Indian Ladakh, being a so-called bridgehead of the Himalayas, is an absolutely unique place. However, due to a specific climate, high altitudes and challenging nature of this place, this is a journey you should definitely prepare for. In my last post – Ladakh – knocking at the Himalayas’ door, I wanted to inspire you to think about this destination as of worth visiting at least once in your life. If I succeeded and Ladakh has already nested in your thoughts, it’s time for the next step – planning the details.
I went to Ladakh at the invitation of India Someday and Unplugged Life, who greatly facilitated my exploration of this region and instilled in me the desire to return and see even more. Visiting the region with local operators has many advantages, especially at the end of the season, when many places are already closed – guest houses, rentals. There are not so mnay tourists, so it is also harder to team up with someone – for example – to rent a driver and share the costs. Therefore, these two companies can relieve in aspects such as transport, recommend local accommodation and help design a tailor-made journey according your needs. And they support eco-tourism, employ only local drivers and are very aware of caring for the environment. I believe that traveling with local companies and supporting them it’s a good thing, because who will show you the country better than local people?
However, before you decide to come, you should know exactly what to expect from such journey and how to prepare for it.I’ve prepared a practical guide to Ladakh to make everything easier.
BEFORE THE TRIP
When to go?
The peak of the season falls in the summer, so from the second half of June till about first half of September. It’s warm and dry then and the climate is desert-like. Temperature during the day can reach even 30 Celsius but because of huge diurnal range, it can get cold at night and high in the mountains temperature can drop even to 0 Celsius.
Beginning from October, temperature during the day is close to 0 and snow might appear as well. I was in Ladakh in the first half of October and it had its good and bad sides. The good sides included an undoubted fact that it was after the touristic season, so I did not experience crowds of summer tourists. There was peace and quiet almost everywhere. Besides, the beginning of the fall is really beautiful in here, trees in valleys become very colorful, enlivening the landscape. The worse part was that even though the sun was shining, it was chilly during the day and simply cold at nights. In Ladakh there is no central heating, so in private lodgings or guest houses it’s really cold.
In this region winter lasts about 6 months and it’s very harsh. In this time tourism almost completely vanishes there. The high mountain passes are not available. And there are very few accommodation options in Leh then. The land access roads are closed and you can only reach Ladakh by plane.
Indian e-visa program makes it possible for you to do everything online, including payment and printing – all without the necessity to visit a consulate. However, it only includes people applying for visas of following categories: tourist, visit, short-term medical care or short-term business trip.
Moreover, e-visa allows you to enter India only through one of the following 16 airports: Ahmedabad, Amritsar, Bengaluru, Chennai, Cochin, Delhi, Gaya, Goa, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mumbai, Tiruchirapalli, Trivandrum and Varanasi. It entitles you to stay in India for maximum 90 days.
The procedure of getting a visa is quite simple and doesn’t last long. You can apply for it HERE. It costs USD 50. Applications are investigated really fast (usually in about 48 hours) but just to be safe, I recommend applying for it in advance of at least a week.
Reaching Ladakh by air
The optimal variant is flying to Delhi and then catch another flight to Leh (it lasts about an hour). The bad side of this solution is that you land directly at 3500 meters above the sea level in the capital city of Ladakh, which is a solid guarantee for a shock for your organism, which doesn’t have enough time for acclimation and would be more prone to more severe effects of altitude sickness. So if you choose this option, plan at least 2 days for staying in Leh just for acclimation.
Reaching Ladakh by land
The second option is travelling to Ladakh by land. However, it is available only during summer season (roads are usually open from May to October). Such a trip is time consuming but allows your organism to get used to the environment. You should consider two options:
OPTION NO. 1 Jammu – Srinagar – Kargil – Leh
- You can get to Jammu by train from Delhi. It takes about 9 hours.
- Then you can go from Jammu to Srinagar by coach or by taxi.
