For long I have had the perception that Ladakh was a land far far away with hostile environment and rough weather – a Holiday destination only for the tough & rugged. After this trip, I am glad I was proved wrong.
This BLOG is based on my 12 day solo trip to Ladakh in Sep 2021. It has all that you need to plan your trip. I need to thank Akarsh Pall of I Am Adventure (98118 29449) who helped me plan this trip. He is passionate, committed and has extensive knowledge of Ladakh – without his help I would not have had a wonderful immersive experience to learn so much about Ladakh.
Why Ladakh – A Few Compelling reasons
- EasyAccess – Fly into Leh or drive from Srinagar (You can also drive from Manali)
- Language, No problem – everyone knows Hindi / English
- Food, No problem – even in the remotest of places you will get piping hot Rice / Dal / Roti / Sabji and even Curd. Add to this Pizza / Pasta / local delicacies and of course the roadside Maggi.
- Excellent roads – In 12 Days I would have travelled over 1250Km , over 90% of the roads were in excellent condition thanks to the BRO
- Very Affordable – Excellent homestay at 1000 Rs / day. You can choose your accommodation from basis backpacker dorms & tents to Luxury 5 star hotels
- Very Safe – In the middle of a remote road on our way from Dah to Leh a young muslim girl in hijab stopped us for a lift. In which part of India would a girl dare to take a lift from an unknown vehicle.
- Lovely people – The Ladakhis are very nice people. They are warm and helpful. Never agitated always equanimous, following the middle path
And most importantly, A Lot to experience – Ladakh has craggy snow capped mountains, glaciers, scenic river valleys, lakes, treks, orchards, meadows, deserts…. a lot of sightseeing a lot of adventure. The only thing it doesn’t have is dense forests
Given the volumnous information I want to share I will structure this BLOG under 3 Sections
- An Overview of Ladakh
- How to manage Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
- Planning your Trip – Travel TIPS
An Overview of Ladakh
- The word LA in Ladakhi means PASS – so Ladakh is the land of high mountain Passes. Khardung La, Fotu La, Chang La, Taglang La, Baralacha la …. etc. This is rugged mountain land, a cold desert where the altitude varies from 3000 – 5900 Metres. This is where the Great Himalayas originates. It is also the place of origin of the Karakoram and the Zanskar range of mountains.
- Ladakh is huge – 59,146 Sq Km. That is bigger than Punjab & Harayana. The UT has two Districts – Leh & Kargil. Total population is less than 3 Lacs. Leh is predominantly Buddhist and Kargil is Shia Muslim. Leh is the 2nd largest district of India (Kutch is the largest & Jaisalmer the 3rd)
- It is one of the coldest and most sparsely inhabited regions of the world. Yet it has a high density of armed forces. We have hostile neighbours and a long stretch of LOC with China and POK. At any point in time there are over 50,000 battle ready armed forces in Ladakh. Siachen & Galwan the hotspots of recent times are in Ladakh.
- Ladakh was an independent country till 1834. It was part of the silk route and there is a lot of mingling of cultures. A strong Tibetian influence – The Ladakhi language is a modified Tibetan form and both share the same script. It also has influence from Iran ( Indo Iranian – Dard), Baltistan and people from Central Asia including Uighur’s. Interesting to note that the Balti’s a sect of Muslims in Gilgit – Baltistan follow the Persian Navroz New Year. The great general Zorawar integrated Ladakh with the kingdom of Jammu.
- Its not just the land of lofty mountains but also the land of many rivers. The mighty Indus (Still called Sindhu in Ladakh) originates near Kailash and flows thru Ladakh before entering Pakistan at Batalik. There are many more rivers cutting deep gorges and creating fertile valleys – Zanskar, Shyok, Suru, Drass, Nubra, Shingo are some of the larger rivers – most of which are tributaries to the Indus
- Ladakh is also the land of pristine high altitude lakes – Pangong Tso, Tso Moriri, Tso Kar etc. You may have guessed that the word Tso means lake in Ladakhi
Given the size of Ladakh how much time will it take to cover everything
If you want to do justice and see all that Ladakh has to offer you must plan a 4 – 6 weeks trip. Or multiple trips of 2 weeks. Most people try to cover the key sights of Leh / Nubra / Pangong in 5 – 6 days. But that is just touching the tip of the iceberg. Dont do that – coming to a far away land spend time with the locals, immerse yourself with the culture and go back with knowledge and deep experiences of a lifetime.
This Link has a detailed explanation of all the regions of Ladakh and what they have to offer. Read at leisure. It will help you plan your trip. https://travelthehimalayas.com/kikis-guide-to-ladakh.
