The Leh Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, a military airport cradled between lofty peaks, is bare bones. But I am dizzy with excitement that I’m finally in Leh, Ladakh. Or perhaps that’s just the result of having ascended 11500 feet in under five hours.
The excitement and the dizziness mount as I head towards my hotel in Nimmu, 90 minutes out of Leh and some 400ft lower in elevation. I’ve arranged for a pick up and I suspect my driver is as amused by my exclamations as the one driving us to Tarangire was six years ago.
We pass the spot where the river Zanskar merges with the Indus – Sindhu in the vernacular – the waterbody that lends its name to my country and my religion. Its signature jade is, most disappointingly, clouded by snow melt and post monsoon debris.
I am too anxious to stop for photos, however. There’s a tightness in my head that I’m not sure whether I am imagining. The anxiety doubles when I realise I am the only occupant in the hotel set in a 400 year old traditional house with a gurgling stream in the grounds and apples and apricots dropping from trees all around me.
I’d been told one full day would be plenty for acclimatisation. I’ve given myself two and I do nothing all of the first day except come down for my meals. The discomfort in my head keeps me awake all night and worrying about it just makes the discomfort worse.
It is our concern over attempting a high altitude journey, especially since Ravi experienced discomfort in Cusco many years ago, that has kept us away from the Himalayas all these years. I have since come to believe in the call of place. In my best laid plans being dependent on a destination’s readiness to welcome me.
Ravi is dismissive and claims I read meaning into the junk he routinely deletes. But when the call to Leh-Ladakh arrived in an email promotion for a photography tour, I wasn’t about to ignore it.
Leh-Ladakh is an erroneous term. Leh and Ladakh are two separate entities. But search terms, those carelessly thrown together phrases, rule all content in this age of SEO (a rant for another day!).
Ladakh is the region in the extreme north of India sandwiched between heavily disputed borders with Pakistan on the west and the Chinese autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet on the east. Its villages scattered across a chain of mountain ranges: the Stok, Zanskar, Himalaya, Ladakh and Karakoram are connected by perilous high passes or La. Hence the name La + Dhak (many) = Land of High Passes.
A district of the state of Jammu & Kashmir during my visit, Ladakh has since been reconstituted as a union territory with the stripping of statehood of Kashmir. Leh town is now the headquarters of the district of the same name and the access point to major tourist spots in the area.
As isolated as it seems today the town as well as the region have figured prominently in ancient trade routes that carried saffron, silk, embroidered woollen textile – even Buddhism – to the world over its high passes. A cultural exchange that has singularly shaped the landscape of Ladakh.
Later, Leh was the capital of two successive independent Buddhist kingdoms that stretched from Kashmir all the way to Tibet. An 1834 invasion by the Dogras of Jammu forced the ruling (Namgyal) family to retreat to Stok. Their descendants continue to reside in the Stok Palace.
I am vastly improved by the middle of the second day and bored enough to hire a taxi on impulse and head out to some monasteries nearby.
The barren brown landscape of Ladakh, a result of the contiguous mountain barrier that deflects rain laden monsoon winds from the south, is dramatic, even foreboding. But it also exudes a quiet spirituality that feels utterly peaceful.
Spirituality is such an integral part of the physical landscape of Ladakh with prayer flags fluttering over sacred rivers and mani stones and whitewashed chortens dotting hills that seem to echo the chants from those precariously perched monasteries.
There is a reason why the Buddhist chanting of Ladakh is inscribed into the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
Emboldened further next morning, I scramble up one more monastery before trading apple and apricot trees for concrete buildings on my first evening in Leh: the start of eight days focused on photographing the best of Ladakh. I am the lone chronicler in the group of serious photographers with some very impressive gear.
These are a sampling of some of the special moments that I experienced. Moments whose recounting has prompted Ravi to throw caution to the wind and begin planning a road trip to Ladakh.
MONASTERIES Of LADAKH
Alchi is a hamlet near Nimmu (off the Srinagar-Leh highway) whose monuments are distinct from the other Tibetan style monasteries – or gompas – in the region.
