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Marvel at this stunning high-altitude desert

  • Rainbow of colors in the Zanskar mountains, Dundunchen La Pass

    Explore India's heavenly abode

    Set in India's far north, smack up against the Pakistan and Chinese-Tibetan borders, Ladakh is one of the world's most unique places. Surrounded by chains of mountain ranges, with peaks reaching over 20,000 feet, you'd think it would be a snowbound retreat. Yet, it's actually an arid high desert with little precipitation each year and surreal moonscape scenery.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Beautiful Pangong Lake, the jewel of Ladakh

    Beautiful Pangong Lake, the jewel of Ladakh

    Here, you'll also find beautiful alpine lakes, such as the giant Pangong Lake, set at 14,270 feet. The lake actually flows through both China and India, crossing the Karakoram mountains. It's one of the most picturesque lakes in the world, surrounded by dramatic high mountain scenery.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Clouds sail over Tso Moriri Lake

    Clouds sail over Tso Moriri Lake

    Tso Moriri is the biggest lake in Ladakh, reached both by a drivable dirt road and via a variety of horse treks across seven passes of over 17,000 feet! The colors of the lake here range from emerald to deep blue, and it's forbidden to swim in the holy lake, keeping it clear and pristine.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Snowbound Karakoram Mountains and the Nubra Valley seen from the Khardung La Pass

    Snowbound Karakoram mountains and the Nubra Valley

    Ladakh features not only some of the highest trails in the world, but also the world's highest drivable roads. The Khardung La, just shy of 18,000 feet, crosses the Ladakh Range on an exhilarating switchback and curve-laden route. It eventually leads to the Nubra Valley – sandwiched between China, Pakistan and India – and some of the highest mountain ranges on earth. The roads here are so high that they dwarf most of the highest mountains the average person will climb in their lifetime.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • The beautiful Shyok River and Karakoram Range, Nubra Valley

    Beautiful Shyok River and Karakoram Range

    The Shyok River runs through the Nubra Valley, turning turquoise during the fall, as the glacial water becomes free of silt, and later cobalt blue when it freezes in winter. Hemmed in by the high mountain walls, villagers here grow barley to survive, and inhabit oases ringed by poplar and willow trees.  It helps them to stay cool during the parching, dry summers and then survive the frigid, long winters.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • The Balti village of Turtuk, once Pakistan, now part of Ladakh, India, viewed in autumn under the Karakoram Range and Shyok River

    The Balti village of Turtuk

    Picturesque Turtuk perches on a hillside at the end of the valley, right on the border with Pakistan. The village originally belonged to Pakistan, but was captured during the border war of 1971 and was never given back. The inhabitants here are still Balti Muslims, and are noted for their elaborate stone irrigation terraces, built to help survive the rocky, extreme terrain they live on. Turtuk is the biggest producer of apricots and walnuts for India.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Camels in the Karakoram Mountains, Hundar, Nubra Valley, Ladakh, India

    Camels in the Nubra Valley

    In the Nubra, you'll encounter some unique sights and opportunities, such as being able to ride Bactrian camels across sand dunes set underneath towering snowy mountains. The Bactrian camels can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, and their ability to withstand extreme cold and go long distances without water make them well-suited for the Nubra landscape.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Gelugpa monks dancing at the Diskit Monastery's Gustor Festival

    Gelugpa monks dancing at the Diskit Monastery's Gustor Festival

    The Nubra Valley is also home to Diskit Gompa, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery belonging to the Gelugpa "yellow-hat" sect (same one as the Dalai Lama). Several times during the year, the monks dress in elaborate colorful costumes and masks and dance in the monastery courtyard, seen here during the annual fall Gustor festival.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Masked monks performing at a traditional cham dance in Leh

    Masked monks performing at a traditional cham dance

    This "cham" dance as it is known, is held on auspicious dates as an offering to the gods, and is also a form of meditation, where the masked monks slowly twirl and revolve in a trance-like state. Cham dances are held throughout Ladakh, with pilgrims coming from far and wide to witness the lucky celebrations.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • View of the Indus River Valley from above

    View of the Indus River Valley from above

    Ladakh may be barren and arid, but its population survives where there is arable land and water, mainly along the mighty Indus River Valley. It originates at Lake Manasarovar in Tibet and runs through Ladakh and then Pakistan before it flows into the Arabian Sea. Ladakh's capital Leh rises up above the Indus, and at 11,480 feet, is only surpassed by Bolivia's La Paz in terms of high-altitude capitals.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • The Stok Range, with Stok Kangri (20,190 feet) rising above Leh