How to Manage AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness)
This is the first question that people travelling to Ladakh have. The city of LEH is at 11,500 Feet, Khardungla Pass is ~ 18,000 feet. During your trip you will be travelling between 9500 – 18000 feet. That is serious High Altitude and you need to plan to avoid AMS. I had learnt my lesson during my travel to Kailash Mansarovar and took all the necessary precautions this time – Within 24 hrs of landing I was fine and Ladakh felt like being in Bangalore.
- Dont Take Diamox – Let the body adjust naturally. This was the best advise that Akarsh gave me. I was inclined to take Diamox – but he insisted against it.
- If your travel plan can be from Srinagar that is ideal. Drive from Srinagar to Leh on NHI and on the way cover Sonmarg / Drass / Suru Valley / Dah – Hanu and then reach LEH. This is the best way to acclimatise as you ascend slowly and your body adjusts. (Srinagar – Sonmarg : 84 Km, Sonmarg – Drass : 60 Km Enroute you cross the Zojila Pass 3530 M, Drass – Kargil : 55 Km , Kargil – Leh : 230 Km)
- If you are flying into Leh then take the first 36 Hrs very easy. Do Nothing. Eat light. Drink a lot of stream water (Not Bisleri). Avoid Oily food / Rajma / Eggs – stick to Dal Chawal / Curd / Roti Sabji
- Do a lot of deep breathing – better to start doing this months before your trip to Ladakh
- Dont exercise or walk briskly – don’t do Yoga / skipping … any strenuous activity.
- Your first getaway from Leh should be to a place of lower altitude. So head to Kargil / Drass / Suru Valley / Dah – Hanu etc. These are all places at 9000 – 10000 feet. Dont try going to Pangong ( 14,500 feet) or Tso Moriri (15,000 feet) on Day 2 of your trip – that is a recipe of disaster. Getting to Nubra Valley also means crossing Khardungla which is at 17900 feet.
If you are not Obese, your fitness levels are decent and you follow the above guidance I can assure you that your chances of getting impacted by AMS are rare
Planning your Trip
What is the best time to travel to Ladakh ?
April 15 – May 15th and Sep 10th – Sep 30th is ideal. From Oct – March Ladakh is very cold and tourists may find many attractions closed. Roads / High altitude passes may also be closed. In Sep the crowds start diminishing and by Sep end you may get to see snow in the high passes. The fruit season may just be getting over and if you are lucky you may spot Apples in the orchards but the Apricot season may be over. Mid April is spring when the flowers in the valleys bloom. It will still be cold and there will be a lot of snow but Ladakh will be fresh, welcoming the seasons first tourists .
June – July – Aug is peak season and you may be disappointed with crowds everywhere. Ladakh is a place you want to enjoy in solitude. The tourist traffic in Ladakh is exploding – 2021 saw well over 300K tourists an all time high – This inspite of COVID and no foreigners. The Govt is gearing up for 1 M tourists in the next 3 – 4 years. So dont delay your trip – visit Ladakh before it becomes Simla or Nainital.
How many days trip should I plan
You first need to decide how many days you have at hand. You can work with your travel planner to maximise based on this. Here are some basic guidelines that may help you
- I used a Hub & Spoke model. Made LEH my Hub and retained a lovely homestay there for the entire duration of my trip. Explored the region by making 1 – 2 day trips
- Did not do any long tiring day trips and was not on the road for more than 6 hrs any day
- This ensures that you are not tired and you can get your laundry done at the homestay
- Dont rush – enjoy the beauty of the place, talk to the locals , stay at homestays and villages, eat local food and get a cultural immersion.
Approximate Indication of time & distance from LEH
Section – 1 : Kargil / Drass / Suru Valley / Dah – Hanu (Budget 2 – 3 days)
- Leh – Kargil : 216 Km – 4 1/2 Hrs – NH 1 Excellent road, Kargil – Drass : 60 Km – 1 Hr – NH 1
- On the way to Kargil stop by at the Lamayuru monastery with its moon like rock formations. You can Explore the Kargil War memorial at Drass, There are Apple & Apricot orchards on the way to Drass at Karkichoo valley. Spend the night at Drass and visit the Tiger hill. Mushko Valley & Minamarg are the hubs for trekking to Gurez & Amarnath
- Kargil is the District HQ – nothing much to see there, but from Kargil you can explore Suru valley – best time to do that is in April – May when the flowers are in full bloom
- As you finish this circuit and head back to Leh take a different more scenic route along the Indus via the Aryan Villages of Dah – Hanu. You can stay in a small hotel by the Indus River called the Aryan Residency or live in a Camp by the river. There are 3 villages here which claim to be descendants of Alexanders soldiers. They do dress up and put up a show if you are in a group (Not FREE)
If you leave Kargil by 9 AM you will reach the Aryan Village by lunch time – that gives you 1/2 a day to explore the place, sit by the raging Indus River and enjoy the peace and solitude. The next day after breakfast if you leave by 9 AM you can reach Leh by 3 PM – with a stopover at Alchi monastery and lunch at a beautiful restaurant called Alchi village.