Alchi Monastery is considered the best preserved example of Buddhist art of the 11th century anywhere. Its insignificance during a time when contemporary structures were looted or destroyed lends it enormous significance today in deciphering what it is we have lost.
Its interior surfaces are completely covered in frescoes that resemble Kashmiri art more than Tantric Tibetan. The iconography of temples and palaces on the lower garment of Avalokiteśvara – one of three colossal Bodhisattva statues in the Sumtsek Shrine – are believed to depict actual places now lost to time.
Photography is prohibited. Here’s a fascinating article along with photos shot for a conservation project now stalled due to friction between the monks in charge and the ASI (Archeological Survey of India).
Likir village, about 20km north of Alchi, is a defiant patch of vivid green in that inhospitable terrain. Perched high above it is the picture perfect Tibetan Gompa of the same name, the ‘mother temple’ of Alchi.
Likir Monastery is as ancient as Alchi but belongs to the newest and most dominant of the four Tibetan Buddhist orders in Tibet and Ladakh: the Yellow Hat Gelugpa sect headed by the Dalai Lama.
I am delighted to find it deserted after having to sidestep a domestic tour group at Alchi, and spend nearly an hour exploring its many little halls and museum at leisure. A 23 m tall golden Maitreya Buddha outside the main building is its main attraction.
The Basgo Fort complex, once the base of the founder of the Namgyal dynasty and currently on the WMF 2000 World Monuments Watch list is on the way. But I feel my headache returning and do not want to tempt any altitude sickness djinns on my very first outing.
Lamayuru Gompa’s crumbling chortens, ochre wall paintings and the prayer wheels and mani stones around its lone surviving original (11th century) stupa appeal to me even more than those in the larger and restored monasteries on the tour itinerary. I regret not driving further out (on the Srinagar highway) to fully appreciate its dramatic sprawl.
Lamayuru (the village) is referred to as ‘moonland’ for its lunar like geological formations best viewed from the cliff top above the monastery. I am not brave enough to attempt the steep climb.
The splendid 12 storey Thiksey Monastery, often compared to Tibet’s Potala Palace for its terraced architecture, is the most prominent of the monasteries near Leh.
The main attraction of the 15th century gompa, other than its spectacular setting, is a two storey tall Maitreya. It was installed to commemorate the 2006 visit of the current Dalai Lama (in permanent exile in Dharamsala, India, since his flight from Tibet in 1959).
Less dramatically situated but with an expansive courtyard and even more atmospheric prayer halls, is the 17th century Hemis Monastery belonging to the Drukpa order (the Red Hat Sect that is more popular in Bhutan). It is the largest of the Ladakh monasteries and houses an interesting museum, larger than those in Likir and Thiksey, in an effort to secure its sacred artefacts from theft.
A mid morning prayer session is in progress as we enter the assembly hall presided over by a serene gilded Buddha. Senior lamas are arrayed on low seating in the middle reading mantras aloud from printed texts. A group of novice monks practice their mandala drawing skills on the floor of the right aisle. A lone bespectacled lama begins unfurling a roll of narrow white fabric on the left as he walks around the perimeter chanting another incantation.
It’s a fascinating window into the traditions of a religion born in my country that feels equally strange and familiar. And into the cultural influences that created these elaborate rituals to celebrate a man who had shunned his own ritual laden religion to solely propagate (compassionate) action!
Diskit Gompa, spilling photogenically down a hillside overlooking the Shyok river valley makes up the third of the major monasteries of the region. It is the largest of the Tibetan style monasteries in the Nubra district. Its gigantic open air Buddha, nearly twice as large as the Maitreya in Thiksey, was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 2010.
These large monastic complexes include schools and nunneries and welcome visitors to witness (and even photograph) their dawn prayer rituals accompanied by clashing cymbals and blowing of horns. Each celebrates its patron deity or founder in colourful annual festivals that include masked dances and displays of festive thangkas (sacred painted scrolls).
