I visited Ladakh this year in August. Ladakh is a beautiful region in the state of Jammu and Kashmir,India, nestled in the mighty Himalayas. Ladakh is quickly turning into a popular tourist destination. From the spectacular snow capped peaks of the Himalayas to pristine glass surfaced lakes, from aesthetically built colourful monasteries to a treasure trove of Himalayal crystals and handicrafts, from delicious Ladakhi cuisine to the hospitality of the Ladakhi people, Ladakh has plenty to offer. My trip lasted for about twenty days which by no means is enough to explore all that this region has to offer but I would share my itinerary with you here which might come in helpful as you plan your own itinerary.
Access: There are two ways to reach Leh.
1) By Air: Leh is well-connected by flights with all major Indian cities. I recommend that you pay extra for the window seat for this flight because on the way there you would be able to get a glimpse of the beautiful Himalayan peaks and some inaccessible lakes tucked away in the mountains. Photography is not allowed in the Leh airport.
Friendly tip: If you take a flight back from Leh, you would be obliged to give all your baggage in check in and after security check, it is mandatory to go to a separate area and identify your personal belongings. If you fail to do so, your baggage will not be loaded on to the flight. There are frequent announcements regarding the same so you are unlikely to miss it.
2) By road: The scenic Manali-Leh and even more scenic Srinagar-Leh routes are well known for bewitching travellers with their beauty. The Manali-Leh route is a dream come true for any motorbike lover. If you have strength, stamina and skill, you can also rent a manual or electric bike to explore some of the places. All these vehicles are easily available on rent.
There are also state run buses from Manali to Leh.
If you are travelling in a group, you can also rent an SUV.
Acclimatization: Leh is at an altitude of 3500 metres and so majority of people would require acclimatization for at least two days irrespective of your age or physical health. If you plan to go for one of the treks, one of the best ways to explore Ladakh in my opinion, opt for at least a four day acclimatization.
Accommodation: There are plenty of guest houses and home stays at very reasonable prices. The architecture of houses in Leh stands out for it’s unique style and colourful gates. The rooms are usually furnished with beautiful wood work or colorful paintings. You can either pre-book your accommodation or search for your place on arrival. I recommend booking a place for at least a coupe of days so that you have a place to relax when you reach there. I stayed at the Dorjay guest house on Upper Tukcha road for the entire duration when I was in Leh. You can stay for very cheap in Leh and the people are very warm and friendly.You can find a list of state approved places if you follow the following link:
Trekking: Exploring Ladakh by foot is one of the best ways to go around Leh, in my opinion. And there are several treks ranging from easy to difficult that the trekkers can choose from based on how far they can challenge themselves. There are trekking companies that offer the treks while some seasoned trekkers start out on their own armed with a map and a backpack and trekking poles. I went for the 6 days 5 nights Markha Valley trek, considered to be one of the most scenic treks. It is moderately challenging. It can be done on one’s own in the peak season. On my way I was fortunate enough to see yaks, blue sheep, red fox, the Himalayan pika and marmots. I booked the trek through Ladakhi Women’s trekking company. I had a guide and a porter but I met several hikers who were on their own.
You can opt to stay either in a home stay or in a tent. You can read more about the Markha valley trek in the link below where I share my trek experiences and also give tips on how to go about solo.
Day 4 of the trek
Spot the red fox
A cow looks back as a red fox crosses the little stream
A petrified pika immobilized for a few seconds before mustering up all the courage to plunge into some safe hiding spot
Gongmaru La at 5100 metres, the highest point of the trek
The neighbour’s cow bidding us goodbye on the last day of trek
For more challenging and longer treks, I recommend that you take a guide since the local people are better aware of sudden changes in the weather and how to navigate them. It is not uncommon to hear of fatal accidents of adventurers who venture out on their own and lose their life to bad weather. It is not wise to underestimate the harsh climatic conditions that prevail in this region.
Hemis Monastery: I visited Hemis monastery on my way back from the trek. It has an amazing museum which has precious artifacts that are several hundred years old. The collection boasts of beautiful gems studded idols, ornaments, weapons and vessels. The handicrafts have mostly been collected from Kashmir, Ladakh and Tibet. Photography isn’t allowed so I couldn’t click pictures inside the museum.
Places to visit: Once you are back from the trek, get ready to see all that Ladakh has to offer. Take a day off to relax and for more of local Leh sight seeing and utilize it to go to the registration office and get a permit made. The permit is valid for a maximum of 7 days after which you would need to get another permit. If you do not want to take a day off, request your guesthouse owner to get it made for you while you are away. For an extra amount of Rs. 150, they will have it made for you. Always carry your national identity card, if you are an Indian national and your passport if you are a foreign national. Always keep a few copies of the permit as you would be required to submit them at the security posts. I will let you know more about it as I go into deeper details in the coming sections.
