I’m in a small van careering along a rough and narrow road beside a rushing river with brightly painted temples along its banks and craggy peaks towering overhead. We’re traveling in the prescribed Indian fashion — drive as fast as you can and hope for the best or, better still, pray.

One of our group jokes that the driver risks developing RSI (repetitive strain injury) from pressing his horn. Swerving around a hairpin bend directly above a ravine, we overtake at high speed, the wheels skidding along the fatal edge. Rain slicks the road and cloud hangs low in the valleys. I shut my eyes. It’s better not to look.

The road straightens and we fly past a procession of people carrying what looks like a chair, draped in red, with seven ghostly faces like Venetian carnival masks attached in pairs above each other at the front with a lone mask at the top glinting silver in the mist. It’s an eerie sight.

“A local god,” says our leader, Bhupesh, “being carried to the nearby Hadimba Temple.” It’s a bit like a Japanese matsuri (festival), I realize; the chair is the mikoshi (the god’s vehicle).

I’m on my way to Manali and from there to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, on the first leg of what will be, I suspect, the journey of a lifetime. Manali is where the Manali-Leh Highway begins. Even the name sends a shiver of excitement through me.

Ladakh was the crossroads of the ancient trade routes from South Asia, where they came together before heading off for the Silk Road crossing the Asian steppes to the north. Until the end of the 19th century, mule trains laden with gold, silver, shawls, tea, indigo, coral, muslin and spices still made the 60-day journey from the Punjab’s Golden Temple city of Amritsar in northwest India, across 11 mountain passes through Ladakh to Yarkand in China, where they would at last reach the Silk Road’s southern branch.

Most of those mule trains went through Kashmir and across the Zoji-la (la means “pass” in Tibetan and Ladakhi), 3,528 meters above sea level. Only a few took the second, much higher route from Manali.

This is my second visit to Ladakh. In 1981, seven years after this little Buddhist country in the far north of India first opened to tourists, I crossed the Zoji-la riding pillion on a motorbike. The road across the pass was only wide enough for one vehicle, so cars, trucks and buses going one way went across in the morning and vehicles heading the other way had to wait till afternoon. But that didn’t apply to motorbikes. We’d pull off the road when a line of vehicles approached and wait till they’d passed, then continue on our way.

The journey over the Zoji-la only requires two days, but we took two weeks — clambering up cliffs to explore remote monasteries and camping in fields beside pounding white rivers. Once we woke to find water rising around us and had to pack up hastily; we’d forgotten that the fields are irrigated at night.

In recent years there has been trouble with China and Pakistan and Kashmir, and travelers are advised not to cross the Zoji-la. Meanwhile, the Indian government has developed the Manali route — which is the one we are taking.

Manali sprawls up a steep hillside and across a river. Rising sharp against the sky are the mountains we will have to cross. There’s snow up there, glinting in the icy sun.

We clamber up a hillside to the Hadimba Temple. It’s a squat wooden building that dates from 1553, with a pagoda of pyramid-shaped roofs and the skulls of ibex, whose long curly horns are nailed like decorations to the beams. Long lines of people queue to worship at the inner shrine, but there’s no sign of any Venetian masks in procession.

Early next morning we set off on the Manali-Leh Highway, zigzagging up the mountainside into the Himalayas. The road is only open between June and September. For the rest of the year there’s deep snow, and each year’s damage has to be repaired before it’s fit to use again.

The sun is barely up and the air is chill. We will have to cross four passes, each higher than the last. The first, Rohtang, already higher than the Zoji-la, at 3,878 meters, is the most notorious, famous for avalanches and sudden changes of weather. The name means “pile of bones,” in reference to the many travelers who’ve died trying to cross it. It’s also famous for traffic jams, and halfway up we find ourselves in one. Low clouds scud past jagged peaks and slabs of gray unmelted snow wall the road. It’s freezing.

Then a car edges toward us, on its way back down the mountain, followed by another, then another. Vehicles passing on the narrow road is what’s caused the traffic jam. In summer, it seems, when the road is open, Indians from down south drive to the top just to see the snow.

At the highest point of the pass, a stupa draped with bedraggled prayer flags emerges through flurries of snow. People in down jackets and hoods, locals most likely, drive off-road buggies and throw snowballs. Such folk will soon drive down again, having had their fill of snow. But we go on, over the top, and suddenly we’re on our own, in another world. Sunlight etches the mountains. We drive through a landscape of green hills and steep black peaks scarred with glaciers. Eventually we arrive at Jispa, a scattering of houses beside a river with mountains towering around. Here we spend the night.

