Every second plan I hear these days is about Ladakh. Every second travel query I get is about Ladakh. There are two kinds of people in my world, it seems: those who have visited Ladakh and those who haven’t. This article is for those who haven’t, for those who’d like to plan a Ladakh itinerary for the best season to visit: summer.
India’s northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir consists of three main regions: Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. The three regions have three distinct geological and cultural features. Jammu is the major city in the Jammu region. Srinagar, the state’s capital, is situated in the Kashmir region. Leh is the largest settlement in the Ladakh region, and as you enter the arid lands of Ladakh from the lush valleys of Kashmir, you cannot help but struggle to find the relation between the two.
Ladakh is a remote land of mountains and its seeming inaccessibility and lack of commercialization are what make it so special. Don’t look for citylife luxuries—there are none. And if you ask for them, someone will be listening, and soon Ladakh will be another tourist area like Kerala. Instead, when you visit, look up, and every time thereafter you hear Guns N’ Roses sing, “She’s got the eyes of the bluest skies,” the amazingly clear skies of Ladakh will come to mind.
So what’s the big deal about Ladakh?
The arid cold desert that lies at a staggering altitude of 9,000 to 25,170 feet is going to leave you gasping for breath. A land like no other bound by two ranges—the great Himalaya and the mighty Karakoram—it is a marvel sculpted over time by wind and water. Barren slopes, unbelievably colorful lakes, lofty mountains, impossible climbs, amazing glaciers and striking monasteries set in the most unimaginable settings will draw you into this Land of Endless Discoveries, leaving you wanting for more.
How do I reach Ladakh?
Leh is the only major town of the Ladakh region. Leh is accessible by air during all seasons and is accessible by road only a few months a year when the snow thaws. Air India, Kingfisher and Jet Airways fly in and out of Leh all through the year from Jammu, Srinagar, Chandigarh and Delhi.
Leh is situated at a strategic location that falls along the ancient Indo-Tibetan and Indo-Sino trade routes. The ancient routes have now been modified to become the only two access roads to reach Leh, either from Srinagar or from Manali. One is the 434-kilometer Leh-Srinagar highway and the other is the 475-kilometer Leh-Manali highway, the quintessential Mecca of road trips. The Jammu and Kashmir Tourism board runs buses on these two highways with an overnight stay at either Kargil (Srinagar-Leh route) or Keylong/Sarchu (Leh-Manali route). Manali is about 14 hours from Delhi by bus. You could also hire taxis at a fixed rate at the Srinagar/Manali taxi stands, either on a sharing basis or full occupancy, depending on your needs. It takes two days for each of these journeys and these roads remain open for only few months a year starting from May/June through September/October. Check this site for the status of these two highways.
If you plan to drive your own vehicle on these roads, your vehicle needs to have high ground clearance. Also, the highway passes through the most remote uninhabited lands, so you need to be prepared to handle any emergencies on your own. There aren’t any mechanics for miles and help takes quite a while to arrive.
Do I need to worry about AMS?
Yes, absolutely! With Leh located at 11,500 feet (3,500 meters), the altitude difference is considerably high for sea-level dwellers. The air gets thinner above 10,000 feet and oxygen levels are reduced by 40 percent. This means our bodies have to function with reduced oxygen and that cannot happen overnight. Those who travel by road have a better chance of acclimatizing than those who fly to Leh directly. Either way, you need to accommodate for at least a day or two for acclimatizing in your itinerary. Take it slow the first two days, refraining from any sort of physical exertion. It’s advisable to do nothing more than rest or go for a stroll in the city. Let your body adjust to the oxygen level and atmospheric pressure changes. If you’re hit by AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), the only cure is descending to a lower altitude and that could spell doom for your trip as nearly everything in Ladakh is at a higher altitude than Leh.
The primary symptoms include headache, nausea, vomiting, loss of sleep, loss of appetite, etc. Staying hydrated is of utmost importance. Once you acclimatize, AMS is not much of a problem. But stressing yourself even before your body gets a chance to adjust could have serious repercussions.
Now that I have acclimatized, what do I see and do?
There are plenty of things to see and do: trekking, sightseeing, rafting in Zanskar, exploring the cultural Buddhist connection. Maybe biking on the most unforgiving roads in the most inclement weather suits you. There is something for everyone. Prime attractions for sightseeing are as follows:
The Lake Circuit: Leh > Pangong > Tso Moriri > Tso Kar > Leh
- Pangong Lake, at an altitude of 14,000 feet, is a brilliant blue lake shared by India and China at a distance of 150 kilometers from Leh. Requires one day to visit.
- Tso Moriri, at an altitude of 15,000 feet, is another high-altitude lake set in the desolate landscape of Rupshu at a distance of 220 kilometers from Leh. Night halt at Karzok village by the lake side. Requires two days.
- Tso Kar and Statsapuk Tso are, respectively, salt-water and fresh-water lakes that can be accessed upon taking a diversion from Taglang La. Can be done on the return journey from Tso Moriri to Leh.
The Nubra Valley Circuit: Leh > Khardung La > Diskit > Hunder > Panamik > Sumur > Leh
- 37 kilometers from Leh, Khardung La, is, according to signs at the summit, the highest motorable pass in the world. And though the pass itself is situated at 18,380 feet, the road is at 17,582 feet. Still extremely high, but the actual highest motorable pass is Marsimik/Marsimek La, at 18,340 feet (see Off the Beaten Track, below).
