Best of the Himalayas: Leh-Ladakh
The mountainous region of Ladakh in the Northern Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, is like NO other place in the World. Because of it’s unusual terrain and barren landscape it’s sometimes referred to as ‘Moonland’. Set high up in the Himalaya’s at 3,000 m (9,800 ft) Ladakh is a plateau in the Indus Valley between the Kunlun mountain range in the north and the main Great Himalayas to the south.
Ladakh – Ladakh is renowned for its remote mountain beauty and culture. Strongly influenced by Tibet and largely inhabited by people of Tibetan descent, Ladakh is also known as ‘Little Tibet’. It is not only home to some of the most beautiful and serene monasteries you’ll ever see, but it also a land of rich natural beauty – and it’s this natural beauty that hits you so hard, because it’s a barren beauty. The enormous mass of the Himalayas creates a rain shadow, denying entry to the moisture-laden clouds of the Indian monsoon. Ladakh is thus, a high altitude desert. Many travelers find themselves at loss to understand how something so barren can yet be so beautiful.
Today, a high -altitude desert, Ladakh was once covered by an extensive lake system, the vestiges of which still exist on its south -east plateaux of Rupshu and Chushul – in drainage basins with evocative names like Tsomoriri, Tsokar, and grandest of all, Pangong-tso. The main source of water remains the winter snowfall. As the crops grow, the villagers pray not for rain, but for the sun to melt the glaciers and liberate their water. Usually their prayers are answered, for the skies are clear and the sun shines for over 300 days in the year.
The summer temperatures rarely exceed about 27 degree Celsius in the shade, while in winter they may plummet to minus 20 degree Celsius even in Leh. Interestingly, though, the thin air makes the heat of the sun even more intense than at lower altitudes; it is said that only in Ladakh can a man sitting in the sun with his feet in the shade suffer from sunstroke and frostbite at the same time!
Leh – At 3500 meters (11,490 feet), Leh, the capital of Ladakh is a fascinating destination. This staggering height cane cause even experienced high altitude travelers a problem and possible altitude sickness. So people are advised to take it easy for a couple of days and to acclimatize before venturing to further heights. A good time to explore this quaint town.
Leh is a small town, small enough to walk to most places. The old town is a compact area of mud brick houses and narrow lanes directly to the east of Main Bazar. Age-old monasteries, quaint lanes, colorful markets and stunning views of the Himalayas make Leh an exotic destination.
Leh is where your adventure in Ladakh begins. Trekking, Archery, Mountaineering, white water rafting and wildlife tours are the adventurous attractions of Leh. Though the weather can be freezing cold, the smiles on the faces of the Ladakhi people are sure to warm your heart.
Majority of the population is Buddhist and then Muslim. Linguistically Ladakhi is very closely related to Tibetan. The architecture of Ladakh is almost identical to that of Tibet, both of residential buildings and of the monasteries. The class structure, or more precisely the lack of a sharply defined class structure, is common to Tibet and Ladakh, and is in sharp contrast to the rest of India. However, Tibet was far from the only influence on Ladakh. Where Tibet was largely closed off to outside influence, Ladakh was a nation where the caravan trade played an important role. Traders from the neighbouring Muslim lands were a common sight in Leh’s bazaar until the 20th century. The folk music is based on the styles of the Muslim parts of the Western Himalayas.
How to Get There
By Air: Planes fly year round, and are the only option in the winter. Book early and give yourself at least a few days of flexibility as flights are often delayed due to weather conditions. Flights go to/from Delhi, Srinagar, and Jammu.
Those arriving by air are strongly advised to rest for at least one day in order to acclimatize to the high altitude.
By Road: The most popular option as the journey takes you through some of the most scenic and picturesque landscapes.
There are two ways of getting to Leh by Road, one from Manali in Himachal Pradesh in the south, and one from Srinagar in the west. Both routes are equally spectacular in different ways, but both are time consuming with winding, narrow roads, and numerous military checkpoints.
The main advantage of taking the road from Srinagar, covering a distance of 434 km (270 mi), is that it runs at a lower altitude, and thereby reduces the risk and severity of altitude sickness. It is also open longer – normally from the beginning of June to October – and follows the traditional trade route between Ladakh and Kashmir, which passes through many picturesque villages and farmlands. The disadvantage is that it passes through areas of higher risk of militant troubles. It takes two long days, with an overnight stop in Kargil. Tickets cost Rupees 370/470 on ordinary/deluxe buses.
