Ladakh opened its doors to the outside world in the 1970s. Relative inaccessibility and lack of awareness have helped preserve its unique mountain culture from the changing forces of tourism.
A recent spike in domestic tourism is changing Leh but the culture lives on in the countryside and through the elder generation.
Festivals are an opportunity to experience Ladakhi cultural traditions and joyous nature its people. They are a medley of Buddhist prayers, cultural teachings, masked dances, sacred rituals and symbolic staging of mythical battles between good and evil.
Hemis Festival is the most well-known and consequently the largest tourist attraction. It is grander in scale but its status means that it is essentially a cultural display for outsiders. For an authentic experience of Ladakhi culture we encourage our guests to seek out remote festivals for a more authentic experience of Ladakhi culture.
Further afield, in the Zanskar valley, are festivals at Karsha and Sani monastery. The Zanskar valley is one of the most unaffected by tourism but this will change once the road along the Zannskar river is completed. Visiting one of these festivals gives a rare opportunity to witness such culture before it changes with accessibility. Or, at Korzok Gustor, you can experience a Ladakhi festival in the stunning setting of a monastery by a high altitude lake.
By camp, over the first full moon of June, is the Sindhu Dharshan festival that celebrates the impact of the Indus (Sindhu) river and its ability to bring together people of India. The country's name derived from the Indus river and this relatively recent festival aims to celebrate this.
Also by camp in our village (Chuchot) is the annual Ladakh Polo festival. As the outside world's influence squeezes through the mountains, many youngsters are turning to cricket and football however Polo and Archery are still very popular as the traditional sports of Ladakh. Ice Hockey, due to the extreme winter conditions, is also very popular with a large percentage of the Indian teams being Ladakhi.
Ladakhi craft is less renowned than its Kashmiri neighbours but no less interesting.
Nomads roam at high altitude on the Tibetan border with their prized possession, the Pashmina goats. In the harsh winter the goats grow thick, soft neck hair which is gently combed out in the spring and woven by Ladakhi women into shawls and blankets. This is the authentic pashmina and it easy to feel it from its softness and warmth.
The village of Chilling, along the Zanskar river, holds a community of metal workers who craft using copper and brass. They are believed to be descended from Nepali artisans that came in the 17th century to build an image of Buddha in Shey. The point of pride of each Ladakhi home is the kitchen with antique pots and pans, intricately designed stoves, copper ladles and metal craft that has religious symbolic importance.
In many monasteries, most notably in Alchi, restoration teams work hard to preserve ancient murals that depict the Buddha's life and teachings. Similarly, Ladakh has a tradition of making thangka paintings - hand painted and embedded into fabric with the life story of Buddha, the Wheel of Life or the Mandala. In Matho monastery, 10km from camp, is an ongoing collaboration between international and local restoration artists to restore ancient thanks belonging to the monastery.
In Leh there are multiple shops selling Tibetan and Ladakhi antiques - thangka paintings, trinkets, Ladakhi clothes and religious sculptures. Many of the shops sell manufactured goods that they pretend to be antiques and offer elevated prices to tourists so it's good to be cautious. We particularly recommend Little Tibet on the Fort Road. The owner is charming, a fantastic story teller and has the best antiques in the region.
The population of Ladakh is split evenly between Shia Muslims and Buddhists yet Buddhist culture is the traditional and prevalent force of the region. The monastery is the centrepiece of each town with prayer flags and stones etched with Buddhist teachings linking the streets. Buddhist teachings inform the mentality of the Ladakhi people who are patient and welcoming yet largely unfussed by the outside world.
The monasteries offer a fascinating insight into Buddhist life. Thiksey Gompa (Gompa refers to the collection of religious buildings - the monastery and its supporting village) is a stunning and peaceful village built up onto a hill face. A walk through the supporting village shows the solitary and devout lifestyle of the monks. In the relatively unexplored Rizong monastery you can witness an example of a stricter monastic life.
Ladakhi Buddhism is heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and His Holiness The Dalai Lama is revered as a spiritual leader. He has a second home in Choglamsar, the Tibetan settlement opposite The Indus River Camp. Every year he comes to Ladakh for a month, travelling around and doing inspirational talks. In July he spends 3 days on the other side of the river doing talks in Choglamsar.
There is more diversity in Ladakhi culture than stock images indicate. In the 17th century King Jamyang Namgyal married a Balti princess, bringing with her as a dowry a group of musicians, archers and craftsmen. Ever since Buddhists and Muslims have been living and working together harmoniously in Ladakh.
Consequently there is a rich heritage of Islamic craft and architecture throughout Ladakh. Nowhere is this felt more acutely than in the border village of Turtuk which opened to outsiders in 2010. The town has its own unique Balti cultural identity with a king that often acts as a guide. The town is rich in craft and, being lower than the rest of Nubra Valley, is abundant with fruit and vegetation with two harvests celebrated each year.
Some claim that the residents are descendants of the armies of Alexander The Great but there seems to be little to support this theory. The Silk Route did pass close by and Turtuk is influenced by this somewhat. This was also the Great Game territory where the English and Russians were engaged in a secretive war of espionage to try and gain control of central Asia. English author Peter Hopkirk wrote a fantastic account of this spy war in his book 'The Great Game.