National Geographic : 1951 May
A Journey to "Little Tibet" BY ENAKSHI BHAVNANI With Illustrationsby National Geographic PhotographerVolkmar Wentzel «I THAT a way to spend your holi / day!" our friends exclaimed. I Suppose they were right. Our trip would mean a trek of 550 miles on horseback and on foot over ground completely alien to us. It would mean everything from flash bliz zards to drought, snowdrifts to desert sand, and temperatures ranging from below zero to 100 degrees above. It would mean strange people, strange customs, a different language and economy. At worst it would be sheer trudgery; at best, rough going. But we wanted to go. We wanted to journey to Ladakh, sometimes called "little Tibet." Politically, Ladakh is in the eastern part of the now disputed State of Jammu and Kashmir. In every other aspect, Ladakh and the rest of the State are poles apart. The Kashmiris are predominantly Caucasian by race and Moslem by religion, living in lush green valleys.* Ladakhis, largely Mongoloid and Buddhist, inhabit a cold, lofty wasteland. Doorway to Tibet Once Ladakh was a part of Tibet. The people still look to the Dalai Lama of Lhasa as their spiritual leader. They are still Tibetan-in religion, in blood, in dress, lan guage, and custom.t A glance at the map shows that the State of Jammu and Kashmir sits like a crown on the Indian subcontinent. On the east lies Tibet, on the west Pakistan. On the north it touches Sinkiang and Afghanistan, a narrow strip of which separates Jammu and Kashmir from Russia (map, page 607). Claimed by both India and Pakistan, the State is a coveted prize. Tibet has never welcomed travelers. But remote Ladakh is virtually the doorway to the forbidden land of the lamas. Ladakh was accessible to anyone who wanted to go there-to "the roof of the world." What could be better? To us secluded Ladakh meant romance, mystery, and adventure, something literally out of our world. Nothing could dissuade us. We were going to Ladakh. Four of us-my movie-producer husband, our young son, a woman friend of mine, and I-set out one bright August evening on horse back from Srinagar, Kashmir's capital. Our itinerary: North to Gandarbal, then east through the Sind Valley to Sonamarg, and on to Leh, capital of Ladakh. We were to journey for two months over desolate trails, with full field equipment, five servants, 20 ponies, food and luggage, plus feed for the animals. We took canned goods to supplement fresh edibles we hoped to buy along the way. For the most part we lived in tents, camping in the fields beside snow fed rivers. Our daily routine called for early rising, a quick breakfast, packing the animals, riding on to the next stage, camping for the night always moving on. There were 15 stages in all, some long and some short, ranging from 11 to 26 miles each, determined by the diffi culty of the route and the situation of the villages. At the end of our first day on the road after leaving Srinagar, we reached Woyil bridge, where we camped at the edge of the Sind River. A large suspension bridge in the valley 100 feet away arched over the fast-flowing, snowy waters. Early the next morning we learned that we would travel by the res, the system under which a village or group of villages supplies transport for certain stages on certain roads. The rate of payment was small, about half a cent per pony per mile. Once again we started along the Sind. Snow-capped mountain peaks hemmed the valley. Beautiful flowers filled the meadows; the pale river wound between crags and boulders. The fields were ripe with corn and rice. The mountain walls grew steeper and higher. It seemed to me that there was magic in the atmosphere. Strauss Waltz on a Carpet of Grass We reached our next camp, at Kangan, at 5 in the afternoon. Since the pack ponies had gone ahead, camp was ready for us. It was an enchanting spot, with a carpet of grass and the rippling sound of a spring a few feet away. A mountain wall stood grandly in front of us. Evergreens vied for color with an azure sky. Little calves gamboled over the moss encrusted rocks as we sipped our tea and listened to the dreamy strains of Strauss * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "The Idyllic Vale of Kashmir," by Volkmar Wentzel, April, 1948, and "House-Boat Days in the Vale of Kashmir," by Florence H. Morden, October, 1929. t See "A Woman Paints the Tibetans," by Lafugie, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, May, 1949.