The route from Manali to Leh, covering a distance of 473 km (294 mi), is one more commonly taken by tourists. It takes two days, normally with an overnight stop either in Kyelong (alt. 3096) or in tent accommodation in Sarchu (4253) or Pang (4500). Making the first stop in Keylong reduces the risk of altitude sickness (AMS). It traverses one of the highest road passes in the world and is surrounded by wild rugged mountains. The scenery is fantastic, though it is definitely not for the faint hearted. This route was only recently opened by the Indian army, and historically traders would not have traveled this way. It is only accessible from mid-July to end-September, as it is blocked by snow for rest of the year.
By Train: This is not really an option as the nearest stations are 3 days away by bus in Jammu or Chandigarh.
There are some regular tourist circuits which entail driving 200-400 kms roundtrip out of Ladakh-
Leh-Karu-Chang La-Tangtse-Pangong Tso & Back
This is a pouplar trip to Pangong Tso Lake and can be done by taxi/bike. Most people do it as a day trip starting early in the morning and come back by the evening. However, there are arrangements for stay near the lake in Lukung & Spangmik and one can stay overnight to enjoy this place at a slower pace. Camping is also possible.
Leh-Khardung La-Nubra Valley (Valley of Flowers)
This is another popular trip but difficult to do in one day. Nubra Valley may not be as beautiful as is touted to be, and is second favourite to tourists as a trip out of Leh. Some people return from Khardung La (18380 ft), which is claimed to be the highest motorable pass in the world. It provides excellent views of Ladakh Range as well as Karakoram Range on the other side. Accommodation is available along the way and in Nubra Valley at various places.
Leh-Upshi-Tso Kar-Tso Moriri
This is another trip which covers two smaller lakes Tso Kar and Tso Moriri. there is accommodation available in Korzok(Tso Moriri) but camping near the lake is not allowed.
This is an easier drive along Indus river towards Kargil and one can also see the confluence of Indus and Zanskar on the way. Lamayuru is a beautiful place and is home to the oldest monastery and one of the most important in Ladakh. One can stay in the monastery or in the surrounding village.
Various monasteries around Leh
Here are 4-5 big monasteries around Leh and can be covered in one day. Most important of them are Thiksey, Hemis, Spituk, Stok and Shey.
– Ladakhi food has much in common with Tibetan food, the most prominent foods being: Thukpa, noodle soup; and Tsumpa, known in Ladakhi as Ngampe, roasted barley flour, eatable without cooking it makes useful, if dull trekking food.
– Leh has a large selection of low and mid-range accommodation, with some offering the best value in India. The standards of even the cheapest places here tend to be much higher than elsewhere in India. There are very few, if any, touts that are so common elsewhere in India, so looking around for accommodation here is much easier and less stressful as a result.
– Ladakh is one of the safest parts of India, the most basic precautions are enough to keep you and your possessions safe. It is advisable to carry a torch (flashlight) at night, as there is next to no street lighting, and there are some very deep drainage diches.
– Ladakh is an excellent trekking area for experienced trekkers. The infrastructure is nowhere near as developed as in Nepal, necessitating greater preparedness on the part of the trekker. Most trekkers go with a guide and some pack horses, which is easy to organise, and if arranged in Leh quite affordable. It is possible to trek independently, but this should not be undertaken lightly and without much consultation with locals. People do go missing and die on those trails!
– In late June and early July, the whole Ladakh region comes alive with festivals. Some are held at the local cricket and polo club in Leh, while others are held at the monasteries. Reserve a place well in advance as they get very crowded. Some of the festivals are only held every 12 years, (such as one at Hemis) and at that time the monastery will display its greatest treasure, such as a huge thangka (a religious icon painted or embroidered on cloth).
– White-water rafting on the Zanskar and Indus rivers is also organised from Leh. Please be advised that the Indus rafting route from Nimmu towards the Pakistani border has rapids of increasing severity which run along the grades of 4, 4+, and 5; the latter two grades being not for the very faint of heart.