National Geographic Today
The small Himalayan city of Leh, in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir near the border of Tibet, awakes to the sound of Muslim and Buddhist prayers broadcast from the main mosque and temple.
By 9 a.m. the streets are bustling with vendors, tourists and soldiers. Elsewhere in Kashmir, a half-century-old political conflict might boil into nuclear war between India and Pakistan. But Leh, with its Buddhist heritage in a predominantly Muslim state, hardly seems to notice.
"There's no violence here," says Tsewang Dorjey, a guide who leads Western tourists through Buddhist monasteries near Leh. "The fighting and problems are in Srinagar or Kargil, but not in Leh."
At 11,500 feet, Leh commands a view of the glacier-topped Himalayas. The Dalai Lama maintains a summer residence right outside of town.
For centuries, Leh and the surrounding Ladakh region was part of Tibet. The Silk Route ran through Leh. With a history rooted deep in Tibetan Buddhism, the people of Leh have a reputation for tolerance and kindness toward their neighbors and visitors.
Leh is one of the few places in Indian Kashmir where soldiers often go unarmed, people of different religious backgrounds shop in each other's stores and Western tourists walk the streets unafraid late at night.
The Hindu-Muslim conflict centers in the Kashmir Valley, near Srinagar. Within 100 miles of Leh, people in Kargil worry about shelling exchanges along the Pakistan-Indian Line of Control.
Ancient Tibetan-Buddhist Heritage
Leh, tucked away in a corner of the state, is home to an ancient indigenous Tibetan-Buddhist cultural community. "They are culturally and geographically isolated from the conflict and have managed to remain aloof," says Elliot Sperling, associate professor of Tibetan Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington.
Leh's population is growingnow at 27,000, up threefold from the mid-1980s. Part of the growth comes from an influx of Hindu and Muslim businesspeople who no longer want to live and work in less stable areas of Kashmir.
"Why should I try to have a vegetable shop elsewhere in Kashmir?" says Mahmud Khan, a Muslim stall owner who relocated from Srinagar. "Here my customers worry about their food, not bombs exploding behind them."
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