As one approaches Leh for the first time, via the sloping seep of
dust and pebbles that divide if from the floor of the Indus Valley,
one will have little difficulty imagining how
the old trans -Himalayan traders must have felt as they plodded in
on the caravan routes from Yarkhand and Tibet: a mixture of relief
at having crossed the mountains in one piece, and anticipation of a
relaxing spell in one of central Asia's most scenic and atmospheric
Spilling out of a side valley that tapers north towards eroded
snow-capped peaks, the Ladakhi capital sprawls from the foot of a
ruined Tibetan style palace - a maze of mud-mud brick and concrete
flanked on one side by cream-coloured desert, and on the other by a
swathe of lush irrigated farmland.
History of Leh
Leh only became regional
capital in the 17th century, when Sengge Namgyal shifted his court
here from Shey, 15-km southeast, to be closer to the head of the
Khardung La-Karakoram corridor into China. The move paid off: with
in a generation, the town had blossomed into one of the busiest
markets on the Silk Road. During the 1920s and 1930s, the broad
bazaar that broad bazaar that still forms its heart received more
than a dozen pony- and camel-trains each day.
Leh's prosperity, managed mainly by the Sunni Muslim merchants whose
descendants live in its labyrinthine old quarter, came to an abrupt
end with the closure of the Chinese border in the 1950's. One after
the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971, when India rediscovered the
hitherto forgotten capital's strategic value, did its fortunes begin
to look up. Today, Khaki-clad Jawans (soldiers) and their families
from the nearby military and air force bases are the mainstay of the
local economy in winter, when foreign visitors are few and far
Undoubtedly the most radical shake-up, however, ensued from the
Indian government's decision in 1974 to open Ladakh to foreign
tourists. From the start, Leh bore the brunt of the annual invasion,
as busloads of backpackers poured up the road Srinagar. Twenty or so
years on, though the main approach is now via Himachal Pradesh
rather than Kashmir, the summer influx shows no sign of abating.
Leh is doubled in size and is a far cry from the sleepy Himalayan
town of the early 1970's. During July and August tourists stroll
shoulder to shoulder down its main street, most of whose old style
outfitters and provision stores have been squeezed out by Kashmiri
handicraft shops, art emporiums and Tibetan restaurants.
The Town Attractions
Leh has nonetheless retained a more tranquil side, and is a pleasant
place to unwind after a long bus journey. Attractions in and around
the town itself include the former Palace and Namgyal Tsemo Gompa,
perched amid strings of prayer flags above the narrow dusty streets
of the Old Quarter.
A short walk north across the fields, the small monastery of Sankar
harbours accomplished modern Tantric murals and a thousand beaded
Avalokitesvara (also spelt as Avalokiteshvara) deity.
Leh is also a good base for longer day trips out into the Indus
Valley. Among the string of picturesque villages and Gompas within
reach by bus are Shey, site of a derelict 17th century palace, and
the Spectacular Tikse Gompa. Until one has adjusted to the altitude,
however, the Only sightseeing one will probably feel up to will be
from a guesthouse roof terrace or garden, from where the snowy
summits of the majestic Stok-Kangri massif (6,120m), magnified in
the crystal clear Ladakhi sunshine, look close enough to touch.
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