Ladakh is part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. In general Jammu is Hindu, Kashmir is Muslim and Ladakh is Buddhist. It is often referred to Little Tibet as it shares the same culture, religion and landscape. Indeed Tibet is just next door to the east but there is no access.
You can reach Ladakh by two means and both are spectacular. By air you travel from Delhi or Srinagar over the Himalaya with snow peaks and glaciers safely underneath you. The flight takes 80 minutes.
By road it’s a two-day amazing journey from Manali to Leh through those mountains. Soaring peaks, snow, glaciers and deep valleys etched into by tumbling rivers vie for attention. The journey is first through the northern part of the state of Himachal Pradesh from Manali to Sarchu. From then on, although the high altitude desert doesn’t change, you’re in Ladakh. This road journey can only be done between June and September as snow closes the passes.
There is also a road, a little less spectacular, from Srinagar in Kashmir. It’s a two-day journey that can include a side-trip down the Zanskar Valley.
Leh, at 3,500 metres, is the capital sited on a slope on the north side of the Indus river valley. Apart from the riversides and little oases of green in the city this is a desert landscape. Surrounding the valley are high mountains. To the north is the highest road pass in the world Khardung La.
Ancient Buddhist monasteries (gompas) dot the landscape with vivid whites, blues, yellows and reds. These are open to visitors and prayer times are especially atmospheric. Clashing cymbals, the blowing of horns and beating of drums accompanies the guttural but melodious chanting of prayers.
Walk slowly for a couple of days while acclimatising to the height. Delve behind Main Bazaar Road where women on the pavement sell vegetables and you’ll enter a series of medieval lanes. Amongst the mudbrick houses you’ll find several chortens (stupas). The photograph below will show you more than my words.
Looming above the town is Leh Palace. This is the former royal palace built in the 17th century. At nine stories high it dominates the landscape with good views of the Zanskar mountain range to the south, the sweep of the Indus Valley and the Ladakh mountain range to the north.
The palace was abandoned in the mid 19th century after being sacked by invaders. The royal family then moved to Stok Palace, east of Leh. The palace is being restored and is open to visitors. The palace museum has a rich collection of jewellery, crowns, ceremonial dresses and thangkas (religious paintings).
Jo Khang temple
Within the town, hidden behind the tourist souvenir shops is the small Jo Khang (Buddhist) temple. Good for a visit if you can’t get out to one of the bigger gompas in the Indus valley.
The Thikse Monastery 19 km east of Leh is a popular attraction. Clinging to the side of a hill, a sweep of small white buildings reaches up to the main prayer hall. One can come here early in the morning, sit crossed-leg around the inside of the hall and enjoy the morning puja. In another hall is a 15m-high statue of Maitreya (future Buddha) statue that reaches between two storeys.
The Shanti Stupa is on the western edge of the town. It is modern. Japanese donations funded it and it was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1991. From its height you have a good view of Leh and its surrounds. Sunrise and sunset are worth seeing from this Stupa.
King Tsepal Namgyal built this in the 1820s as a summer palace. Fourteen years later an invading army sacked Leh Palace and the royal family moved here. They are still resident. Rooms, open to the public, have collections of the family treasures. This palace hosts an annual dance-mask festival
Hall of Fame
This is a museum dedicated to the Indian military in their combat against Pakistan. It won’t pass your notice that the Indus Valley is heavily militarised. Ladakh is very close to Pakistan and China, both potential foes.
Leh to Srinagar Highway
The meeting point of the Indus and Zanskar rivers is worth the 30km trip out of Leh. Alternatively it can be seen on any trip to Alchi or Lamayuru. Two differently coloured rivers meet as separate streams and then merge into one colour.
Magnetic Hill, Worth a Bit of Fun
Look out for Magnetic Hill on any journey west from Leh. Stop your vehicle on what seems to be an upward hill and the vehicle freewheels uphill. However, it is all an optical illusion but fun anyway.
Trekking, mountain climbing and white water rafting are all available in Ladakh. Many travel agents offer a variety of activities covering various grades of easy to difficult. One special trek is the Chardar Trek that takes place in winter. Trekkers walk on the top of the frozen Zanskar River
You should be able to hire a motorcycle in Leh for local trips. This not for novice motorcyclists.
This is a land of colourful festivals; dates, except for the Ladakh Festival, change according to the Tibetan year, (a bit like Easter).
The Hemis Gompa festival takes place around every June or July to commemorate the birth of Guru Padmasambhava. This is a two-day affair with religious dances enacted by the monks in costume and with animal or demon masks. Every 12 years (next 2028) a huge two-storey thangka (religious painting) depicting the guru is unfurled over the front of the monastery.