Pangong Lake: Pangong lake was made popular by the popular Hindi movie Three Idiots in 2009. Visitors have since flocked in considerable numbers to look at the crystal clear blue waters of this pristine lake. You can either rent a bike to reach there or you can rent an SUV if you are travelling in a group of 4-5 people. Don’t worry if you are travelling solo though. You can contact the travel agencies in the main market and they will arrange a seat in an SUV for you and divide the vehicle rent among the number of travelers.
Pangong lake on a sunny day
Pangong lake is best visited on a sunny day when the sun rays can reach upto varying depths in the lake giving it it’s characteristic turquoise hue where the water is shallow and a darker blue as it gradually deepens. Only a small part of the lake is visible. There are plenty of food stalls around offering a variety of food to choose from. Some people stay over-night to see the sun set and the sun-rise however I came back the same day.
I went in a group of four people and paid Rs.1900 for a one day trip. The cost would go up if you decide to stay the night. You can either stay in a tent or some distance away in a village in a home stay. Home stays can be found for much cheaper as compared to tents. If you are on your own, make sure that you carry two copies of your permit with you.
Thikse Monastery: You can also request your tour guide to show you the beautiful Thikse Monastery which lies along the way.
There is this enchantingly beautiful statue of Maitreya Buddha that holds your gaze with its serene expression.
The two storeys tall statue of Maitreya Buddha
Do not miss out the view of Leh from the roof top.
When going to Pangong lake, you will also get the opportunity to cross the Chang la, which is claimed to be the second highest motorable pass in the world. The weather can be pretty bad when you approach the pass so it’s in your best interest to be dressed in winter clothing. I went there towards the end of August and the weather was really bad. It was snowing in and around Chang la but as we approached Pangong lake, fortunately the skies cleared and we got a wonderful view of the lake.It’s always chilly around the lake and so it’s better to be armed with some winter clothing.
Keep an eye out for marmots. pika and herds of yak.
A lone marmot becomes the star attraction for the tourists
Nubra Valley: There are two kind of tours that are offered for Nubra valley if you choose to go with a travel agent. One of them is the tour where you stay in Hundar for one night and come back the next day. I did the tour in which you spend two nights in the Nubra valley, one in Turtuk, the border village and one in Hundar. Both the tours include a visit to the famous Diskit monastery and the sand dunes where you can ride the double humped camels. I opted for the tour that tooks us to Turtuk as well and shared the ride with three other travelers. I paid Rs.3800 for transportation.
Diskit monastery offers breathtaking views of the Nubra valley. The moanstery closes at lunch time and so it is best to speak to your driver to take you there at a time when it is open. We could not see the monastery museum as the monastery was closed for lunch and it was a long drive till Turtuk.
32 metres tall statue of Maitreya Buddha opposite the Diskit Monastery
The best apart about journeying in Ladakh however is not just the destination but the journey as well. Look out for beautiful vistas with shape shifting clouds giving some of the most vivid hues to the sky and little villages by the river streams tucked away in the lap of the Himalayas. It’s not just the sky that changes colours but the mountains themselves are found in vivid shades of pinks and violets and browns that are fascinating to look at.
We started at around 8:30 in the morning and stopped briefly on our way to visit the Diskit Monastery and the Big Buddha and for lunch. You will also cross the Khardung La, which is not however the highest motorable pass in the world as claimed. After that, we followed the Shyok river to reach Turtuk which is the last village open to visitors on India-Pakistan border. You will need 5 copies of permit.
Turtuk is a small beautiful village with a majority Muslim population. The village is green and close to a beautiful stream. There are plenty of homestays and guest houses to choose from. The guest houses are more expensive as compared to the home stay. One bed in a homestay cost us Rs.450. I could share the room with a fellow female traveler. The dinner and breakfast was included in the cost. Since it was already evening by the time we reached, we couldn’t walk upto the monastery. The local children took us with them to show us natural refrigerator where the village people store their perishable food items.
The next morning we woke up at 5 in the morning and walked till the monastery. K2, the second highest peak in the world can be seen from this point.
K2 as seen from monastery in Turtuk
After viewing the sun come up from behind the mountains and paying our respects at the monastery, we went back to the village. On the way we came across plenty of apricot trees from which you can eat freshly plucked apricots. After walking through the village for a while, we headed back towards Hundar.
