It’s been sometime since I’ve been to Ladakh, I went there in the summer of 2011,just after my bachelor’s exams got over. Folks back at home were concerned about how I would cope up with the adverse climate(high altitude), but everything turned out perfect. So Ladakh is well separated from the Indian mainland by the Himalyas, which makes it’s culture,landscape,people,food,all of it unique, bearing resemblance to Tibet. It is located at a very high altitude, and it hardly receives any kind of precipitation(less), so that too makes it different from the rest of Indian highland areas. Huge rocky mountains,snow covered distant peaks are the norm here. However, what makes Ladakh super scenic is the water bodies which contrast with the rest of the landscape, the River Indus and the high altitude lakes, Pangong lake being the most famous one.
I took a flight from New Delhi to Leh, the flight was a trip itself, the aerial views of Himalayan peaks and the view of the Indus Valley near Ladakh were excellent. Do yourself a favor and get a window seat on this flight. I landed at Leh, took a Diamox, and proceeded towards my hotel, Kidar Guest House by taxi. The first day was rest day, since I had landed by flight, so the first day had to be for acclimatization. The terrace at Kidar Guest House had amazing views of the far away mountains and the Leh Palace.
So I actually began traveling on the 2nd day. Went up the Shanti Stupa for sunset for one of the most phenomenal views I was to see in Ladakh. Now monasteries and Buddhism form an integral part of Ladakhi life. And all of them have very splendid locations, usually they are perched up upon hilltops with gorgeous views of the countryside. So I headed off by a minibus to the Thiksey monastery, which bears resemblance with the massive Potala Palace at Lhasa. Awe-inspiring would hardly be enough for Thiksey monastery. Climbing to the top of it, and looking upon the countryside with the holy Indus river valley in view and with all the silence around, you could just hear the wind, was divine. I also walked till the Shey monastery, which again was another gem. Was more like a fortress, than a monastery. I returned back to Leh after visiting these amazing places.
Now the most awaited destintion ..the Pangong Lake, visiting the Pangong Lake was a dream since long time(much before it was featured in the movie 3 Idiots). You get to see Pangong Lake on the “incredible india” ads, and belive me, it is exactly like that. Waters which come in various shades of blue, and mountains rising just behind it, all at an altitude of 13,500 feet. I took a 2 day tour with 4 others, you need to stay overnight, a day trip is simply not worth it. The first sight of the Pangong,after hours of driving through Ladakhi mountain,waterless scenery(although interesting) was brilliant..and soon you see the entire lake unfold before you..the colors keep on changing all the time, and we were there on a stormy day, so a lot of winds. Despite it’s popularity, there weren’t too many folks around. We drove to the last motorable village on the Pangong and parked at a homestay, actully a big tent with basic accommodation. The nerves people having staying at such a high altitude.
Spent the evening walking beside the Pangong. The sunset colors were fantastic,the lake turned red for a few minutes. And then it was a cold-cold,windy night. The food at the homestay was excellent, especially considering it had been cooked at such a high altitude. The weather had changed it’s mood the next morning, the storm had given it’s way to snow bearing clouds. It had started snowing on some of the mountains. I went for a long walk again on the lake, and then we had breakfast,and we set out for Ladakh. The journey was very eventful, we were met with a big snowfall on the passes(it was mid July), we saw some of the wildlife(don’t remember the name, in India it’s found only near the Pangong region), saw some of the most amazing far flung monasteries, Chemre La I guess. So that was the Pangong excursion, which was the highlight of my Ladakh trip.
Next was another monastery tour to the west of Leh town. This was along the highway to Srinagar along the Indus river. This is where you get the classic highway + landscape Ladakh pictures. We passed though the Indus- Zanskar confluence, which is one of the best views in Ladakh IMO. Our first stop was the Likir monastery, perched high up the mountains, typical of many monasteries. The views were great from the top, and we got a pretty good inside view of the place. Next came the Alchi monastery on the banks of the Indus. This one was different from the other monasteries. The star of the day however was the Rizong monastery. The unmetalled road led us up the mountains through an amazing valley, with pink,violet,purple stones all eroded to give them unique shapes. This actually was our favorite one, the locals were friendly, they actually told us a lot about the monastery and their lives and beliefs.
So I had another day left in Ladakh, I was wondering how to spend it, when I came to know the Hemis Festival was beginning that day. Hemis is one of the most prominent monasteries in Ladakh, about 40kms away from Leh. The Hemis Festival is a big event in Ladakh, people from all over Ladakh come to have a look. The monastery has a big courtyard, and you see holy men dressed in their traditional attire everywhere. So it was like the scene you see in movies which feature Tibet and monasteries and Lamas. The experience was brilliant, loads of good performances(or rituals, I am not sure), plenty of locals and local flavor, just the change you would want after being in the desert admiring lonely landscapes.
Returned from Hemis, spent the evening chatting with my guesthouse owners, visiting an Israeli bakery, buying dry apricots, then having a home cooked Ladakhi dinner, momos and thupka(a soup wih dumplings) and salad. Returned back to Delhi the next day, all happy and fulfilled, sure to return back. I had skipped many parts of Ladakh on purpose, with an intention to return and spend more time, Nubra Valley and Tso Moriri for example.
When did I travel? I went in early July, which was the perfect time to visit. But anytime between April and October is good, beware flight prices in early or late season. In the season you could come via Manali or Srinagar by road, both are trips are of lifetime, and are quite demanding in terms of time,energy and money.
How to get around? You can visit Thiksey, Shey, Hemis by local buses from Ladakh. However for Alchi,shey,Likir, Pangong, you need private taxi, I shared a taxi with 4 others( a couple from Mumbai and another one from France, had a great time together). But note that you may not always find people to share on the days that you want.
Food Scene: I had the best Italian, Ladakhi, Tibetan food I’ve had in India till date. And for a very low price, there are loads of places in Leh, I frequented MonaLisa since it was close to my hotel and was really really good. Outside Leh, it’s eat whatever you get, stil getting roti and and subzi and dal isn’t difficult. I never eat maggi and omelette, still I didn’t face much of a problem.
How many days? Ladakh is not small trip, IMO you shouldn’t go if you cant anything less than 6-7 days. You need a day for acclimatization, and then all the day trips are time consuming. And you should never rush through.
Accommodation: Leh has loads and loads of accommodation, and cheap. I stayed at the Lzakar Guest House: 01982255028 and the Kirad Guest House: +919622963234 and 01982252046. Stayed at a hut at Pangong, don’t ave the contact number, but I’m sure your driver will find something for you.