If Ladakh is paradise, Leh is your stairway to heaven. Plan a trip to the land of bluer-than-blue lakes and stark grey mountains with this quick guide:
How to Reach?
You can fly to Leh from major Indian cities via Delhi (there’s also a 4am direct flight from Mumbai), but much of the time you save will be spent acclimatising to the altitude. Your other option is to drive, and there are two ways of getting there:
1. From Srinagar (415 km): The Srinagar–Leh road is open from the first week of May till December, depending on snowfall. The roads are well maintained, the ascent is gradual—chances of mountain sickness considerably reduce—and there are beautiful villages on the way. Perfect for families with elder members and children. You can stop overnight at either Dras or Kargil, which are 140 km and 200 km from Srinagar respectively.
2. From Manali (482 km): This high-altitude road is snowed under for most part of the year. It opens around the first week of June and remains motorable till October. The climb here is steep, the roads crumbly, and landslides are a real threat. Try this if you’re looking for adventure. Travellers usually halt overnight at Jispa, about 140 km from Manali.
It is also possible to drive from Srinagar to Leh in a day. But you will need a very early start, an experienced driver and plenty of energy to sit through the drive. Certainly not the best way to arrive in Leh. The most recommended way to travel: drive in, fly out.
What about Local Transportation?
Taxis can be booked through the hotel or a travel agent, and they charge as per the destination. The Leh main market also has a taxi stand—solo travellers can opt for shared taxis, which are cheaper and can be paid for on a per-person basis. Vehicles for overnight trips cost about 20% more than day trips. For reference, a day trip from Leh to Thiksey, Shey and Hemis monasteries and the Druk Padma Karpo School—of 3 Idiots fame—will cover a distance of approximately 100 km and cost Rs. 2,500 for a Mahindra Xylo and Rs. 2,800 for a Toyota Innova. Most people don’t, but in case you want air conditioning, it costs Rs. 7/km in addition to the aforementioned prices.
Where to Stay?
Many of Ladakh’s top attractions are a day trip away from Leh, which is why it makes sense to camp here. Predictably, the town gets swamped in peak season and places are sold out months in advance. These are the ones to book:
- The Grand Dragon Ladakh is centrally heated and has solar-powered rooms with views of the Stok Kangri mountains.
- The 45-room Hotel Shangrila is minutes away from the airport and has a Tibetan-inspired restaurant that serves Ladakhi food.
- A short walk from Leh town, Mahey Retreat has rooms overlooking sprawling gardens that grow most of the produce used by the restaurant.
- The family-run Mogol Hotel has friendly staff and 19 spacious rooms with views of the mountains.
- Backpackers and solo travellers can opt for Shaolin Guest House on Sankar road and Zik Zik Guest House on Karzoo lane which are homely, comfortable and easy on the pocket.
Where to Eat?
Most restaurants are open throughout the tourist season and are great for people-watching or meeting locals. Settle down with a hot cup of cappuccino at Jeevan Café, which also has a small library on the first floor—ask for their pizza and lasagne. Lunch at the value-for-money Summer Harvest restaurant in Changspa and try their hearty thukpa (noodle soup), or walk up to the tavern-like Bon Appetit for a meal with a view—they make great chocolate momos. For a taste of Tibetan cuisine, try Tibetan Kitchen on Fort Road (ti: get a table outside) or the quaint Amdo Café in the main market, which serves steaming momos and thenthuk (noodle soup). Stop by Pumpernickel German Bakery on Zangsti road for fresh bread, cakes and cookies. Don’t forget to visit the charming Lala’s Café, which is housed in a restored Ladakhi house and serves butter tea. Lamayuru Restaurant on Fort Road is great for vegetarians and is the place to go when you’re craving Indian food.
What to Do?
- Art/history: Visit the Shanti Stupa, Leh Palace and the old town in Leh. See local art at the Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation in the old town, which also conducts workshops on subjects such as textiles, design and writing. You could also time your visit to see the colourful Hemis Festival, a two-day celebration in June/July, held at the 17th-century Hemis monastery, about 40km from Leh. Join in for prayers at the Thiksey and Lamayuru monasteries, which are both day trips away from Leh.
