Let’s go to Leh! To be honest, not many people in India say these words, for though Leh is an incredibly beautiful location, its isolation from the rest of the country and its sheer simplicity makes it a more popular destination for foreign tourists than locals. Maybe, this makes Leh all the more attractive to visit; for it’s the path less trodden (which is kind of rare in India), and the enchanting landscape of the place is worth the tough journey that’s required to reach it.
The capital of Ladakh rests in a valley between Kashmir and Tibet at an altitude of 3500 m above sea level. While the rest of the country experiences extreme heat during summer, it is peak tourist season at Leh and perhaps the only time when tourists can visit this place. The months between June and September are when the city blooms out to tourists and pulls them in, to experience its radiant beauty amidst simple living conditions.
How to reach
The quickest and least terrifying way to reach Leh is by air; there are daily flights from New Delhi to Leh’s Bakula Rinpoche airport which happens to be Asia’s highest commercial airport. Though this is just an hour’s journey, travelers cannot just expect to get out of the flight and start their sightseeing or trekking adventures. It takes at least two days to get adapted to Leh’s high altitude. There are buses and private jeeps to reach Leh from Manali and Srinagar; but these journeys are long and uncomfortable. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could also consider the idea of zipping across from Manali to Leh on a motorcycle. Of course, this has to be done with enough breaks in the journey and will take as many as 3 days to complete, but the adventure and the views are worth the time taken.
Let’s Stay in Leh
Accommodation options in Leh range from basic to simple to comfortable; but the unwritten rule here seems to be – the simpler, the better. Even high-end luxury hotels are simpler than their counterparts in other cities. Yes, you can opt for swanky hotels with fancy room rates, though even these are quite cheap when compared to other luxury chains; but in Leh, the most memorable stays happen in small homestays and guest houses where you can live with local families, experience their simple lifestyle and share meals with them. This kind of experience need not be very basic; most of these homestays have invested to make rooms comfortable for visitors with plush mattresses and equipped toilets. These are not places where you can get luxuries like hot water by just turning on the tap, but the rates are cheap, the view is good and the hospitality is terrific and as authentic as it can get.
Leh also has its share of resorts and camps near its lakes and other places of attraction where you can stay in comfortable tents and cottages close to nature. However, when you choose eco-resorts in places of high altitude, make sure you are acclimatized in a comfortable room in lower Leh.
Learn About Leh
Apart from the panoramic views and the splendor of nature, Leh has another key attraction that draws visitors from all over the world – its culture. Its scenic location that brings it close to Tibet touches Pakistan on one side, China on another and yet firmly resting in India makes it a multi-cultural paradise
with Buddhism being a dominant influence. Through history, its prominent position in the celebrated silk route has made it a magnet for travelers and their influences. This gives the region its own exclusive cuisine, distinct festivals and an individuality that’s not replicated elsewhere in India.
Let’s Eat In Leh
Ladakhi cuisine has a heavy Tibetan influence and of course, is also affected by what is locally produced in the arid land and what can be easily imported from outside. Root vegetables are commonly available and used in versatile ways; chicken and mutton are the main meat products and barley is used in quite a few dishes as well as fermented drinks.
Momos, noodles soup called thukpa and Thenthuk, a local flatbread made of different ingredients called Paba accompanied by Tangtur, a buttermilk drink and Sku, a steamed pasta dish filled with meat and vegetables are commonly available here. Butter tea is the favored tea here, though newcomers may have to get accustomed to its taste. Chang, a drink made with fermented barley is popular among the locals as well as visitors. A must-try and must-buy in Leh is its juicy apricot jam; this locally made jam is a specialty of this region.
Let’s explore Ladakh
The first stop after landing in Leh should ideally be Leh itself; explore the town of Leh till you’re comfortable with the altitude. The Leh street bazaar with its row of antique shops, the old town behind Jama Masjid with its historic alleys and brick houses, where, by the way, you can also look out for local bakers with their freshly baked produce, and the Shanti Stupa from where you can get lovely views of the mountains surrounding the town are the key attractions in Leh. Next, visit the 17th century Leh Palace, which though in ruins, is wonderful to visit for its classic feel.
The Monasteries of Ladakh
Allocate at least a day to visit the history-rich and peaceful monasteries of Ladakh. The Thiksey Monastery, located 17 kms to the south of Leh, is one of the most beautiful among the many religious monuments in this region and this is usually every tourist and pilgrim’s first stop. After gaping at the 100 ft tall statue of Buddha here, move on to Ladakh’s largest monastery, the Hemis. Visit the Alchi monastery with its lovely ancient miniature paintings and proceed to Lamayuru where you can explore yet another vast monastery. There are several other Gonpas and palaces that are worth visiting in and around Leh like the Stok Gonpa and Shey Gonpa. The Gonpas represent typical Buddhist way of life and are also museums of Buddhist art from early ages.
