Leh used to be one of those mythical mountain destinations that few travelers had seen. When Ladakh was opened to foreign tourists in 1974, the first backpackers came to Leh by bus from Srinagar in Kashmir. Since then Leh has become an increasingly busy town, and in the summer its streets are filled with backpackers and tourists, hotels and guesthouses, coffee shops, restaurants, Tibetan markets, Kashmiri salesmen, Internet cafes and money changers.
Remains of an old royal palace, once the home of Leh’s Buddhist kings, stand just outside on the road towards Manali. There is not much more to see but ruins and an impressive amount of white stupas or chortens that pop out of the dry earth.
Buddhist monasteries (gompas) around Leh include Hemis (the wealthiest of Ladakh’s monasteries and a Unesco World Heritage Site ), Thiksey, Likir, and Spituk.
I visited Thiksey, an old gompa that is still home to nearly a hundred monks of the Gelugpa order. Its white buildings look like they’re growing out of the brown hillside and as the monastery stands at 3600 m altitude, climbing up and down its steps feels literally breathtaking. Thiksey is most famous for its 15-meter-high statue of Maitreya Buddha, the future Buddha; and prayer wheels, thangka paintings, and colorful murals decorate the rooms.
Tips for Travel to Leh
Because of the volatile security situation in Kashmir, these days the most popular route to Leh is the road from Manali in Himachal Pradesh. The road opens around May when the snow melts and closes again around October for the winter, but daily flights are available from Delhi for most of the year.
Since Leh is at an altitude of 3505 meters, acute mountain sickness is a serious risk. If you’ve arrived by road, you’ve been over some high mountain passes already and arrival in Leh feels easier. If you arrive by plane from Delhi, expect some AMS symptoms: shortness of bread, sleeplessness, not being able to walk more than 5 meters without having to sit down to rest.
Even if you do not get very sick, the thin air in Leh can be challenging.