The plan is to take two more days to cross the mountains. But one of our group comes down with altitude sickness. The problem, apparently, is where you sleep: It’s fine to cross the high passes, but dangerous to sleep at high altitude if you’re not acclimatized. So — to general delight — we decide to go straight through to Leh, cutting out a night of high-altitude camping.

We claw our way up ever higher into an otherworldly landscape of mountains scattered with shale. I’m wearing every garment I have, with hand-warmers in my shoes to maintain communion with my toes. But while we passengers are bundled up, the driver’s only concession to the fierce cold is to wrap a pink scarf around his head. Surreal mountains in shades of maroon and brown loom through the mist and cloud, with yet higher peaks behind. There’s not a scrap of vegetation. The mountains have been here for millions of years and we hardly even rate as specks in the landscape.

There are seven of us in our group, in our 40s, 50s and 60s. Jane, a doctor, has been studying the geology of the region. The Himalayas, she says, are where, over aeons of time, the Indian plate crashed slowly but inexorably into the Eurasian plate, pushing up the Tibetan Plateau. You can actually see how these gargantuan rocks have been folded and compressed and forced up. Amazingly, the Zanskar Range, which we are now crossing, was once a seabed and marine fossils have been found all the way up here and beyond to the highest peaks.

Winding our way up to the Baralacha-la pass at 4,890 meters, we see laborers merely wrapped in scarves repairing fissures and removing rock falls caused by last year’s snow. It’s extraordinary they can keep the road open.

By now the day has warmed up a bit. The road ascends in endless switchbacks up the side of a stupendous rift in the Earth like an oversized Grand Canyon colored sand, brick and old gold. I’ve never in my life seen anywhere so deep or so high. Quite a few of our group are complaining of headaches and nausea, feeling the effect of the altitude. I’ve taken homoeopathic medicine and, smugly, feel fine.

We cross the Nakli-la pass, then the Langlacha-la at 5,059 meters as we bounce violently along a bone-jarringly potholed road past dramatic sand-blown rock sculptures to the bleak tent camp of Pang, where we stop briefly to feast on pot noodles.

The last and highest pass is the Taglang-la, at 5,328 meters the second-highest one in the world that motor vehicles can cross. The summit of Mount Everest is 8,848 meters, a mere 3,520 meters further up. Shivering, I leave the van to take photographs through the blizzard — before hurriedly hopping back inside again.

From now on it’s downhill all the way — and at last I get my first glimpse of the Ladakh I remember from so many decades ago: pink mountains, green barley fields and white houses with brightly painted window frames.

I wasn’t imagining it: The mountains really are extraordinary shades of pale mauve and maroon. We follow a river along a deep ravine between wine-colored slabs of rock eroded into formations so fine and delicate they look like beads of melted candle wax or carved images from an arcane civilization. I look hard, imagining I see figures of gods and people. But no, it’s just how the rock is.

Finally, after a long hard day crossing the bleak Himalayan uplands, there are trees and fields. We pass buildings, white-washed houses with bundles of hay on their roofs and guy lines from which tattered Tibetan-Buddhist prayer flags hang limp in the rain. There are stupas — chortens in Ladakhi and Tibetan — on every outcrop, some white-washed, some carved from the living, wine-colored rock; some as big as a house, others small and delicate or stretching in long lines. This is a country that venerates its gods and, with a landscape out of a fairy tale, it is like nowhere else on Earth. Here, even the puddles are pink.

At Upshi, the first major town, a signpost reads, “Manali 425 km, Upshi 0.” It’s bone-chillingly freezing. We huddle over cups of chai (tea), enjoying the hot sweet liquid. Then, somewhat revived, after more than 12 hours on the road we finally arrive in Leh.

In 1981, I spent a couple of months here in a little inn run by an Englishman named John Page, who was with remarkable foresight installing solar heating in Ladakhi homes. Leh is high (3,524 meters) and dry, with very strong sunshine and very cold winters, so solar panels made perfect sense.

