The mountains are up to almost 7500 meters high. No wonder Ladakh is considered a paradise for trekking. People's lives are concentrated in the river valleys of the Indus. The traditional villages and Buddhist monasteries are now visited by many tourists.
In contrast to Kashmir, the travel to Ladakh is safe. Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism meet in this triangle between India, Pakistan, and China. Only the strong military presence is noticeable. But we do not feel uncomfortable for once and hear anything adverse from others too.
Two and a half weeks in Ladakh
We remain in Leh for two and a half weeks. Upon arrival, we visit Ladakh's capital and then the monasteries in the area. We then undertake excursions with one or two overnight stays, while the main luggage remains in the hotel. As public transport is rare, it is ideal to explore with a car. The prices are fixed, so you do not have to negotiate.
Leh is situated at 3500 meters in the middle of a great mountain scenery. Despite many tourists, the atmosphere remains relaxed. There are nice hotels and cozy restaurants in gardens or on roof terraces that lure with Indian or Tibetan dishes. Prayer flags are everywhere. The yoga, meditation and trekking tours are offered.
Leh's town center is small. The busiest is Main Bazaar Road, where travel agencies, shops, and vegetables stand side by side. There is even a shop with only apricot products. We stroll through the winding streets of the Old Town. We see children playing, women feeding sheep, baker's baking bread.
The dilapidated Leh Palace built in accordance with the Potala Palace in the Tibetan capital Lhasa perches over the city. It appears close. But if you want to climb up after arriving in Leh, you can quickly get out of breath. There is not much to see inside. But the path here is very nice. A little higher is the Namgyal-Tsemo-Gompa. In the fort, there are only ruins. The prayer flags flutter, and the view is magnificent.
A nice afternoon walk leads to the Shanti-Stupa. There are also great views of the city and the surrounding mountains. Cultural events are often held in Leh. The Ladakh Festival is famous, which is held in the first half of September. During our stay, the Women's Association of Ladakh organizes a bazaar with regional products and a cultural program. Women prepare the Momo during this time.
Ladakh's Buddhist Monasteries (Gompas)
Because of the similarity of the culture and the spatial proximity, Ladakh is also called Little Tibet. This is particularly evident in the Buddhist monasteries. We visit at least a dozen of these so-called Gompas.
The Thiksey Gompa is situated on a hill. The monastery is also one of the most frequently visited because of the distance. A spiritual experience is a visit during a puja or a prayer in the early morning. Monks with Tibetan horns announce the start. In front is the great backdrop of the Indus Valley!
Thanks to well-preserved frescos and statues, Hemis Gompa is one of the most famous monasteries in Ladakh. The kings of Ladakh used to live in Stok Palace. Today, the palace is a popular excursion destination. In the west of Leh lies Phyang. The place is known for its choirs and walls, which consist of stones decorated with sacred texts.
Lamayuru is situated in very beautiful surroundings. It is famous for its artistic prayer rooms. A highlight is the cookery courses here. The owner of our homestay explained us the preparation of a Tibetan stew and the momos.
Buddhist Festival Taktok Tse-Chu
A special experience in Ladakh is the visit during a Buddhist festival. Most monastery festivals take place in winter. But there are some in the summer. Since the dates are according to the Tibetan Moon calendar, they differ from year to year. During our trip, we visit the Tse-Chu festival in Taktok. The monks dress in colorful robes and ceremonial masks.
Cross the Khardung-La-Pass into the Nubra Valley
The highest permanently motorable road in the world leads from the Indus to the Nubra valley through the Khardung La Pass. According to signs, it is at 5,602 meters (18,380 feet). Because of the border with Pakistan and China, the road is well maintained. You can find snow even in the summer.
From Leh, we drive by car to the Khardung La Pass. Often, the road is only a few meters wide. Nevertheless, a military convoy perhaps heading towards Kargil overtook us. Sometimes it seems as if the half tire is already over the abyss. For good reason, it is a one-way street. The route from Leh to Nubra is opened in the morning, and from the opposite direction in the afternoon.
Once up, we leave the car for a photograph and go on immediately. Although we have already been acclimatized for a few days in Leh, the heights increase. Even bicyclists are tormented by the spectacular road. The return journey is expected to be much more relaxed.
Bactrian camels in the Nubra Valley
The Nubra valley, surrounded by high mountains, appears like the gateway to Central Asia. If the Nubra and Shyok rivers were not there, it would look like a desert. In fact, one can ride in the sand dune between the places of Discit and Hunder on Bactrian camels. During our three-day tour to the Nubra Valley, we stay in the beautiful village of Hunder, where of course there is also a Buddhist monastery. During the day we visit, among other places, the village of Diskit, whose Gompa boasts countless mani stones and great views.
Indo-Aryan villages of Dha-Hanu
In the northwest of Ladakh near the Pakistani border are the so-called Indo-Aryan villages. The ethnic minority living there differs in language, culture, and appearance from the other inhabitants of Ladakh. The two villages of Dha and Hanu are only accessible to tourists. The once again spectacular ride from Leh leads along the Indus river. Again and again, we stare out of the car window and get enthusiastic about the landscape.
