India

10 Days in Ladakh: Land of High Passes

I had wanted to go to Ladakh for a very long time. Ladakh is a land that promises spirituality, adventure and mystery. It is a beguiling land of high passes, remote Buddhist monasteries and the kind of stark nature that has to be seen to be believed. It is also only accessible by road for 6 months of the year, making flying in the only option during the long cold winters.

Finally, on 1st October 2016 Ollie and I boarded a plane in Delhi bound for Leh, the largest town in Ladakh. The main tourist season in Ladakh is from June-September; the access roads usually open sometime in the middle of May and close around the end of October. We were visiting at the very end of the season, just as wintry weather was starting to blow in.

There were advantages to this, such as the low number of other visitors and cheaper guesthouse rates. There were, however, also disadvantages – less likelihood that groups could be put together for tours and cold mornings and evenings.

Leh

Leh sits at 3500m above sea level, so acclimatisation is essential if Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is to be avoided. It is better to travel in by road from Manali or Srinagar so as to gain altitude gradually, but as it was already late in the season, we decided to fly in directly from Delhi.

Arriving in Leh

We left Delhi at 5am and were over Ladakh as the sun was rising. It was the most scenic flight we have ever been on; the pilot did a wide circle over Leh before we landed to allow passengers some fantastic photo opportunities.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, a land unlike any other. Snow-capped mountains sat around the edge of a wide, rocky, brown desert valley, the great Indus River a vivid blue as it swirled its way across the valley floor. It was an incredible, mesmerising scene.

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View from the Plane Flying into Leh

As soon as we left the warmth of the plane and our feet touched down onto the tarmac, the cold and the altitude hit us like a smack in the face. It was a few degrees above 0, a huge contrast to the heat of Delhi. In fact, having lived in Asia for over two years, it was the coldest temperature we had experienced in a very long time!

Leh airport is part commercial, part military so any photos within its confines are prohibited. Bordering China and Pakistan, Ladakh is a large military base and there are frequent check points and stations across the region.

Airport formalities done, we headed out into the arrivals area to find a taxi to take us to our guesthouse in town. We couldn’t believe how breathless we both were just walking the 100 metres or so to where our driver’s car was parked. The decrease in oxygen was going to hit us a lot harder than we had anticipated.

Where to Stay in Leh

We stayed at Mandarava Homestay, just a 10-15 minute walk from the main bazaar area. It’s located in a quiet residential street, has a garden out front and back where fresh organic vegetables are grown, and offers absolutely stunning views from the upper bedrooms and rooftop.

We must have had the best room in the house; it was not only spacious and very comfortable but also received the whole day’s sunlight. This meant that by the evening, when it was cold outside, our room was lovely and toasty and a real pleasure to come back to. The views out to the mountains were incredible and we both agreed that Ladakh had to be the most beautiful place we had ever been.

The owner of the homestay is a doctor, which we ended up being extremely grateful for. He checked us over a few hours after our arrival to see how our bodies were coping with the altitude. Our heart rates, blood pressure and oxygen levels were all good. He also advised us, to avoid AMS, to completely rest for our first 2 or 3 days in Leh, absolutely no physical exertion. Did we heed the doctor’s advice? Did we heck as like!

Day 1: Arrival Day

We spent our arrival day resting in the garden, enjoying the warm spring-like sunshine that October days in Leh provide. We’d also been told to drink plenty of water because, as Ladakh is a high altitude desert, dehydration can occur very quickly. With only 2% moisture in the air, this was one piece of advice that we did follow. We found ourselves constantly thirsty; that first afternoon, sitting in the garden, we literally went through bottle after bottle of water.

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Resting in the Garden at Mandarava Homestay

As the afternoon wore on, we started to feel extremely bored ‘resting.’ We were in beautiful Ladakh and just wanted to get out and explore! So much for 0 exertion. We wouldn’t go far, we told ourselves, just to where the main town started, to get our bearings.

What we in fact did was walk right up to the main bazaar area and a little beyond, where we caught our first glimpse of Leh Palace and the stunning rocky ridges that tower above Leh. We visited Soma Gompa in the main bazaar and spotted Jama Masjid. Really, we should not have walked as far as we did; the doctor had told us to rest and acclimatise for our first few days. But we are Ollie and Lynette and we don’t exactly do resting or following orders!

