Or, a first timer’s guide to Ladakh, or as first-timers call it, Leh Ladakh
Update as of March 16 2020 – In view of the current circumstances regarding COVID 2019, the district administration of Leh has decided to withdraw all the Inner Line Permits (ILP) that have been issued. Fresh ILPs will not be issued until further notice. We will update this post as soon as there is an update regarding ILP for Ladakh.
Once you travel to Ladakh you know it can’t be your last trip to Ladakh – was a lesson we learnt clearly on our first trip to this land of high passes (literally, the translation of La-dakh). This magical remote high altitude region of the Himalayas mesmerised us with its awe-inspiring barren mountains, deep blue lakes and the warmest people we have ever met.
So, this guide to Ladakh is for those planning their first trip to Ladakh. The guide isn’t your ultimate or complete guide to Ladakh. You will find them in abundance on the internet. Instead, this guide to Ladakh is based largely on our first-hand experiences in Ladakh.
In this travel guide to Ladakh we answer the questions we asked on our first trip to Ladakh:
- Exactly where is Ladakh? Are Leh and Ladakh the same?
- How to reach Ladakh?
- Does Ladakh have an airport (or a railway station)?
- How many days are needed for a trip to Ladakh? What are the places to see in Ladakh?
- What is the best time to travel to Ladakh? Should you visit Ladakh in winter?
- What should be the budget for a trip to Ladakh?
- Where can we stay in Ladakh? Do we need to make any prior accommodation bookings in Ladakh?
On this trip to Ladakh, we also got a chance to meet the people of Ladakh and have conversations with them. These interactions helped us understand the culture, traditions and life in the high mountains of Ladakh. Which helped to understand the most important question –
- Why should one travel to Ladakh?
In this travel guide, we will also talk about why travelling to Ladakh is a life-changing experience.
This travel guide will equip you with all the details needed to plan your trip to Ladakh – whether you are flying into Leh, doing a road trip to Ladakh, biking to Ladakh, or joining a tour. If however, you want to skip reading the next 5000 words, just send us a WhatsApp message and we’ll help you plan your itinerary for Ladakh.
Where is Leh-Ladakh located in India?
First things first – Leh and Ladakh are NOT synonymous to each other.
Ladakh is a district in Jammu and Kashmir and Leh is the district headquarters.
Ladakh is a Union territory located in North India. It is the highest plateau in India. Most of Ladakh is at an altitude above 3000 meters. Surrounded by the high Himalayan mountains Ladakh falls in the rain shadow region, making it a high altitude cold desert and one of the most remote and sparsely populated regions of India.
It has two districts – Leh and Kargil. In this travel guide for Ladakh, we are focusing on the district of Leh. The town of Leh is the district headquarters of the Leh district.
There are some important things you need to know before you start planning your trip to Ladakh –
● Ladakh is ruled by one force, and one force only – nature. That’s the first and the most important point to keep telling yourself when you plan your trip to Ladakh.
● Ladakh extends far beyond Leh. Some parts of Ladakh are so remote that they are accessible only by foot, a large part of it is beyond civilian access and all of it is a high altitude Himalayan region. As such, even a few months at a stretch might not be enough to explore the entire Ladakh region. Don’t pack too much while planning the itinerary for your trip to Ladakh.
● Being the district headquarters as well as the amalgamation point for all tourists visiting Ladakh, Leh town has the maximum tourist facilities which come close to the material comforts one is used to in cities. While enjoying these comforts, it’s important to keep reminding yourselves that Ladakh is a high altitude cold desert. Natural resources, like water (and air) are hard to come by. Wastage of anything here is a sacrilege.
How to reach Ladakh?
● You can reach Ladakh by air or by road. Ladakh does not have a rail network so you can’t reach Ladakh by train.
● Reaching Ladakh by air
The airport in Ladakh is in the town of Leh. There are regular flights to Leh including direct flights to cities like Srinagar, Delhi. When the weather is clear, you get some spectacular views of the Himalayas on the flight to Leh. During the winter months, when the high altitude mountain passes are closed, flying into Leh is the only option to reach Ladakh.
● The nearest railhead to Ladakh is Jammu. A railway line to Leh is an ambitious project that has been announced. When done, it will be an engineering marvel. We are several years away from seeing this happen.
● There are 2 routes to reach Leh, Ladakh by road.