As well as me, back then there was a young British couple called Zee and Theresa. We soon discovered Ladakhi food was atrocious, so we took over the cooking, using a primus stove and charcoal burner. John’s girlfriend, Helena Norberg-Hodge, was the only Westerner in the world who spoke Ladakhi, a dialect of Tibetan. Once news of our cooking got around, Ladakhi intellectuals — monks, poets, professors — would show up at meal time every night, so we always cooked for an unpredictable but large number of guests. We’d sit around talking, with Helena interpreting where necessary, into the night.

During the days I’d walk out of town, climb a rocky pink hillside and sit watching the women in their long black dresses and stovepipe hats working in the barley fields far below as the sound of their whistling drifted up through the thin clear air. It was a magical place. Then, at night, sleep came so fast and deep until, come the morning, I’d waken and rush to the window. Right outside — then as now — the palace rose proudly, perched on buff-colored crags and looking to have grown straight out of the hillside, with brilliant white peaks behind.

In 1981, Ladakh had only been open to tourists for seven years, and very few Westerners had discovered it. It was a town of lanes and quaint little houses with almost no cars, where most people were Ladakhi. Wherever you went you saw the palace, a smaller version of the Potala in Lhasa, rising high above to the skies, deserted and crumbling, virtually a ruin.

Now there are roads and traffic, hotels and restaurants and rows of shops, mainly run by Indians and Kashmiris, full of Tibetan jewelery, Pashmina shawls and Tibetan thankas painted on silk, as well as markets where Tibetan refugees sell handicrafts. But the palace is still there, watching over the city.

I walk around the labyrinth of lanes and alleys, trying to get my bearings, but nowhere other than the palace looks remotely familiar. Women with long plaits, running strings of prayer beads through their fingers, smile and greet me with “Julay!” Then I turn a corner and see a little house with sloping walls. I gasp with delight because — 32 years ago — it was the subject of one of my paintings. Then it was just someone’s house. Now there’s a sign reading, “Lala’s cafe and art gallery.” I make a mental note to go back and investigate.

The palace soars above me, a rambling nine-story construction of stone, mud bricks and poplar with gigantic sloping buttressed walls and projecting wooden balconies supported on thick beams. It’s been cleaned up and restored. There are steps and a footpath up the rocks now — and there’s even a motor road. Above the grand entrance are carved lion heads and there are pleated yellow ceremonial drapes like noren, the pelmet-like curtains that hang above Japanese shop fronts. I climb long staircases and follow dark corridors through cavernous rooms, watching out for holes in the floor.

Built in the early 1600s, the palace has been uninhabited since 1836, when the Ladakhi royal family was forced by an invading army of Dogra warriors to move to a much more modest residence in the nearby village of Stok. The country was then annexed by the Maharajah of Jammu and has been part of India ever since.

Nowadays in the palace’s former state rooms, there remain traces of past grandeur — faded frescoes of Buddhist symbols and a barely visible painting of a tiger. I climb a wobbly ladder to the topmost roof and look down on the town, a mosaic of flat-roofed houses, stupas, prayer wheels and fluttering prayer flags with mountains walling its valley.

The next day we go to Thiksey, a short ride out of town back along the road we came in on. In Ladakh there are white-painted monasteries crowning virtually very hill. Thiksey is one of the largest and most splendid. Its temples and sub-temples, libraries and monks’ quarters, dotted with stupas, ramble across the entire hill like a gigantic medieval castle. While the lower buildings are white, the ones at the very top are brick-red or yellow-ocher.

We climb a long path under a red-painted arch. Temples are built around courtyards and up staircases. Thiksey, too, was dilapidated 32 years ago, but now it’s been magnificently restored. Virtually every interior wall is painted with images of Buddhas, sages and benevolent and fierce deities, scenes from the scriptures and depictions of heavens and hells, all in intense earthy colors, alongside the fascinatingly detailed Wheel of Life, a diagrammatic depiction of the entire universe in Buddhist terms.

All of us are entranced by the powerful imagery of this religion, threatened in Tibet but very much alive and flourishing here. To me it feels a bit like a homecoming. The images are familiar; Tibetan Buddhism was a part of my life for years. It’s also akin to the Shingon Buddhism of Japan, though Japanese temples are austere compared with these exuberant places of worship.

We take off our shoes and duck under a heavy lintel to enter the first temple. Our guide is Lama Jamyang. Now 25, he took orders when he was 7 and is studying at a Buddhist university in South India.

