Never mind that there is electricity for only four hours a day -- when the town's only diesel generator is working. Video parlors have come to Ladakh, one of the loftiest and most remote places in the world inhabited by man.

Designer jeans, comic books and restaurants with names like Dreamland and New Gaytime also have arrived. Adventurous trekkers who withstand hypoxia, or oxygen-deprivation, to reach ancient Buddhist monasteries at rarefied altitudes of 15,000 feet complain about litter along mountain paths and crowds of tourists at secluded temples they thought they had discovered.

Ladakh, situated on a plateau between the two highest mountain ranges in the world -- the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges -- is far from being spoiled by western intrusion; the signs of 20th century life style are still only beginning to intrude on the timeless Tibetan culture of the region. But some traditional Buddhist leaders are beginning to complain that the situation could soon change for the worse.

When the first airplane landed on a dirt strip here in 1948, it is said, the locals brought hay to feed it. Legend has it that a father pointed to jeeps being unloaded and told his son that the babies would grow wings and fly like mother.

Until a decade ago, Ladakh was closed to foreign travelers. It was not until 1979 that Indian Airlines began flying in tourists on a spectacular approach through narrow mountain passes and landing them on a crude runway that slopes sharply from one end to the other.

Since the road from Srinagar, the capital of Jammu-Kashmir, to Leh is buried under snow seven months a year, the opening of the air route boosted foreign tourism from 9,000 to 13,000 the first year. It has leveled off now to about 12,000 a year, slightly higher than the population of Leh.

Except for the American and European backpackers who wander through the rustic bazaar and for the occasional video parlor, most of Leh looks uncannily similar to the lithographs published by 19th century visitors. But there are subtle changes.

Merchants from the Kashmir Valley have descended on the town, opening antique and souvenir shops in the narrow alleys off the main street. Some young Ladakhis have discarded the colorful traditional costumes and women's stovepipe-like hats in favor of western dress. Eating habits also have changed, with restaurants and the locals' kitchens turning increasingly from traditional Tibetan food to Kashmiri-style or even western food.

One Buddhist religious leader who worries about Ladakh is the Lama Lobzang, who as a young monk spent 11 years meditating with a guru in a cave on a hillside overlooking the Indus River, near the 1,000-year-old Gonkhang Temple.

"I am deadly against opening Ladakh to tourists. There may be some economic benefit, but only a handful of people will gain, and many of them are Kashmiris," said Lobzang. "Culturally and religiously, it is very unfortunate. Everything is changing. The atmosphere 10 years back was different."

He complained that western influence on Ladakh's youth was undermining religious values to the point where "many people say 'perhaps I'm a Buddhist.' " The character of ancient monasteries, he added, has changed because trekkers and other tourists are allowed to sleep overnight in them.

Lobzang said tourism in Ladakh should be sharply curtailed, as it is in the Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan, which also borders Tibet.

Ladakh's chief Buddhist monk, Lama Kushok Bakula, complained that the rise in tourism has led to increasing numbers of thefts of religious artifacts from monasteries and other holy sites, many of which, he said, are sold in the bazaar by Kashmiri Moslems dressed as Buddhist Ladakhis.

However, Ladakh's top official, District Commissioner S.S. Kapur, disagreed with the religious leaders.

"I am one of those who believe tourism must come to Ladakh. It shouldn't be maintained as a cultural museum," said Kapur. "Maybe tourism has speeded up change a little. So people are wearing jeans a little earlier," he said. "But change in the people as a whole is gradual, and I don't think we should stop it."

Kapur dismissed a suggestion that when China, as expected, opens the land route from Nepal to Tibet for tourist traffic to Lhasa and other Tibetan cities, tourism in Ladakh will fall sharply. "When that happens, Ladakh will have to become more competitive," he said.

The director of Leh's tourism department, Urgain Loondip, appeared ambivalent about the impact of tourism here.

"From an economic point of view, it is good, but for the culture of Ladakh it may not be worth it," Loondip said. "I believe it could have a bad effect on the culture if the local bodies, the monks, don't prepare for it. The question is, is tourism going to grow in a large-scale manner?"

Some Ladakhi civic leaders, concerned about the change, have begun a project aimed at demonstrating to the locals, particularly the youth, the value of traditional Ladakhi culture. One retired schoolteacher has started visiting local schools to talk about the area's culture and history.

But even as the cultural project gets under way, a sprawling new airport terminal is rising near the high end of Leh's inclined runway, to replace three ramshackle Quonset huts that now serve as a terminal.

Every day, Indian Airlines Boeing 737 jets land here -- or at least when the pilots are able to see the airstrip through the cloud cover -- and disgorge foreign tourists seeking the magic of the "last Shangri-La." Meanwhile, the Buddhist monks and other traditional Ladakhis continue to fret over the future of their once-secluded paradise 12,000 feet in the Himalayas.