April 16, 2015
Until recently, only hardier travellers to Kashmir seemed prepared to venture beyond Srinagar, its lake-filled heartland. Luxury was elusive in this celebrated Himalayan region famed for its beauty. Now, in Ladakh – Kashmir’s eastern and predominantly Buddhist enclave bordering Tibet – the Ultimate Travelling Camp’s “Chamba Camp” is setting a new standard and helps to bookend one of the region’s great overland journeys.
Standing almost in the shadow of Thiksey Monastery in the Indus Valley near Leh, Chamba operates from mid-June to the end of September. Lofty, well-appointed, room-sized tents with wooden floors and attached bathrooms are complemented by extraordinary food and impeccable staff. The camp’s rural setting, with maturing gardens and ponds, is charming, but what really lifts this property above mere luxury is its excellent guides.
You could easily spend days here – and I spend nearly a week – exploring the Indus Valley and Leh. Its spectacular and imposing monasteries range from great institutions such as Thiksey and Hemis, with their thriving monastic communities, to little-visited, time-forgotten ones such as the pyramidal Chemrey or the enigmatic Takthok.
We stroll through several nearby villages, where I learn about local life and admire the handsome, often surprisingly spacious traditional homes. I explored Old Leh’s medieval-looking back lanes that cluster below the former royal palace, cycle down one of the world’s highest roads and, but for low water levels at the time, would have rafted a section of the Indus River.
Many visitors simply stay around Leh, and daily flights from Delhi and Mumbai make this entirely feasible. Yet the stunning 422-kilometre drive to Srinagar in the “Vale of Kashmir” is one of India’s great road trips. The road’s strategic importance near the Indo-Pakistan Line of Control (or LoC) means that National Highway 1D, as it’s formally known, has finally benefited from proper asphalting and alignment along most of its length.
Heading west out of Leh, my car purrs along near-perfect blacktop as we track the Indus River through its deep, rugged valley. There’s a famous viewpoint near Nimoo at the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus where the former’s blue-green meltwater mixes with the latter’s grey-brown surge. In summer, you’ll often see rafting trips around here. You might pause at picturesque Basgo – its part-ruined 15th-century citadel and temple complex once served as capital of “Lower Ladakh” – or Likir, another impressive monastery tucked away in a lovely side valley.
But the essential halt along this stretch is Alchi, an unassuming village with seemingly modest 11th-century temples that contain some of Ladakh’s earliest Buddhist art. Their swirling murals, intricate mandalas and eerie statuary comprising images of the Buddha and his disciples are believed to be the work of Kashmiri craftsmen from around Srinagar. Whereas many more-prominent monasteries succumbed to pillaging and defacement, Alchi’s discrete location, just off this ancient route, helped it endure largely intact.
Continuing down the stark Indus Valley, the road weaves across great fans of scree, around muscular rocky bluffs and through occasional hamlets with patchwork fields and orchards. At Khalatse, you leave the Indus to climb steeply up through a tributary valley to Lamayuru. This serene small village is dominated by one of Ladakh’s oldest and most famous monasteries, which stands perched atop a strikingly eroded ridge.
Lamayuru’s fantastic monastery is less about artistic treasures than location and atmosphere. Ideally, you might stroll up from its foot through little alleys, passageways and chorten-topped gateways, and pick up the cobbled path leading into the heart of the complex. Parts are beautifully restored, while others are picturesquely ruined, and the backdrop of furrowed hills – often referred to as a “moonscape” – enhances its theatrical setting.
West of Lamayuru, you gain the 4,091-metre Photu La, the first and highest of three passes en route to Srinagar. Descending into the cultivated valley, predominantly Buddhist communities gradually give way to Muslim ones. The slightly lower Namika La pass is a curtain-raiser for the gorgeous and relatively lush Mulbekh Valley, with crumbling riverside cliffs dwarfed by barren, snow-dusted peaks. Shergol, a remarkable little monastery wedged like a swallow’s nest into a sheer hill, marks the last vestige of Buddhist Ladakh.
Barely 30km farther on, Kargil is the largest settlement along the entire route. Straddling the Suru Valley, this expanding town lent its name to the infamous 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan. The LoC runs particularly close – just a few kilometres away – to Kargil and adjoining sections of the Srinagar road. Pakistani infiltration of lofty vantage points within sight and munitions range of this highway sparked the conflict, and for weeks in summer 1999, its security was severely compromised.
My driver slows as we pass an odd and seemingly pointless wall beside the road’s northern side. Indian troops built it to shield traffic from shelling. “For a while, we could only drive at night without lights,” he says, solemnly. There’s another short road-shielding wall farther along, with the Kargil War Memorial’s museum explaining the conflict with an array of detailed charts, pictures and exhibits.
As we drive on through Dras (reputedly the coldest place in India) the scenery turns increasingly alpine, with fir trees, patchy meadows and more snow-capped mountains. Ladakh’s mud-brick, flat-roofed houses have long given way to pitched corrugated-metal roofs, and now almost every hamlet boasts a little minaret or two.
A particularly pretty valley heralds the approach to the famous Zoji La pass and the gateway to the Vale of Kashmir. What this strategic notch in the main Himalayan range lacks in altitude – at 3,529 metres, it’s about the same height as Leh – it more than makes up in cliff-hugging, precipitous drama. And with seemingly never-ending remedial works, this short section remains the roughest, dustiest yet probably most exhilarating stage of the journey.
Plunging into the Sindh Valley we skirt Sonamarg, once a simple meadow, but now a rapidly expanding resort bearing the brunt of Kashmir’s tourist revival, and on through substantial villages boasting pretty parcels of land. The Sindh emerges into the lush, broad Vale of Kashmir without much fuss; 40 minutes later, we navigate the suburbs of Srinagar, the state capital, to stop beside Dal Lake.
It’s the capital’s lakes and their unique houseboats that have long defined the tourist experience here – more so than Kashmir’s lovely mountain scenery and its famed Mughal gardens, and over and above Srinagar’s teeming old quarter with its fine mosques and saints’ shrines.
Houseboats were never originally a Kashmiri institution. So enamoured with the region were early British visitors, the houseboat quickly became a clever way around the then Maharaja of Kashmir’s restrictions on outsiders regarding residency and property ownership. Kashmiris quickly embraced the concept, creating wonderful watery dens of cosy Victoriana embellished with the best of local craftsmanship, using especially beautifully carved wooden panelling for walls and ceilings.
The Sukoon houseboat is reputedly the finest on the lake; breakfasting on its roof terrace, this seems a credible assertion. Opened in spring 2013 after a complete refurbishment, no other houseboat boasts a full-sized (or, for that matter, any size) roof terrace. Moored well away from road noise, only the occasional passing party-boat in the evening is likely to briefly mar its simple tranquillity.
For its five rooms, including one suite, Sukoon retains old-style panelling and rugs, has toned down the Victoriana and embraced updated plumbing for its thoroughly modern bathrooms.
It’s a great place to unwind. The terrace lends fine, elevated views of the placid lake; of shikaras toing and froing with small groups of contented tourists; of locals paddling little skiffs to and from local markets and vegetable gardens. Beyond the majestic ranks of chinars, or plane trees, lining much of the lake, the rugged Zabarwan Hills rise tantalisingly in the distance. It’s idyllic.