Practical guidebooks for the more adventurous traveller.
 — The Herald

Trekking in Ladakh

Trekking in Ladakh

Minimum impact trekking

Contents list | Introduction | Planning your trek | Sample route guide - Markha Valley trek | Minimum impact trekking

'If a valley is reached by a high pass only the best of friends and worst of enemies are its visitors.' – Tibetan proverb

Ladakh's unique culture and amazing natural environment have drawn travellers to this remote region for centuries. Despite the harsh climatic conditions, the people have created a prosperous and harmonious way of life that reflects the Buddhist principle of the interdependence of all things. Not only do the Ladakhis demonstrate respect for one another, as demonstrated by the stability and fairness inherent in family and community relations, but also for the natural environment, something that many in the ‘modernized’ West are now trying to rediscover.

However, the last 50 years of being part of India, and in particular the last 20 or so years of having foreign tourists, has had more effect on Ladakh's culture, environment and economy than several centuries of foreign merchants and traders. The changes have been most apparent in and around Leh, where there has been a steady erosion of the traditional values in favour of Western-style materialism and an increase in environmental problems. But the effects have also been felt in the remote mountains. Short-sighted development policies of the 1950s and ‘60s helped to create the notion that the Ladakhis were a backward and primitive people and that the only way to modernize was to follow the Western model of economic and technological growth. This is reinforced by cinema, television and advertising which portrays a biased picture of the West with all its glamour and wealth, while nothing even approximate to the Ladakhi way of life is ever shown, making them seem absurd. Then the arrival of foreign tourists further propagated the myth that West is best. Here are people who seem to have almost limitless amounts of money, who can travel whenever and wherever they like and who never seem to work. It is not surprising that impressionable teenagers are influenced by this alluring new culture.

At the same time, however, tourism has been having a beneficial effect. Foreign visitors who show respect for Ladakh and are impressed by the resourceful culture help to create a strong feeling of identity and strengthen local pride in the face of so much derision. With increased inter-cultural understanding the real truth about the Western lifestyle starts to filter through: in tandem with the seeming benefits of modernization go huge environmental, social and emotional problems.

Ladakh is now part of the ‘developing’ world. The process of change has permeated too far into Ladakhi society for this not to be so, and no matter how attractive a traditional rural society like Ladakh may seem, it is wrong and extremely damaging to make the land into some kind of museum. The Ladakhis have a choice over how their region develops and Western tourists must be aware that they play an important role in determining what this future will be.

If we travel seeking only to be thrilled and entertained, removed from our mundane lives for just a few weeks as if in some kind of fantasy, we will experience little and do much harm. If, on the other hand, we travel with respect and openness, desiring to learn, adapt and share at every opportunity, not only will we travel lightly but we will return home so much richer, with understanding of a way of life that has many lessons for the Western world.

Here then are some practical steps to help us develop in a positive direction:


Interacting with Ladakhis
It is inevitable that you'll leave some impression of your culture by visiting Ladakh; instead of just consuming the country like another product, try to give something back. Tourists are in a powerful position to present a more balanced picture of life in the West and you are the ones who should actively speak out when you see something being done for the benefit of tourists which is obviously harmful or degrading to the local environment or culture. However, unless you make an effort to communicate, all that the Ladakhis will see is yet another rich tourist on holiday – probably an inaccurate picture of someone not particularly well off by Western standards, who has worked extremely hard to pay for a trip out to Ladakh and who cares for and admires the country and its people.

You will get the most out of your visit if you travel in small groups, allow lots of time to learn and try to be constantly aware. Although many Ladakhis speak good English, do try to learn a few words of Ladakhi as this will be greatly appreciated and will underline the importance of their language.

When telling somebody about your home country talk about the problems as well as the good things. The Ladakhis get a rose-tinted image of the West through the media so it is important to put across a balanced view of what life is really like in a ‘developed’ country. Most Ladakhis have no idea about the environmental and social costs of living in the West, and the extent of poverty, homelessness, alienation and mental illness. Things that Ladakhis take for granted, Westerners will actively seek out and pay more for, such as local, organic food and methods of natural health care. Unlike Ladakhis, few Westerners are privileged enough to own their own land and even fewer produce their own food; we don't even know how to. If you are asked how much you earn, put it in context by explaining that almost half of your income goes on paying for somewhere to live, say how much a week's supply of groceries will cost or how much it would cost to travel a short distance on a local bus.

Interaction with Ladakhis should be a two-way process. There is much they can teach the West about community, self-reliance and living simpler, less intrusive and more compassionate lives. A holiday is a perfect excuse for learning.

