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Isolated and faraway Ladakh is no longer a final frontier

This week has been a bit crazy. There’s been a product launch in the BookBuzzr family. (Check out fReado to win books or even a Kindle while playing games) And we travelled Monday night to Kovilpatti. I’m skipping nostalgia this week for fresh experiences but I do have a guest – meet Santosh, an old friend and traveller who loves to explore the unknown and unseen.

The isolated and faraway Ladakh is no longer a final frontier for adventure travellers.

I remember when biker buddies Satya and Omi set out on a 45 day expedition from Bangalore to Leh in 1996(their second or third) – I went to the railway station to see them off. The sense of an adventure like that those days gave me goose bumps. It remained a dream in me until I set out to do the same in 2002. By then itself things had changed. Satya and Omi’s stories of riding out into the vast mountains, high roads and passes made no sense at all. There was black tarmac roads built, new passes were opened, signboards, guesthouses; home stays along the road, made this a very doable ride. One, no longer needed big bikes to conquer the road that was counted among the ‘Top 10 in the world’. Life had changed – there were more people riding/driving/flying into once forbidden land of Ladakh. But the sense of an adventure to Ladakh was still exotic when I made my first trip.

2010 – Today, I am sitting in Leh. I am annoyed at the way things have developed here. Facebook, Orkut, Mr. Aamir Khan and the various commercials, which includes a Maggi noodle ad in Ladakh, has changed the character of this faraway land. Four lane highways, a tunnel to tame the Rohtang pass, a proposed rail connection from Manali, road connections into Zanskar from all sides, will continue to make Leh, the Manali/Shimla of Ladakh. Hotels and guesthouses are built by the dozens every season, new restos crop up every season and newer businesses find their way into Leh – massage parlors, tattoo artists and many more.

Frooti tetrapacks are found in some of the remotest villages.

What remained a destination for the adventurous of travellers has been decimated to a destination for the package tourist – the kind who wants to carry their kitchen with them. Thanx to corporatized tour companies like Makemytrip. As I walked into my favorite guesthouse Oriental – I was surprised to see the change in genre of travellers. As I sat at the open area by the kitchen, I hear a tourist who yells out from the window of his room “areh there is no hot water in the room”. Staff replies “ it takes a while for the solar heater to warm up the water”. Our man says “then get me a bucket of hot water”. No thank you’s, no please’s in the whole conversation. Then another white shirt, Bermuda shorts clad tourist walks into the kitchen. Same question “hot water”. Followed by another who complains of not having EPABX (intercom) or he would have yelled from the intercom itself. What hell, I thought.

As I walk into the town – I was shocked to see the change in landscape of the town. New buildings, new shops, new restos, and many more new’s – I have not dared to walk back to town again. Leh has lost its charm.

There are other stories to be heard. Oriental owner rattles – it is difficult with all the high impact tourists coming this way. Leh runs on diesel generator power, the whole town I mean – all the geysers, lights, TV’s, water heaters, water pumps all of it. Some of them like Oriental have solar powered water heating systems and basic lighting running alternatively. The makemytrip types don’t see the point or value the scarcity of resources. They stand below hot showers emptying the overhead tanks, insist on keeping the generator ON all night, and turn a blind eye on conserving. I guess the problem is awareness.

Now there is a problem in a larger scale. So far Ladakh has been seeing independent travellers. These independent travellers have been scattering their monies into the many restos, guesthouses, taxis, and other local setups. There was a split and all involved locally were happy and earned their share. Then comes the corporate tour operators; charter flights arrive, hotels are mass booked with obscene discounts bringing in the ‘every minute packaged’ tourists. This ‘every minute packaged’ starts at the hotel and ends at the hotel. Every meal every snack is planned at the hotel. On local tours – packed food from the hotel is carried along. Instead of smaller vehicles big buses are used to ferry the packaged.

Now this is what might happen, serious travellers avoid the touristy places. We have seen what has become of the Ooty’s and the Manali’s of the world. So the smaller businesses who depend on tourism suffer cos the ‘every minute packaged’ cant afford to explore the offerings of the town. They are tied into their packages. The serious travellers who scattered their monies are no longer there. The taxis don’t have much business cos the ‘every minute packaged’ are ferried in big buses. Guesthouses, hotels, have to scale up to have TV, intercom, geysers, and god knows what to satisfy the high impact tourists, thereby they getting into a debt game. I have not even spoken about the trash and solid waste management.

Where does it stop or where does it begin?

When Ladakh opened to tourism – year 1974 – 500 travellers braved the journey to visit Ladakh. This season when the corporate tour operators floated their Ladakh packages – one single company got in 10000 tourists, they want to bring 50000 tourists next year. Where is it headed – no answer to the question, but we have seen what has happened to the popular hill stations of the India. Aren’t they in a mess?

Few tips to make ur trip in Ladakh low impact –

1. Pick a local Ladakhi operator or a conscious travel company
2. Make an effort to share ur money into local hands
3. Avoid an ‘every minute packaged’ tour. They are cheap but they don’t give a local experience, they just make the bigger hotels, operators and themselves richer and fleece the smaller fellows
4. Value and conserve the local resources – use buckets instead of showers – simple things like that
5. People in Ladakh are a wonderful lot – they are peaceful and welcoming – pls treat them well or we will loose the innocence of a breed of happy simple people
6. Pls don’t trash the place – avoid things like mineral water bottles. Carry ur own bottles which can be refilled at local places. There are spots in town where one can fill in filtered water. This is an effort to cut down trash by locals
7. Pls be more aware – I am sure u don’t want to be counted among the ‘every minute packaged’ tourists.


One doesn’t have to have a reason to travel – it’s as simple as getting out there to take it within! Propagating the same message for over a decade, Santosh has traversed turbulent rivers, worked with an NGO, built solar fences & initiated an outdoor gear store and meandered through most of India. For those who know him better, he’s just stirred something within them…
After leading inspiring ventures like
Getoffurass, Photographyonthemove & Getofftraveler, there’s only one nonchalant reaction from him- “It’s been an interesting journey so far”!

Photo Credit: Anukaran Singh

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