We flew on the morning of June 1 to Leh, the main city of Ladakh, an enclave of Tibetan Buddhist culture separated by high mountains from the rest of India. Governed as part of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh is safe and largely autonomous except for the large Indian military presence.
Leh stands at 3700 meters altitude in the Indus river valley, which cuts a wide swath across the mountains on its way from Tibet's Mount Kailas to the plains of Pakistan. On either side are mountain ranges with peaks around 6000 meters, not as high as the Karakoram to the north but still a wonderful frame to this high desert valley. The only roads into the valley cross several high Himalayan passes and are closed eight months off the year.
Ladakh has a very active Tibetan Buddhist culture, in a sense the only undisturbed one in the world. Monasteries are everywhere, often built on hills. The Drukpa Kargyu lineage of the Kagyu school is dominant in Ladadk. The Dalai Lama visits at least once a year from nearby Dharmasala.
Leh is a travelers' hangout, though less so than similar towns in Nepal. The main bazaar still serves the locals and the former king's palace overlooks the scene.
We spent our first four days acclimatizing, catching up on email, and interviewing trekking agencies. We prefer not to put our money and safety into people's hands until we can look them in the eye. We found several operators we liked and all seemed able to organize our treks at a very cheap price. But ultimately we decided to go with the most established and expensive operator, because we liked the guide and knew he would come through on our itinerary, which left no margin for error catching our flights home. More on that later.
With that settled, we took three two-day road trips, which I will describe in separate postings immediately below this one.
The last night before our trek, I had intended to do some important work on the internet, including finishing our Nepal blog postings. Unfortunately, this happened to be one of the many days when Leh's internet service was not working. Served by only two government-run ISPs, Leh's connection to the Flat World is cut almost as frequently as its electricity, which is off roughly 12 hours per day. Telephones are also difficult, with cell phone roaming blocked for security reasons throughout Jammu and Kashmir following the Mumbai bombings. After a lot of trying, I was able to get pay-phone calls through to my parents and my brother, who has kindly again handled our most important business.