Encourage local pride
Express an interest in all things Ladakhi and explain why you've come all this way and spent all that money to come to their country. Try to eat local food, adapt to local practices and use local services so that you can experience the culture at firsthand. Make a point of letting the people know what you like about it: if you have chosen your guest-house because it has a Ladakhi toilet or solar-heated water, tell the owners.

Dress and behave modestly
Too many trekkers unwittingly insult the Ladakhis by the way they are dressed, although complaints are never heard because they are too polite. it's very easy to respect local customs by not revealing your legs, shoulders, stomachs or backs. Men should always wear a shirt and trousers; shorts are not appreciated. Women should wear loose trousers or skirts below the knee and tops that cover their shoulders, stomach and back. Bright colours and body-revealing lycra are offensive to Ladakhis. If you see someone dressed inappropriately, please bring it to their attention. Never bathe in the nude; men should wear shorts and women should be more discreet and always wear at least shorts and t-shirt.

Respect local etiquette
Ladakhis have different ways of doing things and by following these simple guidelines you will avoid causing offence. The most useful word to learn is Ju-le which can be used at any time of the day to greet people, say goodbye or to thank someone. As you trek through villages you will be greeted by everyone in this manner and it is polite to do likewise.

When offered something it is polite to give a couple of insincere refusals before accepting. Use both hands to receive things. If you really don't want something you may have to say ‘no’ three or more times. If you are pointing at something use your whole hand rather than just your finger. The feet are considered unclean, so don't point them at people or step over anything such as people, food, tables or religious articles. Similarly, if you have your legs outstretched Ladakhis will be loath to step over them, so move them out of the way or, preferably, keep them folded under you if you're seated on the floor. Religious objects, including anything that contains pictures of religious objects (postcards or books), should be kept high off the floor.

In most rooms there is a subtle seating arrangement with the place of honour usually furthest from the door and close to the stove. You may be encouraged to sit at or near the seat of honour but it is polite to sit a little further down.

When in public do not display your affection for others by holding hands, hugging or kissing. This can easily offend or embarrass Ladakhis. don't share utensils when eating or drinking or dip your used ones into the serving dish. If sharing a water bottle, learn how to drink without your lips touching it.

Respect religious customs
When visiting monasteries it is particularly important that you wear appropriate clothes, take off your shoes or boots before entering the temple, don't smoke, don't touch any religious objects and always remember to give a small donation. The larger monasteries now charge an entrance fee to make sure you don't forget. If you want to photograph the frescoes inside monasteries, bring a tripod or some fast film; don't use a flash as this can damage the paintwork.

Religious festivals are sacred occasions and you will upset many local people if you wander around taking photographs while the dances are going on. Recently, masked dances have been performed outside monasteries as a tourist attraction, especially during the Ladakh Festival. This is considered deeply sacrilegious and you should express your disapproval by not supporting such an exploitation of religion and by complaining to the relevant organizers.

Always walk to the left of Buddhist monuments (chortens, mani walls, prayer wheels) by keeping them on your right. Prayer wheels should be turned in a clockwise direction. don't sit or leave your pack on mani walls or chortens and never move mani stones.

Respect people's privacy
Ladakhis get just as annoyed by people peering into their lives as you do. Always put yourself in their position, especially before taking someone's photograph. It is a common courtesy to ask for permission before taking a shot and if they don't want their photo taken please respect this. don't pay people for posing for you. It is much better to take down their address and send them a copy instead. Pony-men, and others that you spend some time with, may also ask you to send them copies of the photos you've taken of them. It is a cardinal sin not to follow this obligation through; it costs you very little and means a great deal to those at the receiving end.

Be modest with your wealth
However poor you think you are at home, by Ladakhi standards you are very wealthy. don't flaunt this wealth by showing off your hi-tech equipment. Leaving it lying around unattended is further proof that you could easily afford to replace it.

Discourage begging
Begging in Ladakh started as a children’s game to see if they could get a ‘bon-bon’ or ‘school pen’ from the always obliging tourists. However, it has developed into a far more serious problem by fostering an attitude of dependency among the young. don't give anything to people who ask for it; after all, giving sweets to children in a country which has few dentists is not an act of charity. If you want to give money it's best to ask the advice of one of the excellent NGOs working in Ladakh (see p133) as to whom it should be given.

don't play doctor
While trekking you may occasionally be asked by locals for medicines or to treat wounds. Unless it is simply a case of cleaning a cut and applying a plaster you should encourage them to go to the nearest health post. There is usually one in larger villages. If you try to treat something more complicated and your efforts do not work, you may begin to undermine the people's faith in Western medicine. This will encourage them to patronize the local shaman rather than the health post.