- Nubra Valley is nestled in the lap of Karakoram Ranges. The capital town of Diskit is at a distance of 118 kilometers from Leh. Attractions include the rolling sand dunes and hilltop monastery
- Hunder, 125 kilometers from Leh, is noted for its small population of double-humped bactrian camels.
- Retracing the path and a diversion at Khalsar to the left will take you to Sumur, 115 kilometers from Leh, famous for Samstaling Monastery.
- Further ahead, lies the hot sulphur springs of Panamik, 140 kilometers from Leh.
The Drok Pa Circuit: Leh > Dah/Hanu Settlements > Chiktan > Kargil
- 163 kilometers west of Leh lies the Dah/Hanu villages of community tribe Brokpa, who are believed to be descendants of a lost Aryan Tribe. Contrary to the stark Tibetan features of Ladakh people, these people have distinct Aryan features.
- Coming towards Namika La from Dah/Hanu takes you through the ruins of Chiktan fort.
- Needs a night halt at Kargil.
The Zanskar Valley Circuit: Kargil > Pensi La > Ringdum > Padum and beyond > Kargil
- 140 kilometers from Kargil, up to Penzi La, lies the beautiful Suru Valley with Nun-Kun massif rising in the background.
- From Penzi La, you get complete views of the majestic Drang Drung Glacier.
- It takes one whole day to reach Padum in Zanskar valley from Kargil. Leh to Padum cannot be done in one day. Needs a night halt at Kargil.
- Zanskar is virtually untouched by the winds of change owing to its inaccessibility. Zanskar is also known as Land of Religion with the highest concentration of gompas (monasteries)
And the grand monasteries, of course
- Shey, Hemis, Thiskey, Lamayuru, Samstaling, Likir, Stakna, Chemrey, Takthok, Matho, Alchi, Spituk, Phyang and Rizong are a few of the many prominent monasteries of Ladakh.
Frequently Asked Questions
What about an Inner Line Permit?
It is not possible to visit any of these places without an Inner Line Permit, obtained from the Deputy Commissioner Office in Leh. You could ask your tour operator or hotel manager to arrange this for you. Only the names of all the travelers are required to get the permit. It is advisable to take photocopies of the same as you may be asked to submit the permit at the checkposts. Protected Area Permits are also required for visiting Khardung La, Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso, Tso Moriri and Dah-Hanu.
Where do I stay?
Leh has all kinds of accommodation facilities, from budget to luxury. There are many simple, family-run guesthouses that cater to basic needs, although meals will not be provided. In Pangong, Tso Moriri and Nubra Valley there are luxury campsites. At all other places—Karzok, Diskit, Hunder Kargil, Padum—guesthouses/campsites/lodges will be your best bet. For the telephone numbers of a few guesthouses, check here.
How do I travel around Leh?
You can rent a bike at Leh, hire a taxi (SUV) or use public transport (which runs very infrequently). You might find that the taxi charges are exorbitant but consider the fact that these roads are nothing like our tarred highways. Rugged, treacherous and untamed would be my best description. Be prepared to shell out anything from 5,000 to 14,000 INR for 150 to 450 kilometers. While you’re at it, keep a watch for the super whacky signposts all along the way. For taxi fares, check here.
How about the weather in Ladakh?
It is said that Ladakh is the only place where one can get sunstroke and frostbite at the same time. The sun pierces at this altitude and the winds are very cold. Make sure you carry a good sunscreen to avoid sun burns and warm clothing to escape the chill. Evenings and nights get be extremely frigid—daytime, too.
How many days will be required for a comfortable visit to Ladakh?
That depends on how much of Ladakh you’d like to visit. Keep in mind that most of the time you’re in Ladakh you’ll be traveling. Driving to and from Leh by road takes two days in each direction. Each place you stay requires one whole day or an overnight. A minimum of 10 days is sufficient. If you plan to include Zanskar region in your itinerary, note that reaching Padum in Zanskar Valley takes two whole days from Leh. An ideal time period would be a month or two to explore this awesomeness but all I can say is, “If only wishes were horses….”
What is the best time to visit Ladakh?
May–October is the ideal season, the only time when the two highways are open and provide connectivity with Leh. But do enquire about the status of these highways before planning your itinerary. Winter Travel in Ladakh might be an interesting option as you can still reach Leh by air, but make sure you book a hotel in advance so they make arrangements for your visit.
Want to tread off the beaten path?
Marsimik/Marsimek La is located 42 kilometers from the northwest tip of Pangong. At 18,340 feet, it is supposedly the world’s highest motorable pass, though just how “motorable” is debatable.
There is also a road connecting Tangste to Diskit, directly passing through Wari La. This road will save you the detour of going to Leh and then going to Diskit. There is a direct route connecting Pangong to Tso Moriri through Chushul > Tsaga > Loma > Nyoma> Mahe. This route used to require special permission from the Home Minister Office in Delhi, as it runs very close and parallel to the Indo-Chinese border. Previously, only the army used it, but, since 2010, the route has been open for domestic tourists and you can get the permits at the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Leh itself! The usual route will have you retrace the path till Karu and take the diversion to Tso Moriri. Bear in mind that these roads are off the beaten track for a reason: they’re not completely motorable and only for the adventurous.