In a landscape that is vastly craggy brown mountain this sector is the green patch. Depending on time available one can also cover Zanskar from Kargil. Remember this is the place of the world famous Chadar trek on the frozen Zanskar river.
Section – 2 : Turtuk/ Nubra / Pangong Tso plan for 3 nights
After you completed the 1st Phase of your travels take a 1 day break at Leh and enjoy the local sights and restaurants, then head to Turtuk.
To reach Turtuk you need to cross the famous Khardungla Pass. When we were kids that was the answer to a quiz question – Khardungla pass was the worlds highest motorable pass. It no longer is – but at 17982 feet it is impressive.
Khardungla pass is 39 Km from LEH. Start early to avoid the army convoys. You want to reach early and cross the pass early – don’t spend more than 15 Min at Khardungla. We left LEH at 7.15 AM and were at Khardungla by 8.15 AM It was empty. We were lucky to see snow in mid Sep – it normally starts snowing in early Oct and has over 6 feet of Snow from Nov to March.
As you descend from Khardungla you see many wild Yaks grazing and after a few hours reach a white sand desert called the Nubra Valley. On our onward journey we did not stop at Nubra and headed straight to Turtuk. On the way you see many army camps – this is the way to Siachen & Galwan. We reached Turtuk at 2 in the afternoon. This was the longest travel day for us
Turtuk is a Balti village. Most of Gilgit Baltistan is in POK. Turtuk and the adjoining villages were annexed from POK by the Indian army in 1971. Many claim that Turtuk is the Northern most Indian village – but there is Takshin and Thang beyond Turtuk. The last inhabited village is Thang from where you can see the Line of Control. I spent the night at Turtuk and enjoyed local Balti cuisine. The village is clean and is full of home-stays, restaurants and small museums. Its a pretty green village with streams and flowers and orchards. The Shyok river flows by from here to Pakistan.
At Thang do try and meet Gubba Ali. He has an emotional story to tell of 1971 when as a 5 year old he was separated from his parents who were in the next village in POK. The army did not proceed further as cease fire had been declared and the Pakistanis did not allow his parents to come back.
You need a local to take you for a morning walk down some pretty streams and trek up to a monastery for some fresh air and lovely views. Turtuk is a lovely place – dont do a rushed day trip from Nubra, spend a night here.
The next morning we left Turtuk after breakfast and a morning trek at 10.30 AM and reached our resort at Nubra by 2 PM. On the way we stopped by to meet the rare double humped Bactrian camels from Central Asia. The camels look healthy, strong and well fed.
Please note they head home for lunch at 1 and are back only by 4 PM – so time your travel accordingly. Along Nubra Valley there are many places where you can also indulge in ATV rides.
At Nubra we stayed at a nice resort owned by the Ex Mla of Ladakh. Osay Khar is a beautiful resort in the lap of nature with 21 modern cottages, an organic garden and a sprawling Apple orchard. They also rear their own cows. The owner Tsetan Namgyal is a wonderful man and his family offers you great hospitality. Incidentally Tsetan is royalty – his sister is married to the King of Ladakh. I am thankful to Tsetan for spending so much time and showing us the neighbourhood.
The drive from Nubra to Pangong Lake is about 6 hrs. There are sections where the road is not in great shape. Leh – Pangong – Turtuk is a bit like a triangle so it saves time to cover Pangong Lake from Nubra rather than going back to Leh.
Pangong Lake is at 14,500 feet. Its a the worlds highest saline lake. Its also 135 Km long and over 100 feet deep – 1/3rd in India rest in China Occupied territory. The lake is serene and eerie. Inspite of being saline it freezes in winter. It is spotlessly clean and the water is sparkling. There is no permanent accommodation here. There are tented camps – some are canvas tents and some are log house rooms. Tents are decent – Western bathroom with running water. Electricity from a generator is provided from 6 – 10 PM and hot water at 8 AM for an hr.
Most people tend to do a day trip to Pangong Lake from LEH. I would advise against this. 10 hrs of driving can be very tiring. The Lake is best enjoyed late evening and early morning. I was lucky to be here on a full moon night. Try and time your travel to a New Moon or Full Moon. Yes it is freezing cold in the tent and with 3 layers of sweaters, a thermal and 3 blankets I was shivering. The camps shut down in October as it becomes very cold.
Service is good and hot fresh food – Roti / Rice / dal / Soup / Kheer is provided. Tea / Coffee / Maggi / Snacks is also provided.
The next day we left Pangong at 8 AM after a hot breakfast and headed back to Leh Via Changla Pass – another high altitude Pass. the journey was smooth and we reached LEH at 12.45 right in time for lunch at the Gyalson Homestay – the lovely place which was my HQ.
