Ladakh is bound by mountains and made up of mountains. Sheer walls of rock and ice divide the Indus Valley from Tibet, Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, and human habitation is restricted to narrow strips of greenery clinging to the rivers that drain down from mountain glaciers. This rugged region is home to one of the last undisturbed Tantric Buddhist populations on earth, protected from colonial interference, rampaging Mughals and the ravages of China’s Cultural Revolution by sheer force of geography.
Unlike the rest of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh has seen little violence since Independence. Most Ladakhis are Buddhist, with smaller communities of Shia and Sunni Muslims in Leh and the valleys surrounding Zanskar and Kargil.
From November to May, Ladakh is almost completely cut off from the outside world. Even in summer, getting here involves crossing the highest mountain passes in the world, or a hair-raising flight that weaves between the peaks. Isolation has preserved an almost medieval way of life, dictated by the changing seasons. However, change is coming to this mountain Shangri La. Tourism and hydro-electric power are flooding the region with money, and global warming is altering rainfall patterns, threatening farming cycles and Ladakh’s traditional mud-brick architecture.