Meet the locals in Ladakh for an unforgettable travel experience
Ladakh is a land where the views will take your breath away, but the culture of Ladakh is arguably just as beautiful as the landscape.
With the combined pressures of globalisation and increase in visitors to Ladakh, ironically the same culture which draws tourists in, is coming under increasing pressure. In recent years there has been an increase in “bucket-list tourism” – where some visitors arrive with just a list of sights to see: Pangong Lake, Leh, and perhaps a drive by some of Ladakh’s better-known monasteries.
But to follow such a sightseeing itinerary would be to miss the best part of any visit to this part of India.
Discovering Ladakhi Culture through Trekking
Experiencing Ladakhi culture invariably means getting off the road a little. Hiking is still one of the best ways to explore and experience the mountain desert of Ladakh – and fortunately, today – there are a number of different hikes and walks available, suiting most people. From die-hard adventures for those who want to follow in the footsteps of silk traders, to more casual walks to savour the views and see something of village life.
On treks you’ll pass through small villages, and in the Sham Valley (one of the easier trekking areas in Ladakh) it’s possible to trek from homestay to homestay. Here I got a taste of local life, sitting on the kitchen floor chopping vegetables with the local women (by my choice I hasten to add!).
Staying at Shyok River Lodge
Shyok River Lodge prides itself on not only being as environmentally sustainable as possible, but also on being one of the few places in Ladakh where it is possible to stay in comfort and get an understanding of Ladakhi traditions, culture and local life.
The Lodge is a traditional Ladakhi house, owned by a village family. Managers, Jan (a trekking expert) and Suchie have set up the business in a way to make sure that there is integration with village life for all guests that come here. A key part of any stay there is discovering the village – its houses (you may get invited in for tea by neighbours if you’re lucky), its farming traditions and irrigation systems (an important subject in the desert of Ladakh!) and its tibetan-styled Gompas (small monasteries/temples). The staff at the lodge are true locals, many from the village of Shyok itself.
The Locals at Shyok
Being part of a village house, Shyok is never short of opportunities to meet the locals!
There’s one local who will be a key part of your stay and that is Chusket, who works at Shyok as hospitality manager. Chusket comes from Shyok village and has spent all her life there.
Chusket is vocal about the need to preserve Ladakhi culture – she sees many young people her age and younger leaving the village – for education and work. And during their time away (often in neighbouring Jammu) people lose touch with Ladakh and Ladakhi culture, or turn away from their Ladakhi rootes in favour of more “mainstream” Indian culture.
Leaving the village is often seen as necessary for education, Chusket has proven that it isn’t necessary. Instead she has chosen to study for her Bachelor of Arts degree from home. She says “wherever we go, we shouldn’t forget our birthplace or harm our native place”.
Ultimately, it is Shyok River Lodge in particular and tourism in general that has allowed people like Chusket to learn English from tourists and to find a sustainable form of employment there. More visitors would mean more tourism related jobs, which would allow more villagers like her to stay home and safeguard Ladakhi culture.
Other ways to Meet the Locals in Shyok, Ladakh
In Ladakh, it’s as much about meeting the local wildlife as the people. Go on a nature walk with Jan or Suchie to see blue sheep (Bharal) as well as to see the tracks of snow leopards and wolves.
Travel to the tiny and remote village of Rele up at 4,200m to spend the day with Yak herders – a place only accessible by tough 4WDs this is a side to Ladakh that few get to see.
Visit Ladakh in August to experience harvest time, and get to join in sowing/ploughing.
Take a Bolero! Public transport in Ladakh runs on skeleton infrastructure. There are no Indian Railways, and buses run a few times a week if you’re lucky. As a result much of getting around Ladakh is done by private car. Many Ladakhis, however travel by Bolero (shared jeep) which run between Leh and the villages. If you have an adventurous spirit and don’t mind a few bumps, there’s no better way to get shoulder to shoulder with the friendly locals, and to share a few selfies and chais along the way.
This post was written by Ellie Cleary of Soul Travel Blog. Check out Ellie’s blog for more tips on responsible travel in Ladakh & the rest of India.