As you approach Leh for the first time, via the sloping sweep of dust and pebbles that divides it from the floor of the Indus Valley, you’ll have little difficulty imagining how the old trans-Himalayan traders must have felt as they plodded in on the caravan routes from Yarkhand and Tibet: a mixture of relief at having crossed the mountains in one piece, and anticipation of a relaxing spell in one of central Asia’s most scenic towns. Spilling out of a side valley that tapers north towards eroded snow-capped peaks and looks south towards the majestic Stok-Kangri massif (6120m), the Ladakhi capital sprawls from the foot of a ruined Tibetan-style palace – a maze of mud-brick and concrete flanked on one side by cream-coloured desert and on the other by a swathe of lush, irrigated farmland.
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Despite being increasingly touristic, especially during the peak months of July and August, the abiding impression of Leh remains that of a lively yet laidback place to unwind after a long bus journey. Attractions in and around the town itself include the former palace and Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, perched amid strings of prayer flags above the narrow dusty streets of the old quarter, whose layout has not changed since it was founded in the sixteenth century. A short walk north across the fields brings you to the small monastery at Sankar, which harbours accomplished modern Tantric murals and a thousand-headed Avalokitesvara deity. Leh is also a good base for longer day-trips out into the Indus Valley. Among the string of picturesque villages and gompas within reach by bus are Shey, site of a derelict seventeenth-century palace, and the spectacular Thikse Gompa.
As Leh is 3505m above sea level, some travellers, and especially those who arrive by plane from Delhi, experience mild altitude sickness. The best way to avoid the symptoms – persistent headaches, dizziness, insomnia, nausea, loss of appetite or shortness of breath – is to rest for at least 48 hours on arrival. Drink 3–4 litres of water a day, avoid alcohol, and don’t exert yourself. For those suffering severely, there is a new oxygen bar above the Tourist Reception Centre on Ibex Rd.