Keep your sense of humour
It is considered the height of bad manners to lose your temper, and something you will almost never see a Ladakhi do. Although things can sometimes be very difficult, always try to maintain some perspective on the situation. You are not at home but in a land where things are done differently and where concepts of time are simply different from your own. See the funny side of your predicament; there will always be one.


Litter is a very recent problem in Ladakh. It is only since the arrival of non-biodegradable consumer items from India and the rest of the world that the concept of litter has begun to take hold. Before, everything was made from biodegradable materials or continuously recycled; there was no waste. Today, however, it is a serious problem both in Leh and on the major trekking routes. In the latter case it is only the trekkers who are to blame as most locals cannot afford the luxury of consumer products. Streamers of used lavatory paper and piles of tin cans, plastic bags and containers at every campsite are a sad reflection on people who would undoubtedly call themselves mountain lovers. The solution is simple and summed up in the often used phrase, ‘pack it in, pack it out’. If consumer products are brought into the mountains by you, or for you (via a shop/hotel or by your trekking company), it is your responsibility to take any resulting litter back out with you.

The problem in Leh is immediately obvious to the visitor who can't avoid the litter that lies in the streets, but unfortunately there is no easy solution. Leh has no proper infrastructure to cope with litter. While there are litter bins situated around the town which many tourists diligently use, there are few appropriate places for its disposal after that. The facilities that are available are hopelessly inadequate as litter left in heaps is soon scattered far and wide by scavenging dogs and the wind, while the incinerators pump toxic fumes into the atmosphere. Steps are being taken to improve the situation, one of the most effective being the banning of polythene bags from the town. Goods are now sold in paper bags rather than plastic and this has already had a noticeable effect on the cleanliness of Leh.

don't leave litter
When trekking it is a simple matter to bring along an extra bag in which to put all non-organic litter. This applies equally to those trekking with ponies and to those backpacking. You can significantly cut down the amount of potential waste you bring into the mountains by repacking items to avoid unnecessary packaging. Picking up other people's litter is very helpful and sets a good example to others. Burning litter is frequently claimed to solve the problem, but many items do not burn properly and the fire leaves unsightly scars on the ground. It is far better to get into the habit of taking all non-organic waste out with you. If you are trekking with an organized group it is your responsibility to ensure that the crew dispose of the litter properly and that it isn't simply buried or left. don't just imagine that waste will biodegrade; although most organic material will break down quite quickly, other biodegradable waste can take years to break down in this cold, dry climate. Also, don't assume that you can leave litter in villages; while much of it may be recycled they don't have any facilities to deal with the rest.

Having advocated bringing all your litter back to Leh, you then have to decide what to do with it there. However, it is far better to have it concentrated in one place where there is a chance that it will be dealt with properly than left in the mountains where it will remain for generations to come. More pressure is coming to bear on Leh's authorities and it is likely that proper litter disposal systems will be introduced soon. In the meantime all you can do is try to keep your consumption of packaged goods to a minimum, reuse as much as possible and dispose of any litter in the bins provided.

Burn used lavatory paper
On the trail, if you can't get used to the water-and-left-hand method make sure you burn all the loo paper that you use. Keep a lighter or some matches in the same plastic bag as the loo paper specifically for this purpose. Used loo paper burns easily and there is no excuse for the ‘pink flowers’ of paper that decorate the trails. Not only is it unsightly but unhygienic as well, especially when it's blown around campsites and into water sources.

Pack out used tampons/sanitary towels
Tampons/sanitary towels should be packed out as they are almost impossible to burn completely at high altitude. Condoms should also be disposed of in this way.

Avoid bottled mineral water
Mineral water is sold widely in India and Ladakh in non-returnable, non-biodegradable plastic bottles. As there are several other ways to make ordinary tap water safe to drink (see p272), it is unnecessary to add to the litter problem by buying mineral water. If you treat the water yourself you not only save money (Rs20-30 a litre), but you can be absolutely sure that the water you are drinking is safe (the seals on plastic bottles are not 100% tamper-proof). A forward-thinking business in Leh, called Dzomsa, sells safe pressure-boiled water for Rs7 per litre directly into your water bottle, or in re-used bottles.

