It all started with a photograph. Hanging on the eastern wall of the living room of my maternal grandfather’s rambling mansion in Calcutta, it depicted sand-coloured textured hills and an ancient palace under a dark sky. The word Ladakh was imprinted on the right bottom in strangely shaped letters. As an eleven year old, it would remain a mystery: nobody would tell me more about Ladakh except that it was a cold desert even beyond the Himalayas.
Two and a half decades later, I chose to take the road to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, from Srinagar. With an overnight stop at an India-Pakistan border town called Kargill, followed by a navigation between two Himalayan passes, the 434 km trip takes two days.
I should say that in the two decades since I first saw that picture, Ladakh had shed much of its mystique. Leh had comfortably become a popular tourist destination, still a multi-layered cliffside city, but one with pizza parlors, bakeries and rooftop restaurants. In the touristed Leh that I saw on television or in magazines, the wizened monks in crimson robes silently walking the streets of the Buddhist city were the ones who seemed out of place.
When I finally made it there myself, I was still unable to connect the mystery of that boyhood photograph with the city in front of me. When I said as much to a schoolteacher named Sonam Yangchuk, whom I ran into at a rooftop restaurant in downtown Leh, he had just one answer: “Go to Changthang”. This was the highland home of the Changpa people, his people. There, he said, was the heart of Ladakh. And with that, he arranged for a Sumo Grande for hire: “You will need a strong 4WD, the roads are tough.”