The monasteries and the royal palaces of Ladakh are repositories of Tibetan Buddhist scriptural heritage. Their illustrated scriptures are the last surviving legacies of the earliest transfer of Buddhism to Tibet through translations of Sanskrit works. The cultural revolution in China wiped out much of that legacy.
There are so many lesser known, but no less significant monasteries dotting these mountain ranges. Lochen Rinchen Sangpo, the ‘Great Translator’ and founder of Alchi and Lamayuru (probably the Tibetan Gompa and not the original shrine built by Naropa), is alone credited with the (magical) construction of 108 monasteries (across the Himalayas including other states in India). The majority of the surviving structures in Ladakh are from the 15th – 17th centuries. I hope to get to a few of them when I return.
An evening at Shanti Stupa – an elaborate chorten overlooking Leh that is part of the peace pagoda mission by the pacifist Nipponzan-Myōhōji order – falls short of memorable due to the crowds even though the views are spectacular.
The journey to Nubra Valley on what is claimed to be the world’s highest motorable road (it isn’t, never was) and through the treacherous 5359m (18,379ft) Khardung La (pass) is an experience in itself. Especially when you consider that it is the very same route followed by ancient Ladakhi caravans joining the Silk Road at Yarkhand beyond the even higher Karakoram Pass.
We can’t stay long at that height and are plunging down into the Shyok and Nubra river valleys after the mandatory photo stop.
The Nubra is a tributary of the Shyok river and the two merge near Diskit to flow into the Indus across the border in Pakistan. Both rivers are born in the Siachen glacier – the world’s highest battleground – beyond Nubra Valley. The glacier – already under strain from heavy troop presence – has just been opened to civilian tourists!
I expect to see more of the arid cold desert landscape of the Indus Valley (Leh and surrounds) characterised by vast stretches of scree covered slopes with random patches of green around the rivers. But the rolling sand dunes of Nubra are a delightful surprise.
We have ourselves an enchanted evening on an isolated stretch of the Hunder dunes that evening. It begins with a threat of rain and ends with the blessing of a double rainbow. Easily the highlight of a journey filled with special moments.
THE ALPINE LAKES
A night back in Leh precedes another long drive over Chang La (5360m) towards Pangong Lake, touted to be the highest salt water lake in the world (no, it isn’t…we so love superlatives!).
Its name is derived from a Tibetan term for ‘High Grassland Lake’. What a bland name for a water body that takes on the most iridescent hues by the hour. I half expect ‘Pangong’ to be associated with legends of shape-shifting mountain djinns.
The disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) marking the border between India and China cuts across Pangong Tso leaving only a third within Indian territory and robbing it of the ‘largest in India’ accolade.
The stretch with the row of yellow – 3 Idiots – scooters is a travesty. As are the haphazardly set up refugee camp like tented lodgings (we did stay in one).
There was talk of the camps having been given notice to wind up. They still seem to be taking reservations more than two years on! Setting them up further inland without disturbing the fragile eco system of the lake shouldn’t be so hard.
Is it possible to ‘do’ Pangong Tso as a day-trip? It is, technically, but the 5+ hour journey will leave you with just a couple of hours to enjoy it in and at the worst time of day with day-tripping crowds.
The Ramsar wetland reserve status of Tso Moriri on the westernmost part of the Tibetan Plateau in Changthang province saves it from the fate of Pangong Tso. Somewhat.
The lake and surrounds are said to be the only breeding grounds for black-necked cranes and bar-headed geese in India. (We did spot a flock of the latter but it was too far off for good photos.) Camping around the lake is prohibited and vehicles aren’t allowed into the immediate vicinity. Setback for tourist accommodation is also considerably more than at Pangong.
At 4,522 m ( 14,836 ft) Tso Moriri, is the highest of our overnight stays in Ladakh. But it isn’t the elevation I have trouble with this overcast evening as much as the biting cold, exacerbated by strong gusts of wind that nearly knock me off my feet several times and freeze my nose.
That lake remains incredibly calm through it all. Magical, even with its waters dulled to steel.