1. The Srinagar Leh highway, NH-1D
2. The Leh Manali highway, NH-22
Altitude acclimatisation in Ladakh
Altitude acclimatisation is the most important part of planning your trip to Ladakh. The time you allot for altitude acclimatisation in your itinerary for Ladakh can make or break your trip. These are all the what, why and how about altitude acclimatisation for your trip to Ladakh.
● What is altitude acclimatisation?
Altitude acclimatisation means to give your body complete rest and let it get used to the reduced oxygen levels in Ladakh.
● How many days should I allot for altitude acclimatisation?
Medical professionals recommend 3 days of complete rest to fully acclimatise your body for the high altitudes of Ladakh. This would be the ideal case scenario. Even if you are on a short trip to Ladakh plan at least a day of complete rest (not stepping out of your hotel/guesthouse/homestay) before you start exploring.
● Where should you stay during altitude acclimatisation?
Leh, with its altitude ranging from 3000 to 3500 meters is the perfect place to acclimatise yourself to the high altitudes of Ladakh. It’s high enough to condition the body but not that high that you’ll face problems.
● You have travelled to Ladakh on several trips earlier. Do you still need altitude acclimatisation?
Absolutely yes, even if it is your tenth trip to Ladakh! Even if you have seen everything in Leh and are now raring to visit some seriously remote parts of Ladakh. That still doesn’t mean you can skip the altitude acclimatisation days.
These are some tips to help you with altitude acclimatisation when you arrive in Leh as well as during your trip to Ladakh
● Drink lots of water. Keep yourself hydrated. The cold weather means you don’t feel much thirsty. But water is your best friend at high altitudes.
● Likewise, alcohol is your worst enemy in a high altitude region like Ladakh. Do yourself a favour, and eliminate alcohol from your travel plans during your trip to Ladakh.
● Take it slow. Take deliberate small steps even if it feels like walking at a snail’s pace. During the initial few days of your stay in Ladakh, climbing a single flight of stairs can have you gasping for air. Luckily, there’s no train to catch here and you can take all the time in the world.
Facilities available in Leh, Ladakh
The town of Leh is the only place in Ladakh where you will find modern amenities. This is where you should stock up with things you might need for the rest of your trip in the more remote parts of Ladakh, including fuel if you are on a self-driving road trip or a biking trip to Ladakh.
● Medical facilities
There is a hospital in Leh which is run by the Indian Army. There’s a separate tourist section in the hospital. The most common complaint among the tourists is related to altitude sickness. You can buy a small portable oxygen cylinder in Leh and keep it with you at all times, once you step out of Leh and travel through the remote parts of Ladakh which are at an even higher altitude.
The gaining popularity of Ladakh as a tourist destination means that the choice of places to stay at in Leh only keeps increasing every year. Rapid mobile network penetration and internet has brought people of this remote region closer to the outside world, giving them a clearer idea of what the tourists need. From luxury hotels to economical guest houses to personalised homestays – there’s ample accommodation in Leh to suit every budget. There was a time when you had to rely on tour companies/travel agents to make arrangements for your trip to Ladakh. Not so anymore. Thanks to reliable mobile networks like Airtel, you can easily contact the properties and pre-book your accommodation online.
The food options available in Leh will make you forget the remoteness of where you are. From wood-fired pizzas to wholehearted thupkas – everything is available in Leh. You are spoilt for choice here (which will not be the case once you start exploring the rest of Ladakh). The best food (actually, drink) that we devoured during our stay in Leh was the fresh apricot juice. The sea buckthorn juice is also nice, but the apricot juice is something else. Also, the fresh apricots. (We have tried apricots from several regions since our trip to Ladakh, and nothing comes close to the taste of apricots from Ladakh).
In the last few years, digital communication has seen a world of change, especially in remote regions like Ladakh. So you won’t have to make any special arrangements like a satellite phone (unless you are planning a long trek) to keep in touch. Airtel 4G in widespread in remote India and you can now make video calls from Leh, Ladakh. I am getting into the habit of making video calls to family back home from such picturesque locations and can’t wait to show Ladakh to them, through my phone’s eyes (until they make a trip to Ladakh themselves)! Airtel 4G was recently launched even on the Lakshadweep islands. Blue skies or blue waters, both give a sense of infinity. Their vastness has the power to draw you in, and calm you. This power is the first thought that comes to mind about Ladakh and the biggest reason we want to set foot on Lakshadweep. But, I digress. You will no longer have to worry about keeping in touch with family back home while planning your travel to Ladakh.
