Of the many gompas accessible by road west of Leh, only Spitok, piled on a hilltop at the end of the airport runway, and Phyang, which presides over one of Ladakh’s most picturesque villages, can be comfortably visited on day-trips from the capital. The rest, including Likkir and the temple complex at Alchi, with its wonderfully preserved eleventh-century murals, are usually seen en route to or from Kargil. The 231km journey, which takes in a couple of high passes and some mind-blowing scenery, can be completed in a single eight-hour haul, slightly less by jeep. To do this stretch of road justice, however, you should spend at least a few days making short forays up the side valleys of the Indus, where idyllic settlements and gompas nestle amid barley fields and mountains.

One of the great landmarks punctuating the former caravan route is the monastery of Lamayuru. Reached via a nail-biting sequence of hairpin bends as the highway climbs out of the Indus Valley to begin its meandering ascent of Fotu La, it lies within walking distance of some extraordinary lunar-like rock formations, at the start of the main trekking route south to Padum in Zanskar. Further west still, beyond the dramatic Namika La pass, Mulbekh is the last Buddhist village on the highway. From here on, gompas and gonchas give way to onion-domed mosques and flowing salwar kameez.

There is, on average, an accident a day on the narrow, high and twisting Leh–Kargil road. Tata trucks are the most prone to toppling off the tarmac, and it can take hours for the rescue vehicles from Leh and Kargil to arrive and then clear the road. In summer, transport along the highway is straightforward as ramshackle state and private buses ply the route; getting to more remote spots, however, can be hard. Some travellers resort to paying for a ride on one of the countless Tata trucks that lumber past, or hitch with an army convoy, but getting a group together to rent a jeep from tour operators in Leh, while expensive, will be safer, save time and give more access to the side valleys.

  • Alchi
  • Lamayuru
  • Kargil
  • Rafting and kayaking on the River Indus