Sep 23, 2020
SOUTAM PRAMANIK walked around a vegetable garden in the Himalayas, proudly showing off rows of turnips, spinach and lettuce. Pramanik works at Chamba Camp Thiksey, an 11-hectare property wedged between two snowcapped mountain ranges. Its 14 luxury tents face a brightly colored Buddhist monastery. He explained that the camp’s staff plants vegetables every summer, when the ice melts. I was traveling with my wife and two sons; we each uprooted a couple of carrots, still coated with organic compost.
Later, as we sat on the wooden deck of our 45-square-meter tent, the sunlight reflecting off the snow and the air cool against our faces, a waiter served us those same vegetables, cleaned and diced, raw, on a porcelain plate. We would have many good meals in the Himalayas, but few quite matched the thrill—or the freshness—of those vegetables pulled directly from the mountains.
THAT GARDEN, WHICH IS spread over about two hectares, would be impressive anywhere. But at 3,350 meters up, in this hard, arid terrain, it seemed nothing short of a miracle. Ladakh, a union territory in the north of India that was until last year a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is a high-altitude desert. This desolate scrubland, frozen over for most of the year, is also stunningly beautiful—a moonscape that the British writer Andrew Harvey, in his book A Journey in Ladakh, described as being filled with “vast wind-palaces of red and ochre and purple rock [that] the wind and snow had worked over thousands of years.”
When I first visited Ladakh 24 years ago, I spent most of my time around the provincial capital of Leh—a dusty city of some 30,000 people. Leh has its charms, and it offers easy access to the surrounding peaks and rivers. But, like many towns in the Indian Himalayas, it’s also characterized by cheap hotels and souvenir shops, and is increasingly overrun by tourists. For years, I’d wanted to get back to Ladakh—but this time to climb deeper and higher into the mountains, to pull away from the scrum of development.
Until now, that hasn’t been easy. Options for accommodations beyond Leh have been scarce and spartan, limited mostly to budget guesthouses and homestays. Over the past few years, the Ultimate Travelling Camp (TUTC), India’s first “glamping” company, has set out to change that. In 2013, it opened Chamba Camp Thiksey, on a rented patch of land owned by a local monastery. That was followed two years later by another Ladakh property, Chamba Camp Diskit. The company has also opened a third resort in the remote northeastern Indian state of Nagaland.
In a sprawling country notorious for poor infrastructure, TUTC is pioneering a new model of travel. Its camps have all the comforts of a five-star resort, yet feel closer to nature, and more authentic. Staying with TUTC in Ladakh brought the mountains closer and—this is no mean feat—made the Himalayas feel accessible.
THE AIR IN LADAKH is thin. It took us a few days in the Thiksey camp to acclimate. We used the time to take short hikes into the countryside and to visit a couple of nearby monasteries (Ladakh is a well-known seat of Tibetan Buddhism). By our third full day, we were starting to breathe more freely. It was time to head even higher, toward Chamba Camp Diskit, in the remote Nubra Valley— reachable via the Wari La Pass; at 5,300 meters, it’s about the same altitude as Everest’s base camps.
The road leading to the pass is a spectacular but menacing track that weaves through a breathtaking landscape of valleys and mountain brooks. Golden eagles soared overhead. Thickset yaks and twitching Himalayan marmots—small, fluffy rodents—foraged in the yellow grass beside the road.
After a five-hour drive, we arrived at Diskit in time for lunch. We were tired and grimy, our nerves frayed, and it was then, as we were handed ice-cold towels and served a four-course meal in an elegant safari tent, that the scale of TUTC’s ambition became evident.
We were, for all practical purposes, in the middle of nowhere. I had no cell phone access, the camp’s Internet was down, and we were perched below a row of imposing Himalayan peaks. Yet we sat in a heated pavilion, surrounded by antiques, dining on lemon-coriander soup and coffee panna cotta. Our guest tent was decorated with handwoven rugs and had a large four-poster bed at its center. After lunch, we sat out on our veranda and gazed at the otherworldly landscape that surrounded us.
One afternoon Vinay Madhav, the manager, gave me a tour of the property. He told me about the challenges of providing such an experience. The property was getting only six hours of electricity from the grid each day; the rest was provided by a generator and solar panels. Phone reception is sporadic, and staffers have sometimes gone 30 days without contacting their families (they rely on a satellite phone for emergencies).
I praised the food, and Madhav sighed. The roads are closed for much of the season, he said, and little produce is available in the local market. The camp does what it can with its vegetable garden, but staff members have been known to hand-carry food—imported lamb and cheese, even an occasional sack of tomatoes—in by plane from New Delhi. “Setting up in a concrete jungle is easy,” Madhav said. “But being in a place where there’s nothing and still getting everything is really special—and difficult.”
THAT NIGHT MY FAMILY SAT around a bonfire and were served mint tea and canapés from a tandoor oven that emitted fragrant smoke into the cold air. Then we walked to the edge of the camp, past a croquet field where my kids had played earlier in the day, and stood in the shadows of the mountains. I noticed a vibrant band of white curving over the peaks and running, thick and creamy, across the sky. It took me a while to realize this was the Milky Way. I’d never seen it so clearly before.
There are no lights to obscure the stars in this part of the world. There are no sounds. We were, as Madhav said, surrounded by nothing—but it felt like we had everything.
Most visitors will begin their trip in New Delhi. From there, several domestic airlines offer 90-minute flights to Leh, the provincial capital of Ladakh.
WHERE TO STAY
The Ultimate Travelling Camp’s two Ladakh properties, Chamba Camp Thiksey and Chamba Camp Diskit (tents from Rs68,000, all-inclusive), offer luxurious tented suites, superb food, and a range of activities and excursions.
Wild Frontiers (Seven-night trips from Rs365,000) can customize tours to incorporate Ladakh stays at both Ultimate Travelling Camp properties.