All about LEH
LEH was my hub. The Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport is the 23rd highest commercial airport in the world at 10,682 feet. Its a small airport that is undergoing expansion. The flight to Leh from Delhi is scenic – remember on the Delhi – Leh route choose seat F (Window) and on the Leh – Delhi sector choose seat A. This will ensure you get the best views.
I stayed at the Gyalson Guest-house – a very comfortable and homely place. It is the home of a lovely Ladakhi family. Rooms are clean, hot water is available 24 by 7 and you get freshly cooked meals – with organic vegetables from the kitchen garden. It is also very affordable. (Contact Paale – 80823 46464). A big thanks to Megha & Yashwant for guiding me to Gyalson and also helping me plan the trip.
Located on Changspa Road the main hub of Leh its a short 10 min walk from the Leh Market. The Shanti Stupa is also a 10 min walk and can be seen from the balcony of the room.
Leh is a small town – but unlike other hill stations the roads are flat. There is no public transport – so your rented vehicle is your mode of transport. There is a wide variety of restaurants and shops in leh and you can get almost everything you get in a big city. Idli / Dosa / Pizza / Pasta / Local Cuisines …. you can feast at the local restaurants and cafes. many are vibrant with live music. Here is a list you may find handy of the 15 Best restaurants in Ladakh. 15 Best Restaurants & cafes in Ladakh. Inspite of its remote locations costs are very affordable.
The key sights of Leh can be covered easily in 2 days. Shanti Stupa looks beautiful when lit at night. the Pathar Sahib Gurudwara has a lot of history associated with it and the Hall of Fame is a wonderful war museum and memorial. Dont miss the Light & Sound show at Zorawar Fort and Hall of Fame. Magnetic Hill, Leh Palace, Stok Palace, Central Museum, Sangam of Indus & Zanskar, Ghats of the Sindhu river, a few monasteries – that’s about all that there is to see in Leh
So what did I miss out this trip?
Tso Moriri is another beautiful lake. Less frequented by Indians. Thats another 1 night trip from Leh. Further ahead of Two Moriri is the village of Hanley which is home to a rare observatory that houses one of the worlds highest telescopes. Star gazing from here is supposedly out of the world. But this is a long long way away. Suru Valley is a must visit in Spring and one should plan a trip to Zanskar.
So I guess another 2 weeks are needed to cover Ladakh.
A Few More Points to help in your travel
- The 3 most important accessories for this trip are Sunscreen lotion SPF 50, a Nice big floppy hat and sun glasses. At this altitude days can be very hot and the sun rays can be scorching.
- Carry a lot of water – a good sipper with inbuilt filter is good to have – as you drive you can fill your bottle from the fresh streams.
- Airtel Post paid connections work. The network is decent in most places. BSNL has the best coverage. In Pangong only BSNL works.
- Innova’s and Mahindra XUV’s are the only vehicles you will find on the road. Dont overload your car with 6 – 7 passengers. Try to be max 3 – 4 / vehicle. There are no mechanics / repair shops Enroute so ensure that you have a good Vehicle
- Most tourists are youngsters who rent a bike from LEH. A lot of young couples who come in groups. A lot of women groups. I spotted very few families ( maybe it was Sep and school time) – and some teenagers but no one below the age of 12 or above the age of 60.
- Carry your medicines – after LEH you will not find any chemists / big shops
- Ladakh is the biggest producer of Apricots – so if you want to drink fresh fruit of the land drink Apricot juice.
- You will not find Bars / Pubs in Leh or in other locations. Liquor may be available on request. Best avoided. At Pangong Lake I was sitting with a bunch of youngsters from Jaipur who were enjoying a few drinks and the camp incharge advised them to stop. A few days back two youngsters in their 30’s had suffered cardiac arrest after drinking.
- If you kids want luxury stay – yes there are some high end hotels , you may want to indulge in some of them during your travel. Luxury Hotels in Ladakh
- Credit card / Google Pay works in Ladakh – lots of ATM’s. But carry cash – outside of LEH cash is preferred. Your cash usage is limited if your travel planner has booked all your rooms. On a 12 day trip I did not need more than 10K in cash.
- There are many monasteries – they are huge. I visited two of them Lamayuru & Aichi. They all feel the same. I could not sense the energy and vibes in the monastery that one feels in the ancient Chola temples.
- The Inner Line permits that were needed till recently have been eliminated. Indians can travel to almost all of Ladakh without permits.
- And last but not the least – Is Ladakh a destination for honeymooners ? No it isn’t
And one more thing. Ladakh is home to many regiments & battalions. Many a Braveheart has given up his life in the struggle to protect the motherland. Do visit the memorials and museums of the brave soldiers and understand the challenges that they face in the peak of winter when the temperature easily drops to (-) 20 degrees or lower.