After much adventuring, which I’m sure you’ve enjoyed reading about (right?), we were in Leh, the capital of the region of Ladakh. It sits at 3300 meters, or about 10,800 feet, above sea level.

Ladakh is an ancient kingdom. It was expanded by Buddhist kings, who by the 9th century had extended their realm from Kashmir in the west all the way to the Tibetan border to the north and east. The kingdom is protected from invasion by what I personally regard as the harshest terrain in the world – the highest mountain passes on the planet within a desert as dry as the Sahara. The Red Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism came to prominence in the 14th century, and battles with Muslims from Kashmir lasted a few hundred years. Leh was established in the 16th century.

Modern Leh is a traveler mecca. Locals from Delhi and Bangalore and Mumbai eat Tibetan momos (fried or steamed dumplings) or thukpa (noodle soup) on rooftop terraced restaurants. Foreign backpackers from Israel and New Zealand and South Africa smoke charas and laze on cushions drinking lassis and eating chocolate banana pancakes. People go trekking for days to incredible snowy peaks. You can visit isolated mountain villages where locals irrigate tiny meltwater streams to sustain their agriculture. Huge Buddhist gompas (monasteries) are built like forts up the cliff faces. Some are hundreds of years old, but are still home to resident monks.

We visited one such site, Thiksey Gompa, built in the 15th century. It was an impressive series of whitewashed buildings climbing up a steep hill. With the altitude, it was a daunting task to ascend, but the magnificent Buddha statues and vistas over the Indus valley were well worth it. The stark desert contrasted with the green fields of irrigated land. The masonry was smoothed by hand, which results in ascetically pleasing finger grooves all along the white walls. The rich, saturated saffron of the monk robes soaks up the sunlight. Beautiful stuff.

The next day, we drove up the Khardung La. At 5602m (18,379 ft), it’s the highest motorable road in the world. At this point we were Ross, Steve, Leon from Ireland and Ruth from Brighton, England. Ruth took some incredible video of us racing up cliff edge roads overlooking ridiculous views. At the top, we took some well-posed photos with the signage and caught a glimpse of K2, the second tallest mountain in the world, off in the distance. Up there everyone is a tourist, so even the army trucks would stop so the soldiers could get a photo taken with the sign. You see we drove the road, but they built it. A few fifty-something cyclists pedaling to the top stopped us from celebrating our accomplishment too seriously, as our bikes had motors.

The rest of the time in Leh was very relaxed, the aforementioned cushion and charas scene was well enjoyed. I had some of the best western food I’ve tried in India. The heavily Buddhist atmosphere of the place lends well to it’s chilled out atmosphere, and it was easy to meet plenty of interesting travelers with unique stories and perspectives.

But, eventually, we were off to Kashmir.