- Shopping: The Leh main market is home to Tibetan antiques, jewellery and curios. You can also buy handcrafted carpets, rugs and pashmina shawls. Visit the Ladag Apricot store in Zangsti for organic food and jams made with locally sourced apricots.
- Voluntarism: If you plan on staying longer, volunteer with the 17000 ft. Foundation, which works with schools in villages in and around Leh and offers 10-, 16- and 30-day programmes that involve teaching and infrastructure building, among other things.
- Adventure: Adventure junkies can time their visit to watch the Ladakh Marathon. (If you want to participate, here’s what you need to know.) For treks and monastery tours, Ladakh Ecological Footprint is your best bet. They also offer river rafting expeditions for beginners and experienced enthusiasts. Frozen Himalayas conducts biking trips to and from Leh and also snow leopard treks in winters.
- Overnight trips: Taxi it to the unearthly Nubra Valley and Pangong and Tso Moriri lakes. While the journeys can be made in a day, Kshitij Thube, who biked from Manali to Leh last summer, recommends otherwise. “There are comfortable camps everywhere and stunning views—you can share a camp right on Pangong Lake. There’s no point visiting if you can’t watch the sun rise and set beyond the lake.”
What to Pack?
Apart from jackets and warmers, here’s what you need to survive:
- Waterproof sports shoes
- Rainwear (rainproof pants + a poncho + raincoat)
- Sunscreen (or else, as Kshitij says, your skin will “peel off your face in two days”)
- Hats and sunglasses (for sun protection)
- Backpack/duffel bag to carry everything you need for smaller trips around Leh
- Medicine kit (with Diamox and regular medicines)
- (If you’re driving) Toolkit with a set of basic tools for the vehicle
Countering Mountain Sickness
Mountain sickness is a real danger and can be fatal. Symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) include headache, light-headedness, breathlessness and nausea. Sujata Sahu, founder of the 17,000 ft Foundation, explains, “Hospitals in Leh are filled with tourists who think the weather is great and take acclimatisation lightly.” If you think something’s wrong, stop or descend to the lowest possible point immediately.
Medicines such as Diamox may be prescribed by general physicians prior to the trip and help reduce the chances of AMS—in case of any discomfort, this should be your first go-to. Having said that, the body is also fully capable of adjusting to the altitude on its own, if given time. Chewing something (especially garlic and chocolates) helps keep symptoms away. Most local vehicles and campsites are equipped with oxygen cylinders; don’t hesitate to use them if/when necessary.
Top Ten Pro Tips
- Carry government-issued photo-identity proof—driving licence, Aadhaar card, PAN card, etc., which come handy at checkpoints and in case permits are required.
- Plastic bags are banned in Ladakh, so make sure you carry biodegradable/paper bags.
- The weather is unpredictable: it’s usually windy and can go from pleasant to chilly very quickly. Wear layers instead of bulky warmers to stay comfortable at all times.
- Keep in mind that most establishments in Ladakh are shut during the off season i.e. the time when roads are closed.
- Carry waterproof luggage; this will ensure that the contents of your bag remain dry in case it rains unexpectedly or you need to drive through water.
- Remember to take spare batteries for your camera, as the altitude and cold will drain them out quicker.
- When travelling around Leh, it’s best to avoid alcohol; drink water instead. Breathing in dry air drains the moisture from the lungs, so make sure you consume at least 4–5 litres to stay hydrated.
- If you’re the one at the wheel, it’s important to know that driving here is different from driving anywhere else. It’s a constant mental and physical test, and covering more than 50km a day is a challenge for anybody who’s not a seasoned driver. Don’t push yourself more than you need to.
- Prepaid SIM cards don’t work well in Leh, but postpaid do (Airtel, Aircel and BSNL are your best options). The main market in Leh city also has multiple STD booths.
- Most importantly, don’t try to do too much in too little time. Ladakh is not a place that you see in a hurry.
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