- The local Jammu & Kashmir SRTC couches are the cheapest. Price depends on how big the coach is but you can assume about 500 rupees. Taking a cab is much more comfortable but also much more expensive (just a friendly advice – always bargain with the drivers).
- From Srinagar you also take these two options but coach is the cheapest and costs about 1200 rupees. Trip to Leh, including a stop in Kargil (lodging not included in the price of the coach ticket!), takes about 2 days.
OPTION NO. 2 Delhi – Manali – Leh
- You can get from Delhi to Manali by coach. You should buy the ticket at the local agencies or directly at the carrier (there you might have some problems with online payment, if you don’t have an Indian credit/debit card).
- When it comes to the road from Manali to Leh, you should brace yourself and prepare for a long and demanding ride. You can do it in one day, which takes about 20 hours or you could choose to stop for a night.
Vaccination and health
If you’re going to India, it’s highly recommended to get at least the basic set of vaccination, most importantly jaundice A and B, typhoid fever and cholera.
In Ladakh there is no risk of catching dengue fever or malaria (carried by mosquitos), as these diseases do not occur above 2000 meters above the sea level.
You should definitely have antibiotics for food poisoning in your med-kit (I recommend going to travel medicine physician when it comes to this). You should also think about including a medicine for altitude disease – Diamox. You can buy it in Leh. A full, well-equipped first-aid kit is an absolute basic in this trip, do not underestimate it! In Leh you would have no problems with finding drugstore or shops with cleaning agents.
In India you should absolutely never drink tap water. The only options for you are: bottled water or boiled water. The same applies to brushing your teeth (and remember not to swallow water while taking a bath). When it comes to food, I recommend choosing dishes that were cooked or fried. Besides, you should avoid ice cubes in drinks and eating raw vegetables and fruits (and if you must, only those scalded and peeled). You should also check where you want to eat (cleanliness level, running water, if the dishes are washed), because most of the gastronomic outlets there present rather awful sanitary conditions.
What to pack?
Journey to the Himalayas is no picnic and in order to be able to travel freely and comfortably, you would need specific stuff and appropriate clothing. I’ll prepare another post for you about what to pack and remember to take. Stay tuned!
WHEN IN LADAKH
In the center of Leh there is a well-functioning tourist office, in which you would be able to consult about how to travel in the region, about present attractions, how much you should pay for transportation etc. There are maps and leaflets there too, as well as free wi-fi (and in Ladakh a working wi-fi is more precious than gold!).
Transportation in the region
There are some options to choose from, depends on your budget and preferences. You can travel by:
- Local coaches – the “slow option” – it’s crowded, it’s loud and it’s slow. But people are really friendly and the driver would let you get off the bus at any place on the road.
- Hitch-hiking – usually there’s no problem with hitching Indian trucks or military vehicles. The officers are helpful and in most cases won’t refuse to give you a lift. Sometimes you can also bump into Buddhist monks, who are also very helpful.
- Local taxis – but remember to agree upon a detailed price in advance.
Inner line permit
To travel freely in Ladakh you need a special permit – the so-called Inner line permit. You can get it at travel agencies for a maximum of one week (but with the option of extension). The permit consists of three elements, two of which are permanent – environmental fee (price 300 rupees) and fee for the Red Cross (price 100 rupees). In addition, each day costs 20 rupees. If you travel with local operators like Unplugged Life, they will arrange this certificate for you.
What to see - places
Rich culture and art of Ladakh could not be overrated and you should definitely find some time to at least try to get to know it better. Except for mysterious Buddhist monasteries, what is very curious in Ladakh is the simple life of the citizens, villages you ride by and of course unexpected, unique and austere beauty of the nature.
Leh (3500 meters above the sea level)
- Shanti Stupa (especially at dusk)
- Royal Palace (with the museum) and Fort Tsemo (with panorama), which is situated just above
- Stupas above the Palace and Fort
- Marketplace (local flavor)
- Narrow alleys and side streets of the old town (to feel the climate of Ladakh).
