’s advisable to travel to remote parts with locals or experienced travellers.
While I wanted to do Srinagar-Leh by road, due to lack of time and unrest in J&K at the time, I flew directly to Leh from Delhi, after which the entire journey from point to point was by car.
In Leh/Phey, we stayed at the SECMOL campus; in Tso Moriri at Tso Moriri Inn near Korzok village; and in Gya at a homestay within the village.
If you’re flying directly to Leh, I’d recommend taking Diamox two days before your flight and continuing the dosage until your second or third day in Ladakh.
Since the weather can be unpredictable in the mountains, carry several layers of clothing to add/remove as needed. The sun is particularly harsh in higher altitudes, so make sure you carry a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses.
Finally, plastic is banned in Ladakh so carry a non-plastic reusable water bottle.
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