Inside is dark and atmospheric, lit by candles and weak light bulbs. Ladakhis in traditional dress or jeans fall to their hands and knees then stretch out full-length on the floor, performing prostrations before the Buddha. Paintings cover the walls and there are statues ranged behind the main throne for the head lama. The room is crowded with thankas, embroidered and appliquéd hangings, photographs of head lamas, drums, some with skulls painted on the rim, and long low carpeted benches for the monks to sit on with scriptures on broad sheets of parchment laid out before them. Butter lamps sputter, incense burns.

Jamyang points out that the Buddhas and deities are symbolic. They represent aspects of the human psyche, they’re not to be taken literally. In front of the images are bowls of water, nearly but not quite touching. Everything must be just right, not for the Buddha’s benefit but our own.

Dominating the main temple is an immense image of Buddha Maitreya, the Buddha who is to come. Sitting in the lotus position instead of enthroned, as usually depicted, he occupies two whole stories. He gazes out with otherworldly calm, a beneficent expression on his golden face.

A few days later we go to a nearby town called Hemis to see its famed annual festival — not a festival but a religious ceremony, says Jamyang. Its purpose, he explains, “is to make the fields grow, the rain come and the temple business be successful.” Crowds arrive on foot and by car and there are food stalls along the path. It certainly feels festive.

Gradually the courtyard fills. Little boy monks squash into a corner. Then music starts. Long Tibetan horns emit primeval groans like the mutterings of the Earth itself, drums clack and trumpets bray, as monks parade out in exotic costumes, some masked, others not, but all transformed into gods and demons and figures from Tibetan history and legend.

They revolve slowly and solemnly, shifting their weight from foot to foot in a series of moves akin to tai chi or the god dances of the Noh theater in Japan. Five young lamas leap, crouch and turn in perfect unison. There are even comic interludes.

We are watching intently when the sky suddenly clouds over and it starts to rain. Then comes sleet, then hail. The audience flees but the dancing continues. It’s not for our entertainment; it’s to ensure the well-being of the temple and the world. Rain, says Jamyang calmly, is an excellent omen.

We follow the road I came in on 32 years ago, west toward the Zoji-la pass, through an otherworldly landscape of dark mauve mountains, pale-turquoise rocks and slatey scree, into a canyon formed by the mighty River Indus. There we stop to gaze down at the place where its gray-green waters flow into the blue River Zanskar. When the Indus reappears, it’s an extraordinary shade of dusty turquoise. We follow it to the small sleepy village of Alchi.

By the time we arrive it’s evening. I stroll down to look at the turquoise river rushing past Burgundy-colored walls of rock. The trees on the banks are emerald green and the earth purplish brown. Four large magpies flap around. It’s blissfully quiet; the closest I’ve been to the Ladakh I remember.

For all its insignificant size, Alchi is home to some of the most exquisite Buddhist frescoes in the world, dating from the 11th century. In 1981, I spoke a little Tibetan, which sadly I’ve now forgotten. I spent a day in the monasteries here, chatting as best I could while a young monk explained the images and scenes. The key was to down — with great enthusiasm — yak-butter tea whenever it was offered. It was salty, with blobs floating on top, but I made myself think of it as soup, not tea, and drank cup after cup.

The Alchi frescoes are housed in modest temple buildings shaded by groves of gnarled trees, but inside is a treasure trove. Every wall is covered from floor to ceiling in tiny exquisite paintings, quite different from the Tibetan murals we’ve seen so far on the trip. These are Indian in style — delicate, perfectly-drawn Buddha images in different colors (each hue has a meaning), surrounding larger images or shaped into mandalas. There are exquisite images of the six-armed green goddess, Tara, the presiding deity at Alchi. The colors are jewel-bright; these too have been restored since I was here last.

In the main temple, the Sumtsek, is a towering figure of Buddha Maitreya, two stories high, flanked by huge bodhisattvas — a 1,000-armed Avalokiteshvara embodying the compassion of all Buddhas, and Manjushri, bodhisattva of wisdom. The dhoti loincloths wrapped around their immense legs are completely covered in meticulously detailed figures and Buddhist scenes.

Outside, an old man sits spinning a prayer wheel. I ask if I can take his picture and he looks at me soulfully then, when I show him the photograph, breaks into a huge grin. Later I photograph women in stovepipe hats picking peas in a field. They too look solemn then smile happily when they see their images on my camera’s small screen.

