In the furthest far flung corner of northern India, in Ladakh near the Indus Valley, lies the town of Leh at 3,505 meters (11,500 feet) above sea level. This remote place has become a popular tourist destination since Ladakh was opened to foreigners in 1974. It's the most beautiful and most common entry point to the Ladakh region.
Bounded by two of the world's largest mountain ranges and surrounded by alpine desert, Leh's dry barren landscape full of historic Buddhist monasteries makes it an incredible sight to behold. This Leh travel guide will help you plan your trip.
Flights to Leh operate regularly from Delhi. Flights are also available to Leh from Srinagar and Jammu.
Alternatively, the roads to Leh are open for a few months of the year, when the snow has melted. The Manali Leh Highway is open from around June to October each year, and the road from Srinagar to Leh is open from June to November. Bus, jeep, and taxi services are all available. The trip takes around 2 days because of the difficult nature of the terrain. If you have the time and are in good health, do travel by road as the scenery is amazing.
When to Visit
The best time to visit Leh is between May and September, when the weather is the warmest. Ladakh doesn't experience rain like elsewhere in India, so the monsoon season is the perfect time to travel to Leh.
Attractions and Places to Visit
Leh’s Buddhist monasteries and historical monuments are the biggest draw for visitors. The most imposing of these is the Shanti Stupa, located just outside the town. In the heart of the town, on top of a steep mountain, the 800 year old Kali Mandir houses a fascinating collection of masks. You can stop to spin a huge prayer wheel on your way there. The 17th century Leh Palace, built in traditional Tibetan style, offers a captivating view of town. Southeast of Leh, Thiksey Monastery is the place for seeing amazing sunsets. The Hemis Monastery is the wealthiest, oldest, and most important monastery in Ladakh. Find out more about these must-see Buddhist monasteries in India.
The Ladakh Festival is held during the first two weeks of September. It opens in Leh with a spectacular procession through the streets. Villagers dressed in traditional costumes dance and sing folk songs, backed by an orchestra. The festival also features musical concerts, dances performed by masked lamas from selected monasteries, and mock traditional marriage ceremonies. The two day Hemis Festival takes place in June/July at the Hemis Gompa to commemorate birth of Guru Padmasambhava, who founded Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. There's traditional music, colorful masked dances, and a fair full of beautiful handicrafts.
Adventure Activities Around Leh
Nature and adventure lovers will find excellent hiking and para gliding opportunities around Leh. There are also many longer trekking trails to choose from, such as the ones from Likir to Temisgam, and Markha Valley from Spituk. Mountain climbing trips can be booked to peaks such as Stok (20,177 feet), Goleb (19,356 feet), Kangyatse (20,997 feet) and Matho West (19,520) in the Zanskar Mountains. White water rafting is also possible in July and August along the Indus River in the Leh area, as well as the Shayok River in the Nubra Valley, and Zanskar River in Zanskar. The Nubra Valley has camel safaris as well. Dreamland Trek and Tours is an eco-friendly adventure company that organizes a wide range of trips in Ladakh, Zanskar and Changthang. Other reputable companies include Overland Escape, Rimo Expeditions (costly but high quality), and Yama Adventures. It's recommended that you compare many companies to see what's on offer.
Side Trips Around Leh
One of the most spectacular side trips possible from Leh is a journey along the Zanskar River. You’ll see hanging glaciers, green villages, Buddhist monasteries, and huge Himalayan peaks. The Nubra Valley, on Khardung La, is world’s highest motorable road and another unforgettable trip. As well sights of Himalayan icicles, wild yaks and horses, and hairy double humped camels, you’ll be rewarded with water, mountains, and desert all in the one area.
As of May 2014, Indian citizens no longer need to obtain an Inner Liner Permit to visit many areas in Ladakh including Pangang Lake, Khardung La, Tso Moirri, Nubra Valley, and Changthang. Instead, identification such as driver's license will suffice. More information is available here.
Foreigners, including PIO and OCI card holders, still need to obtain a Protected Area Permit (PAP). Permits are not required for local sightseeing around Leh, Zanskar, or the Suru Valley.
Where to Stay
A short distance away from town in the hamlet of Changspa, the family run Oriental Guesthouse is a charismatic place with clean rooms, hot water, Internet, library, delightful garden, and stunning view. There's accommodation for everyone in three buildings, ranging from economy to deluxe. You’ll also love the home-cooked, organic, freshly prepared food. The popular and charming Padma Guesthouse and Hotel, on Fort Road, also has rooms for all budgets and a fabulous roof top restaurant. The Spic n Span Hotel on Old Leh Road, close to the market, is a relatively new hotel with modern amenities. Double rooms start from 4,000 rupees ($80). The Grand Dragon Hotel is more upmarket and is Leh’s first 4-star hotel, with prices starting from 6,500 rupees ($140) for a double.
Ladakh Trekking Home-Stays (Village to Village Treks)
An appealing alternative to camping out while trekking around Ladakh is to stay in people's houses in remote villages, which you reach along the way. This will give you a fascinating insight into the life of Ladakhi farmers. You'll even be fed traditional home cooked meals, prepared by the farmer families. Local Ladakhi trekking expert Thinlas Chorol organizes such trips, as well as many other custom trekking itineraries to places off the beaten path. She's the founder of the notable Ladakhi Women's Travel Company -- the first female owned and operated travel company in Ladakh, which uses only female guides. Read an interview with Thinlas Chorol.
Make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to acclimatize after arriving in Leh because of altitude sickness. Avoid doing anything for the first couple of days and drink plenty of water. Laptops also don’t appreciate the high altitude and hard drives are known to crash. Nights still get chilly during the summer so do bring warm clothes to layer. Leaving Leh by flight can be a lot more challenging than arriving. Demand for flights is high in peak season, so book well in advance. In addition, flights are sometimes canceled because of weather conditions, so it’s advisable not to book the last flight of the day. Hand luggage also poses a problem. Only laptops and cameras are permitted as hand luggage. Also keep in mind that passengers must identify their checked-in luggage, outside the departure lounge, before it's loaded on to the plane. It will be marked against the luggage tags on the boarding cards.