The Leh area
- Monastery in Thiksey – very close to Leh, you can go there by bus or by taxi (direction of Karu and Manali)
- Monastery in Spituk – same as above but in a different direction (of Kargil and Srinagar), about 8 kilometers from Leh. So-called share taxi costs about 20 rupees.
- Monastery in Alchi – the most known one because of its perfectly preserved interior.
The Nubra Valley
Here you can also find guesthouses but when I was at Nubra, I stayed at a boutique hotel – Stone Hedge Hotel. It’s a new place, which reminded me of luxurious wooden hotels in Switzerland. The vibe was also similar – huge windows with spectacular view over the valley, wood, awesome kitchen and, which was a total surprise for me, also heating. It is truly a wonderful hotel but I have to admit that this place surprised me very much, because its standard was so different than the rest of the places I’ve stayed at in Ladakh. But, of course, if you like comfort and luxury, this is the place for you!
The Pangong Lake (4350 meters above the sea level)
The Pangong Lake is the most important tourist attraction of Ladakh and it is situated at dizzying altitude of 4350 meters. The lake, surrounded by barren mountains, is considered one of the most beautiful ones in the whole Ladakh. It is a transnational lake, which extends between India and China for almost 134 kilometers. About one third is situated in India and its average width is about 5 kilometers, which makes it one of the biggest salt lakes in the world. The views are so breathtaking that a few Bollywood movies were shot there.
You can reach Pangong Lake from Leh, which is about 150 km far. The trip on winding roads lasts about 7 hours, so you should better plan sleeping in the area.
What to try - the attractions of the region
Ladakh is undoubtedly a land of adventures, offering you incredible possibilities for trekking, rafting, camping and biking.
In Ladakh there are lots of trekking routes of various difficulty levels. Nubra Valley, Zanskar Valley and Leh have both the easy and the challenging routes. The most popular are from Lamayuru to Darcha, Ripchar Valley, Padum to Darcha and from Lamayur to Alchi. Except for that also Chadar, trekking on a frozen river, Kang Yatse and Dzo Jongo.
Other routes worth visiting are: Ladakh Zanskar Trek, Manali Ladakh Trek, Markha Valley Trek, Nubra Valley Trek, Rupshu Valley Trekking and Stok Kangri Trek.
The meandering Indus River and Zanskar River are the main places for rafting. The best professional rafting part is situated between Spituk and Saspol, while the suitable part for amateur rafting is between Spituk and Karu. Padum and Nimmu are the two points at Zanskar River, which offer the most thrilling rafting.
Mountain cycling is a very popular attraction of this region. One of the most popular routes in Ladakh are Leh-Alchi, Leh-Hemis, Khardung La, Jispa-Gandla and Marhi-Manali.
Mountaineering is definitely the ideal adventure in Ladakh. The high ranges of Zanskar and Karakoram are perfect for professional mountain climbers. The Stok-Kangri massif in Zanskar is quite popular among them. The most often conquered peaks are: Nun (7135 m) and Kun (7077 m), Gulap Khangri (5900 m), Matho West (5950 m) and Kantak (5275 m). In Karakoram the most significant peaks are Saser-I (7415 m), Saser -II (7513 m) and Saser III (7495 m).
Where to sleep in Ladakh?
During the tourist season there are plenty lodgings to choose from. There are hotels, guest houses and home stays – everyone would find something suitable to their needs. I stayed in Leh at marvelous Gangba Home Stay. It’s furnished traditionally, with simple, very clean rooms with hot shower and beautiful garden full of flowers, where in the morning you can delight in the taste of masala tea. Besides, there is an awesome, home-like kitchen. Wi-fi worked really well too, which was an additional advantage of this place. And most of all – charming, smiling and very helpful service. I recommend it with all my heart
And if you want to try something really original, it’s worth booking a night at the Royal Palace – Stock Palace Heritage (where the royal family still lives). The guest bedroom property is adjacent to Queen Ladakh’s bedroom. Sounds unreal!
