When I was a child, the magical Frank Capra film Lost Horizon made a huge impression on me. It showed a secret kingdom where the peaceful inhabitants seemed to live forever, surrounded by breathtaking mountains and beautiful scenery. Capra's film was inspired by James Hilton's popular novel, written in 1933 — the story of a diplomat whose plane crashes in the Himalayas and who stumbles on Shangri-La, where devotees are ruled by a mysterious spiritual leader. Ever since, explorers and writers have searched for Shangri-La.
Visiting the remote region of Ladakh, high in the Himalayas in the most northerly part of India, I think I discovered the modern version of Hilton's mythical paradise. The people might not live forever, but their lifestyle teaches us a huge amount about self-sufficiency and community spirit, the indomitable power of faith and spirituality. Ladakh is a popular destination for hard-core trekkers who follow long-distance trails in the summer months, often carrying their kit on ponies. All the treks involve high-level passes of over 4,267m, and acclimatisation is essential.
My plan was to spend a week walking from village to village along ancient footpaths and cattle trails through fields and pastures in the valley of the river Indus. I would walk for four to six hours a day and visit some of the many monasteries and historic buildings that are scattered throughout the valley. I would stay among the locals experiencing this lifestyle at close hand and, I hoped, getting a better understanding of it. My trip was organised by Shakti, an Indian company that has renovated traditional houses in three rural villages so guests can experience authentic Ladakh without scrimping on comfort. They have installed pure water, electricity and comfortable beds, using local materials and craftsmen.
My journey started in Delhi, where I spent 24 hours getting acclimatised, staying at the elegant Leela hotel in Gurgaon on the outskirts of the city, convenient for the airport and only 20 minutes by car from the manicured avenues and palatial homes of New Delhi, as well as the historic sites around the old city centre. The Leela has a glamorous entrance, and my room was cool, spacious and elegant — just what I needed after a day visiting the Red Fort, the India Gate and the tombs in the Lodi Gardens in sweltering heat. At dawn the next morning, a 90-minute flight north over the snow-capped Himalayas deposited me in a different world.