Known as Little Tibet, Ladakh is a bastion of Buddhist calm, located on the old Silk Route and home to remote villages that are just beginning to welcome tourists
I never thought I'd find a cow so funny. It wasn't a cow really but a zho, a Himalayan cow/yak hybrid, a vast thing with ludicrous shaggy hair, suspicious eyes and a penchant for walking around in slow circles like a meditative monk at a prayer wheel. It wasn't the beast's comical look or questionable occupation that did for me but its baritone bellowing call, like one of those joke shop mooing cow boxes.
This is one of the more enjoyable effects of altitude: the lack of oxygen can bring on fits of uncontrollable hysterics. On the downside, it can also give you a whacking headache and make you puff like an asthmatic down a coalmine (plus a number of other nasties that we won't go into here), so that's why the first thing most people see of Ladakh is their pillow.
No bad thing if your pillow happens to be positioned to take in a truly soul-stilling Himalayan vista. Under instructions to "do absolutely nothing" in order to acclimatize, I am barely vertical for the first 24 hours after our arrival from Delhi. From under the plush duvet, I am privy to a steady stream of guidebooks and hot ginger lemon tea and, between bouts of altitude-addled snoozing, scenes of pastoral perfection through the huge picture window. Low autumn sun casts the vast snowy peaks in a sharp, golden light, beneath which our host family brings in a field of wheat, singing a repetitive harvest chant that finally sends me off to sleep completely.
With some of the highest mountain passes in the word, Ladakh has traditionally tempted trekkers who want to avoid the more well-trodden paths of, say, the Nepalese Himalayas. But there's much more to Ladakh than ozone-scraping mountains. Once an independent Himalayan kingdom, this remote region still has its own monarch and a distinct culture that is shaped by an ancient Tibetan style of Tantric Buddhism. It may lie within the notorious Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, just a short journey from the long-contested Pakistan and China borders, but this region is a comparative island of calm.
Few travellers explore life beyond Leh, Ladakh's colourful capital. Serious trekkers head out of the Indus Valley up into the Himalayas' northernmost wilderness, and backpackers, who so far constitute the mainstay of tourism to Ladakh, constrained by a lack of infrastructure largely stick to Leh. But thanks to a new village home-stay concept from Shakti Tours, I was bedded down in Stok. Through Shakti, travellers can stay in traditional village houses, whose upper floors they have renovated to a very comfortable standard, and travel between villages on foot, by river or by 4WD.
The Shakti team travels with each group, offering guests a way to experience village life without skimping on certain "luxuries" like hot running water, feather duvets and superb (pan-Indian) food. The houses are beautiful, somewhere between a Swiss mountain chalet and a Tibetan retreat, with wood burning bukhari heaters and prayer flags strung across the roof terraces. After an epic sleep, I wake with dawn and shuffle outside, blanket-clad, to watch the rising sun turning the Indus river silver and the valley a rich green, while the house's matriarch lights juniper incense and sings her morning chants in the prayer room.
From dawn to dumplings
But our dawn prayers are to be taken elsewhere. High up on the roof of Thiksey, perhaps the grandest of Ladakh's many monasteries, we watch two young monks signal the start of the day from two conch shell horns. We scramble down to the temple below, where a 30-strong group of boys in saffron robes go through their morning rituals, which comprise hitting the ceremonial drums as hard as possible and each other with the prayer books. I guess it's one way to keep warm - the hall is freezing, even in mid summer. The giant golden Buddha statue looks on nonetheless beatifically.
At Taru, the daughter of our next host family shows us around a rather less grand school. A group of four children sit on the floor of a small one-storey brick hut, diligently studying from one exercise book despite the lively noise drifting in from outside as the villagers bring in the harvest of wheat.
On a canyon trek, high up above the village the following morning, far from fertile soil we spot a seven-strong herd of Tibetan antelope, hunted elsewhere in the Himalayas for its prized shahtoosh wool. The antelope share their harsh terrain with the even rarer snow leopard but you'd have to be blessed by Buddha himself to see one of these splendid creatures.
The deep gorges carved out by Ladakh's majestic Zanskar, Shyok and Indus rivers make not only a great habitat for reclusive mammals but an excellent place for hiking and whitewater rafting too. A trip on the Zanskar's bright turquoise waters brings us white sand beaches, cathedral-like rock faces and a still, meditative calm. Earlier on in the summer, with higher water levels, this trip is less of a float and more of an arm-wrenching paddle but I've still managed to work up an appetite for the picnic lunch of momos (Tibetan dumplings) that's waiting for us at an idyllic riverside camp.
Equally picture-perfect is the village of Chiling, centre for the intricately beaten metalwork that can be found in Ladakhi houses and across India. Tiny whitewash mud huts, with chimneys puffing fragrant smoke from rudimentary forgery fires, are lined cosily along the valley wall, Buddhist stupas dotted between them. Beyond, the great open expanse of dry open plateau is backed by mountains whose snowy summits you have to bend backwards to get a view of. To experience village life here, and throughout Ladakh, is wild, humbling and not a little inspirational. And, if you're lucky enough to get mildly addled by the altitude, populated by hilarious cows.
Village stays and excursions can be booked with Shakti Tours. Cazenove and Loyd provide packages (including Shakti experience) from the UK. Jet Airways flies to the region from the UK.