The Nubra Valley (3500 meters above the sea level)
Nubra Valley is full of unexplored and non-exploited jewels of nature. The main places to see and in the same time the best tourist attractions are: Diskit Monastery, which is the biggest and the oldest Buddhist monastery in the valley, a tall statue of Buddha and the Hunder Desert. Besides, in Nubra there are amazing hot springs in Panamik. The other two places worth your time are also Sumur and Turtuk. Moreover, this place is great for trekking. These routes lead adventurers to the most exotic places, like Tirit, Lukung, Tegar and Samstaling with Sumur.
When it comes to lodging, Pangong is the biggest challenge. First of all, the high altitude and bitter cold already make it hard enough but you sleep in the middle of the wilds in camps, so tents or small houses. No network coverage, no heating, no warm water. So you should be prepared for survival and adventure. I stayed at the „Native Huts”. Because I visited the lake in October, so off-season, the only lodging option were small wooden and tin houses (it was too cold for tents). Furnishing was very simple – a bed with bedding and blankets, bathroom with western style toilet and cold water. For such spartan conditions, it was not that bad! I recommend taking appropriate clothing and a good sleeping bag (during the night it was about -2 Celsius inside). Light is available only from 6 PM to 11 PM, if you need it later, you need to have a torchlight or LED lamp. In the camp there was also a big tent, which served as a cafeteria, where they served a really tasty and warm breakfasts and suppers.
What and where to eat in Ladakh?
I recommend going to a marketplace in Leh to try local Ladakhian dishes, which have very much in common with Tibetan dishes.
The most known are Thukpa (a soup with noodles) and Tsampa, called in Ladakh as Ngampe (flour made of toasted barley). Any barley surplus is fermented and turned to chang (alcohol beverage, drank especially on formal or festive occasions).
Another characteristic Ladakhian dish is Skyu (pasta with root vegetables).
Similarly to other parts of Central Asia, tea is usually made of strong green tea, butter and salt. It’s mixed in a big dish, called Gurgur Cha – because of the sound during mixing.
Sweet tea (cha ngarmo) is equally common and made in typical Indian style with milk and sugar.
Restaurants worth visiting in Leh:
- Gesmo Restaurant, Lamayuru Restaurant
- The Tibetan Kitchen
- Neha Snacks (North Indian Snacks).
- Most of the turquoise products and jewelry is not made of real turquoise and are just Chinese fakes but at local markets you can find really exceptional gems of craft.
- The most popular fruits in Ladakh are apricots, so there are lots of local goods to choose from: dried fruits, jams, juices etc.
- It’s also worth to buy tea with saffron – Shahi Qawah. Ready mixes of green tea with cardamom, cinnamon and saffron are sold in most of the local shops.
- All who are interested in Buddhism and Tibetan culture would love artifacts of Buddhist art like thanki (paintings), statues or religious accessories.
- Another pretty souvenir are wares made of cashmere, for example shawls. But remember that you should bargain because it might later turn out that they were more expensive than the ones imported to Poland.
What else should you know?
- Juhley is an all-purpose word, meaning good day, thank you, goodbye, awesome, I like you, it’s a deal and many many more. If it’s juhley, it’s okay!
- While visiting Buddhist temples you should remember not to sit on the floor with your feet facing the altar or statues. It is regarded as disrespectful. Remember to take your shoes off before entering a temple too!
- Ladakh has a sensitive ecosystem and you should not leave waste, which is not biodegradable. It’s best not to throw them away during the whole trip and dispose of them in New Delhi, because in Ladakh there is no proper segregation and utilization system. Moreover, in order to limit usage of plastics, it’s worth to have your own water bottle and fill it with filtered water, which you can get in numerous stores.