| travel old leh |
were in poor to bad condition. While most visitors are hardly likely to notice unless they stay for a prolonged period, Leh’s traditional social cohesion, forged by its hardy people, is now said to be wearing thin.
As we set off on the tour, Alexander outlines some of the old quarter’s other problems to me. India’s traumatic partition and, in particular, Communist China’s closure of the frontiers with neighbouring Xinjiang and Tibet during the 1940s and ’50s, was a real blow because it extinguished the traditional, yet already diminishing, caravan trade overnight. The coming of roads and what one might loosely call modernisation has meant wealthier families have opted to move out to larger houses with gardens and driveways. The old quarter’s poor infrastructure – there’s still no running water except for a few communal taps, and the drainage is decidedly inadequate – has perpetuated the air of neglect.
That’s now changing, albeit slowly, and most of the remaining 2,000 permanent residents are keen for improvements to rehabilitate their enclave. Although it really needs a comprehensive, government-funded plan to install basic amenities, LOTI has focused instead on smaller, more manageable projects to restore its historic buildings. As I climb through the atmospheric warren of alleys and stairs with Alexander, he notes how few tourists actually come this way. Most seem to nip up to the old palace by road for a quick look and head down as quickly as they came.
On foot, however, you get a clear sense of how medieval the old quarter remains. There’s no particular ‘sight’ as such – the pleasure here lies in the little
ABOVE: prayer flags frame a view of Old Leh with houses clustering together as they rise up the hillside; BELOW: extensive work on old foundations, and even rebuilding, are sometimes necessary with some of the houses in Old Leh
60 www.geographical.co.uk january 2011