Mindful Travel in Ladakh
Precipitous mountain tracks to medieval Buddhist monasteries; high desert plateaus facing even higher snow peaks; secret salt water lakes bluer than the azure Himalayan sky …no photograph, no travelogue can ever do justice to the magnificent landscapes of Ladakh. It is a land of stark contrasts – barren desert mountains rear over lush fields in the Indus valley; Buddhist prayer flags throw splashes of colour on miles of desert sand and mountain rock; friendly and hospitable locals in a land which is known to be one of the most inhospitable in the world.
Ladakh has historically been rather isolated from the Indian mainland, as it has from the rest of the world. Its strategic location on the Indo-Tibetan border, as well as the lack of roads and air strips made it fairly inaccessible until the mid-1970s. In fact, tourists were allowed to visit the region only after 1974. As a result, even today, travelers to Ladakh get fascinating insights into a culture relatively untarnished by modern civilization. Ladakh offers a unique opportunity for visitors to experience living history, the only place in the world where the ancient religion Tibetan Buddhism is still officially practiced.
There has been an upsurge in tourist arrivals in Leh (the capital of Ladakh)in the past few years, and while this has been good for Ladakhi economy, the concern is that it should not affect its culture and ecology adversely. Ecotourism and responsible travel are, thus, the only way to keep this region as unaffected as possible by the effects of modern civilization.
Visible Changes in Ladakh
The opening up of Ladakh has brought many changes in the last thirty years, some good and some bad. While it is not fair to bemoan all changes (after all no culture can remain static over the years) there are some that even Ladakhis are coming to believe they can do without.
Some of these are --
- Plastic bags that replaced traditional baskets, cloth and leather bags
- Bottled water that replaced mountain spring water (which incidentally, is what many bottled water manufacturers claim to use anyway)
- Junk food, especially instant noodles that has replaced traditional Ladakhi fare whilst on long treks -- Tsampa, roasted barley flour
- Asbestos roofs instead of the traditional mud bricks which are locally made and sun baked.
More insidious are the changes that are taking place in the culture and psyches of Ladakhis. Many believe that life in the West is infinitely better than in Ladakh. One tourist can spend as much in a single day as a whole Ladakhi familly might spend in a year, making Ladakhis feel that their lifestyle is poor and backward.
Tourists often unwittingly reinforce these feelings and insecurities in many ways --
- By expecting Western-style conveniences or expressing horror at comparatively low daily wages, failing to recognize the enormous differences in the cost of living.
- By giving pens and candy to little children they meet on the road. So many foreign visitors have given children coins, candy and pens in Ladakh that children now often chase visitors begging good-naturedly for these items. Please discourage this, as it has become a game to children. If you want to help out in some way it is much more constructive to make a donation to a local school or an NGO!
Tips for Mindful Travel
Every visitor to any new place must realise that s/he will inevitably have an impact on ecology, culture and economy of the place being visited. What she shops for, what and where she eats, where she stays and what she throws away -- these are only some of the outward aspects of her travel that affect her destination. Her interactions with local people, her intrusions if any, into their lives and her cultural biases are some of the hidden factors that could affect her destination and its culture.
Mindful travel, or a journey where the traveller is aware of how she could impact her destination and is determined not to, is the only way that places like Ladakh, still relatively pristine, can be maintained. Here are some basic tips --
Respect the Local Culture
Taking small precautions and adhering to a few rules will go a long way in showing proper respect to the local culture of Ladakh.
- It is best to dress conservatively whilst in Ladakh so as to not offend any cultural sensibilities. Do not wear shorts or clothes that expose the shoulders, midriff or back. This tip should be diligently followed, especially at the time of visiting the monasteries.
- Do not take photographs or enter gardens, houses, etc without permission. It is best to ask for permission before doing any such thing.
- Respect prayer areas. Take shoes off before entering them.
- Do not disturb Monks at prayer, and always ask permission before taking photographs.
- Do not touch religious artifacts.
- Do not drink, smoke, take drugs or spit in the monastery premises
- Avoid talking loudly or disturbing the peaceful atmosphere
Say "No" to Plastic
Plastic bags have been outlawed all over Ladakh. Yet, some shops might try palming off plastic bags. Always report such misdemeanours to the police or district administration.
- Never ever use anything in plastic. Instead of throwing away empty mineral water bottles, get them refilled. The Dzomsa in the main market in Leh provides pressure boiled water at the cost of 7 rupees per liter.
- Always ask for or use cloth bags.
Save Water Try to conserve water as much as possible. Make use of Ladakhi Dry Composting Toilets instead of flush toilets, wherever available. Do not wash clothes directly in streams, for this pollutes them. Instead, use eco-friendly laundry services available in Leh.
Just like water, energy should also be conserved. At many places in Ladakh, solar showers are available. Try to substitute them for the other showers whenever possible. Always patronize places that utilize renewable sources of electricity.
Limit Vehicle Use Try to make the minimum possible use of vehicles. Instead, take a walk or go Mountain Biking. If possible, share rides with others. This will go a long way in reducing the levels of air pollution in the valley.
Support the Local Economy While Shopping and Dining Whenever you go for shopping or eat outside, try to support the local economy. *Buy locally made handicrafts, which make use of native and natural materials. *Local, organically grown food should replace the other food products.
Support Local Organizations and Educate Yourself about Sustainable Living
There are many organisations in Ladakh like SECMOL and Women's Alliance that are working with local villages, promoting rural economy and traditional conservation practices. Extend as much support as you can to them, by contributing to their funds, buying their products and reflecting upon what they do.
- ↑ 
- Janet Rizvi, 1983; Ladakh, Crossroads of High Asia; Delhi: Oxford.
- Helena Norberg-Hodge, 1991; Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh; San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
- Andrew Harvey, 1983; A Journey in Ladakh; Cape: London.
- ISEC Article