We had to move extremely slowly; the lack of oxygen was extremely debilitating for our unaccustomed bodies. We felt like very unfit people, not those who cover entire cities on foot in a single day. Even walking slowly made us both breathless. It’s hard to imagine unless you have experienced such altitude. We didn’t want to overdo it any more than we probably already had, so we turned back.

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View towards Leh Palace

As we neared the edge of town, not far from Mandarava, we stopped at a small cosy Tibetan restaurant, where we enjoyed a tasty dinner of thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) and momos (vegetable and cheese filled pasta dumplings). Thirsty and with very dry throats, we also ordered some Tibetan herbal tea, which supposedly has many health benefits.

One of the mild symptoms of AMS is difficulty sleeping and that first night, as with every night we were in Ladakh, we did not sleep well.

Day 2: Leh Palace – Leh Hospital

Our second day in Leh started well enough but it did not end so. After a hearty home cooked breakfast at the homestay, we made our way through town to the path and stairs up to Leh Palace. It was a tiring climb up in the warm sun; we had to frequently stop to catch our breaths. Finally, on the palace ridge, there were amazing views over Leh and to the brown mountain ridges beyond.

We were able to convince the lady at the ticket booth to let us in for Indian price, the same as that for people of SAARC countries, as we were able to show proof that we were living in Thailand. So we saved quite a few rupees there! We then set about exploring the palace, which is the crowning glory of Leh. Needless to say, the views from the terraces and rooftop are stunning.

We had all but seen everything and were making our way back towards the entrance when I suddenly came over very unwell. Despite feeling warm in my T shirt and jeans I was shivering all over, my teeth chattering. I felt nauseous and had a bit of a headache. Ollie found me a chair to sit on in the shade and urged me to drink water. But instead of feeling better, my condition deteriorated.

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Outside Leh Palace

I will keep the following account of the ensuing 24 hours as brief as possible because I am quite sure that you are not reading a blog about Ladakh only to find yourself reading about my sickness!

We were approached by a wonderful Indian family, visiting Ladakh from their home in Pune, whom we had crossed paths with whilst exploring the palace. They asked if I was OK and then proceeded to help Ollie look after me. Between Ollie and the Indian gentleman I was carried to their taxi, which they had hired for the day and which was waiting a short distance away on the road. I will just say here that it is also possible to drive up to the palace as well as walk.

From there I was driven to Leh hospital. What followed was a horrendous 24 hours in and out of the hospital. Having seen the doctor and been prescribed some antibiotics, I was sent home. The Indian family were very kind and, having waited with us, they then dropped Ollie and I back at our homestay. However, I was a lot sicker than previously thought.

Sick in Leh

By the evening I was shaking uncontrollably, had dreadful D and V and was extremely weak. Ollie asked our doctor host to come and check me over. He checked all my vitals and told us that I needed to go back to the hospital for fluid therapy; I was too dehydrated and my blood pressure too low. He very kindly drove us back to the hospital, where I was taken through to the A and E unit.

Just as I was about to be shown through to a ward, Ollie collapsed! So we both ended up in opposite beds in a ward, hooked up to IV lines to re-hydrate us. What with worrying about me, Ollie had neglected to eat or drink since breakfast and in a high altitude desert, that is one of the biggest mistakes you can make!

It was a horrible night spent in the hospital; between injections and IV bag changes, I suffered two bouts of fever. Our doctor host was amazing; he stayed with us late into the evening, telling the other doctors what to do, and then returned to check on us the following morning. It wasn’t exactly how we’d pictured spending our second night in Leh!

At 11am the following morning we were discharged and one of the family members from Mandarava came to collect us. We were both still very weak and neither of us had much of an appetite, but were very relieved to leave the hospital. It would be a slow road to full health; I had no real appetite for the rest of our time in Ladakh and we both suffered with unsettled tummies for the next few days. What made us both so sick? It was a combination of AMS symptoms and food poisoning.

Despite our sickness we still managed to get out and see a lot of Ladakh!

Exploring Ladakh

Monastery Tour

The day after our discharge from hospital, Ollie and I went on a taxi tour to four of the most important Buddhist monasteries in the Leh area.

Hemis Gompa

Our first stop was Hemis Gompa, a large vibrant complex in a dramatic rocky setting. We took time to explore and appreciate the stunning valley views from the upper most shrines. We then moved on to Stakna, followed by Thiksey Gompa and Shey Palace.

