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Future Tents Luxury Travelling Camp

| 16 Jan 2014

As a new luxury travelling camp pitches up in the Indian Himalaya, Amar Grover savours the local flavours.

African tent and Thicksey Monastery

Ladakh, the eastern side of fabled Kashmir set in northwest India, has long been the preserve of the hardier traveller. Yet a new luxury camp offering exquisite comfort, now aims to lure the well-heeled visitor to this remote outpost of the Indian Himalaya. One of a number of sites being planned by The Ultimate Travelling Camp (TUTC), Chamba Camp recently set its tents in the beautiful Indus Valley, with camps also planned for Uttar Pradesh near Lucknow, Nagaland (in the far northeast) and, also in Kashmir, by Srinagar’s Dal Lake.

This isn’t camping as we know it and even ‘glamping’ doesn’t come close. Large well-appointed tents resemble spacious rooms, and within atmospherically translucent walls, sumptuous furnishings create a gracious space. Each features a proper bathroom with, bar a bathtub, all the amenities you could reasonably wish for. Generous part-shaded porches and ample garden space between individual tents suggest genteel tranquillity. The food would be noteworthy even in Delhi, but here it seems miraculous. Attentive staff and personal butlers lend an atmosphere almost as rarefied as that of mountainous Ladakh, where the typical sightseeing altitude is around 3,500 metres.

Proximity to Tibet, along with a mainly Buddhist culture, creates the stunning landscapes and distinctive character of Ladakh. The broad Indus Valley boasts nearly a dozen venerable monasteries set atop craggy hills and rocky outcrops, hidden away in deep ravines or wedged beneath cliffs. Unless you are trekking one of the region’s many spectacular trails, these sites form a ready-made itinerary.

Around 20 kilometres south of Leh, the Ladakhi ‘capital’, Chamba Camp lies near the foot of Thiksey Monastery. This is one of Ladakh’s largest and most imposing hilltop monasteries; its whitewashed medieval-looking monks’ quarters crowned theatrically by burgundy and mustard coloured assembly halls. You can drive to the main entrance but walking up through the little maze of lanes and alleys while turning huge covered prayer wheels near the top seems a more sympathetic approach.

Early-risers are in for one of the area’s most memorable and ethereal experiences: joining the monks for morning prayers in the main assembly hall. Amid their almost hypnotic drone peppered with the burst of horns and a flourish of drumming, it seems little has changed over the centuries. Thiksey’s most revered shrine is a beautiful 16-metre-high clay and copper statue of the Maitreya, or Future Buddha. It lies in a separate hall, and was erected in 1970 to commemorate a visit by the Dalai Lama.

In the days which followed, I came to see how Ladakh’s gompas, or monasteries, are subtly different. When you’ve seen one, you most definitely haven’t seen them all. Famed for its summer festival featuring the whirling cham masked dancers, Hemis lies almost furtively in a side valley, appearing only at the last moment as you round a bend by a grove of willow trees. Ladakh’s wealthiest monastery, Hemis boasts an intriguing museum displaying just a fraction of its rich collection of garments, thangkas (religious paintings), artefacts, weaponry and documents. Rinchen, my TUTC guide, explained how one of its large halls had fallen into disrepair and recently been rebuilt. Externally at least, the new blended seamlessly with the old.

Other smaller and lesser-known gompas proved even more atmospheric. Typically they receive far fewer visitors and seem to exude a more compelling patina of antiquity and grime. Thaktok, for example, sprung from a small meditational cave near the foot of a cliff, while nearby Chemrey, which tops a rounded bluff and is backed by utterly barren mountains, rivals Thiksey’s dramatic location.

Chamba Camp’s excursions added depth and variety to the Ladakh experience.Rinchen and I explored some of the tiny backstreets of Old Leh, whose origins lay in a once-thriving Trans-Himalayan caravan trade linking China, Tibet and Central Asia. We drove to Stok village far across the Indus Valley to see Stok Palace, the imposing home of one branch of the former royal family and its little museum. Among the exhibits is a remarkable turquoise, pearl and gold studded ‘crown’ or headdress originally worn by the 7th-century Chinese queen of a Tibetan king. Inherited through the female line, it eventually reached Ladakh in the late 1700s.

At Sabu village near Leh, we strolled across fields and by irrigation channels for a glimpse of regular village life. In the warm sunshine under cloudless skies, it almost seemed idyllic. Many Ladakhis live in fine, spacious houses with fodder stored on the roof and fruit trees in their gardens. We came across dzos (a yakcattle cross commonly mistaken for yaks that are not domesticated here) ploughing furrows to loosen the rich soil of a potato field. Cheery villagers with pitchforks and sacks followed close behind. The crop was destined for the Indian Army whose muscular presence in this border region you can’t fail to notice.

Having ridden a bike just a few miles on country lanes from Thiksey to Shey, Salil, the camp’s tour manager, suggested a meatier ride: an almost 20km descent along one of the world’s highest roads. The Wari La pass connects the Indus and Nubra Valleys and as we drove up to it, past magnificent Chemrey Monastery, I could see its perfect saddle-like profile looming in the distance.

At around 5,300 metres, this is the highest most people will ever get to sit on, let alone ride, a bike. After a few quick checks, in particular the brakes, we kicked off back down the long and winding road. It’s not particularly steep but you’ll need to pay attention to the inevitable potholes and dozens of sharp hairpin bends while trying not to be utterly distracted by such lovely unfolding scenery.

Ladakh’s splendid landscapes owe much to the River Indus. Rising in the Tibetan plateau, it flows for more than a thousand kilometres through the Indian Himalaya, carving a relatively broad valley south of Leh and then deeper narrower gorges as it heads northwest into Pakistan. I’d hoped to go rafting here (though there’s no white water) but even by late

September, the jade-green river can be a touch low. Instead we paused briefly near Nimoo to gaze down at its scenic confluence with the smaller turquoise-coloured Zanskar River. Minutes later we stopped for lunch: parathas (flatbreads) and biryani served in a gazebo by the sandy banks of the Indus.

Refreshed, we continued on beside the great river past the ancient fortress of Basgo and another fine monastery at Likir, just a short detour off the main road. Our destination was the

small riverside village of Alchi. Its complex of 10th and 11th-century Buddhist temples may, from the outside, appear modest but they’re among the oldest in Ladakh. Local people still orbit the sacred site clockwise spinning hand-turned prayer wheels. According to tradition, they were built by the so-called ‘Great Translator’ – essentially a Tibetan explorer-monk – and feature an exquisite interior of vibrant murals and elaborate statuary. The link between luxury and exploration has never been more apposite, as I return to the fine china and high-thread count comfort of my elegantly appointed tent at Chamba Camp.

View the Cox & Kings’ tour – Ladakh: Land of the Lamas (Luxury Tented Camp) here.



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