● For solo travellers/ travellers on a budget trip to Ladakh
If you are travelling solo, you might want to join other solo/ group travellers looking for company to fill the seats up in their cars. This is an effective way to make solo travel fit your budget and yet travel in Ladakh and explore its remote regions. Shops and restaurants in Ladakh usually put up notices like these by travellers. Make use of your time in Leh, and the reliable mobile network here (Airtel postpaid works perfectly in Leh, so making these quick connections will not be a problem at all).
The public transport buses between Ladakh and other parts of India (Manali, Srinagar and Kargil) ply up to Leh. If you have a rough idea of the dates for your trip to Ladakh and are flexible with your itinerary you can use this taxi booking website to find travel companions online. You can find information about travellers looking to share cabs or put up your requirements here and find travel companions to share a ride with and bring down your travel costs to Ladakh. Even from an environmental point of view, it makes sense to travel in a full taxi.
How to reach Ladakh via the Srinagar Leh highway?
The Srinagar Leh highway is one of the routes to reach Leh, Ladakh by road. If you plan a road trip to Ladakh, this is the highway you should choose to reach Leh, Ladakh.
There are several reasons to recommend taking the Srinagar Leh highway on your way to Ladakh –
- The altitude gain on the Srinagar Leh highway is gradual starting at Srinagar which is at 1500 meters above MSL where oxygen levels are normal and do not cause any breathing issues.
- The highway passes through several well-populated places like Sonamarg, Drass, Kargil, Mulbekh, Lamayuru and several villages in between before you reach the town of Leh. Very rarely along the Srinagar Leh highway are you away from civilisation.
- There are only three mountain passes on the Srinagar Leh highway – Zoji la, Namika la ad Fotu la which are at an altitude below the town of Leh.
- This makes the Srinagar Leh highway a better choice for altitude acclimatisation for your road trip to Ladakh.
This 419 km journey from Srinagar to Leh connects the lush green Kashmir valley to the high altitude Ladakh region. You can hire a cab from Srinagar, take a shared cab (these leave from the taxi stand near the Dal lake) or take the bus from the bus stand near the Srinagar TRC (Tourist Reception Centre).
● Take a break for at least a day. Stay in Drass or Kargil. It is possible to do this journey in a day, starting early in the morning from Srinagar and reaching Leh later in the evening. But a continuous journey like that is not recommended.
● If time is not a constraint, or if you are into slow travel, these are the breaks you can take and places you can visit on the Srinagar Leh highway:
1. Spend a day in Srinagar visiting the Mughal gardens, the old parts of the city and enjoying a sunset at the Dal lake.
2. You will get out of Srinagar and proceed towards Sonmarg, crossing places like Ganderbal and Kangan on the way. You can spend a day in Sonmarg, visit the Thajiwas glacier, walk to the hidden village of Sarbal and run around on the meadows. If you do visit these places, we suggest you walk instead of taking the horses (you will be asked by several horsemen).
3. From Sonmarg, a steady climb starts. If it’s the season of the Amarnath yatra, you will see camps set up down below, at Baltal. Soon after, you will be on your first high altitude mountain pass – the Zoji la. Soon, the “heart-in-you-mouth” situation, which will become all too familiar during your travel in Ladakh, starts.
4. Zoji la is a relatively smaller mountain pass, but a major point of transition. The landscape changes dramatically as you get to the other side of Zoji la. The green valleys are now replaced by the imposing brown and barren mountains.
5. Soon after Zoji la, you will be in Drass. Famed as the second coldest inhabited place on the planet Drass is a striking little town. The Jammu and Kashmir tourism department has decent accommodation, just at the beginning of the town. Walk-in bookings shouldn’t be a problem. However, if you feel uncomfortable about just arriving at a remote place without a booking, call the caretaker beforehand. Airtel postpaid will work here (as well as near Lamayuru, if you decide to make a booking before you arrive there). The Kargil War Memorial is in Drass and a visit is highly recommended. You can walk through the lanes of houses (notice the wooden houses in Kashmir being replaced by the stone houses in the higher Himalayas) and visit a place called Bhimbetka, which is held in high regard by the local people. This is where we recommend you break your journey if you’re taking just one break.
6. Soon after Drass is Kargil. Most tourists break their journey from Srinagar to Leh, Ladakh in Kargil. Naturally, there are a number of hotels for all budgets in Kargil. The main street is just a busy market. But a little higher up is Goma Kargil. On the way is the famous Kargil museum. The museum has artefacts from the silk trade era and throws light on the life on the silk route.