There are many more monasteries to see, tucked at the far end of long ravines, perched high on hilltops. We also visit Basgo Fort, scrambling up a narrow mountain path into a landscape out of Star Wars, with crumbling Gormenghastian towers teetering on the crags.

At Stok, where the royal family now has their residence, we roam around the monastery. Builders are at work up on the hill above, where a huge platform is taking shape. A sign tells us this is not a factory, not a subway system — but a 71-foot-high (more than 21-meter) image of Sakyamuni Buddha — the Buddha (Gautama Siddhartha) no less.

After Alchi, it’s a shock to be back in the bustle and traffic of Leh. I go in search of the little house with sloping walls that I painted in 1981. I’m photographing it when a figure appears on the roof, waving and beckoning. It’s a cafe now. I go in, order a chai and join two young men who weren’t born when I was last here. They’re bright, lively and politically aware and speak English perfectly. One is training to be a journalist, the other to take over his father’s hotel business.

They are very interested to hear that I was here before and are eager to talk about Ladakh past and present, about the changes that are transforming their country.

“We need to preserve our culture and learn from other cultures too,” says the putative journalist.

“We should learn from Japan,” says the other out of the blue. I haven’t mentioned Japan at all. “How to be modern but preserve your own culture.”

“Change is inevitable but we need to keep our own identity,” agrees the first.

I had been almost afraid to come back to Leh; afraid it might have changed, be full of tourists; that I’d be disappointed. But as I suspected when I set out, it has indeed been the journey of a lifetime. True, the country is no longer the unspoiled Shangri-la I remember. But I’m happy to see the monasteries in such good condition, the people so prosperous and the religion so strong. The Indian government has put money into developing roads, as it’s in such a sensitive and strategically important position near the Chinese border, as well as into the tourist infrastructure. Now, there are many Indian as well as Western tourists eager to visit.

The town of Leh is growing at an amazing pace, with new hotels being built in a whole new district to the north of the city. I hope it won’t be totally ruined.

As our guide Jamyang put it at one point, “Small change good, big change bad. If too much change, no one come any more.”

Getting there

I went to Ladakh with the British tour company Exodus Adventure Travel (www.exodus.co.uk) and thoroughly recommend them. They do several trips a year to Ladakh between June and August, most timed to coincide with a festival. Their “A Himalayan Journey” tour — from Amritsar to Leh, with five full days in Ladakh — lasts 17 days and costs £1,949 (about ¥290,000), including a return London-Delhi flight with Jet Airways. There are cheaper rates for those joining the group in India; one of our group lived in Thailand, another in Delhi. The package includes all hotels, most meals, an English-speaking guide and all transport, including a spectacular flight from Leh back to Delhi at the end of the trip.

Where to stay: There are plenty of hotels in Manali. I recommend staying in Old Manali.
Jispa is the last town on the way from Manali to Leh. After that the only place to stay are tent camps. In Jispa we stayed in the Padma Lodge (www.padmalodgejispa.com) There are new hotels springing up in Leh every day. We stayed in the brand-new Hotel Rafica (www.hotelraficaleh.com), which was sparkling clean and very nicely run. It has central heating, very important, and Wifi. There are plenty of others. In Alchi we stayed in the Samdupling (www.samdupling.com), which is rather lovely, built in traditional style.

Where to eat: Sadly, Ladakhi food, terrible though it was, is not much in evidence any more. In Leh there are plenty of very good restaurants serving Indian, Chinese and Tibetan food. The latter has also been through a sea change and there are many dishes to suit Western taste. We particularly liked The Tibetan Kitchen on Fort Road, where the momos (like gyoza), sabagleb (stuffed pastry), and thukpa (noodle soup) are very good. If they can be found, the Ladakhi and Tibetan staples of yak-butter tea and tsampa (roasted barley meal) ought to be tried at least once.

Lesley Downer is a writer, journalist and inveterate traveler. She lived in Japan for many years and is now London based. Her latest book, a novel, “The Samurai’s Daughter” (published in hardback as “Across a Bridge of Dreams”), is a historical romance set at the time of the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. In future she hopes to write a novel based on her many travels to and around South Asia. Helena Norberg-Hodge, who is mentioned in the article, went on to found the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh. For more on her work, see www.localfutures.org/ladakh-project/womens-alliance-of-ladakh/womens-alliance-of-ladakh.

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