Towards the end, the river and the valley become narrower. In the middle of the rubble desert, the village of Dha runs along like a green ribbon. The village is located at 2,900 meters. That is why the climate is milder than elsewhere in Ladakh. Lots of fruits are cultivated and even wine is prepared here. Many visitors only pass by to see the women, who are known for their flower jewelry.
We hike through the village and take a break with a family who is familiar with our driver. The hosts dress in their traditional clothes. We spend some nice hours with each other, and then say goodbye to each other in the end.
Along the Indus to Tso Moriri
Another excursion is around 230 kilometers southeast of Leh to the Changtang High Plain. It is located at about 5,000 meters and is the highest, permanently populated region in the world. For several hours we follow an asphalted road parallel to the Indus. The river cuts deep valleys into the mountains and tears through rocks as large as single-family houses. The impressive landscape seems like from another planet. Therefore, we always stop and enjoy the view.
On the way, we see the Hot Springs of Chumatang. At some point, we turn right into the Rupsu Valley. As soon as we pass the Tso Moriri lake, we see barren, inhospitable landscape. We barely meet people, passing several dead horses. It is cold and rainy. But the snow-capped mountains, which rise in the background, show how beautiful the Tso Moriri must appear in good weather. After all, the lake is a popular start or end point for several days of trekking.
In the late afternoon, we meet in Korsok. The only settlement at Tso Moriri is located at an altitude of 4,600 meters and looks dreary. There is a monastery, some shops, and a viewpoint. It is stormy, ice cold and the height makes us go. That's why we cuddle together in the draughty room of a cheap guest house in bed. We go to sleep around 7 pm dressed in full gear, including a cap. On the second day, we go on to the Tso Kar lake. After another chilly night, we decide to go back to Leh.
Day trip from Leh to Pangong Tso
Ladakh lies in the militarily sensitive triangle between India, Pakistan, and China. Permits are necessary for the visit of border regions of the Nubra Valley, the Indoaryan villages Dha-Hanu as well as the high mountain lakes of Tso Moriri, Tso Kar, and Pangong Tso. Travel agencies and hotels in Leh provide these so-called Inner Line Permits easily within a day. They need a copy of the identity card, passport or visa, and a small fee.
Humor is demonstrated on the road signs created by the Indian Border Roads organization. Drivers always come across warning signs, which point out the traffic hazards in this part of the Himalayas. "After whiskey driving risky", "Slow drive long life" and "Overspeed is a knife, that cut your life" are just a few of the sayings that comment towards prudent driving. But there are many others, including "Better late than never", "Alert today alive tomorrow" and "Darling, I like you, but not so fast".
Budget hotels in Ladakh / Luxury hotels in Leh
In Leh, there are plenty of hotels. Many guest houses and hotels are attractive and traditionally decorated and have a lovely garden. A reservation is recommended especially in August and in the first half of September during the Ladakh Festival. After the arrival by air, it may be difficult to go hotel hunting with the backpack on your back.
We make a guesthouse as our base. It is located just outside but within walking distance of Leh. With breaks for excursions, we stay there for two and a half weeks. The clean, traditionally decorated rooms have hot water and Wi-Fi. They certainly do not represent the cheapest option in Leh. But the garden is very nice. The view from the terrace is great and the atmosphere is familial. The nice owner organizes all our tours and permits.
During the excursions, we stay in simple guest houses in the villages. During our stay in August, we did not have any problem. The drivers know each other well.
Best time to visit Leh Ladakh
Ladakh is not influenced by the monsoon. The climate is very dry with great temperature differences. "This is the only place in the country where you can experience snowfall and a sand storm on the same day", says it aptly in the Lonely Planet travel guide. The best travel times are from May to October. Most visitors come in the main season in July and August. Then the temperatures reach 30 degrees Celsius and more during the day.
In the shade and in the evening it is however quickly cold. Therefore always have a warm sweater and a jacket. Due to the intense sun exposure also pay attention to sun protection. Anyone traveling to Ladakh in the winter must adjust to the extreme cold. Temperatures can reach minus 30 degrees Celsius and more.
Getting to Ladakh
The fastest and easiest way to get to Ladakh is via the airport of Delhi and then on to Leh. Several airlines operate the route. The flights to and fro Leh are often delayed because aircraft can start or land only with a clear view. There are also domestic flights from Leh to Srinagar and Jammu. Ladakh is accessible by road only from May to October. Between July and mid-September, buses run between Manali and Leh and between Srinagar and Leh. The journey lasts two days each.
Things to do in Ladakh
A trip to Ladakh can be combined with a visit to Delhi including a trip to Agra and the Taj Mahal. Srinagar in Kashmir also can be visited. If you do like mountains all the time, you can probably feel comfortable in Zanskar. The region is located in the west of the Himalayas but is even more remote than Ladakh.
Ladakh Travel Tips
Pay attention to the symptoms of altitude sickness in the first few days. The body adapts itself slowly to this physical challenge, whether you are high-performance athletes or not. Therefore, our travel guide from the tea town of Darjeeling in West Bengal, also advises us to start the day slowly and calmly. He gives me the wonder pill called Diamox on the second day of travel. Vaccinations against hepatitis and typhoid are recommended.