A 5 hour drive from Leh will take you to this incredibly beautiful lake; the portrait of a crystal clear lake reflecting snow-capped mountains that surround it will linger in your mind long after you leave Leh. Photographers go crazy over this place, especially because the color of the lake keeps changing each time the brine water catches a different angle of the Sun. This is the highest salt water lake in the world and forms a border between India and China here. In winter, an ice-skating gala keeps this place alive and pulls in participants from all over the world.
Again a small excursion from Leh, a trip to Nubra Valley via the picturesque roads of the Khardung La pass can be very interesting. Prepare to spend at least two days here, for this can be quite hectic for a day trip. Accommodation options are available at Diskit and Sumur. Explore the historic silk route, visit the Diskit Gompa in Diskit and Samstaling Gompa in Sumur; rest of the sights here are scenes of nature, but the vista keeps changing from highland to desert to river valleys making the view untiring to watch.
Visit the place where Indus meets Zanskar
This is a historic point where you can clearly see two rivers merging, each marked by its distinctive color. Rafting facilities are available here and this is a perfect spot for photographers. Apart from this point of confluence, there are other interesting places to visit nearby like the Gurdwara Patha Sahib, an enchanting religious monument surrounded by snow-capped mountains, built to honor Saint Guru Nanak Dev, the Magnetic hill, a touristy attraction that makes your car move uphill or downhill depending on the way you park it and the Hall of Fame, a very interesting museum centered on Leh and the activities of Indian army in this region.
Let’s enjoy Leh
Though there’s plenty to see in Leh, there’s much more to DO and this is what makes the place all the more appealing. From energetic trekking to exciting white-water rafting, mountaineering, ice skating, polo, safari on Bactrian camels and rafting, there is a wide spectrum of activities for adventure lovers in Leh.
There are plenty of trekking routes in Ladakh and most of these have helpful trekking guides; explore colorful villages, nature trails and wildlife paths on these treks. Rent a mountain bike and experience the cool mountain air on your face as you race downhill and explore Leh.
Enjoy the breathtaking scenery of snow-topped mountains rising over river rapids as you tumble down the river Indus in your raft. There are several spots in the rivers Zanskar and Indus for rafting and white-water rafting; raft through this picturesque region taking in views of small villages, monasteries, hills and wildlife as you float by.
If you love trekking as well as the waters, you can opt for a walk on water adventure in winter where you’ll walk on ice over the frozen river Zanskar.
Ladakh, with its unique ecosystem, has its own distinct flora and fauna that are very interesting to watch. Visit the Hemis National Park to view some of the best of Ladakh’s wildlife; the snow leopard for instance, can be seen here. Also look out for the Tibetan antelope, yaks, marmot and the Tibetan hare among animals, the golden eagle, lamagier and Himalayan snow cock among birds here.
As far as spectator sports are concerned, Leh has two major interests – archery and polo. There are festivals to host archery competition, complete with music, dancing, food and plenty of Chang. Polo, too, is seriously followed with many villages having their own polo grounds; summer tournaments are organized and cheered by hundreds of locals at the Leh Polo ground.
Festivals in Ladakh are completely different from the rest of the country, perhaps because of the multi-cultural influence. Visiting Ladakh during one of its festivals could be a very interesting highlight of your trip. Visit during the Ladakh festival held in September that showcases Ladakhi lifestyle and culture to visitors or be here for the grand Hemis festival or Losar festival to experience the region at its colorful best.
The Tibetan Market and Moti Market in Leh are perfect habitats for shoppers; get your pashmina shawls, artifacts, handwoven rugs and woolen products here. Don’t forget to brush up on your bargaining skills before entering the market; more important, learn to say “no” in different languages, for you may be pestered to buy some fancy stuff.
Now, here’s a “hidden gem” in Leh – in upper Leh, there is an interesting place called the Donkey Sanctuary. Homeless donkeys that have been driven away by their masters after a life of hard work and heavy loads are given shelter, food and care at this sanctuary. While the shelter was started for old donkeys and mules, there are plenty of baby donkeys too there now; just buy a bunch of carrots and watch the rescued animals munch happily.
Buddhism is an important part of Ladakh’s lifestyle; to learn more about this culture, visit the Mohabodhi centre on Changspa lane. Experience the simple life of monks, learn the art of meditation and yoga and rejuvenate your inner self here.
Let’s know before we go.
- Best time to visit Ladakh is between June and September when all roads will be open and travel will be possible. However, if you’re interested in winter festivals and sports take a risk and book your flights for the months after October.
- Altitude sickness is very common among new visitors. Allocate enough time to get used to the high altitude before you step out to explore.
- Certain places like the Nubra Valley lie on the border and you may need a permit to visit these places. Check before traveling to any of these places and get the required permits in Leh.
- Needless to say, warm clothing is a must, even if it’s summer in Ladakh.
- Credit cards are not accepted in many small establishments, hotels and shops; so make sure you have enough cash.
Now, if you’ve packed your bags and booked your tickets, let’s go to Leh!