Ladakh – Land of High Passes. Ollie and I made our first trip to Ladakh in October 2016, leaving with the first snows of winter and the knowledge that we would return someday soon. That day finally arrived last year, in July 2018, when we excitedly boarded a plane in Delhi, bound for Leh, the capital of the Ladakh region.
This northern-most part of India, with its jagged arid mountains, white-washed stupas and green oasis villages, occupies a very special place in my heart; indeed, it is, in my mind, the most beautiful place I have ever been. I said this in my blog post two years ago and it remains true to this day.
Check out my previous post – 10 Days in Ladakh: Land of High Passes!
Buddhist Ladakh, which resembles a ‘little Tibet’, lies within the state of Jammu and Kashmir, a culturally odd situation since Jammu is predominantly Hindu and Kashmir Muslim.
Mesmerising gompas crown dramatic rocky outcrops while meditational mani walls and fluttering prayer flags appear out of nowhere, from the streets of Leh’s old town to the highest of passes.
This high-altitude land of scenic excess still offers a traditional lifestyle for many local people, who remain in their homeland year-round, even through the depths of Ladakh’s harsh winters. The people here are friendly, resilient and ecologically aware, channeling precious water supplies from glacier-melt mountain streams.
Flying into Leh, which sits at an altitude of 3520m, from the steaming plains of Delhi is quite a shock to the system. It is essential to take it easy upon arrival and for the first couple of days after in order to avoid AMS – Acute Mountain Sickness, which can be deadly. Having learnt from past experience, we did exactly that, taking care not to overexert ourselves and to drink plenty of water.
On this trip we spent around a month in the region, so over time we were able to observe how our bodies acclimatised to the decreased oxygen. To begin with we were both drinking around 3 litres of water per day, whereas less than a month later we no longer required that kind of amount.
We based ourselves, once again, at Mandarava Homestay in Leh and from there did numerous trips to some of Ladakh’s remote gems. For our first few days and between excursions, we enjoyed ambling around pretty Leh, revisiting some of the sights we had seen nearly two years previous and discovering some new ones.
Changspa and Sankar
One of the greatest joys was simply meandering from the old town, with its myriad stupas and crumbling mudbrick houses, out into the areas of Changspa and Sankar, their web of lanes meandering between a patchwork of irrigated barely fields. Narrow footpaths and gushing streams wind their way between traditionally styled Ladakhi homes and guesthouses, under shady trees and past rows of prayer wheels.
We visited 9th Century Gomang Stupa on route to the Shanti Stupa then continued in a loop to charming little Sankar Gompa and Tisuru Stupa, a partly rebuilt mudbrick ruin that resembles a half-built stepped pyramid. Set upon a high rocky ridge, the Shanti Stupa offers a phenomenal view over Leh, which alone is worth the breathless climb up from Changspa.
Leh Palace and Tsemo Fort
Another gem within town is Leh Palace and, above it, the Tsemo Fort, both of which require a fair bit of effort to reach, unless coming by vehicle. For this reason, we waited a couple of days before attempting to climb up to them.
The imposing palace, which resembles the Potala in Llasa, overlooks the old town from atop a rocky ridge and is the architectural icon of Leh. Views from its upper-most rooftops are astounding, offering a wide panorama over the whole of Leh, hemmed in by rocky peaks. The palace itself is also photogenic, especially from below, though its treasures inside – some exhibition scenes and a small prayer room – are less inspiring.
For even greater views we continued the climb up to 16th Century Tsemo Fort and its 15th Century gompa, which are visible from virtually anywhere in Leh. Within the fort lies a tiny Buddhist shrine whilst the temple buildings enshrine an 8m-high gold-faced Maitreya statue and protector deities. Again though, it is the stunning views that attract visitors to their lofty heights and not the buildings themselves.
Leh Old Town
Within the old town, we visited the Central Asian Museum, hidden in a courtyard beside the oldest mosque in Leh. The four-storey stone building, based on the design of a historic Llasa mansion, is worth visiting for its old photos and historical information. There is also a traditional Ladakkhi kitchen on show. The Jamia Masjid in the main bazaar area was being renovated at the time we were in town.