7. After Kargil, is Mulbhek. It is known for its massive rock-cut statue of Buddha. Soon after are two high altitude mountain passes – Namika la and Fotu la. Fotu la probably has the best roads in Ladakh.
8. Fotu la ends at Lamayuru, known as the Moonland of Ladakh. Evenings are the best time to see the Moonland behind the meditation hill. For this, we recommend a stay at Lamayuru, for a night on your journey to Ladakh on the Srinagar Leh highway. On the other side of this Moonland, you see the stupas covered in the golden glow on the setting sun.
9. If you leave in the morning from Lamayuru, you will be in Leh by noon.
6. Travelling to Ladakh by the Leh Manali highway
We recommend travelling by the Leh Manali highway on your way out of Ladakh. We have explained in our story about the Leh Manali highway why this high altitude highway should be avoided to get to Ladakh. Unlike the Srinagar Leh highway, this 470-km long route is mostly through remote wilderness. Five mountain passes, several water crossings and exhilarating moments of disbelief (how can you drive on these roads!) will be encountered.
Read about the detailed experience of travelling on the Leh Manali highway.
7. Do I need an Inner Line Permit to go anywhere in Ladakh?
● You will need an Inner Line Permit (ILP) to travel to the remote places of Ladakh.
● However, there are a lot of places in Ladakh that you can visit without the ILP.
● Places you can visit in Ladakh without the ILP:
1. All the places mentioned along the Srinagar Leh highway including Lamayuru.
2. Villages like Alchi (monastery and several interesting cafes) and Phyang (man-made glaciers), the Magnetic hill, Hall of fame, and the Poanta Sahib gurudwara.
3. The entire town of Leh itself. Shanti Stupa. If you want to climb up to the Shanti Stupa, do it at sunrise or sunset. Also, avoid climbing up the Shanti Stupa on your first day itself. There’s the Leh Palace on the other side of Shanti Stupa. The lanes of the Leh market with their museum-like stores are an interesting place to walk and meet fellow travellers from around the world.
4. You can dedicate one day for the Shey-Thiksey-Hemis monasteries. These monasteries are the famous monasteries near Leh. Hemis monastery is the biggest one and the Hemis festival has become a huge tourist attraction. A visit to the Hemis monastery will take the most amount of time. There’s a museum here and the library (when open) has some rare manuscripts. Recommend visiting the Thiksey monastery for sunset. It’s at an elevation and on a clear day, the views of Ladakh sprawled under you are amazing.
8. Popular places to visit in Ladakh beyond Leh (ILP needed for all of these)
● Pangong Tso
1. The Pangong Tso (Tso = lake) is the most popular destination in Ladakh.
2. Irrespective of what’s happened to the Pangong Tso in recent times (and let’s be very clear that what’s happened of it is wrong. Actually, WRONG). A place as pristine, remote and pure as Pangong Tso should have had minimal, if not zero, human interference. That’s sadly not the case anymore.
3. Any of this, however, does not take away from the beauty of the place itself. The blue waters, the surrounding mountains, the open skies – everything will cast a magic spell on you.
4. Leh to Pangong Tso (Spangmik) is a distance of little over 150 km. It goes over the high altitude Chang la.
5. This distance means you can visit Pangong Tso as a day trip from Leh if you only go up to the village of Spangmik.
6. You can stay in homestays around the Pangong Tso (the luxury camps on the Pangong Tso grounds have been banned as of 2019 to protect the environment). Sunset and sunrise are the best times to visit the Pangong Tso (or any of the high altitude lakes).
7. An extra day means you can go ahead up to the villages of Man and Merak. (You will need to mention this in the ILP).
8. Hanle, the location of the highest observatory in the world is further down this road via Chushul. If you intend to visit Hanle, you will need an ILP specifically for Hanle. (Hanle is not included in the ILP for Pangong Tso).
● Nubra Valley
1. You cross over the Khardung la (famous, though controversially, for being the highest motorable road in the world that’s easily accessible to civilians) to enter the Nubra Valley from Leh.
2. Leh to Diskit, over the Khardung la, is a distance of 120 km and could take around 5 hours. There’s a monastery at Diskit and a famous statue of the Maitreya.
3. Beyond Diskit, there are two arms to the Nubra valley. One goes along the Shyok river to Panamik via the village of Sumur. Panamik is known for its hot springs.
4. The other arm goes to the village of Turtuk. The desert of Hunder, famous for its two-humped Bactrian camels is on the way to Turtuk.
