If Ladakh is paradise, Leh is your stairway to heaven.
The barren beauty of Ladakh in India with snow-capped peaks and the clean azure sky has continued to attract the intrepid travelers. The scenic destination has maintained to cast its spell since the region was opened to tourists in the 1970s. Since then, Ladakh has become a favorite haunt for trekking and mountaineering enthusiasts. The rugged terrain and the majestic mountains around, make an exotic cocktail for an adventure lover. But before you decide to fly away to the land of Buddhist monasteries and brave people, here’s everything that you need to know. It is imperative to understand that you need at least a week to acclimatize and enjoy your tour to Ladakh.
Plan a trip to the land of bluer-than-blue lakes and stark grey mountains with this quick guide:
Getting to Leh
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:
- From Srinagar (415km): 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 140km and 200km from Srinagar respectively.
- From Manali (482km): 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 140km 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.
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 100km and cost Rs2,500 for a Mahindra Xylo and Rs2,800 for a Toyota Innova. Most people don’t, but in case you want air conditioning, it costs Rs7/km in addition to the aforementioned prices.
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. (Doubles from Rs11,600)
- The 45-room Hotel Shangrila is minutes away from the airport and has a Tibetan-inspired restaurant that serves Ladakhi food. (Doubles from Rs6,500)
- A short walk from Leh town, Mahey Retreat has rooms overlooking sprawling gardens that grow most of the produce used by the restaurant. (Doubles from Rs4,600)
- The family-run Mogol Hotel has friendly staff and 19 spacious rooms with views of the mountains. (Doubles from Rs4,500)
- Backpackers and solo travellers can opt for Shaolin Guest House on Sankar road (starting Rs800 per person) and Zik Zik Guest House on Karzoo lane (+91-94191 79357; doubles from Rs1,000), which are homely, comfortable and easy on the pocket.
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 (+91-9419129157), 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 (tip: 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. Check out our complete list of Leh’s best eats here.
Good to know
- 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. Kshitij adds, “If something goes wrong, you’ll fall 1,000ft into the valley.” Take it slow and easy, and enjoy the scenery.
- 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.
Do’s and Don’t
The following are some travel tips, do’s and dont’s to keep in mind during Ladakh trip.
• Check the weather conditions before you travel.
• Carry plenty of water to stay hydrated as this is very important at high altitudes.
• Remember to pack the right clothes when you are travelling to Ladakh. Cotton wear, woollens, thermals, sturdy walking shoes and sunglasses.
• Remember to pack extra batteries for your camera and mobile phone as electricity can be a problem.
• Wear appropriate clothes when you are visiting Buddhist monasteries.
• Avoid carrying plastic bags as these are banned in Ladakh.
• Don’t take photographs of monks without taking their permission first.