The winding alleyways of the old town, dotted with crumbling old chortens and eroded mudbrick houses, offer a chance to escape the commercialism of the main bazaar and dine with the locals. Some of the tastiest, most authentic food can be found in the backstreets, with huge crusty Ladakhi breads baked fresh and sold for as little as 5 rupees. Topped with melting butter and an omelette, they make a great early morning breakfast!
Our first excursion from Leh was to the incredible Nubra Valley, for which an inner-line permit is required for foreigners. Many people take a two-or-three-day tour in order to explore this beautiful area; however, as we planned to spend about a week there, we decided to do the trip independently.
Getting to Nubra Valley
Having obtained our permits from a travel agent in Leh, we took an early morning bus to Diskit, where we had to change to reach our final destination, Turtuk. From Leh the road zigzags up stark bare-rock mountains to reach the Khardung La, which at 5602m, is claimed to be the highest motorable pass in the world. The bus stopped here briefly to allow for the obligatory photo ops, before beginning the descent into Nubra Valley.
Note that passports and permits are checked at both North and South Pallu army camps and that basic shop-cafes and homestays are available in Khardung and Khalsar villages, both on route to Diskit.
In total the journey to Turtuk took around 12 hours, the perilous winding road making covering the distance slow going. However, it was a journey of scenic magnificence. The Shyok Valley, between Hunder and Turtuk, is 80km of stark rocky-mountains with the gushing river your faithful companion throughout. The tiny village of Changmar marks the western limit of Ladakhi-Buddhist culture; thereafter the occasional green splashes of village are culturally and linguistically Muslim-Balti.
We spent two nights at a homestay in lovely Turtuk village, which is a delight to explore. Above the road, the village consists of raised patchworks of fields and houses on terraced ledges, the deep greens and yellow of the barely fields a stark contrast to the surrounding brown rocky peaks. At the far end of the village there’s a viewpoint, which offers unforgettable views over the village and surrounding landscape; in the distance are the serrated high peaks of Pakistan.
Indeed, the front line lies only 7km past Turtuk and the village itself was in Pakistan until the 1971 war. Turtuk is known for its delicious apricots, which were in abundance during our visit and are a must-try!
There are a few minor sights to explore, including a small palace, though the real highlight of Turtuk lies simply in being in such a beautiful, remote place, wandering the back-lanes of the village and interacting with the local people and children, whose features are those of nearby Baltistan.
From Turtuk we caught an early morning mini bus back to Diskit, the commercial centre of the valley, where we took a taxi up to Diskit Gompa. This 17th Century monastery is especially photogenic from a distance, with its brilliant jumble of Tibetan-style buildings piled up a steep rocky peak. There are multiple shrine rooms to explore here and it is well worth setting aside an hour or so to do so.
From the monastery we visited the colourful 32m-high Statue of Chamba, the Maitreya Buddha, which sits on an opposite lower hill and was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 2010. For me, Diskit Gompa and the nearby statue are icons of Nubra Valley and it was a great feeling to be able to see both again.
Back in the bazaar, we caught a shared jeep to Sumur, which lies on the opposite side of the Shyok River up a side-valley, where the Nubra River descends from the Siachen Glacier. This area is much less visited than that of Diskit/Hunder and we spent a few peaceful nights at a lovely homestay in Sumur, enjoying the home-cooked food and exploring our wonderful surroundings.
The Samstemling Gompa, high above the village, is a large modern monastery where the Dalai Lama himself had been holding an audience just days before our arrival. It was a real shame to have missed the opportunity to see him.
Sumur also has its own sand dunes, with camel rides available, and is the site of the annual Silk Road Festival, which celebrates the archery, food and camel culture of the Nubra Valley. We walked out to the dunes one evening, which was a magical time to be within the desert landscape.
Tegar and Panamik
From Sumur we hiked along the road to the neighbouring village of Tegar, a tiny settlement home to the three-storey shell of Zamskhang Palace, perched high above the road. Lower down, the crumbling remains of Nubra’s former royal citadel, with its numerous decaying white chortens, is evidence of a much grander time.