5. Turtuk is the base for the Siachen glacier and the last village with civilian access.
6. Spend at least 2 days in the Nubra valley, recommend spending 3 days. We know of travellers who have spent an entire month in the Nubra valley.
● Tso Moriri
1. Tso Moriri is a high altitude mountain lake in Ladakh, at an altitude of over 4000 meters.
2. Leh to the village of Korzok which is the village at the base of Tso Moriri is a distance of around 250 km.
3. This means you can not visit Tso Moriri in a day. Even though there aren’t any mountain passes on the way, the long winding roads mean travelling from Leh to Tso Moriri takes over 8 hours.
4. This remoteness means unlike the Pangong Tso, not many tourists travel to Tso Moriri. You could just be the only people by the lakeside.
5. Tso Moriri is a protected wetland sanctuary. Camping by the lakeside is therefore prohibited. You can stay in the homestays at Korzok.
6. If you include Tso Moriri in your travel itinerary for Ladakh (and if you’re travelling by a private taxi), then you should include Tso Moriri at the end of your itinerary. There’s a route from Tso Moriri, via another lake named Tso Kar which connects directly to the Leh Manali highway. You can exit Ladakh via this route.
9. Is it possible to travel directly from Nubra Valley to Pangong to Tso Moriri?
1. In the last few years, as the popularity of Ladakh as a tourist destination has increased, more routes are being opened for tourist traffic.
2. Taking these alternate routes means you can travel from Nubra valley directly to Pangong Tso. Or go directly from Pangong Tso to Tso Moriri. You don’t have to travel back to Leh every time. This way, you can save days and see more during your travel through Ladakh.
3. Even if this is true, there are some things to keep in mind when you’re planning on travelling by these alternate routes. These are some of the most remote routes in Ladakh. These are not high priority routes (meaning, there are better and easier alternatives available for the locals and the army). Therefore, they aren’t maintained as well as the regular routes are. Some patches along these routes are outright offroading.
4. Traffic on these routes is extremely low, as in civilisation. Meaning, if something is to go wrong with your vehicle, you need a back up (to repair or a means to get help) with you.
5. So, should you or shouldn’t you plan on taking these offbeat alternate routes in Ladakh?
If this is your first time in Ladakh, we’ll recommend sticking to the regular routes and returning to Leh after every outing into the deeper valleys in Ladakh. Never traverse these routes alone. Have 3-4 cars in your group if you plan to travel by these routes. Ask about the current condition of these routes to the locals before you move in their direction. This is where, having a reliable mobile network becomes really important, not just for the tourists but also for the locals. You can call the villages ahead and find the current condition of the road and the weather there. Locals know the best. Listen to what they have to say, even if it means losing days and seeing one place less. If you are not an experienced driver on rough roads, get a local driver from Leh.
6. There are two options to travel from the Nubra Valley to Pangong Tso.
- One is via the villages of Agham and Shyok and is a much shorter route to go directly to Pangong.
- The second and the much longer option is to go over Wari la. This eventually joins the regular route to Pangong Tso from Leh. You have to also go over the Chang la if you take this route.
7. There are two options to go directly from Pangong Tso to Tso Moriri. You go up to Chushul. This is where the road diverges to go either via Tsaga la or Kaksang la. Both these routes are among the most remote places in Ladakh. Understand your risks well, before you embark on these journeys.
8. You will need permits specifically for any of these routes you plan to take. And, based on the security situation and the weather conditions on the day of your travel, you could be denied permission to go ahead despite having the permits.
10. How many days for Ladakh itinerary?
● The simple answer to this is, depends on you. Do you want to fly in both ways? Fly one way? Take the road both ways?
● We will not recommend travelling to Ladakh for anything less than 5 days. That’s the bare minimum.
● Once you know the number of days you have for your travel in Ladakh, start the planning from the number of days needed to reach Ladakh and get out of Ladakh. Add the rest days in Leh to acclimate your body.
● Now, depending on the number of days left, decide on the number of places you can visit.
● Remember this: Once you have travelled to Ladakh, you can’t not to again. Ladakh is an addiction. You will be compelled to visit again.
● Don’t try to fit everything in, just for the satisfaction of having “done Ladakh”. There is no such thing. Don’t rush through places. The distances in Ladakh are long and the roads are back-breaking. Don’t torture yourself by having long travel days one after the other.
● Add a buffer day or two to the itinerary.
● Now, book your tickets.