Another Shangri-La

On the Pony's Back
By Jacqueline Frank
  |  Gorp.com
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Prayer wheel in the Hemis Monastery
Prayer wheel in the Hemis Monastery.

Since the dawn of time, travel in Ladakh has been supported by horsemen. Travelers today do not have sherpas or porters to carry their gear, cook, and set up camp, as they do in Nepal. Instead, a Ladakhi trek "stands or falls" on its horses or, more typically, ponies, which can and do transport people as well.

One of the families I encountered was from southern France. When I met them, this foursome had been trekking for 13 days—mom, dad, and two daughters, ages 4 and 6. We rendezvoused in camp, where the girls were having a great time bathing in a stream, camping out in a large family tent, and helping the shyly playful guide prepare the evening meal. Both Emilie and Sarah had their own pony, with a horseman to lead them along the same trails their parents hiked. They were clearly having a wonderful time.

The next day we all trekked to the Hemis Festival, the largest summer celebration, named after the monastery where it is based. Our group (ages 4-62) ended up sitting together since we had used the same local outfitter to arrange our trek, and I noticed the youngest enjoyed the spectacle as much as the eldest. The two-day festival consisted of many dances by monks, all masked and in extraordinary costumes from skeletons to mythic beasts all moving to the music of horns, cymbals and drums. The complex dances reenacted scenes from the life of Padmasambhava, the patron saint of Tibetan Buddhism, and though they went on for many hours, the courtyard we sat in remained full of Ladakhis in traditional clothing and headgear and, of course, many tourists with cameras. Outside the monastery, a full bazaar had been erected for the festival Hindi movie music blaring, restaurants, a gambling corner, booths selling jewelry, clothing, music tapes a bustling beehive of activity day and night and a great place to spend your allowance!

On the second trekking route I took, I met another traveling family Grete, a single mom, and her 8-year-old son, Hans. Grete confided in me that Hans hated hiking back home in Austria, so she had arranged a pony for him so they could trek to villages together. To her great surprise, he preferred to walk, while she rode! I liked Hans, and helped him one night by translating his German so could talk with some Indian Air Force pilots who were sharing our camp site. It turned out the young man was an avid aviation fan, and he excitedly brought out a deck of cards decorated with aircraft photos, then asked the pilots which jets and helicopters they flew.

As elsewhere in northern India, Ladakh also offers white water rafting and jeep safari adventures, though there are age requirements for some activities. So if you've been postponing a trek until the kids grow up, wait no longer. Ladakh Shangri-La to one generation and the land of My Little Pony to another is the right adventure destination for you.


Jacqueline Frank is a documentary filmmaker and avid sportswoman living in London.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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