In this Ladakh travel guide, you'll learn the best time to visit Leh and Ladakh, how to get around, and what to see and do once you get there.
Ladakh, comprising Leh and Kargil districts, is situated amidst the Himalaya and the Karakoram mountain ranges.
Famous as a Buddhist ex-kingdom, Ladakh is well-known for its monasteries or gompas.
Ladakh is referred to as “Little Tibet” due to the strong influence of Tibetan culture on the region and “Land of High Passes” as it has natural beauty in abundance.
Ladakh is sandwiched between Tibet in the east, Kashmir in the west, the Xinjiang province of China in the north, Pakistan in the north-west, and Himachal Pradesh's Lahaul and Spiti valleys in the south.
Leh, the capital of Ladakh and one of the most popular destinations for tourists in the region, is located at an altitude of 3,500 meters.
The town of Leh was an important trade center for Central Asia on the Silk Route and also served as a transit point for traders on the Leh-Yarkand (presently in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China) route.
How to Get to Ladakh
Ladakh is accessible either through the air or by road.
There are direct flights from New Delhi to Leh on all days, whereas direct flights are also available to Leh from Mumbai in summer.
Two roads connect Ladakh with the rest of the country.
One could reach Leh by road from Manali or Srinagar. The 490 km-long Leh-Manali highway is open from May or June until mid-October.
One has to cross three passes – Rohtang La (3,980 m), Baralacha La (5,030 m), and Taglang La (5,328 m) to enter Ladakh region from Manali.
On the Leh-Srinagar road, one has to cross two passes – Fotu La (4,108 m) and Zoji La (3,528 m) to reach Leh.
When to Visit
Summer is the best time to visit Ladakh. One could visit Ladakh from May to September when the weather is pleasant.
Ladakh is not accessible by road throughout the year as both the Leh-Manali and Leh-Srinagar roads are closed for more than six months due to heavy snowfall.
However, the roads within Ladakh are still open in winter.
When the roads are closed in winter, the airlines become the lifeline of the people.
It is altogether a different experience in winter with sub-zero temperatures and plenty of snowfall.
The Chadar Trek and Snow Leopard sighting trek are the major activities that are organized for tourists in Ladakh in winter.
How to Get Around
The bus services in Leh are limited. While the remote and far-flung areas are connected through a bus run by the road transport corporation (RTC), the bus services in Leh town and peripheral regions are privately-owned.
As a result, the schedule of the bus service is often erratic.
Taxis are available for traveling in and around Leh.
One can choose different types of taxi, ranging from Toyota Innova to Maruti Van, depending on the budget.
People traveling alone or in a small group are encouraged to book shared taxi tours while visiting Ladakh.
Shared taxis are available for tours to all the major tourist attractions (Nubra valley, Pangong lake, Indus valley, etc.).
Using shared taxis will not only save money but also reduce the impact of carbon emissions on the environment.
Things to Do
It's not only weather that one should keep in mind while planning a trip to Ladakh. One has to keep acclimatization to the altitude in mind too.
At a minimum, allow for a full day of rest on the day you arrive in Leh. It is vital to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated at high altitudes.
Inner line permits (ILP) are required for both domestic and foreign tourists visiting any of the sensitive zones such as Nubra, Pangong, Tsomoriri, and the Aryan valley due to security reasons.
ILPs are available online for both domestic travelers and foreigners and are valid for 15 days.
1. Monasteries of the Indus valley: Leh, Shey, Thiksey, and Hemis
As Ladakh is a Buddhist-dominated area, the region is peppered with monasteries of different sects and size.
Perched high on the hill behind the nine-story high Leh Palace is the Namgyal Tsemo Monastery.
Constructed in the 15th century, the monastery is famed for its three-story high gold idol of Maitreya or the Future Buddha.
Shey, once the summer capital of Ladakh, is the house to Shey monastery renowned for a giant copper statue of Buddha gilded with gold.
On the way to Pangong Lake is the majestic Thiksey monastery that is famed for its resemblance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.
The monastery is famous for its 15-meter high statue of the Maitreya Buddha.
Perhaps the most famous and well-known monastery in Ladakh is the Hemis Monastery, located at a distance of 45 km from Leh.
One of the largest and wealthiest monasteries in Ladakh, Hemis Monastery is famous for the Naropa Festival, which is held every 12 years according to the Tibetan lunar calendar.
2. Nubra Valley
One of the major attractions in Ladakh is the Nubra Valley or “the valley of flowers.”
Compared to Leh (3,524 m), Nubra is at a lower altitude of 3,048 meters above sea level.
Nubra is also the gateway to the famous Siachen Glacier, which lies to the north of the valley, whereas the Karakoram Pass is in the northwest of the valley.
Hundar and Turtuk are the two most visited villages in Nubra valley.
Hundar is renowned for its dunes and the double-humped Bactrian camel.
The village of Turtuk, famous for the Balti tribe, was opened for tourists in 2010. The Balti tribe still follows its age-old customs.
Diskit monastery is the largest gompa in the valley, located just 7 km from Hundar.
3. Pangong and Tsomoriri Lakes
The other major attractions for tourists are Pangong and Tsomoriri lakes.
Pangong Lake, situated at the height of 4,350 m, is a five-hour drive from Leh.
Pangong Lake is 134 km long, and almost 60% of the length of the lake is in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Pangong Lake is an important breeding ground for a variety of birds, including many migratory birds.
Meanwhile, to the southeast of Leh in eastern Ladakh at a distance of 240 km far from Leh is the Tsomoriri Lake situated at an altitude of 4,522 m.
The lake is the breeding ground for the highly threatened black-necked crane.
One of the outstanding features of the area around Tsomoriri Lake is the nomads known for moving from one place to the other.
Tsomoriri, one of the highest brackish water lakes in the world, is 19 km in length.
Eco-responsible Tourism in Ladakh
Ladakh's ecosystem is fragile. Since Ladakh is a cold desert, water is a precious resource in the region.
However, due to rapid urbanization and an increase in the number of hotels and guesthouses, mainly in Leh town, people have abandoned centuries-old practices.
Instead of traditional dry compost toilets, flush toilets are being used in hotels and households.
These are putting a lot of strain on the already depleted sources of water, such as natural springs and it's also contaminating the groundwater.
It is, therefore, advisable to save as much water as possible by taking a bath using buckets instead of showers.
Also, because Ladakh has limited waste management infrastructure, make efforts to reduce garbage by consuming less packaged food and plastic bottles.
It is estimated that more than 3.5 million plastic bottles for mineral water and carbonated drinks are generated in Leh each tourist season.
Instead of buying plastic bottles, refill water bottles from the hotel or water vending outlets in Leh, such as Dzomsa.
I hope this Ladakh travel guide has provided insight into what it would be like to visit this wondrous region of northern India.