Large prayer wheels, modern white decorated chortens and a small gompa can be found along a path beside a mani wall and give character to the otherwise nondescript village. From Tegar we hitched a lift on to tiny Panamik, famous for its hot springs, though, without swimwear, we didn’t linger long.
Back in Sumur, we travelled the following morning back to Diskit then hitched a ride on to Hunder, where we spent our final night in Nubra Valley. A spread-out village nestled amongst greenery and backed by soaring valley cliffs, Hunder offers many accommodation options to suit all budgets.
Before heading into the village itself, we enjoyed a 15-minute ride on Bactrian camels through Hunder’s famous sand dunes. These smaller, furry animals are very different to their cousins of Rajasthan; not only are they shorter but they are also stockier, which made me feel a lot more comfortable!
That evening, we took a walk around the village, visited the modest gompa and gazed up at the ridgetop fort ruin that rises high above the road. All around were mani walls, little white chortens and prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.
From Leh we also made the long journey to Tso Moriri, a stunning high-altitude lake that sits at 4595m above sea level. Realistically, the only way to visit is with a private vehicle as buses only traverse the route three times a month. We, therefore, joined up with three other travellers, who we quickly became friends with, and tackled the two-day loop together. Again, permits are required for this trip, but they are easily obtained through any Leh travel agent.
Even though it is a long drive, the scenery on route is fantastic, offering the kind of vast spell-binding landscapes that Ladakh excels at. The smaller Tso Kiagar appears before Tso Moriri, whetting your appetite for the main event.
We stayed the night at a traditional homestay in tatty little Korzok village, a short walk from the lakeshore. Before dinner, the five of us picked our way across the marshy ground, to survey the hypnotic scenes reflected in the clear waters of giant Tso Moriri lake. The surrounding bald peaks were a brilliant contrast to the reflections and colour.
It was very cold that night, in the height of summer, and we were grateful for the warmth of the family kitchen and the many blankets they gave us to sleep under. We simply couldn’t imagine how the family, and many others in Korzok, remain in their native village year-round, throughout the depths of winter, when temperatures can drop to as low as -30 degrees Celsius.
The following day we travelled back to Leh by a different route, stopping at the smaller lake of Tso Kar with its salt-whitened marshes and snow-topped mountain backdrop. Nearby, the tiny settlement of Thukye is used as a winter retreat for Chang Pa nomads. On this return route, we also crossed the Taglang La, reportedly the second highest motorable pass in the world after the Kardung La.
Villages and Monasteries around Leh
Surrounding Leh are many timeless villages and monasteries, many of which have homestays, that make great trips; it is also possible to trek between some of them. On our previous trip to Ladakh in 2016 we visited some of the more popular ones, including Stakna, Shey, Thiksey and Hemis; this time we decided to cover a few more.
A memorable day was when we hired a car and driver to take us to Likir, Basgo and Alchi, which lie off the Leh-Kargil road.
Likir has a large, mostly 15th Century gompa complex; its well-known icon is the large gilded 20th Century Maitreya-Buddha statue. Likir is also the starting point for the ‘Sham Baby Trek’ between Likir and Timishgan, which is a homestay trek commonly used as a warm-up before more strenuous options.
Basgo is an incredible place with the remnant stubs of a once-great citadel set high above the main road. The scenery is stark and slightly surreal with its collection of eroded earthen pinnacles, along with a mostly derelict mud-walled palace and two one-room temples, each of which contain a two-storey seated Maitreya statue. The views from the palace roof are astounding, looking out over the valley below with its surprising amount of greenery.
Within the rural village of Alchi lies the world famous Choskhor Temple Complex, which was founded in the 11th Century by the Great Translator Lotsava Ringchen Zangpo. There are four main temple buildings, which though small, contain original interior murals that are considered to be the finest of Ladakh’s Indo-Tibetan art.
Unfortunately, Alchi has become rather commercialised with many guesthouses and souvenir stalls lining the way to the temple complex; of the three places that we visited on this particular day, Basgo was certainly the most awe-inspiring and interesting.
Other trips that Ollie and I made, by a combination of bus and hitching rides, were to Phyang, Stok and Matho.
