Another Shangri-La: Pony Trekking in Ladakh, India - My Family Travels
Palace in Leh, Ladakh
Monks of Leh, Ladakh play traditional horns
A winter trek in Leh, Ladakh

Leh, Ladakh is your destination if you’re looking for an active adventure with kids in a place none of your neighbors have been. Ponies are used to enable family trekking in northern India, even with young childen, making for quite an expedition.

Trekking to visit Asia’s remote villages is one of the greatest of family adventures. You may be thinking, if you have children under the age of 12, you shouldn’t read any further -think again! I recently spent three weeks trekking in Ladakh, India’s northernmost state in the Himalayas, and met several families with young children on trekking holidays. Their secret: ponies.

Since the dawn of time, travel in Ladakh has been supported by horsemen. Travelers today would not have sherpas or porters to carry their gear, cook, and set up camp, as they would in Nepal. Instead, a Ladakhi trek “stands or falls” on its horses or, more typically, ponies, which can and do transport people as well. One of the families I encountered was from southern France. When I met them, this foursome had been trekking for 13 days — mom, dad, and two daughters, age 4 and 6. We rendezvoused in camp, where the girls were having a great time bathing in a stream, camping out in a large family tent, and helping the shy yet playful guide prepare the evening meal. Both Emilie and Sarah had their own pony, with a horseman to lead them along the same trails their parents hiked. They were clearly having a wonderful time

Festivals & Natural Wonders

The next day we all trekked to the Hemis Festival, the largest summer celebration, named after the monastery where it is based. Our group (ages 4-62) ended up sitting together since we had used the same local outfitter to arrange our trek, and I noticed the youngest enjoyed the spectacle as much as the eldest. The two-day festival consisted of many dances by monks, all masked and in extraordinary costumes from skeletons to mythic beasts, all moving to the music of horns, cymbals and drums.

The complex dances reenacted scenes from the life of Padmasambhava, the patron saint of Tibetan Buddhism, and though they went on for many hours, the courtyard we sat in remained full of Ladakhis in traditional clothing and headgear and, of course, many tourists with cameras. Outside the monastery, a full bazaar had been erected for the festival — Hindi movie music blaring, restaurants, a gambling corner, booths selling jewelry, clothing, music tapes — a bustling beehive of activity day and night and a great place to spend your allowance!

Because it was in the geologic impact zone when India’s continental plate met Asia’s, Ladakh is sandwiched between two huge mountain systems, the Himalaya to the south and the Karakoram to the north. Among the many lasting effects of this collision are the amazing variety of colored rocks and the extraordinary geologic formations seen on every trekking route.

Ladakh means “Land of Mountain Passes”, and on most treks you’ll cross at least one pass a day. Because you’ll start at an altitude 10,000 feet above sea level and continue up from there, the trekking is fairly rigorous. Acclimating to the altitude is key to a safe and healthy trek, especially for children. Before the trip, it might be helpful to ask your doctor about the prescription medication, Diamox, which alleviates “mountain sickness,” just in case.

A Visit to Leh

Ladakh’s commercial hub, Leh, sits at 12,000 ft. and is the best place to spend a few days getting used to the thin air. I found a quiet, charming, very inexpensive guest house recommended by friends. My room had windows on three sides which faced the mountains from two and the Leh Palace, a tall imposing structure resembling Tibet’s Potala Palace, from the third. While I waited for the local trekking agent to gather a group, I tried to stay in shape and found plenty to do. The now-abandoned, 17th-century Leh Palace, built nine stories high on a hill above the town, offers great views of housing, the surrounding mountains, and the local polo grounds where the lucky might catch a game. Leh also has many shops selling excellent turquoise jewelry, beautiful hand-woven folk rugs, and Tibetan curios. When you tire of urban life, you can make a daytrip to the nearby monasteries and villages such as Alchi, Thikse, Stok, Spituk, and Likir, to name a few.

On the Road Again

On the second trekking route I took, I met another traveling family — Grete, a single mom, and her 8-year-old son, Hans. Grete confided in me that Hans hated hiking back home in Austria, so she had arranged a pony for him so they could trek to villages together. To her great surprise, he preferred to walk, while she rode! I liked Hans, and helped him one night by translating his German so he could talk with some Indian Air Force pilots who were sharing our camp site. It turned out the young man was an avid aviation fan, and he excitedly brought out a deck of cards decorated with aircraft photos, then asked the pilots which jets and helicopters they flew.

As elsewhere in northern India, Ladakh also offers white water rafting and jeep safari adventures, though there are age requirements for some activities. So if you’ve been postponing a trek until the kids grow up, wait no longer. Ladakh — Shangri-La to one generation and the land of My Little Pony to another — is the right adventure destination for you.

Tips For Trip Planning

“When to Go?” is probably most families’ first question. The best time to trek in Ladakh is June through September, when mountain passes are clear and temperatures are more pleasant. Next comes how to organize this type of adventure. Would you prefer a Group Tour or to go it alone? Before you make any decisions, visit the U.S. Department of State’s Travel Advisory Service and see what’s up in this part of the world. Security issues should inform your decision making, especially when traveling with younger children.

Depending on your time and budget, there are a variety of trekking options. You can fly to Leh, buy a family map and begin backpacking, or hire a local trekking outfitter for a private or group tour. Local agencies can give you minimal or full support. If you prefer to make arrangements before you leave home, call an “outside” (foreign) trekking/adventure travel company, who will take care of everything in a very comfortable manner.

Trip Planning Details

Getting to Ladakh takes time and money, but it’s very possible. Leh, Ladakh is most easily reached from Delhi, India. Allow a few days R’n’ R in Delhi in both directions — there is much to see in this fascinating, historic capital and you can make a daytrip to the Taj Mahal in Agra. When finalizing your travel plans, it’s important to remember there are frequent flight cancellations in and out of Leh because of the weather, so confirmed seat reservations from Delhi are difficult. Ask your hotel concierge or a local travel agent to help, and be prepared to buy a more easily-available first class seat.

In Leh, lodging ranges from charming, clean but simple guest houses to full service hotels. The family-run guest houses frequently have large gardens and are truly quite comfortable and clean. Try Omasila, which is not only convenient the center of town but also a short 15-minute ride to the airport. For researching and pricing hotels and guest houses, a very useful website is Reach Ladakh..

Local trekking agencies are most suited to help adventurous families who don’t mind the inconvenience and uncertainty of last-minute planning. Such agencies change names and ownership sporadically, yet are an enduring presence overall. Some to try are Antelope Tours and Travels, Moonlight Travels, and India Mart / Explore Himalyas.

Outside trekking agencies, who will set up everything for you including those all-important air tickets, can help families with limited flexibility plan ahead to organize this type of far-flung adventure. Mountain Travel Sobek is one of the better adventure tour operators who operate treks to this region, though they often recommend Nepal treks for younger children because most of the adventure is at lower altitudes.

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