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Next stop for the adventurous traveler? It may be Ladakh.

"Little Tibet" is what guidebooks call Ladakh, an ancient mountain kingdom in northernmost India's Jammu and Kashmir state. It's an apt nickname: this cor

. ner of the Tibetan Plateau is sparsely populated with a friendly, peaceful people whose life is largely shaped by Tibetan Buddhism.

But Ladakh is also unique unto itself, a long-isolated culture only recently opened to visitors. The main city, Leh, is barely 50 miles from India's cease-fire line with China, and tourists weren't allowed here until 1974. Last year, about 25,000 outsiders visited Ladakh, most of them European but an increasing number American. It's not an easy place to visit. Flights in and out of Leh are often cancelled; the narrow 270-mile road from Srinagar to Leh takes two days to travel. And the high attitude (nearly 12,000 feet at Leh) can cause real discomfort, especially at first. A Ladakhi sojourn is not for everyone.

Who is it for? Adventurous souls, anyone with a love of mountains and desert, those intrigued by Eastern religion.

Arid mountains, terraced fields, monastery festivals

The contrast between Ladakh and the rest of India is startling. Arid, rocky mountains of rose, ocher, and slate blue rise steeply above Ladakh's narrow green valleys. With little or no annual rainfall, vegetation concentrates itself along the Indus River and its tributaries.

Terraced fields of barley and wheat form a delicate patchwork, with slender seams of willows and poplars. Outside the villagers' brightly whitewashed two-story mud houses, black yaks graze placidly. Ladakhis wearing their regal-looking traditional dress or worn Western clothing smile from sun-baked faces and-asking nothing in return-grect passersby.

Along the rivers, dozens of ancient monasteries teeter on knolls or latch to high rock walls. A visit at prayer time is an otherworldly experience: inside the dark, scented prayer hall, monks chant mantras in a strange drone, punctuated by the wailing of horns and clashing of cymbals.

Many monastery festivals once held in winter are now set for the summer tourist season. A two-day festival at Hemis Gompa (usually in late June) is the best known; tourists from around the world come to watch lamas perform ritualized dances to mesmerizing music.

The monks have begun to charge admission (around $1) to help pay for the upkeep of their 300- to 500-year-old structures. To truly appreciate the monasteries' peaceful atmosphere, fine paintings, gilded statues, and glorious rooftop views, visit before or after festival time.

Getting to Ladakh: adventure in itself

Though it's sunny nearly every day, winter here is brutally cold; snow closes the road to Leh November through May, and air travel becomes very chancy. Most tourists come June through mid-October; warmest weather is in July and August.

From low-level Delhi, most Leh-bound air travelers head first to Srinagar (5,800 feet) to acclimate there for a few days, then take a spectacular flight over the Himalayas to Leh. Even in summer, takeoffs and landings at Leh's airport (among the world's highest) require optimal weather; incoming flights may not be able to land, and many flights leave Leh only half-loaded so the jet can rise quickly enough from the narrow valley.

Other visitors take the sometimes hairraising two-day bus or jeep trip from Srinagar, stopping overnight in Kargil. Though grueling, the slow ascent by road does help acclimate you.

Most tourists set themselves up in Leh, a town of 20,000 with many new A-class hotels-meaning a clean bed, a private bath (with occasional hot water), and a reliable restaurant. Still, no rooms have heat, and electricity is fickle: bring warm clothes and a flashlight.

From here, buses serve virtually every town accessible by road; they're usually crowded and may make only one trip a day (necessitating an overnight stay). Taxis are also available.

English is widely spoken in Leh, but in villages you may have to rely on smiles and sign language. If you learn one word of Ladakhi, it should be jullay, a greeting covering hello, good-by, thank you.

Off on a trek

Trekking in Ladakh takes planning. For help, stop at the new Tourist Reception Centre, between the airport and town. You can hire porters and pony handlers in Leh, and as of late there are limited rentals of clothing and equipment.

You also must carry all your own food, as farmers along the way grow only enough for themselves. The terrain is rugged, and the altitude will definitely slow you down. Yet trekkers report being awed by the pristine mountain landscape and the remote villages accessible only by foot. One veteran trekker's most vivid memory of Ladakh was of canyons filled with blooming wild roses in July.

Like to go? Consider joining a group As Ladakh becomes better known, more travelers are including a few days in Leh on swings through northern India and Nepal. But for trekkers, logistical hassles and the potential danger posed by high elevation warrant going with a group.

Adventure travel companies offering treks or trekking-sightseeing trips include Lute Jerstad Adventures International, (503) 244-6075; Mountain Travel, (800) 227-2384; and Sobek, (209) 736-4524. Land costs run about $80 to $110 a day. Best guide is Kashmir, Ladakh, and Zanskar-A Travel Survival Kit, by Margaret and Rolf Schettler (Lonely Planet Publications, Berkeley, 1984; $7.95). From the same publisher, Trekking in the Indian Himalaya, by Gary Weare (1986; $7.95), has more help for hikers.
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Title Annotation:Ladakh, India
Date:Oct 1, 1988
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