Considering Tso Moriri for a day trip would be lunacy. Elevation aside, the journey on any of the three routes takes a minimum of 7 hours each way. More if you stop for photos. How can you not?
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LEH-LADAKH TRAVEL LOGISTICS
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CURRENT TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS TO LEH-LADAKH
- Unvaccinated tourists arriving in Ladakh both by air and road must have a negative RT-PCR report not older than 96 hours. Tourists without a COVID-19 test report will need to undergo mandatory quarantine at their place of stay for seven days. They may have to undergo COVID-19 tests and will only be released from quarantine if the test report is negative.
- Visitors who have been inoculated with both doses of COVID-19 vaccine 15 days before arrival are exempt “provided such visitors have no clinical symptoms of COVID-19”.
Find latest travel notifications on the Ladakh Tourism Twitter account. Their website isn’t updated as often.
WHICH MONTH IS BEST TO VISIT LEH-LADAKH?
June, July and August are the most popular months due to optimal weather conditions. September is still good weather wise and considerably less crowded although there is hardly any snow left on the peaks this late in the year and the rivers are all muddied by snow melt and monsoon debris.
Late May-Early June would be my pick for a return visit if driving up. Even April if flying in.
If you can handle freezing temperatures and have the time to take snowed in roads in your stride, winter with its snow covered landscapes, trekking options on frozen rivers and colourful local festivals might be a spectacular time to visit. You’ll only be able to fly in since highways will not be open until late spring.
HOW MANY DAYS ARE REQUIRED FOR A LEH-LADAKH TRIP?
Seven days at least if you want to get up to the lakes, excluding journey time and including one full day of rest for acclimatisation at the beginning. See AMS section below.
GETTING TO LEH-LADAKH
BY AIR: Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport in Leh is serviced by several domestic airlines from cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh and Srinagar.
Pro Tip: Reserve window seats on the left (A) for great views from the inbound flight. Try and avoid seats above the wings (nos. 14,15,16,17).
BY ROAD: Ladakh can be accessed via two high altitude roads:
1. NH-1A: 434 km from Srinagar to Leh with an overnight halt in Dras or Kargil
2. NH-21: 473 km from Manali to Leh with an overnight halt in Jispa.
The former is the recommended route for the way up for a gentler acclimatisation process through mountain passes lower in elevation than those on the Manali-Leh route which is better suited for the return journey.
Both roads are impassable for nearly seven months of the year between November to mid May.
GETTING AROUND LEH-LADAKH
Taxi transfers or multi day packages can be pre-booked or arranged through your hotel or travel agents along the main market in Leh.
The Ladakh Taxi Union publishes its rate card annually so you will not have to haggle over costs. This list appears valid for 2020-21.
If self driving – only private cars, rental cars and taxis registered outside Leh are not permitted beyond the town – remember to carry enough fuel for the return journey. There are no fuel stations beyond Karu on the highways leading to the lakes and along the remote connecting roads.
Roads are metalled most of the way with stretches of bumpy dirt track.
- Alchi, Likir, Lamayuru, Indus/Zanskar confluence and Basgo Fort are all west of Leh off the Srinagar highway. They can easily be visited in a day. Alchi Kitchen is the best spot for lunch.
- Nubra Valley is located 117 kms north of Leh (about 5 hours driving time). Route: Leh – Kardung La – Kalsar – Diskit.
- Points of interest: Diskit Monastery, Hunder Dunes, Turtuk Village
- Pangong Tso is 170 kms south east of Leh branching off the Manali Highway (about 5+ hours driving time). Fastest route: Leh – Karu – Chang La – Durbuk – Tangse – Pangong Lake.
- Tso Moriri is 213 kms south of Leh branching off the Manali Highway (7+ hours driving time). Fastest route: Leh – Upshi – Chumatang – Korzok -Tso Moriri. We returned via Tso Kar and Taglang La, slightly longer but scenic.
