Four days after leaving Pittsburgh, Naomi and I finally arrived in Leh and were greeted by the guards of what was once the highest-altitude airport in the world, Indian military officers equipped with machine guns.
Leh is located in the Ladakh region of India’s northernmost state, Jammu & Kashmir. Ladakh, referred to as “Little Tibet,” “The Last Shangri-La,” the “Land of Many Passes,” among others, is at an altitude ranging between 3000m and 4100m, and contains some of the highest lands continuously habited by humans. Ladakh is surrounded by snow-capped peaks of the Trans-Himalayan mountains and shares (disputed) borders with both China and Pakistan. It’s considered to be a cold desert, characterized with cold winters, temperate summers, very little precipitation, and almost 300 days of sunshine yearly.
Ladakh had remained largely self-contained and undisturbed by outsiders until it was opened up to tourists, both Indian and international, in the 1970s. Since then, it has been estimated that over 100,000 tourists visit the area yearly in search of beautiful landscapes, adventurous treks, and rich history. A primarily Buddhist region, Tibetan prayer flags adorn Ladakhi homes, storefronts, vehicles, and streets. Shrines, referred to in Ladakhi as Stupas, and monasteries, Goompas, are also scattered about towns and mountainsides.
With jullay, a sort of catch-all greeting meaning hello, goodbye, and thank you, happiness and welcome are shared with those you interact with as well as those you merely pass on the street. The sometimes harsh and inhospitable conditions in the region have instilled in Ladakhis a sense of love and respect for their environment and for one another.
“Only the best of friends or the worst of enemies come through these high passes.” Ladkhi Proverb