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NOVEMBER 27, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 21

Finding Peace in a Himalayan Hideaway
By MICHAEL FATHERS


Illustration for TIME by Anna Crichton.

It isn't often that the manager of your hotel is the uncle of a queen. Well, his niece isn't officially the queen because royal titles aren't allowed in India any more. But she is married to the man who would otherwise be king of Ladakh, the tiny Buddhist state at the northern tip of the Himalayas, tucked away among the mountains and glaciers between China and Pakistan.

Ladakh is that sort of place. There are, after all, only 20,000 people in Leh, the capital, and not many more outside it. Punchok Wangchuk, the uncle of the "queen," runs a cozy family hotel, the Shambha-La, set in an apple orchard 1 km outside Leh.

Ladakh is a silent, blissful place of thin air and magical geological shapes, its landscape marked by soft, burned colors and purple shadows. Curiously, it boasts an intimacy that belies the rugged 4,000-m to 6,500-m peaks that surround the former kingdom. Even the mighty Indus River, which cuts across the high valleys and through the mountain gorges, can look almost like a stream when viewed from the hilltop monasteries.

The brochures call Ladakh "Little Tibet." The two alpine regions are much the same, from the monasteries on the hills to the people's common features. But Ladakh is preferable in many ways. Tibet is much larger and can be stiff and regimented. One feels at ease in Ladakh. The atmosphere is casual and friendly, and the people set their own pace.

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September is the best month to visit. By harvest time, most tourists have come and gone. Hotels that were chockablock in July and August are empty come fall, and discounts are easy to find. The sky is an electric blue. The days are warm, the nights cool. In the river valleys, as if in some tableau from a willow-pattern plate, farmers carry ricks and winnow grain among trees laden with ripe fruit, simple plank bridges and quaint houses with flat roofs stacked with hay.

From October the high mountain passes into this once-isolated land are snowed over, and the hotels put up their shutters. Those residents who can afford it have moved to the lower, more hospitable hills or to the plains of India. Those left behind hunker down until spring, when the tourists begin to return.

Most visitors fly to Ladakh from New Delhi, only 80 min. away, and remain in Leh for a couple of days to adjust to the altitude. Adventurers can buy second-hand Enfield motorbikes for around $800 and cruise to Leh from Manali, the backpackers' junction in the Himalayan foothills, in three days. Sharp travelers will fly to Srinagar in Kashmir first and spend a few days on a houseboat relaxing amid the lotus gardens, watching kingfishers flit from stem to stem. It is a bucolic experience, as long as you are not fearful of the insurgency that rumbles in Kashmir. You should be aware of possible danger, but the pleasure of being on a houseboat on a pristine lake far outweighs the fear. From Srinagar it's a 45-min. flight to Leh over some of the finest mountain scenery in the world—but there's only one flight a week, on Sunday.

An idyll in Ladakh is easy on the wallet. If you are a backpacker, the best option is to stay at a guest house or family home amid the poplar trees and streams of Sankar on the western edge of Leh. A bed and meals at the Shambha-La Hotel (ladakh_shambhala@vsnl.com) will cost around $40 a person per day, but discounts, often up to 30%, are usually available in September. Booking is essential—unless, of course, you know the queen's uncle.

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