We reached Hundar by noon and spent some time at one of the guesthouses. It cost us Rs. 750 with dinner and breakfast included. If you go inside the Hundar village, you can also find home stays which I am sure must be much cheaper. At around 4 in the afternoon we went to visit the sand dunes. You can ride the double-humped camels for 20 minutes, 30 minutes or a full hour. I paid for Rs. 350 for half an hour ride. It might seem tempting to go for an hour long ride but in my opinion half an hour is a fairly good dose for a day.
Sand dunes in Nubra valley
Double humped baby camels
A double-humped baby camel
We finished the day off by walking down the village and watching a cultural show where Ladakhi women dressed in traditional attire performed folk dances.
You can also dress up in the traditional Ladakhi attire and have your pictures clicked.
The next morning we hiked up to the monastery in Hundar on recommendation of our driver and were not disappointed by the beautiful views of the Nubra valley. We were also joined by a an extremely adorable furry friend on our way up.
Nubra valley as viewed from the monastery in Hundar
After the hike, we headed back to Leh and were back by afternoon.
Tso Moriri: Tso in Ladakhi means lake. Tso Moriri is a beautiful lake in the Changthang plateau of Ladakh. It reflects the sky and surrounding mountains in it’s clear waters with the clarity of a freshly polished mirror. It is also home to a number of rare birds like the black necked crane and many other bird species. If you are lucky, you can even spot a falcon on your way. I was lucky enough to spot one but I couldn’t click a picture. There are purple mountains along the way and we also spotted blue sheep on our way. This time I shared the cab with three other people and paid Rs. 3300 as transportation costs. I paid Rs.450 for one night in the homestay. Dinner and breakfast were included.
A small lake,known locally as the Lake of Joy on way to Tso Moriri
Blue sheep on the way
Clouds approach the sun lit wetlands around Tso Moriri
Clouds reflected on the surface of Tso Moriri
We reached Tso Moriri by around 3 in the afternoon. After leaving my bag in my room, I headed towards the lake. Being a wetland, some areas around the lake can be pretty soggy. I ended up in one such patch wetting my shoes. The time I spent by the lake was spent in utmost tranquility. When I walked back around sunset, the snow capped peak had already shrouded in a mist of enveloping clouds.
We started back for Leh the next morning and stopped by Tso Kar. The weather was getting bad so we couldn’t stay there for much long. We also passed Tangang la which is also one of the high motorable passes in the world.
If you have more time at hands, local bus can be a good way to explore Tso Moriri. A bus leaves at around 5 in the morning every 10th, 20th and 30th of the month and is really cheap. The bus leaves for Leh the next morning so you would have to rely on lift in another vehicle that is returning to get back to Leh if you do not want to spend the next 10 days there. You can take a lift back from the locals when you want to head back however you need to have a more flexible schedule because your stay may get extended by a day or two if no one is leaving.
Leh: Leh has plenty to offer. There are plenty of markets selling the most amazing artifacts in a number of small markets. From fancy brass door knobs in fascinating shapes such as a hand or the face of a lion to beautiful locks shaped as fishes and owls, from sparkling Himalayan crystals and jewellery made out of precious stones to those irresistible Pashmina shawls, from statues of Buddha to meditation bowls, the markets have something to fascinate everyone. If you are a meat lover, there are several keema stalls along the way and there is no dearth of momos. For shopping, I would recommend old market because it is a lot cheaper as compared to the main market square and the shops surrounding it. When planning a visit to Ladakh, make sure that you keep some days aside just for visiting Leh.
There are plenty of monasteries in Leh, one is right in the centre of the main market and one is close to the Shanti Stupa, which is an attraction you can’t miss. I have heard that there isn’t much to visit in the Leh Palace because everything has been transferred to the Stok Palace.
Hall of Fame is a must visit for every Indian. It’s inspiring and tragic at the same time. There is also a segment that tells you about the history of Ladakh and the kings who ruled Ladakh, and also about the flora and fauna and the lifestyle of local Ladakhis,
You can do a monastery tour and visit all the prominent monasteries. Lamayuru can be done as a day trip from Leh. You can also visit the Indus Valley village, whose residents are rumoured to be one of the purest races of Aryans. I visited nothing of Zanskar but that has plenty to offer as well.
I couldn’t visit all these places this year but I definitely would go back and explore more of Ladakh and then update this post.
Going solo: I am a solo female traveller and I faced no problem at all and felt absolutely safe at all times so I recommend this place for any solo traveller.