Trek through Little Tibet.
Located in the far northern reaches of India between Pakistan and Chinese-occupied Tibet, the mountainous region of Ladakh is as beautiful as it is remote. Sometimes called "Little Tibet" due to its strong Tibetan culture and large group of Tibetan refugees in the region, Ladakh is a hidden gem for the adventurous. It's also one of the last windows into traditional Tibetan mountain culture available in the world.
First opened to tourism in the mid-seventies by an Indian government hoping to lay claim to the heavily disputed area, Ladkah remained generally inaccessible for large parts of the year due to road closures from avalanches, landslides, and fierce Himalayan storms and snow in the winter. Development has since arrived, and Ladakh now has a dependable airport in the main city of Leh, with daily flights from New Delhi. While the increased accessibility has brought with it a burgeoning tourist economy, the culture and friendliness of the largely Buddhist population has stayed intact and welcoming.
The best way to see Ladkah is on foot, trekking between ancient monasteries – some of which were built in the 11th century and have been continuously occupied since – while staying at local, family-run guesthouses in the many small villages that wrap themselves along lush high mountain valleys and streams. Surrounded by stunning vistas of snow-capped, skyscraping peaks, the myriad footpaths – which, again, have been in use for well over 1,000 years – weave through rocky, purple-and-green-tinted foothills and narrow slot canyons, as well as climb over mountain passes that reach heights of 18,000 feet.
There are really two different ways to go about booking travel and treks to/in Ladakh. There are established, higher-end adventure outfitters who operate all-inclusive treks in the Ladakh region. They'll pick you up in Delhi, escort you to Ladakh, and arrange all transportation, accommodation, meals, guides, and cultural experiences.
The other way, which is how we (and most travelers we spoke with) did it, is to leave all the arrangements for trekking and travel around Ladakh for once you get to Leh, since the difference in price is substantial – about a quarter of the price (NomadRSI offers trekking for about $80 a day, per person, but we were able to get a local deal for about 1,000 rupees, or about $20, per person, per day). It sounds a bit fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, but in reality, it's very easy. All the tour operators have offices there and trips/expeditions are leaving almost every day during the summer season. There's a good chance you can find other travelers to split vehicle and guide fees, and the outfitters will arrange pack animals and camping gear if needed. If you have your own camping gear, then the dry climate, relaxed locals, and wide open spaces makes pitching a tent extremely easy. We simply asked Tubsten, the owner of the beautiful guesthouse where we were staying, called Zeejeed Palace in Leh, and he took care of everything. And unlike the rest of India, the Ladakhi/Tibetan culture is straightforward when it comes to pricing, so haggling with the Ladakhi's isn't worth it. Kashmiri's on the other hand....
One word of warning: It's best not to go unprepared, fitness-wise. The walking is difficult, especially in the high thin air, and the Ladakhkis seem to have a general disdain for switchbacks, making the climbs rather steep. The distances between towns and monasteries aren't that long, however, and a local bumbu (Ladhaki for donkey) can be hired easily and cheaply to help lighten your load. And as an added reenergizer, you can count on delicious mint tea (or the more stout yak butter tea) always awaiting you at the next guesthouse – along with the open arms and smiling faces of the wonderful Ladakhi people.
Credit: Daniel H. Bailey / Getty Images