Destination Review: Leh
“Only in Ladakh can a man sitting in the sun with his feet in the shade suffer from sunstroke and frostbite at the same time.”
The land of mystique and spirituality, Leh is on every traveller’s bucket list. Located at an altitude of 3,500 metres and nestled amidst majestic mountains, this is India’s second largest district after Kutch, Gujarat. Every twist and turn has a surprise in store, with ancient stupas, quaint cafes, golden barley fields, gushing streams and beautiful Ladakhi homes that dot the rugged landscape.
There was a time when Leh was an important trading post on the commerce route along the Indus Valley, between Tibet, India and China. Grains, cashmere, cannabis, silk and Banarasi brocade exchanged hands here and continued their journey forward.
Surrounded by two of the world’s highest mountain ranges, the Himalayas and Karakoram, Leh experiences lashes of cold wind in the winters, making the months between October and March harsh and glacial. The temperatures go down well below freezing point. However, come summer, as the air loses its wintry bite and blooms start to make an appearance, tourists too start making their way to Leh. June to September is the best time to visit. As the Srinagar-Leh and Manali-Leh highways open up in July, numerous trekkers and bikers can be seen weaving their way up the mountainous roads during this time.
However, even at the peak of summer, be armed with woollens, thermals, sunglasses and caps, as the night temperatures tend to drop drastically. Also, it’s recommended to rest adequately when you arrive here. Taking the high altitude into consideration, a lot of visitors tend to suffer from mild headaches and breathlessness. So, it’s advisable to keep one day aside for acclimatisation.
Can I Afford It?
Given the truckloads of tourists that visit the district regularly, locals have started tour agencies, souvenir shops, homestays and cafes to cater to your every need. You could go on a road trip or take a flight to Leh. Nearly all the major airlines run daily flights, with a round trip that’ll cost you Rs. 14,000 upwards. Once there, the little micro-van taxis are your best bet for getting around, and these charge you Rs 100 upwards per hop. There are hotels and homestays to suit every pocket. Garden homestays in places like Upper Karzoo start at Rs 800, while the more plush hotels would cost you Rs 2,300 upwards.
If you choose to stay in a hotel or a homestay slightly outside of town, it would mean a long walk to the main market, but the views of the monasteries and Stok range would be quite splendid. Meals are easy to find and are affordable too, as markets are filled with cafes and multi-cuisine restaurants. A full-fledged, delicious meal at popular eateries like Tibetan Kitchen would cost you Rs 400- 500 upwards.
For Whom Is This Destination Best Suited?
Everyone has a chance to take home a bagful of memories from Leh – be it a tourist keen on experiencing a set trail of sights and sounds or the explorer, who loves to veer off the beaten track. For those interested in a hearty dose of Ladakhi history, there is the Leh Palace and the Central Asian Museum. The latter, besides showcasing evocative photo essays, is also home to unique and rare artefacts from Baltistan, Ladakh and Tibet. For a tranquil afternoon soaked in spirituality, visit the Shanti Stupa or the Sankar Gompa, which takes you through picturesque farms and streams to reach the prayer room.
For the avid trekker, Stok Kangri remains a fixture on the itinerary, with it being one of the few places where you can actually walk up to 6,000 metres. It’s not an easy climb, with steep, rugged mountain paths making this a challenging trek. However, the views that greet you on the summit make every stitch in the stomach worth it. A 360 degree view of the Karakoram, a glimpse of the K2 and, if you are lucky, a sneak peek of Mount Kailash as well await you on the top. Or you can step into the pages of history by visiting Nubra valley, located north of Leh, which was once an important point on the trans-Himalayan trade. Ride on the world’s highest motorable road to spend a day with feral Bactrian camels and the ancient communities that dwell here.
The Type Of Accommodation Available
Whether it is by flight or by road, majority of the tourists begin their holiday in Leh town, where they acclimatise to the altitude. Being the tourist hub in Ladakh, there are several guesthouses and hotels in Leh town, with many more under construction. Homestays are available on the outskirts of town, and not so much in Leh. The best thing about accommodation here is that majority of the rooms in and around town offer splendid views of the hills and mountains. For those looking at camping, there is a TUTC campsite half an hour away from the main town.
Cox & Kings Recommends
#1 Leh Palace
The nine-storey Leh Palace is any art aficionado’s delight. Unoccupied since 1846, when the Ladakhi royals were stripped of power, the palace’s museum displays rare artefacts such as the 450-year-old Chinese paintings made with gemstones. The base of the palace is home to significant structures such as the Namgyal Stupa, Chandazik Gompa with its mural of a 1,000 Buddhas- 996 of whom are yet to be born, and the Chamba Lhakhang.
#2 Tsemo Fort
The fort watches over you, no matter where you are in Leh. Located on top of the Palace Ridge, this structure was built in the 16th century to commemorate Ladakh’s victory over Balti Kashmir armies. Today, the majestic fort lies in ruins, but these mouldering remains offer a glimpse of the days gone by and also present a spectacular view of the Old Town. Below the fort lies the Tsemo Gompa, containing two 15th-century temple buildings, one of which enshrines a gold-faced Maitreya.
#3 Shanti Stupa
Built in 1991 by Japanese monks to spread the message of world peace, this stupa can be reached after a 500-step climb, which can leave you quite breathless. The pristine white spired structure features a majestic central Buddha and vibrant reliefs. But what makes the climb worth it is the splendid view of Leh, bathed in the golden afternoon light.
#4 Ladakh Festival
Every year, between September 20th and 26th, Leh transforms into a carnival city, with music resounding from every nook and corner. The annual Ladakh Festival is a much-awaited fixture on the cultural calendar, marked with processions by cultural troupes from remote areas of Ladakh, traditional performances and musical concerts. Masked dances, archery competitions and polo matches also form a part of the six-day-long fiesta.
#5 Hall of Fame
For stories of bravery and patriotism, visit the Hall of Fame, built by the Indian Army to document the battles at Kargil and Siachen. Touching memoirs, photographs, memorabilia and recreated battle scenes bring alive the contribution of the jawans to the safety of the country. One can watch a 30-minute film on the Kargil War, visit a room containing clothing worn by soldiers at -50 ºC or tackle the assault course at the Adventure Park.
Food & Drinks
#1 Tibetan Kitchen
If it is local cuisine that you wish to sample, then Tibetan Kitchen is a must-visit. Leave aside the usual fare of thukpas and momos and try some unusual dishes like sha balekh, a bread stuffed with meat or veggies or a warm soup called the thenthuk.
#2 Bon Appetit
Located south of Changspa Road, Bon Appetit is extremely popular with tourists for its Continental and Italian menu. However, if you are in the mood to try something new then opt for the creamy cashew chicken or the seabuckthorn juice made with fresh local berries.
#3 Chopsticks Noodle Bar
Not in the mood for greasy chowmein or spicy dumplings offered by the dozen at the many eateries that line the market in Leh? Then head to Chopsticks Noodle Bar for a truly pan-Asian experience. With warm Thai curries, sizzling wok dishes and some traditional Ladakhi dishes like the skyu, this eatery is a must-visit.
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