The city of Leh is in India but is not India. It is as near to Kabul as it is to Delhi and is farther north than Lhasa, and the first thing that assails you in the Ladakhi capital isn't a tout, but the pain of altitude sickness. Perched on the Tibetan Plateau, 3,500 metres above sea level, most things about Leh are Tibetan ... its people, its religion, its diet. Gompas (Buddhist monasteries) balance atop sharp-edged spurs and chortens and mani walls furnish the hillsides. It seems the only things here that are Indian are the borders. For many visitors, even the journey to Leh is of Tibet-sized proportions. To reach it by land from the nearest cities - Manali and Srinagar - requires a two-day drive through the Himalayas on roads blocked by snow for eight months of the year. Or you can fly in from Delhi in little more than an hour on one of the world's most spectacular flights. It's on the latter that I make my approach, the Jet Airways plane seeming almost to scratch its belly on the rocky ridges as it tilts and turns to squeeze into the Indus Valley. The drive into Leh from the airport reveals a city as brown as the land but brightened by rows of poplars. Though the overall impression is Tibetan, India can still be discerned in the cracks. Cows roam the streets, vehicle horns are a mobile form of conversation and though traffic is light, it moves as if it's heavy. So much human flesh hangs off passing buses they resemble gutted animals. My first stop in Leh is my guesthouse. Accommodation in Leh is not graded by stars but by letters: A to D. Through some unattainable wish to live my few days here like a local, I have chosen D, the most primitive. To flush the toilet in my room I need to pour in buckets of water. I also bathe from this bucket, with water boiled by the guesthouse owners. The electricity comes on only when it can be bothered. My opening plan is to restore life to my sagging body and I decide to borrow from an old mountaineering maxim - climb high, sleep low. I walk through the city and ascend to the mountain ridge that looms above it. The climb cuts at my legs like diamonds but I continue, past the city's dominant feature - its decrepit, 100-room palace - to the highest monastery in the city, only to discover it is closed. Outside, prayer flags snap in the wind and the view is spectacular, though my plan is not. The climb has all but destroyed me. I return to my guesthouse and spend the rest of the day in bed. By the next morning I'm ready to face Leh. My head is clear and my lungs are full, though my ambitions have been trimmed to their scalp. No ridges and no peaks today. Instead I will confine myself to the flat of the city. Opened to tourism only as recently as 1974, Leh is a blend of contemporary and conventional, a place balanced between worlds. Traditional, berry-coloured Ladakhi overcoats are still commonly seen but so too are Buddhist monks in Gore-Tex jackets. Rice and baked beans have infiltrated menus that once contained only Tibetan barley and wheat staples such as thukpas and momos. Internet stores proliferate, masseurs promise to make you 'feel a million rupees' (which isn't as rich as you might think) and there is a guesthouse on Main Street Bazaar that has been 'hospitalising since 1974'. At the road edges, women pull rubbish from the water channels that divert glacial meltwater into the city. Plastic water bottles, unseen in the city before the arrival of tourism, are everywhere: in the hands of visitors and clogging the water channels. Trucks belch through town and the 'Don't Urine Here' signs scrawled on the walls are outnumbered only by men peeing in the street. Leh's streets may look typically Indian but the city is an unlikely blueprint for the greening of the subcontinent. Much of the impetus for this environmental leadership is credited to the Women's Alliance of Ladakh, which was established in 1991. Ladakhi women traditionally hold a higher societal position than in most other cultures and the alliance's voice is a powerful one. In 1998, long before western nations instigated any such scheme, it placed a ban on plastic bags in Leh. Twice a year, the alliance runs citywide clean-up campaigns. Five years ago, it opened a bakery and handicraft shop, and now has plans to start a Ladakhi kitchen promoting the region's organic goods. The group also intends to ban plastic bottles in the city. The following morning I temporarily leave Leh for Thiksey Gompa, 30 minutes' drive from the city. Spilling down like a cascade from a spur of razorback rock, Thiksey is among the most dramatically set of the Indus Valley's monasteries. I arrive just as the sound of trumpets fills the valleys, calling the monks to morning worship. Boys as young as five come running, followed more slowly by men of indeterminate age. The mood as they enter the hall is playful and for an hour, the place is filled with chants, the smell of butter tea and the sound of tsampa (a doughy paste) being kneaded. Later, as a monk shows me through the monastery, I'm offered a cup of butter tea, of which I've heard only terrible things, though its taste is not as bad as I expected. 'Is this yak butter?' I ask, feigning world knowledge. The monk laughs. 'Not here,' he assures me. 'This is chemical butter.' We climb to the top of the gompa, prayer wheels spinning as we pass, and enter the temple, which is dominated by a two-storey golden Buddha. With large hands clasped and eyes that appear all seeing, it is a religious relic as beautiful as any I've seen. I return to Leh, watching from the taxi as children play among fallen power lines, swinging from them in the reasonable assumption the electricity will be out. Workmen descend from upper-storey building sites by sliding down power poles. It may look like Tibet, but there are still moments when Leh is pure India. Getting there: Cathay Pacific ( www.cathaypacific.com ) flies from Hong Kong to Delhi. Jet Airways ( www.jetairways.com ) flies from Delhi to Leh between June and August. Details of hotels and guesthouses in Leh and Ladakh can be found on the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department website: www.jktourism.org .