Ladakh, also known as ‘the land of high passes’, is a remote trans-Himalayan region of India which is tucked between Kashmir and the Chinese border. The landscape is mesmerising – arid, rocky mountains interspersed with lush green valleys and tiny villages nestled in between. Chortens, or stupas, dot the desert and traditional houses are built into the steep faces of the mountain ridge. Prayer flags are ubiquitous and flutter in the crisp breeze whilst the morning sun rises above the snow-capped mountains.
Politically, the region is a semi-autonomous district divided (by the British-administered partition of 1947) between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Resting right on the borders of Pakistan, China and Tibet, it is no surprise that the region has a strong military presence.
Ladakh’s cultural origins lie in a 2000-year-old kingdom of Tartar herders who learnt to grow a few hardy crops in the brief growing season – barley and a selection of vegetables such as peas, turnips and potatoes. At lower altitudes apricot trees dot the landscape – I loved eating the delicious fruit straight off the trees as we trekked through the valleys. Tibetan Buddhism is the prominent religion, and its influence on daily life and culture is pervasive. Each village has a small monastery, where monks live and actively engage with the local community. Sitting in the kitchen, old grandmothers will pray using Buddhist prayer beads and spinning prayer wheels. Ladakh is often referred to as ‘Little Tibet’ and the people speak a dialect of traditional Tibetan script, now known as ‘Ladakhi’.
Since 1975, when the region opened to tourism, globalisation and modernisation have changed traditional ways of living and challenged commonly held beliefs, values and cultural teachings. The intersection of two disparate social and economic cultures raises important questions for the people of Ladakh and for those who visit the region. In many ways Ladakh challenges us to redefine notions ‘development’ and ‘progress’.
My experience of Ladakh was deeply rewarding and humbling in many ways. Trekking through some of the more remote parts of the region provided a fascinating insight into the traditional way of life. I travelled with Tsetan and Sonam, two local women (both in their mid-twenties) who are hopeful of long, successful careers in the now thriving tourism industry. We instantly connected, and spent the next ten days chatting and laughing whilst we walked across the mountains from village to village . Preparing the labour-intensive traditional Tibetan ‘momo’ (dumplings) with the women in the kitchen, showering in the crystal clear streams and having snowball fights at the top of the mountains are all precious memories that we shared. Despite the enormous disparity in almost every aspect of our upbringing, education and worldview, we got along incredibly well. I was continually amazed by how much we found in common – a love of education, strong connections with our families, hopes for successful careers, care for the environment and an appreciation of the value of art and culture in everyday life.
However, the cultural divide would sometimes become evident. One afternoon Tsetan and I and sat described our respective family homes. She explained the crucial role of her grandparents in her upbringing, their traditional village home which has been inherited down through the generations, the one room which they all share to sleep (grandparents, uncles, cousins, siblings, and parents), and how annoying it is when her mother wakes her up early to help with the morning chores – milking the yaks, doing the harvest and making ciabbati bread for breakfast. In turn, I told her about my family – my parents living in Adelaide, my siblings in Melbourne and my grandparents and cousins on the farm in Gippsland. She couldn’t believe that we lived in different houses, let alone different towns, and even states. When I told her that one day, we would sell my grandparent’s farm, she couldn’t believe it. “What!” she exclaimed, “SELL? You sell the land?”
The question of sustainable development is of supreme importance for the Ladakhi people, who for so long lived in a subsistence economy, untouched, and with virtually no reliance on the outside world at all. These days, Cadbury chocolate is becoming more popular than the locally grown (and absolutely delicious) dried apricots, young people abandon village life for the city in search of jobs in the tourism industry, and the mobile phone is becoming a more common household item than the spinning prayer wheels. Despite these rapid changes, Ladakh remains a magical place. Clearly, the developmental and environmental challenges to the region are significant, and certainly worthy of attention. Local agencies work to educate locals about harms associated with modern technologies and aim to instil a sense of pride in local culture and traditional ways of living.
For me, it’s now back to reality – where I’m climbing to the Gables rather than the top of the Himalayas, Melbourne seems like a ghost town without all of the beeping autorickshaws of Delhi, and the cost of my morning coffee is the equivalent to a day’s food in India!