Thiksey Gompa

For as long as I had wanted to go to Ladakh, I had wanted to see Thiksey Gompa; it is, at least for me, a perfect symbol of this Buddhist land. It truly is a stunning sight to see. Thiksey is one of Ladakh’s biggest and most recognisable monasteries; its Tibetan-style buildings are vertically stacked over a large rocky outcrop.

Thiksey certainly set the standard; I wonder if I will ever see another Buddhist monastery at once so visually stunning and that contrasts so starkly with its surroundings.

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Looking up at Thiksey Gompa

Shey Palace

Our last stop of the day was Shey Palace, crowning a rocky ridge and surrounded by fortress ruins. The views from the palace are simply stunning; the surrounds of Shey are greener than those of Leh.

There are many other monasteries in Leh district that you can visit on a day trip, such as Chemrey and Matho. Visiting three or four by taxi tour makes for a fantastic outing; our tour was certainly one of our Ladakh highlights.

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Amid the Fortress Ruins at Shey Palace

The driver we had for our monastery tour was amazing; he was very patient and urged us to take as much time as we liked at each of the places. We also got along very well; he was a very kind and friendly man. We were, therefore, more than happy to go with him again when it came to doing a 2-day 1-night tour to Nubra Valley and Pangong Tso.

Trip to Nubra Valley and Pangong Tso

Unfortunately, as it was the end of the season, we were unable to find anybody else for the trip who we could split the taxi cost with. We were offered a generous discount but still had to pay the whole cost for the car ourselves. Still, the trip was worth it and there was absolutely no way we were going to pass up the opportunity to visit Nubra and Pangong!

The two-day-tour involved long hours of driving on some very poor roads. Being bounced around in the front passenger seat was bad enough but poor Ollie had all the extra bumps of the back seat!

The Khardung La

On day one we started from Leh at 9am and began the drive to Nubra Valley. As soon as we left Leh we started to go up, up and up and up on a zigzagging bare-rock mountain road full of hair pin twists and turns that our driver took at alarming speed.

The top is the Khardung La, which, at 5602m above sea level, is claimed to be the highest motorable road in the world. It was freezing cold up here and there was an almighty wind blowing. The incredible altitude also definitely hit us. We jumped out for the obligatory photo opportunity in front of the Khardung La sign before heading back to the warmth of the car with its heaters on full power!

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At the Khardung La

Our driver took care of the passport and permit checks at both South and North Pallu army camps; permits and passports are checked at numerous check-points on this route.

From the Khardung La we descended again, towards the villages of Khardung and Khalsar. We stopped for coffee in Khardung village and again beside the stunning Shyok River to take in the amazing views.

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Beside the Shyok River

Diskit

At long last we reached Nubra Valley and its first village, Diskit. After stopping for a quick bite to eat, we continued up the series of hairpin bends to the 17th Century Diskit Gompa, a jumble of Tibetan-style buildings vertically stacked up a steep rocky peak that, in some ways, resembles Thiksey. Views from the monastery are spectacular; Nubra Valley, with its snaking river and arid mountain backdrop, was a sight we would not forget in a hurry.

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View over Nubra Valley from Diskit Gompa

Opposite the gompa on an intermediate hill lies the gigantic 32m-high full-colour Statue of Chamba. This, for us, is the symbol of Diskit and we couldn’t wait to glimpse it up close. So, having explored the monastery, we drove up to this Maitreya-Buddha statue for some long awaited photographs!

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The Statue of Chamba in Diskit

Hunder

Our next and final stop for the day was the village of Hunder with its famous sand dunes. Our driver parked up on the edge of the dunes then Ollie and I walked over to where a large group of Bactrian camels and their masters were stationed. There were also a fair number of domestic visitors, eagerly waiting for their ride.

Whilst in Hunder we couldn’t pass up the opportunity, so decided on a 15-minute ride through the dunes. The camels were very unlike those we had ridden in Rajasthan two years ago; the Bactrian breed are a lot smaller and have chestnut-coloured woolly fur. They are also a lot more comfortable to ride too! We thoroughly enjoyed our little jaunt on the dunes; in fact it whetted our appetites to return to Rajasthan for another multi-day camel safari.

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Enjoying our Camel Ride in Hunder

Ride over, we climbed back into the car to find somewhere in the village to stay for the night. Our driver already had somewhere in mind. That night we stayed at Himalayan Guest House, a simple garden guesthouse, negotiating a price that included the room and dinner.