Dispose of used batteries outside India
Most places in India have no safe means of disposing of batteries, the contents of which are highly toxic. Discarded batteries end up polluting the soil and water, or even as children's playthings. Pack batteries out for disposal in the West.

don't pollute water sources
If you are bathing, washing clothes or washing up in a stream, make sure you do so downstream of any houses. If you want to use soap or shampoo (is it really necessary in the mountains?), fill a container (collapsible buckets available in outdoor shops are ideal) and wash away from the stream, pouring the waste water onto the ground far away from the water source. The need to wash clothes with soap can be minimized by rinsing them in a stream daily. The hot sun will make sure that they dry rapidly, but modern synthetic fibres can quite comfortably be wrung out and worn damp if it's not too cold. There is never any need to use soap or washing-up liquid for cleaning pots and pans, as a good wire scrubber, or failing that, a handful of small pebbles, will get any pan sparkling in no time.

Defecating in the mountains is an art, one that is well worth getting good at for your sake and everyone else's. Not only is faeces unpleasant to our senses but more importantly, faecal contamination is one of the main ways of spreading disease. Faecal matter takes at least one year to disappear in good conditions (ie damp soil with active organic material in a temperate climate) but these good conditions are rarely found in Ladakh's mountains – evidence of your passing will be around for some time.

First you need to find a good site, far enough away from water sources to stop faeces being washed into the water by surface run-off caused by rain or snow-melt; this usually means at least 50m/150ft. It also needs to be above any area that is likely to receive flooding, so that secluded dry river-bed is no good! Head for high ground. Dig a small hole with the heel of your boot or a convenient stone; 15-20cm (six to eight inches) is ideal as this is the most active part of the soil. Afterwards, cover in the hole and if possible mix some of the soil in with the faeces to speed decomposition. don't forget to burn your loo paper – see it as your homage to the mountain gods! This whole rigmarole is made considerably easier on some of the popular treks where the villagers have built traditional composting toilets specifically for the hundreds of trekkers passing through each year – please use them.

For more information on this lost art, get hold of Kathleen Meyer's How to Shit in the Woods which explains some lesser-known techniques which are particularly applicable to Ladakh. ‘Frosting a rock’ for instance, is suitable for rarely visited regions of Ladakh where spreading your faeces thinly onto a rock to bake in the intense sun and blow away on the wind is far more efficient and hygienic than burying it where there is little or no active soil. Another method which is particularly pertinent to large groups and high-use areas is ‘packing it out�’

Ladakhi loos
Ladakh's traditional composting toilets are ideally suited to the environment and their use should be encouraged. No water is used (or wasted), the smell is negligible because of the dry climate and the end product is one of the best fertilizers around for organic agriculture. In rural areas the process saves animal faeces which, when dry, can be used more efficiently for fuel, essential in a region with hardly any wood. When using a Ladakhi toilet, usually situated upstairs and on the north side of a Ladakhi house, don't use water and remember to shovel down some earth or ash (there's normally a pile in a corner) when you've finished; this stops the smell and discourages flies. don't throw tampons, sanitary towels, condoms etc down the hole.

Unfortunately, many guest-houses in Leh are being encouraged by government incentives to introduce flush toilets purely to please visitors. These are having disastrous effects on the local environment. First, they are using up extremely valuable fresh-water supplies and second, Leh has no sewage system to deal with the waste that is produced. Instead, the groundwater supplies and the streams are becoming heavily contaminated because of poorly constructed and poorly maintained drains and septic tanks. Even if sewage-treatment works could be built and there was enough water, polluting chemicals would have to be introduced into the systems and the lavatories would still be useless in winter when they freeze over. Various local organizations have tried to make guest-house owners aware of the problem but have met with little success because the owners believe that Western loos are essential to attract guests. Therefore, it is up to travellers to make them aware that you would prefer traditional toilets rather than Western-style ones. If your guest-house has a choice between a flush system and a dry toilet, please use the latter. After all, most trekkers are quite happy without flush toilets in the mountains and surely you didn't come to Ladakh to be comforted by Western ‘luxuries�.

Erosion and vegetation depletion
The lack of vegetation, the gradual growth of the Himalaya by several millimetres per year, the searing heat of summer and freezing conditions of winter all combine to give the mountains of Ladakh a high rate of denudation. Although your actions may seem minuscule in comparison to these natural processes, when they are multiplied by several thousand trekkers each year they become rather more significant.

Stay on the main trail
Avoid taking shortcuts on steep sections of trail: your footsteps will be followed by others. If you happen to damage walls or irrigation channels make sure you repair them as someone's livelihood may be at stake.

