With its many spiritual sites, kind and open-hearted people, and breathtaking scenery (quite literally, as it is situated at 11,500 feet), Ladakh is a must-see destination. Bordered by the Himalayas and with the Indus River flowing through it, Ladakh’s otherwise-arid, earth-toned, and rugged landscape is peppered by monasteries and white, dome-shaped structures called stupas, containing Buddhist relics. Lush, green trees and fields, expertly irrigated by the Ladakhi people with water from glacial streams, mark human settlements. Tibetan prayer flags hang off bridges, courtyards and fences, fluttering in the wind.
Bothell resident and founder of KAPR + Social Media + Storytelling Kirsten Andresen visited one of the least-populated, yet most beautiful regions in India: Ladakh (“The Land of High Passes”). Affectionately referred to as “Little Tibet,” Ladakh is the largest province in Northern India and a spiritual center of Tibetan Buddhism. “No matter how far away from home you travel, no matter the language barriers, different cultural customs, or spiritual beliefs, we are all connected as one human family.”
What sent you on this adventure?
My journey to Ladakh began on an auspicious evening in April 2017 at a friend’s home in Bellevue. Jennifer Spatz, founder of Global Family Travels, had invited me to hear Tibetan Buddhist monk Most Venerable Khensur Rinpoche Lobzang Tsetan speak about his life and work in Ladakh. In 1995, he founded a charitable school in his native Stok Village called The Siddhartha School, seeking to preserve Tibetan Buddhist culture and language, while giving the children of this remote Himalayan region a well-rounded education. Before the night was over, I was sponsoring a child at the school. The week after that, I signed up for Global Family Travels’ group trip to Ladakh in July 2018. GFT’s motto is “Learn. Serve. Immerse. with a goal of fostering authentic connections with the people and places they visit.”
How did you get there?
We flew on Emirates Airlines from Sea-Tac to Delhi by way of Dubai. After spending a few days in Delhi and a short excursion to Agra to tour the Taj Majal and to dine at Sheroes Café, we made our way to Ladakh via regional airline Go Air. As a Ladakhi saying goes: “The land is so barren and the passes so high that only our fiercest enemies or our best friends would want to visit us.” It was quite a haul, but absolutely worth it!
Where did you stay?
We stayed at the new Golden Retreat Stok, and our group was honored to be its very first guests. A perfect mix of traditional Ladakhi and contemporary architectural styles, it features 12 beautifully appointed cottages, some nestled among poplar and willow trees, along with a rooftop yoga and meditation room. The hotel is within walking distance of Stok Buddha, a 71-foot-tall statue built with the help of thousands of local volunteers, serenely overlooking the valley. We also did a two-night homestay, common for seasonal trekkers and anyone interested in experiencing authentic Ladakhi family life.
What was most surprising about this adventure?
How much fun I had at my homestay! I shared the experience with two fellow travelers from Colorado at T. Lhamo Homestay in Stok Village, operated by the mother of the family, Tsering Lamo. Her teenage son Stanzin Largyal and his cousin Tsewang Gyatso greeted us enthusiastically, and we were soon playing catch with an American football we had brought. We were also very lucky to have a translator in their cousin Tundup Yangzes, who spoke perfect English. The stars of the home were the grandmother (abi) and grandfather (mei mei), always dressed in their traditional Ladakhi garments. From my room overlooking the courtyard, I could hear abi and mei mei chat with each other as they conducted chores each morning. From feeding the cows to tending to the fields, both are still very strong and active well into their 80s. I learned that abi rode from Matho Village to meet and marry mei mei, sight unseen. They’ve been married for 63 years.
If other Eastsiders go, what should they absolutely fit into their itinerary?
In addition to visiting Buddhist monasteries Hemis Monastery and Thiksey Gompa, touring Leh Palace and its replica Stok Palace, if you have time, conduct a guided tour over “The World’s Highest Motorable Pass,” Khardung La (at 17,582 feet!), which leads into the magnificent Nubra Valley. Visit Diskit Monastery at its 105-foot Buddha statue on the way, enjoy a camel ride in the valley, and stay at one of its chic, eco resorts.
What was the highlight of your trip?
There were many. Spending time at The Siddhartha School was definitely one. We attended their morning assembly, witnessed the official dedication of new dormitories, and I was lucky enough to get to meet the boy I sponsor. It was a very special moment that I will cherish forever. Our group also spent an afternoon at the Ngari Institute, a local orphanage run by Geshe Tsewang Dorje. As a group, we donated books and toys and played frisbee and soccer with the children for the afternoon.
What did you learn on your travels about yourself or the people you met?
That no matter how far away from home you travel, no matter the language barriers, different cultural customs, or spiritual beliefs, we are all connected as one human family.
What should we know if you go?
The magical word, Jullay! Similar to the Hawaiian word Aloha, Jullay has many meanings in Ladakhi, including hello, goodbye, thank you. Jullay’s magic is most notable, because it simply cannot be uttered without a smile. As a tourist, Jullay is the ultimate ice-breaker, a sign of respect. Months later, this word still rings in my ear, and I can’t help but smile with a warm heart.