Ladakh is located in the western Himalayan disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir in far northern India. Ladakh is bordered by Tibet to the east, Pakistan to the west, Xinjiang, China to the north and Himachal Pradesh to the south. Ladakh, often referred to as “Little Tibet” is a stunning area with a very unique and preserved culture. It is one of my favorite regions of the Himalaya. It is filled with amazing Himalaya mountain views, stunning alpine lakes, amazing treks and some of the friendliest people I have ever met! Not many travelers make it to this remote area. From 2011 to 2013, Ladakh averaged only about 38,000 foreign travelers per year with another 140,000 Indian tourists per year.
Ladakh is divided into 2 districts: Kargil and Leh. Kargil lies in the western section and is predominantly Muslim (with the exception of Zanskar), while Leh lies in the eastern section and is predominantly Buddhist. Ladakh was an independent kingdom for 900 years. To this day, Leh still looks and feels more like Tibet than India. Many dozens of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are found across Leh and Zanskar. The town of Leh was once the capital of the Kingdom of Ladakh and now serves as the administrative seat of Ladakh.
The Town of Leh
Leh, pronounced “lay”, has a population of around 35,000 and has an interesting mix of Buddhist Ladakhi’s and Muslim Kashmiri’s. The architecture in the town shows both Buddhist and Muslim styles. From just about everywhere, you can see a sweeping panoramic view of the Himalaya’s rising above town. The highest peak in the vicinity is Stok Kangri, a 6153 meter peak that is popular in the summer months for trekking and summiting.
In town is the Leh Palace, which was built in the 17th century and served as the home of the royal family until the middle of the 19th century. The royal family then moved to the Stok Palace, 15 kilometers south. The Leh Palace is 9 stories high and is built on a mountainside. Its architecture is modeled after Lhasa’s Potala Palace. A major restoration project was been underway at the Leh Palace for several years, but it remains open to the public. The views of Leh and the surrounding mountains are quite impressive from the palace.
The Shanti Stupa, built in 1991, is located a few kilometers south downtown Leh, several hundred meters above town. You can take a taxi there or climb an endless series of stairs (I don’t recommend climbing the stairs until you have had a couple of days to acclimatize to the elevation). The view of Leh and the Himalaya is quite amazing from Shanti Stupa. Be sure to bring your wide-angle lens!
Leh isn’t very big. It can, for the most part, be navigated on foot. There are many excellent guesthouses and mid-range hotels to choose from in town. I recommend choosing one that offers good views of the mountains. There are also numerous restaurants around serving great Indian, Tibetan, Kashmiri and Western food. Most restaurants, hotels and travel agencies can speak English well. The Ladakhi language is very similar to the Amdo dialect that is spoken in eastern tibet.
There are 2 main roads leading to Leh, however, both roads are closed in winter time due to heavy snow. The first road is the 422 kilometer road connecting Srinigar to Leh via Kargil. The road closes in the early winter due to heavy snow at the Zoji La Pass. The second road connects Leh with Manali, which is 479 kilometers to the south. This road is normally only open for 4 or 5 months each year due to heavy snow. In addition, there are daily flights from Leh to Delhi all year round and weekly flights to Srinigar and Jammu.
Leh is the starting point for visiting many amazing areas in the region such as the Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso, Lamayuru, Tso Moririr, Thiksey Monastery and the overland routes to Kargil, Srinigar and Manali. Ladakh also offers plenty to do outdoors such as trekking and mountain climbing.
The town of Kargil
Kargil is a small Muslim town located approximately halfway between Srinigar and Leh. Few people stay here very long. Most only stay for just a night enroute to either Leh or Srinigar. In the center of Kargil, population 12,000 or so, there are several guesthouses to choose from as well as good restaurants. Off of the Main Bazaar are the bus station and the jeep stand where you can take transportation to Leh (213 kilometers, 9 or 10 hours), Srinigar (221 kilometers, 9 or 10 hours) and even to Padum Village in Zanskar (240 kilometers, 16+ hours).
Zanskar is one of the most stunning valleys in Ladakh and is a trekkers paradise. Surrounded by gorgeous mountain peaks and being completely remote, it’s easy to see why this region attracts avid trekkers. Most people who travel to this area do so on foot, however it is possible to take a vehicle here from Kargil (240 kilometers, 16+ hours).
The small village of Padum, population 1500, serves as the administrative center for the Zanskar region. Padum has few facilities. There are a few guesthouses in town that are usually only open during the summer months and early autumn. There are numerous trekking companies in Leh that can arrange treks in this stunning region. Treks include to Lamayuru, to Kargil and to Darcha.
Pangong Tso is the most famous lake in Ladakh. It is located in eastern Ladakh along the border with Tibet. About 1/3 of the lake is in Ladakh with the remaining 2/3 being in Tibet. This beautiful lake sits at an elevation of 4350 meters/14,270 feet. The lake and sky are both amazing shades of blue that are a must see when in this part of India.
Pangong is about 158 kilometers from Leh. To get there, you cross over the 5360 meter/17,586 foot Chang La Pass, which is covered in snow for much of the year. An Inner Line Permit (ILP) is required to travel to this region, which can be arranged by a travel agency in Leh. Supposedly these permits are given to groups of 2 or 3, but I have been able to get a permit just for myself without any problems.
Travel agencies in Leh can arrange transportation to and from Pangong. The road is surprisingly good for most of the way. Some people just go to the lake on a day trip. The drive to the lake takes a little over 4 hours. The first place you arrive to at the lake, Lukung, offers tea houses and restaurants to eat lunch at. If you wish to stay at the lake, that is possible. There is a small village along the shores of the lake called Spangmik which has several basic homestays to choose from.