PERMITS FOR LEH-LADAKH
- Inner Line Permits (ILP) for Indian citizens have been scrapped as of Aug 2021. Border villages (beyond designated tourist destinations) notified as ‘zero-km’ areas will continue to be out of bounds to the general public.
- Tourists will still have to pay a Green Fee or Environment Fee of INR300 and Red Cross Fund fee of INR100. Payments can be made on the official Leh District Tourist Management website or via a travel agency.
- Protected Area Permits (PAP) are mandatory for foreign tourists for travel to restricted border areas such as Nubra Valley, Khardung La, Pangong Tso, Tso Moriri, Dah – Hanu Villages, Man, Merak, Nyoma, Loma Bend, Turtuk, and Chushul.
- Validity of passes has been extended from 7 to 15 days.
- Permits can be availed online on the website linked to above. Hotels and travel agents will be able to arrange permits for a small fee (usually INR100).
- It is advisable to have several hard copies of the pass for handing out at checkpoints along the route.
- All tourists regardless of nationality are expected to carry valid ID proof at all times during their travel in the region.
AMS & Acclimatisation
Acute mountain sickness is not to be taken lightly. Age and fitness levels have no bearing. A couple of young people in our group who hit the ground running were ill for several days.
Acclimatisation is key. Driving up (over two to three days) affords a gradual increase in elevation but you’ll still need to allow at least a day in Leh to recover from the long journey.
If flying in, three days – including one full day of complete rest – in Leh (3500m) or lower – at the beginning is ideal. Head to Nubra Valley (3150m) next, followed by Pangong Tso (4350m) and finally Tso Moriri (4522m).
Hydration throughout your stay at high altitude is equally important. Avoid alcohol and excessive caffeinated beverages. Set reminders to drink water/fluids through the day. My insulated flasks of hot water were a godsend.
Should you take diamox? My doctors didn’t think it would make a difference so I chose not to. I know many Himalayan trek outfits make it mandatory for participants to start on Diamox two days prior to reaching high altitude. Taking it later is pretty much useless. Check with your doctor and take a call especially if you are on prescription medications or suffer from allergies.
With hindsight, my advice is not to let fear stop you from giving it a go. It isn’t hard to jump into a taxi and head down to lower elevation if you continue to feel distinctly uncomfortable after two days in Leh. On no account should you proceed to the remote lake areas and high passes in the hope that you will feel better. That kind of foolishness nearly cost a close friend her life. And her story crippled me with anxiety.
Another possibility, if AMS is a concern, is to skip the lake areas completely, sleep lower in a place like Nimmu and explore Leh and the monasteries from there, then head to Nubra Valley which is considerably lower even though you navigate through a high pass.
WHERE TO STAY IN LEH-LADAKH
LEH & THE INDUS VALLEY
Our group was booked into Hotel The Palace: a solid mid-range option that makes up for its lack of charm with exceptional service. The food was simple (Indian) but surprisingly good.
Nimmu House (in Nimmu village) a lovely heritage property is a good place to acclimatise and visit the Sham Valley sites from (Alchi, Lamayuru, Basgo and the Zanskar confluence).
Indus River Camp, situated right on the river bank just outside Leh, is where I hope to stay when I return.
If looking to splurge, TUTC Chamba Camp Thiksey and their camp in Diskit are uber luxurious glamping options.
FIND MORE OPTIONS TO FIT YOUR BUDGET HERE
Our hotel in Nubra – Karma Inn – was newish and clean but too basic and lacking in service to recommend. I’m looking at Stone Hedge Hotel for a future trip.
All temporary tourist accommodation close to Pangong Lake shut shop between October to May regardless of the court order for their re-location.
The Pangong Inn in Lukung village is a fair option until there’s clarity on the re-location of temporary structures. Do confirm current status before you book.
We stayed in Tso Moriri Camp & Resort. All camps turn off generators at night and limit hot water to a bucket full each morning. It isn’t that much of a hardship and more than I expect in such a remote location.