Losar festival is perhaps the most popular festival and is at the end of the harvesting season. The festival involves processions, music, dance, dramatically staged battles and elaborate feasts. Everyone buys new clothes for the festival.
Ladakh festival takes place in late September throughout Ladakh, but is best seen in Leh. For seven days there are processions, dances, musical performance, archery contests and polo matches.
Monastery Festivals. Almost all the monasteries organise annual festivals. Many occur in winter when there’s not much else to do. The festival at Hemis is held in late June or early July, Lamyuru festival July and Phyang monastery in late July or early August.
Shey Gompa is about 15 Km from Leh on the banks of the Indus. You will pass it on the way to Thikse. It was once the summer residence of the royal family. There are a number of shrines and stupas and a 17.5m-high statue of a blue-haired Maitreya Buddha
Stakna Gompa sticks out on a pyramid-shaped hill by the side of the Indus river. The name means ‘tiger’s nose’ due to the shape of the hill.
Chemrey Gompa built in 1664 monastery is about 40 km east of Leh. Apart from another tall statue of the Buddha it has a valuable collection of scriptures with title in silver and gold. The monastery can be visited on a two-day jaunt to Tso Moriri (lake).
Hemis Gompa is one of the richest monasteries in India with rare antique collections of Buddhas, gold and silver stupas and some beautiful thangkas.
Spituk Gompa is around 5km from the centre of Leh, inconveniently at the end of the airport . It has some fine relics in its dusty atmospheric rooms.
Alchi Gompa is unusual as it is not not perched on a hill. It can be found in the village of Alchi on a side road off the main Leh-Srinagar highway. This is old with some paintings maybe over 1000 years old. Often there is an intricately created mandala out of coloured sand on display. There are guesthouses in the village and this delightfully quiet village can be an overnight stay or more.
Lamayuru Gompa is 125 km from Leh on the Leh–Srinagar Highway. It is one of the largest and oldest gompas (10th century) in Ladakh. Furthermore it is perhaps the most atmospheric with dark rooms lit by beams of sunlight, ancient statues and wooden floors polished by hundreds of years of shuffling feet. There are guesthouses for an overnight stay.
If you take the old road leading up to Lamayuru you’ll be following an incredible spaghetti-like series of hairpin bends. The views from the top are pretty spectacular. Either the old or the new road leads you to an area know as the moonscape. It is presumed that this is the dried bed of a former glacial lake. When drained by some force of nature it left softish rock deposits and over the years erosion has created a sculptural landscape.
These are required for foreign tourists to visit the ‘Inner Line’ areas such as the Khardung La, Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso (tso means lake) and Tso Moriri . They are easily obtained from a travel agent.
The Tibetan Refugee Market on the Old Leh Road is the place to shop for Tibetan souvenirs. You can find thangka paintings, silver and turquoise jewellery, rugs and carpets, prayer wheels and singing bowls (rub the rim and they ring like a wet finger run around a wine glass).
This is at least a two-day journey with basic guesthouses by the lake. At 15,000 ft., Tso Moriri is a fresh water lake unlike the Pangong Tso which is saline. The journey from Leh to Tso Moriri is a magnificent run through mountain scenery.
This brackish lake runs between Ladakh and Tibet. Visitors can only access the edge of the Ladakhi end. Click on the itinerary ??? for more detail.
Zanskar valley is one of the most isolated places to visit in Ladakh where about 14,000 people, mainly Buddhist, live. The valley is sandwiched between the Great Himalayan ranges and the Zanskar mountain ranges. The Zanskar river which has lent its name to the valley flows through the valley. On the way from Kargil to Padum you can see the awesome Drang Drang glacier.
Khardung La and the Nubra Valley
The Nubra valley is about 150kms. away from Leh. The journey there takes you over the Khardung La, which is the highest motorable road in the world. At 5,602 m (18,379 ft), although the exact height is disputed, this is half the height that commercial airliners fly at. It takes two hours to climb via a rough road to the top where there is the highest teashop and highest toilets in the world.
The pass was part of a historically important trade route between Ladakh and Central Asia. Before the road horses and camels were used to carry the loads. The camels were Bactrian ones, those with two humps.
There are some guesthouses and small hotels at Diskit which is the main village of Nubra. Camel safari tours can be organised here.
Spend a minimum of four days here. If you fly in you’ll need a day to acclimatise to the altitude.
High season is short due to the climate, June to late September are the best months. Low season is the rest of the year
Ladakh is cold in winter, down to -35 degrees centigrade. Summer can be hot in the day, 25 degrees or more, and cooler at night.
In summer pack for hot and cool. In winter pack for extreme cold.