The following morning we started early from Hunder, bound for Pangong Tso. It was going to be a long day of driving to reach Pangong and then get back to Leh in one day.

Pangong Tso

Pangong Tso is a high altitude lake that stretches for around 150km with its eastern third in China. It is known for being a surreal blue in colour amid a landscape that is brown, arid and stark. We broke the journey up with a brunch stop in a small roadside village, sitting at an outside table, shivering in the cold as we ate plates of steaming chowmein. After another army checkpoint or two, we finally approached the fabled shores of Pangong Tso.

It felt strange and yet exhilarating to finally be at our destination. We spent around half an hour at the lake, snapping photos from various angles and taking a short walk along the shore. Situated at an altitude of around 4300m, it was very cold and we were unable to walk far without being short of breath. It was also very windy, which only added to our feeling of cold.

Unfortunately, it was quite cloudy on the day we visited so the waters were not at their bluest; it was still a breathtaking location to be in though. The one ‘sight’ that attracts domestic visitors to Pangong is the sand spit nicknamed ‘shooting point’ that was used in the final scene of the 2009 Bollywood movie The Three Idiots. There is also an old motorcycle that was used in the movie that, for a fee, you can have your photo with.

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At Pangong Tso

It was soon time to make the return journey to Leh. As we bumped along over the rough terrain it was hard not to smile at the spectacular scenery all around us, from serrated mountain peaks to sand dunes and streams.

The Chang La

We still had more one high pass to cross, the 5360m-high Chang La, claimed to be the second highest motorable road in the world. Again, we scrambled out for a quick photo opportunity at the top; it was very cold!

In the area of the Chang La the first snow of winter had already fallen, sprinkling the mountains with a light dusting that was only the first of a lot more to come. It gave the place a magical, almost Christmassy feel and made for some especially captivating photos.

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The First Snow of Winter at the Chang La

The journey back to Leh from Pangong took, in total, about 4 hours, our driver taking the blind bends with as much care as any Indian driver would! We stopped for chai in a village just outside Leh; even here at lower altitude it was very cold. It seemed that something had suddenly changed; winter was now firmly on its way. People told us that once the first snow arrives in the mountains, it becomes noticeably colder everywhere.

Our two-day trip to Nubra and Pangong was fantastic; these destinations are definitely a must for anyone visiting Ladakh. We hope to return in the future to further explore Nubra Valley and make it to Turtuk, the Muslim-Balti village only 7km from India’s frontline with Pakistan.

Sightseeing around Leh

We spent our final days in Ladakh exploring some of the sights in upper Leh and just outside town.

Sankar – Changspa

One day we did a beautiful circular walk, first to Sankar with its small gompa and then to the donkey sanctuary. From there we continued to Tisuru Stupa and then to the Shanti Stupa, which can be seen from almost anywhere in Leh. It sits atop a high rocky ridge and offers panoramic views over the whole area.

Numerous Stanti Stupas have been built around the world by Japanese monks to promote world peace; we had previously visited the ones in Lumbini and Pokhara in Nepal.

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At the Shanti Stupa overlooking Leh

From the Shanti Stupa we dropped down to the area of Leh known as Changspa and visited the Gomang Stupa, which is flanked by numerous chortens. It was then an easy walk back into the centre of Leh, though we stopped on the way at a shady outdoor cafe for chai and a cheese sandwich!

Most of the cafes, restaurants and guesthouses in this upper area of Leh were already closed for the season; only one or two still had their doors open for any passing business. The area had a sad, empty feel about it; we can only imagine how bustling it must be in high summer tourist season.

Spituk Gompa

Another day we visited Spituk Gompa on the outskirts of Leh, near the airport. It offers more amazing views over Leh and the Indus River.

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View from Spituk Gompa

Ladakh truly is the most beautiful place we have yet been. Its stark arid beauty left us spellbound and we know that one day we will return to explore further. It is a very tough place to live, considering the altitude and lack of moisture. Next time we visit we will endeavour to acclimatise properly; we will also plan to visit between June and September when temperatures are warmer and there are more people in which to share an excursion with!

A big thank you to the wonderful family at Mandarava Homestay, especially the doctor, and to Shreya Bharamgude and family, who showed such selflessness and kindness. We hope to meet you again in Pune some day!

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View over Leh

To find out more about Ladakh, take a read of Seeing the Best of Ladakh – our more recent post from 2018!

4 thoughts on “10 Days in Ladakh: Land of High Passes”

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