Travellers on tighter budgets will be able to find home-stays in Leh and also in Turtuk, in Spangmik, Tanksey and Merak (near Pangong), Karzok (near Tso Moriri) and most every village frequented by tourists. Look for signs outside village homes offering bed and breakfast facilities.
ENROUTE (Suggestions for overnight halts if driving in &/or out.)
Kargil: Hotel The Kargil
Jispa: Gemoor Khar Manor House
WHERE TO EAT IN LEH
Leh town has enough tourist footfall to have a fair number of eclectic free standing restaurants that even offer pizzas and pastas in addition to Indian and Tibetan dishes. Most are located along the main market street.
I didn’t get to eat out much but these are a few restaurants recommended by friends who’ve recently returned from Ladakh. All with open to sky or partly open terraces.
- Lehvenda Cafe: Second floor restaurant on main Leh market road with great views and supposedly the best coffee in town.
- Bon Apetit: Continental fare served on a patio with a view for when you have had one too many thupka. The salads came highly recommended.
- Namza Cafe & Designer Store: Boutique and cafe that serves ‘creative’ Ladakhi cuisine.
- Bodhi Greens: Organic, all-vegan restaurant with a beautiful view.
WHAT TO EAT IN LEH-LADAKH
Thupka (noodle soup), Momos (steamed dumplings with meat or vegetable fillings), steamed buns and yak butter tea are some traditional foods to try. Kashmiri kahwa (tea) was plentiful in our hotel although made from pre-mix and not the authentic brew we were served on Sukoon in Srinagar.
If you love Maggi noodles – the remote-Ladakh staple – you’ll have no issues along the inner roads. I detest the stuff. Thupkas, egg fried rice or roti and rajma (red kidney bean curry) were available at the village eateries we stopped at en-route but it did take a bit longer to rustle up. Carrying snacks for the journey or getting your hotel to pack some sandwiches or wraps might be a good idea if Maggi isn’t your thing.
NETWORK COVERAGE IN LEH-LADAKH
Leh boasts good 4G connectivity and most hotels offer free WiFi in-room. Coverage gets spotty and limited to BSNL in the remote areas especially around the lakes. Tso Moriri is practically out of network range.
Pre-paid sim cards obtained outside Ladakh will not work anywhere in the region due to security concerns. Post paid connections (both Airtel & BSNL. Jio does not work in Ladakh as of now but is due to set up shop soon) as well as pre-paid cards bought on arrival after furnishing required id proofs will work fairly well (in and around Leh).
WHAT TO WEAR IN LEH-LADAKH – PACKING CHECKLIST
These are Ladakh specific items. Check out my master packing list for general travel essentials.
- T-Shirts and light cotton tunics for warmer days. Layering is very important in Ladakh. It was T- Shirt weather in Leh in early September and I had carried just one.
- Thermal vests and bottoms for evenings in the lake areas.
- Couple of chunky knits/ jumpers for layering. Real wool makes a huge difference.
- Good-quality wind-proof/water-proof outerwear.
- Comfortable trousers/ track pants/ jeans.
- Shoes with good support. If you don’t plan on going trekking a good pair of sneakers should do fine. Waterproof shoes might be a good idea if travelling in winter.
- Cotton and wool socks.
- Wool scarf/stole, beanies and gloves
- Portable water filters and water bottles.
- Extra batteries.
- Car mobile and camera battery chargers.
- Sunscreen, moisturiser and lip balm
- Small torch for the lake area camps where generators are turned off at night. You might want to conserve your phone battery.
I carried a sleeping bag partly for the cold and partly out of anxiety over hygiene in the camps. It might have been overkill and did take up half the space in my suitcase but I slept like a baby in the lake areas.
GENERAL TIPS FOR LEH-LADAKH
Here’s a list of all the things to do in Ladakh including the Drogpas (villages) said to be populated by the last remaining Aryans.
Most monasteries charge a nominal entrance fee ranging from INR 20 -50.
Dress respectfully around the monasteries and do not climb up chortens…they are sacred structures.
Garbage disposal is a huge issue in this remote land. Please try and bring back as much of your litter as possible.