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Leh: the Himalayan paradise

August 20, 2010

Syeda Farida
The Hindu
August 17, 2010

Leh is a beautiful place for a quiet holiday.
 From the people to the scenery everything is
awesome. Leh was recently in the news when
disaster struck. Read on to find out more about the place…

For centuries, Leh has been an important stopover
on the trade route along the Indus Valley. The
old town of Leh has been added to the World
Monuments Fund's list of 100 most endangered
sites because of the increased rainfall and the
other effects of climate change. Within the old
town there is also neglect and a change in
settlement patterns which are a threat to
long-term preservation of the site. Leh has a
cold desert climate with long, harsh winters with
temperatures well below the freezing point. The
weather during the remaining months is usually
fine. The flash floods of August 8 resulted in
great loss of life and devastation.

* * *

It's a high altitude desert, so it hardly ever
rains. It receives less than five inches of
precipitation a year and that is in snow. So when
there was heavy downpour in the first week of
August it was a surprise to everyone. A
cloudburst over Leh that lasted about two hours
caused extensive damage to this beautiful town.
The rain, triggered by a cloudburst happened
around midnight destroying hospitals, bus
terminals, radio station transmitter, telephone
exchange and mobile phone towers and the airport.
But apparently it was a disaster waiting to
happen. Even last year, visitors say that it
rained more than it snowed. It was a problem,
because the region is dependent on meltwater for irrigation.

Is it all a part of the global warming
phenomenon? Or as Thomas Friedman, New York Times
columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning author, says
it is all “global weirding” where the weather
gets strange and unpredictable. Cities and
countries are forced to deal with natural
disasters and no one can be sure of what the
future will be like. Moscow, Canada, Australia,
Pakistan are some of the places where they have
experienced weird weather with a heatwave, heavy rains, drought and floods.

As it hardly ever rains in Leh, most houses have
been built with mud. So the damage is great and
it is going to take a long time for the city to be rebuilt.

A draft of cold wind gently nudges you as you
approach this high altitude cold desert
destination nestled in the Great Himalayan Range.
Open for a few months to tourists, Ladakh can be
reached via high altitude passes — Zoji La from
the Kashmir side and Rohtang and Tanglang La on
the Manali side. The name Ladakh is thus derived
from these passes ( La meaning pass and dakh
meaning related to). These mountain passes were
crucial for the trade routes and were used by
caravans in the olden days. For the rest of the
year, apart from early June to late August, this
place is land-locked with the rivers and lakes
frozen. Winter temperature can go down to -20° C.

Leh is the capital of Ladakh. Packed with
tourists mostly international, this city offers a
panoramic view of the Himalayas. Shopping centres
such as the Old Fort Road are a hub of activity
with vendors selling semi-precious stones and
woollens. Restaurants offer yummy thupkas, momos and ‘gur gur' chai.

Leh is bound by Tibet on its northern side and
the influence of Tibetan culture is obvious. A
typical Ladakhi homestay or guest house allows
you a glimpse of their culture as you mingle with
the family and learn a few more words than the
popular greeting ‘ Juley'. The guest houses are
also available in remote places such as Deskit —
the part of the ancient silk route. The double
humped Bactrian camels in the rolling sand dunes
nearby at Hundar is a testimony to the fact.

White sand greets you in Hundar that is reached
after crossing the famous Khardung-La pass. At
18,300 feet this pass boasts of the highest
motorable road in the world. Here Army officers
greet you with herbal tea to reduce altitude
sickness. At Panamik there are hot springs and
incidentally this is the last village on the silk
route. Two of the spectacular rivers —Indus and
Zanskar — merge a little above the entrance to
Leh before they flow into Pakistan as the Sindhu.

Apart from the adventure activities such as treks
and rafting and the walk on frozen rivers in
winter, Ladakh offers an insight into the
Vajrayana form of Buddhism with spectacular
statues of the Buddha. Impressive monasteries
such as the Hemis, Spituk and Matho stand out for
their murals, thangka paintings as well as the
monastic festivals that fall during various parts
of the regional calendar. Palaces such as Shey
built by the early rulers of the region have
stood the test of time and offer an insight into
the traditional architecture of the region.
During the summer months there is archery and
polo, again a legacy from the 17th Century Namgyal rulers.

And for the nature lovers, nothing can come as
close as to Pangong Tso lake. A drop of blue in
the moon-like topography, this lake on the
Indo-Chinese border is situated at an altitude of
14,000 feet. The colour of the water seems to
change from a grey to blue to a purple across the
day reflecting the Changchenmo and Pangong range around.

Celebrations at the Hemis monastery : Buddhist
monks dance at the Hemis festival.

One cannot have enough of this picture perfect
region but will carry back warm memories of the hospitality of these people.

* * *

Cloudburst over Leh

It's a high altitude desert, so it hardly ever
rains. It receives less than five inches of
precipitation a year and that is in snow. So when
there was heavy downpour in the first week of
August it was a surprise to everyone. A
cloudburst over Leh that lasted about two hours
caused extensive damage to this beautiful town.
The rain, triggered by a cloudburst happened
around midnight destroying hospitals, bus
terminals, radio station transmitter, telephone
exchange and mobile phone towers and the airport.
But apparently it was a disaster waiting to
happen. Even last year, visitors say that it
rained more than it snowed. It was a problem,
because the region is dependent on meltwater for irrigation.

Is it all a part of the global warming
phenomenon? Or as Thomas Friedman, New York Times
columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning author, says
it is all "global weirding" where the weather
gets strange and unpredictable. Cities and
countries are forced to deal with natural
disasters and no one can be sure of what the
future will be like. Moscow, Canada, Australia,
Pakistan are some of the places where they have
experienced weird weather with a heatwave, heavy rains, drought and floods.

As it hardly ever rains in Leh, most houses have
been built with mud. So the damage is great and
it is going to take a long time for the city to be rebuilt.
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