Not far from Leh, pretty Phyang village is an emerald patchwork of layered barely fields, interspersed with countless trees and home to a large, recently restored gompa. Lying in the next parallel valley to Leh, Phyang is a sleepy village and somewhere we could quite happily have stayed for a few days. The monastery is well worth exploring with numerous white-washed chortens and mani walls on the ridge, overlooking the green expanse below.
We visited Stok for its stately three-storey palace, which though smaller and more colourful, resembles Leh’s. Stok Palace serves as the summer home to Ladakh’s former royal family and has a couple of museum rooms displaying family treasures; it also has a café on site.
Whist we were in the village we took a good wander around, discovering the numerous white-washed buildings of Stok Gompa, crumbling white chortens and giant prayer wheels. A large new golden Buddha statue also sits on a platform overlooking the valley below.
From Stok we managed to hitch a ride south to Matho Gompa, a large Sakya-Buddhist monastery perched on a rocky ridge overlooking its namesake village. The views from the monastery are vast, encompassing a huge swathe of the mountain-backed Indus Valley, with some areas green-patchwork-field and other areas sandy desert.
Markha Valley Trek
Before we left Ladakh, we wanted to fit in the famous Markha Valley trek, which we’d wanted to do on our previous visit. We stocked up in Leh with plenty of snacks and made plans to do the trek independently, staying at village homestays on route.
Our plan was Zingchen – Yurutse – Skiu – Markha – Hankar – Nimaling – Shang Sumdo, taking six days and crossing two high passes – the Ganda La at 4920m and the Kongmaru La at 5260m. The trek can also be started from Chiling, which takes the trek down to five days and loses the first pass crossing.
Our trek started very well; the scenery was gorgeous and the sun was shining. On the first day we stopped in pretty Rumbak village for lunch with its many traditional Ladakhi houses; we then continued on to the single homestay at Yurutse, which was packed out that night.
From there we tackled the Ganda La, which was slow going to reach but an exhilarating feeling once we’d reached the top. Descending through Shingo village, we reached Skiu in the pelting rain. It had been cloudy throughout the day but had started to turn at the pass, the winds getting up and rain a serious threat.
At Shingo it was still dry; however not long after we’d continued on our way, the heavens opened and we were soaked to the skin by the time we found somewhere to stay in Skiu. Luckily, I managed to take some photos of Skiu that evening, on route to a homestay.
Next morning when we woke, we were greeted with the knowledge that the heavy rain had caused mudslides to rush down the mountainside from Shingo, swallowing up buildings in Skiu and enveloping the whole area in dangerous sinking mud. It would not be possible for us to continue on to Markha. Our ears couldn’t believe what they were hearing; we were dumbstruck.
Outside, the scene was as we’d been told, it looked like something out of a disaster movie. Skiu marked our entry into the Markha Valley and instead of continuing through it to Markha, we were forced to turn in the opposite direction, towards Chiling. We were heartbroken.
We consoled ourselves that we had at least reached Skiu; if we’d stayed in Shingo the night before we would have to have trekked back to Yurutse over the Ganda La; the route from Shingo down to Skiu was now washed out and impassable. It was, therefore, with heavy hearts that we reached tiny Chiling, where we managed to flag down a passing mini-bus back to Leh.
Before doing so, we climbed up to explore the traditional village, which is set above the road, hidden away on a fertile green plateau. Families here are descendants of Nepali copper craftsmen, who originally came to build the Buddha statue in Shey Palace; their handicraft continues to this day.
Ladakh is, without a doubt, my favourite place in India. I love the jaw-dropping arid mountains, the way the green oasis villages stand out like stars against the barren browns, the ethereal blue of the rivers and lakes and the timeless Buddhist culture that harks back to a bye-gone era.
Without doubt we will return, if nothing else but to revel in a place that makes our hearts feel so full. Yet, we have the Markha trek unfinished and still many more quaint villages and rural corners to discover. Our love affair with Ladakh is not finished yet!
If you enjoyed Ladakh and are looking for somewhere similar and perhaps even more remote, Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh may just be what you’re looking for! Check out – Shimla to Manali: The Epic Kinnaur Spiti Loop