    The Stok Range rises above Leh

    Leh occupies a beautiful setting, looking out at the entire Stok Range and its centerpiece, 20,190-foot Stok Kangri, a popular summer climb. The city is known as 'Little Tibet,' and is a far cry from the rest of India. It has a low population density, minimal traffic, excellent environmental programs (the city is trying to become polystyrene-free, has refillable water bottle depots, and an automobile-free central downtown area), and is a great place to rest and enjoy a wide array of international restaurants and cafes after some rough time in the Ladakhi outback.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Leh Palace and the old town

    Leh Palace and the old town

    Leh is home to the 16th-century Leh Palace, a nine-story royal palace resembling the Dalai Lama's summer Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Built by King Sengge Namgyal, the royal family inhabited the palace until Dogra invaders from Jammu took over Ladakh in the mid-1800s and it was abandoned. Today, it's a tourist museum offering sweeping views of the entire Indus Valley.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Namgyal Tsemo Monastery in beautiful light over Leh

    Namgyal Tsemo Monastery in beautiful light over Leh

    Even higher than the Leh Palace, the Namgyal Tsemo Monastery is one of Ladakh's most iconic images. Perched right on top of a hill, the monastery was built in 1430. It's now the city's most popular sunset and mountain viewing spot, with staggering views of Stok Kangri, the Indus and the entire city below.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Stakna Monastery and the Indus River in autumn

    Stakna Monastery and the Indus River in fall

    Despite its aridity, Ladakh sees beautiful autumn colors. The willow and poplar trees change to yellow and gold, and can be found anywhere there is water. Stakna Monastery along the Indus River is particularly scenic, sitting atop a small hill above the water and foliage.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Meerak village and Pangong Lake in autumn color

    Merak village and Pangong Lake in autumn color

    In the Nubra Valley, Merak village is lit up with golden color, contrasting with the alpine blue Pangong Lake and snowy Karakorams in the background. By November, this will be replaced by brown and white, as winter sets in. Temperatures get down to -40° C and below here.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Endless views of the Zanskar mountains from Konzke La Pass

    Endless views of the Zanskar mountains from Konzke La pass

    Some of the best trekking in the world is to be found in Ladakh. From short jaunts to epic several-week hikes, intrepid adventures get well-rewarded here with uncrowded trails, high pass crossings and endless vistas. Here, a trekker makes her way to the top of the 16,240-foot Konzke La pass.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Trekking over the Dundunchen La Pass in Sham region

    Trekking over the Dundunchen La pass in Sham region

    The Zanskar, Stok and Ladakh ranges offer seemingly infinite river valleys to climb in and out of. The name Ladakh actually (and aptly) means "land of high passes," and the surreal landscape viewed from places like the 15,150-foot Dundunchen La pass shows visitors how much more colorful Ladakh is than one might believe on first glance.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Ladakhi women in traditional dress at a Tara prayer gathering in Leh

    Ladakhi women in traditional dress

    Just as varied as its landscape are the hearty and welcoming inhabitants of Ladakh. With an abundance of festivals, religious gatherings and other longstanding events, you'll still see the older Ladakhis wearing traditional dress. For example, this group of women are wearing stovepipe hats known as 'tibi' at a monastery prayer gathering in Leh.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Aryan (Brogpa) women in traditional costume

    Aryan (Brogpa) women in traditional costume

    Ladakh is also home to the last Aryans, also known as the Brogpas, an ethnic group living in a remote valley of the Indus. They are claimed to be descendants of Alexander the Great and his men, where green or blue eyes and freckles predominate, and where women still wear elaborate headdresses and outside marriage is shunned.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Aryan (Brogpa) girls dancing at a festival

    Brogpa girls dancing at a festival

    While new paved roads into the Aryan Valley and moves towards modernity brought by the Indian government have made for changes from the traditional way of life here, cultural festivals and tourism may help ensure that the Aryan customs continue to be passed down to future generations. Here, a group of young girls wear traditional costumes during a village festival in Biama.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Snowy conditions on the Khardung La Pass

    Snowy conditions on the Khardung La pass

    While winter in Ladakh is only for the hearty, trucks still deliver goods over the high passes. And adventure trekkers come to walk the Chadar Trek, hiking along the frozen Zanskar River when the water freezes in January. In any season, Ladakh is a fascinating place, featuring a culture and landscape not found elsewhere.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

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