“Welcome to Naropa,” reads the giant illuminated green sign projected on to a mountainside in the Zanskar range of Ladakh, India’s northernmost region. Circular tents housing families and festival-goers dot the stony landscape as a line of headlights snakes upwards towards the improvised carpark. Behind a huge sound stage, a newly built Buddhist temple glows in the cool inky night.
Hemis is a confection of golden staircases, illuminated lotus flowers and decorative panels, shining for miles around in this dark mountainous region. In front of the temple, singers and a theatrical troupe entertain the red-hatted and robed crowds. The Naropa, an 11th-century Buddhist monk who has been reincarnated ever since, sits in the front row, blessing the performers as they enter the stage.
Naropa takes place every 12 years, but I’ve come to Ladakh to see the sky by night. The high altitude, low levels of water vapour in the air and the lack of light pollution make it one of the best dark sky environments on Earth.
I am an author of children’s adventure stories that take my two young heroes and readers on a series of cosmic challenges, frequently involving journeys to another planet. It is said Ladakh’s terrain in places bears a close resemblance to Mars, so this is as close as I will ever get to a walk on the red planet.
A sign in the local village points to the mountain range: “Lhasa 700 miles”. It’s a direct line, albeit over terrifyingly high mountains, to the spiritual home of these festive monks. For centuries, Ladakh oriented itself eastwards towards Tibet rather than India to the south or Kashmir to the west, forging a close cultural and religious identity with Mahayana Buddhism. After Tibet was incorporated into China in 1959 many Tibetans fled across the now-closed border to Ladakh. The most famous refugee of all, the Dalai Lama, comes to Ladakh annually to take up a summer residence where he brings together the different traditions of Mahayana Buddhism.
Stretching overhead like a semicircular Alice band is the Milky Way, broken by the Cygnus Rift, a cloud of dark gas and dust that adds to the drama of the night sky. “Our Milky Way is dancing,” says a popular Ladakhi poem celebrating the birth of king Sengge Namgyal. The glory of Ladakh’s night sky has not been lost on professional astronomers. At Hanle, 20km from the Tibetan border, sits the Indian Astronomical Observatory, one of the world’s largest and highest telescopes. It is not a visitor attraction, however. Operated remotely and located in a restricted area of Ladakh, the Hanle observatory is no place for the casual night-sky observer.
But that doesn’t matter. “The whole of Ladakh is an observatory,” says Raja Jigmed Namgyal, the erstwhile king of Ladakh, whose family has one of the longest unbroken dynasties in the world. Dating back to AD950, the Namgyal family held sway over the region of Ladakh until it was disempowered in the mid-19th century by the Dogra invasion from Baltistan.
Now based at Stok Palace, the summer residence of the royal family, Namgyal has restored the family home, turning it into a heritage hotel that offers the chance to sleep in royal apartments. The palace also allows stargazing from the sweeping ramparts, where breakfasts of homemade apricot jam, khambir (the exceptionally filling local bread) and tea are served.
“Astronomers are the next group of tourists to Ladakh,” says Namgyal. “Right now, tourists come for the adventure — trekking, mountain climbing, rafting. Or they come for the cultural life of Ladakh. But they’re just starting to arrive with telescopes. It’s going to be the next wave.”
Until 1974, the strategic sensitivity of Ladakh — between China on one side and Pakistan on the other — meant the region was closed entirely to visitors. The disastrous flash floods of 2010, the damage still visible in some areas, drove away the intrepid who had started to filter there, drawn by the astonishing scenery, the possibility of adventure, the rich and enticing Buddhist culture and the friendliness of these mountain people. More than six years on, the tourist industry is getting back on its feet and Ladakh is starting to corner the market for overseas visitors in search of an adventurous Himalayan holiday.
The name Ladakh means land of high passes. It could equally be called land of high mountains, with the grand Himalayas to the south, the Karakoram range to the northwest and the Ladakh range to the northeast. Andrew Harvey, a scholar, poet and writer who toured Ladakh in the early 1980s, writes in A Journey in Ladakh: “This wilderness of rock and light has not been tamed. It remains exalted and sometimes frightening.” His observation remains exact, as I realise on the morning when I set out with my guide, Rudy, to cross the 14km Khaspang Pass. At the Khaspang meditation centre, a smiling monk informs us we have a choice between the easy route and the hard. I choose the hard route, something I tell myself on the ensuing trek never to do again. The sky, as we set off up the bald, ochre-coloured mountain, is the “wide burning blue” of Harvey’s memoir. Rudy clambers upwards, as nimble as a bharal (the blue sheep indigenous to these mountains), while I plod along behind. For the next five hours, I repeat “one foot, one foot” to myself as I inch my way up and then down to the flat land below.
At the bottom, I discover a tent in a meadow full of flowers; here relief and fatigue combine with hunger to make this the most delicious packed lunch of my life. I am caked in sweat, sunblock and dust, burned by the ferocious sun and whipped by the rising wind.
Later in my stay, on one rose-gold evening, I cycle down from the 16th-century monastery and fort at Basgo, reaching the banks of the Indus River. The only other traffic on the roads through the villages and fields is a single placid-looking dzo, a cross between a yak and a cow. However, once I reach the route through the army encampment, the number of vehicles steps up a notch, mostly army vans hooting with amusement at the sight of a middle-aged woman teetering along on a bike. Ladakh’s strategic importance means more than 30 per cent of the Indian army is stationed here, in dusty camps spread across the plains.
While much has not changed since Harvey visited, I am happy to find his dire words about the state of hotels for tourists are outdated. Two years ago, the owners of the Shakti Himalaya walking tour company had the idea of renovating village houses in partnership with family owners to create a network of homestays. With delicious meals cooked in each house by an experienced chef, your laundry done, cold drinks and hot towels at the ready, and rooms warmed by wood-burning stoves, it’s the perfect way to experience the region.
On our increasingly crowded and noisy planet, it is a source of particular delight that a place as peculiar, empty and wonderful as Ladakh exists. And those dark skies also lend themselves to philosophical matters. The Gyalwang Drukpa claims that “each of us is connected through the heart to the entire universe — and so if you get into the mind, you will see the universe”.
TELEGRAPH MEDIA GROUP
Checklist: The Naropa festival is held once every 12 years; the next one will be in 2028. Shakti Himalaya offers tailored trips in Ladakh based on walking, with stays in converted village houses and at tented sites, and visits to schools, monasteries and markets.