Sitting there on the balcony of our guesthouse that first day in Leh it seemed absurd to think that it had even been a question. Should we go to Ladakh this late in the year? We'd arrived in LehLadakh's capital citythat morning. The awesome mountains towered above the 11,500-foot high valley up on the Tibetan plateau. It was Novemberthe air was cold but the sun's rays were strong. In the shade we'd put on most all the clothes we had but here on the balcony of our guesthousein the sunI was in a t-shirt and barefoot.
An earlier question we'd had regarding Ladakh was whether we would reach northern India early enough in the season to be able to travel to Leh by road. The Manali-Leh road, opened in 1989, winds its way up and over four major passes. The highest at 17,500 feet makes this the second highest motorable road in the world. We generally prefer to travel by land to avoid the Star Trek feeling of being beamed into a place.
Checking what information we could before reaching India gave and every indication was that we would be arriving too late in the season. The road usually closes by mid-October. A few days after arriving in India this was confirmed. We were staying in the Tibetan town of McLeod Ganj just up the mountain from Dharamsala in the foothills of the Himalaya. McLeod Ganj is the home of the Dalai Lama and of the Tibetan Government in Exile.
Our first morning in McLeod Ganj we inquired at one of the many agents who book bus tickets for travel to Manali and on to Leh. The guy there spoke perfect English and seemed quite confident, "Nope, the road is closed. No buses." This guy was in the tourist business, presumably dealing exclusively with private bus companiesI pressed him. Nothing at all? No government buses? He was sure.
The question now became whether we should go to Ladakh at all. Ladakh, I knew from a previous visit, is a magical land of snow-capped mountains, Buddhist monasteries and rugged terrain. The Ladakhi people are closely related to the Tibetans and practice Tibetan Buddhism. In Ladakh, we'd find a world closer to pre-1950 Tibet than we could expect to encounter in Tibet itself.
Flying was an option. Although flights from Delhi to Leh are fully generally booked solid far in advance (even at this time of year), we could fly from Chandigarh a day's bus ride away to the south. In fact, we'd already made a booking on the weekly flight six days hence. This had been our fall back.
We decided we'd go. So what if we were a bit cold. So what if most of the places to stay shut down in winterwe'd find something. If the flight was canceled due to inclement weatheras is often the case, we were told repeatedlythen well, we'd figure that one out when the time came.
Looking for assurances that our decision was the right one, the next time we were online, Evelyn posted to Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree. "How smart is it to go to Ladakh in November?" One of the responses appearing later was from an overseas tour operator with a specialty in Ladakh. The guy had been to India's northern regions many times and was overflowing with encouragement for us, "Yes, yes goit's a great time of year! Cold, but few other travelers will be there." This, of course, fueled our enthusiasm.
But then another twist. We heard that the Dalai Lama was due back from a trip abroad and would be holding a public audience within a few days. Would we be able to stay for this and still make the flight from Chandigarh on Wednesday? Not likely. Should we delay the trip to Ladakh by another weekthus pushing it further into winter? No. We would have to decide between the two.
So what exactly is a "public audience"? We realized we didn't know. We were assuming there'd be some sort of teaching but when we inquired further it sounded more like a receiving line. It would be an honor and a thrill to participate in such an audience but this was not enough of a draw to risk foregoing a visit to Ladakh. We purchased our air tickets.