Far from the Madding Crowd... meeting the Dalai Lama
How a visit to Chamba Camp Thiksey in Ladakh can be one of the most moving experiences of your entire life.
Ladakh is a magical place. Set in the remote north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir on the border with Tibet, this former Buddhist kingdom hugs the precipitous contours of the Himalaya and Karakoram Highway at a dizzying 11,000ft. The wild, dramatic and hostile terrain seems untouched by the modern world.
And yet in a clearing, overlooked by the dramatic 15th-century Thiksey monastery, is Chamba Camp Thiksey, one of The Ultimate Travelling Camp’s temporary tented sites. It made a huge impression on me for many reasons. Firstly, I did not believe that you could achieve something of such excellence in a place as remote as Ladakh. The levels of comfort and standard of the facilities are easily as good as the best five star hotels, but in the middle of this incredibly remote region, halfway up the Himalaya, and for just a few short weeks a year.
That it is close to the monastery is not just a happy coincidence. The camp is set here because of an agreement with Thiksey Rinpoche, the chief lama of Thiksey monastery, to temporarily lease the land, with all profits from the arrangement going back to the monastery. It’s such a good project, actively investing in the community. For example, local women grow the vegetables eaten in the camp, and the soil is so rich you get these incredibly huge and delicious squash, carrots, tomatoes… the meals are fantastic. They grow beautiful flowers too, which are used as decoration throughout the camp.
The Chamba Camp, Thiksey opened for just six weeks in 2013, and the collaboration between the camp and the monastery has proven such a success that a second temporary camp – Chamba Camp, Diskit – was opened in the Nubra valley in 2015, close to the spectacular 14th-century Diskit monastery. To reach the camp you have to go over the highest navigable pass in the world, part of the ancient Silk Road. It’s a dramatic setting filled with extraordinary sights. For instance, there are huge herds of camels left over from its time as an important trading route, and these camels have multiplied over the centuries. They’re partly tame and just roam around.
It is an amazing, incredibly impressive landscape. The campsite is set with the stark, snow-capped Himalayan peaks behind and the sprawling Indus valley below, with the Indus river – the heart of the civilisation of India – flowing through it. And then there are these camels just wandering around this lunar landscape, on high-altitude, trans-Himalayan sand dunes overlooked by huge glacial peaks. It’s fascinating and affecting.
The monasteries were built high on inaccessible perches in the Middle Ages as the monks were warriors who defended the land against persistent invaders from Central Asia. The monasteries were also centres of trade and wealth as they were on the Silk Road, but also because merchants and devout Buddhists came here on pilgrimage.
The Dalai Lama and the Rinpoche of Thiksey monastery are very good friends. The Dalai Lama had heard so much about the successful collaboration between Chamba Camp Thiksey and the monastery, he wanted to see it for himself. So while I was at the camp, the Dalai Lama came to bless it. It was a huge occasion and people came from all the surrounding villages. Around 400 of them were fed – the same food that the Dalai Lama ate. The Dalai Lama spent a lot of time over lunch talking about his thoughts and philosophy about life; it was one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had. You get to meet many people in life, but there are very few who you can actually feel are holy, who embody something that is otherworldly. It’s not about his position or his job or any physical attribute. It’s something that emanates deep from within him: that ability to be so humane, so accessible, so kind, and at the same time embody the hope of his people. Spending even that short amount of time with him was a deeply profound experience.
The Dalai Lama really liked the project as it directly helped the community, not just by providing money, but by providing jobs too. Monasteries still rely on young men and women joining the Order. These days fewer and fewer families want their children to become monks or nuns as there are easier ways to live: physically, it’s a very tough life. So there are huge pressures on these monasteries, which own the land but don’t necessarily have the people to work it. There’s also huge pressure on the monks to restore and maintain these ancient monasteries, and they do really good work but it’s a struggle. The Dalai Lama felt the camps were a meaningful collaboration, engaging with the community as well as investing in it. And also generating a sense of pride in the community that they have created something so special.
And it is special. The area is so dry: the months when the camp is open you are guaranteed some of the finest weather in the world. It was around 22C and beautifully clear and sunny while we were there. You are based in these luxurious tents and make lots of day trips: visiting monasteries and local villages, rafting down the Indus river. The region also has some of the best walks in the world. You hike or cycle through spectacular alpine plains surrounded by pure air, huge blue skies and sweeping landscapes. It’s filled with really interesting flowers and plants, and you also see yaks, wild Mongolian ponies and wild dogs. In the winter there are even snow leopards. And you’re not behind a wall closed away from the environment: you’re bang in the middle of it. It’s so exciting. There are very few places left in the world that are so pristine.
And at the end of the day, you sit on your tent’s porch looking out across it all, with a gin and tonic in your hand.
The Ultimate Travelling Camp operates luxury camps in undiscovered regions of India. In Ladakh, the Chamba Camp Thiksey operates from 15 May to 10 October while the Chamba Camp Diskit operates from 15 June to 30 September. In north-east India, the Kohima Camp in Nagaland operates during the colourful Hornbill Festival, from 29 November to 12 December. See more about the Ultimate Travelling Camp.