Ladakh: The World’s Coldest Desert


Ladakh is a high plateau located in Jammu and Kashmir; it extends from the Himalayan mountains to the Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram range and includes the upper Indus River Valley. Ladakh is bordered by Tibet to the East; the many Tibetan monasteries contribute to the spirituality of the place. Ladakh tourism draws in adventure enthusiasts who are keen on activities like white water river rafting (available on both Indus and Zanskar river), paragliding, mountaineering and skiing (“Home”). 

An unusual feature of Ladakh is that since the Himalayas create a rain shadow, monsoon clouds cannot bring rain to the region; thus, it depends on winter snowfall for its water, making it a high-altitude desert. Recent flooding in the region has been attributed to abnormal rain patterns and retreating glaciers, both of which have been found to be linked to global climate change; the Leh Nutrition Project creates artificial glaciers as one solution to this environmental issue (“Home”). 

Flora and Fauna

Due to scant precipitation, vegetation is extremely sparse in Ladakh except along streambeds and wetlands, on high slopes, and irrigated places. Human settlements, additionally, are richly vegetated due to irrigation for farming barley, wheat, and rice. Natural vegetation commonly seen along watercourses includes seabuckthorn,  wild roses of pink or yellow varieties, tamarisk, caraway, stinging nettles, and mint. 

As for fauna, Bharal Blue Sheep, the Asiatic Ibex mountain goat, the Shapo/Urial mountain sheep, Tibetan argali wild sheep, Tibetan gazelle, and rare snow leopards have adapted to the rugged landscape of Ladakh. In addition, their endangered Tibetan antelope, chiru, is known for its Shahtoosh wool for Kashmiri shawls  (“Ladakh.” Wikipedia).

For ornithologists, the Indian redstart, Hoopo, Brown-headed Gull,  Brahimini duck, Ruddy Sheldrake, and the Barhead goose are birds seen in Ladakh during summer. The Black Necked Crane, Tibetan Raven, red-billed chough, snow-cock, and chukor are unique to Ladakh and Tibet (“Ladakh.” Wikitravel).

People, Language, and Culture

Ladakhi culture is similar to Tibetan culture. The principal language of Ladakh is Ladakhi, a Tibetan dialect. There are numerous ethnic groups in Ladakh, with Tibetans, Monpas, Dards, and Muslims among them.

Ladakh was an independent kingdom for nine centuries, but it was very strongly influenced by Tibet and the neighboring Muslim region: Tibetan Buddhism spread into western Ladakh from Kashmir in the 2nd century and between the 1380s and early 1510s, many Islamic (Sufi) missionaries propagated Islam and proselytized the Ladakhi people (“Home”). The region’s population is split roughly in half between the districts of Leh and Kargil. 76.87% population of Kargil is Muslim (mostly Shia), while that of Leh is 66.40% Buddhist (“Ladakh.” Wikipedia).

Tibetan medicine has been the traditional health system of Ladakh for over a thousand years, containing elements of Ayurveda and Chinese medicine, combined with the philosophy and cosmology of Tibetan Buddhism. For centuries, the only medical system accessible to the people have been the amchi, i.e. traditional doctors following the Tibetan medical tradition (“Ladakh.” Wikipedia).


Ladakhi food has much in common with Tibetan food, the most prominent foods being thukpa (noodle soup) and tsampa, known in Ladakhi as ngampe (roasted barley flour). A dish that is strictly Ladakhi is skyu, a heavy pasta dish with root vegetables. Tea in Ladakh (gurgur cha) is traditionally made with strong green tea, butter, and salt (“Ladakh.” Wikipedia).

Music and dance:

The music of Ladakhi Buddhist monastic festivals, like Tibetan music, often involves religious chanting in Tibetan as an integral part of the religion. Yang chanting, performed without metrical timing, is accompanied by resonant drums and low, sustained syllables.

As for dance, religious mask dances are an important part of Ladakh’s culture. The dances typically narrate a story of the fight between good and evil, ending with the eventual victory of the former.

The Trek

In addition to the sites, thrillingly scenic treks take you into Ladakh’s villages, through gorges and across mountain passes. The main trekking season is from late June to early September. The trekking options range from short, day-long walks to monastic settlements to long, trans-mountain treks involving weeks of walking and camping in the wilderness. Parang La and Kang Yatse are challenging trekking trails into the mountains with many rivers to be crossed. (“Ladakh Travel.”)


  • Pangong Lake is an intense blue lake in the middle of the mountains and an important breeding ground for several migratory birds. (“Home”).
  • Nubra Valley is a valley of flowers that provides excellent views of the Ladakh Range and Karakoram Range. In Nubra Valley, tourists stop at Diskit/Sumur monastery,  Hunder sand dunes, and Turtuk historical museums (“Ladakh.” Wikitravel).
  • The Hemis Monastery is the largest monastery of Ladakh, famous for a huge painting of Buddha, which is brought to the public or displayed to the public only once in 11 years of the time period (“Ladakh.” Wikitravel).
  • Padum Valley, located at an altitude of 3505m from the sea level, is the capital of the ancient Zanskar and presently administrative headquarters of the Zanskar region.
  • Zanskar Valley is an isolated region known for its mountains, pleasant climate, and glimmering rivers. (“Ladakh.” Wikitravel).

Works Cited

“Home.” SOTC,

“Ladakh Travel.” Lonely Planet, 8 Sept. 2019,

“Ladakh.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Jan. 2020,

“Ladakh.” Wikitravel,