Travel light
By travelling light you can use fewer pack animals which minimizes the amount of erosion you cause and reduces the grazing on valuable mountain pastures. All villages have rights over designated pastures and the use of that land by others is not allowed. An exception has traditionally been made for travellers. Unfortunately, this generosity has been abused in the popular trekking areas by unnecessarily large trekking groups whose horses put too much pressure on this scant resource.

don't damage plants
Leave plants alone so they can be enjoyed by others. You won't get through Customs with a rare Himalayan specimen so don't try. Take care where you tread so that you don't disrupt fragile ecosystems.

don't light open fires
Wood is a scarce resource so don't use any for making fires. You should always bring a stove and enough kerosene to cook on and remember that a camp-fire is a selfish luxury. Fires create ugly scars on the ground that take years to fade away. While locals may well use animal-dung fires to cook on, trekkers should not copy them as the fuel is a valuable resource for other travellers and villagers.

No hot running water please!
Many of Leh's guest-houses now have hot running water. A few heat the water by solar panels and this should be encouraged, but most use highly inefficient wood-fuelled boilers. Very little of this wood comes from Ladakh but is instead transported at great environmental and financial cost from mostly unsustainable forests in Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. The cheaper guest-houses take a far more environmentally-friendly approach by heating one bucket of water at a time, usually when the stove is being used for cooking anyway. A bucketful of water is ample for a good wash.


There is no doubt that tourism is an important force in the economy of Ladakh. This is particularly valuable now that the traditional trade routes which previously provided Ladakh with a stable economic base have closed. Although tourists may spend a large amount of money in Ladakh, much of that goes straight into the pockets of non-Ladakhis only to be taken out of the region at the end of the tourist season. Thus the Ladakhis have to put up with the cultural and environmental problems that tourism brings without benefiting as much as they could from the profits.

Check out your trekking company
If you book an organized trek in your home country a proportion of what you pay stays in the West to cover the company's administrative costs. Try to find out how your company spends its money in Ladakh. Does it use local services, buy locally produced food and goods, or employ local staff? Some companies bring Nepalese staff over, as Ladakh's peak season coincides with Nepal's off season. If you use an agency in Leh, is the company run by Ladakhis or employing Ladakhi staff? If you trek independently you will contribute more to the local economy. For this reason you should try to find a pony-man close to the start of your trek so that the money directly benefits the local community.

Use local services
Be choosy about how and where you spend your money. Hotels, guest-houses, restaurants, souvenir shops and trekking agencies are increasingly being run by outsiders. This means that all the profits that they make with your money disappear with them, back to Delhi and Kashmir at the end of September. One estimate was that only 10% of souvenir shops in Leh were run by Ladakhis. You should use local services to boost the local economy; you'll benefit as much as the Ladakhis.

Trying out Ladakhi-run accommodation will soon prove to you that their guest-houses give far better value and are much more interesting than the overpriced and uniform establishments that are part of national and international chains. They may have all mod cons but are you seeking a home from home? If so, why travel?

Buy local products
Handicrafts have always been important in a region that has traditionally provided for its own basic needs. However, the souvenir shops of Leh are flooded with goods imported from the rest of India and sold at a higher price than in Delhi.

The potential for Ladakhi crafts is slowly being realized, especially as their manufacture can provide villagers with a supplementary income during the six to eight winter months when there is little agricultural work. This, therefore, diversifies and strengthens the rural economy. Ask for Ladakhi handicrafts and try to find out where they were made. Some of the state-run handicraft centres merely compound the problem by encouraging people (mainly women) away from the farms to work in small-scale craft factories rather than their homes, thus further undermining the traditional agricultural economy.

It is illegal to buy any object that is more than 100 years old. Abiding by the law is not enough: don't buy anything which is obviously robbing Ladakh of its cultural heritage, such as old thankas, statues and other religious objects, or even personal jewellery and old traditional tools.

When buying supplies for a trek, make the most of locally produced food such as the organic vegetables sold along the Main Bazaar, or dried apricots and roasted barley. When eating in restaurants and hotels try to support the local economy by asking for traditional Ladakhi food.

Pay the right price
Try to get an informed idea of how much things are worth. Guest-house owners, staff at the tourist information and other travellers can all be helpful. If you pay too much you will encourage inflation but by not paying enough you will deprive people of their rightful earnings. If you would like to give money in return for staying in a local home, Rs100-150 would be an appropriate amount for food and accommodation. Your hosts may be shy about accepting it, so employ the local way of offering gifts which is to place it in an envelope on a table in the kitchen in their sight.

Alternative economies
It is not always appropriate to bless people with your money as it can enforce the idea of a monetary economy in an area where more appropriate economic systems are operating. Particularly in remote rural areas, giving money in exchange for food or accommodation may not be accepted, in which case you should always have some useful gifts (such as tea, penknives, lighters, scarves for the women, balloons for the children, writing and drawing materials) which can be given instead.

Trekking in Ladakh