Ladakh (La-Dags – “land of high mountain passes”) is mainland India’s most remote and sparsely populated region, a high-altitude desert cradled by the Karakoram and Great Himalaya ranges and crisscrossed by myriad razor-sharp peaks and ridges. Variously described as “Little Tibet” or “the last Shangri-La”, and culturally and administratively separate from the rest of India, this area is one of the last enclaves of Mahayana Buddhism, which has been its principal religion for nearly a thousand years. This is most evident in Ladakh’s medieval monasteries: perched on rocky hilltops and clinging to sheer cliffs, these gompas are both repositories of ancient wisdom and living centres of worship.
Set in a sublime landscape and crammed with hotels, guesthouses and restaurants, this atmospheric little town, a staging post on the old Silk Route, is most visitors’ point of arrival and an ideal base for side-trips. North of Leh, across the highest driveable pass in the world, Khardung La, lies the valley of Nubra, where sand dunes carpet the valley floor. It is also possible to visit the great wilderness around the lake of Tso Moriri in Rupshu, southeast of Leh, and to glimpse Tibet from the shores of Pangong Tso in the far east of Ladakh. For all these areas you will, however, need a permit. West of Leh, beyond the windswept Fatu La and Namika La passes, Buddhist prayer flags peter out as you approach the predominantly Muslim district of Kargil. Ladakh’s second largest town, at the mouth of the breathtakingly beautiful Suru Valley, is the jumping-off point for Zanskar, the vast wilderness in the far south of the state that forms the border with Lahaul in Himachal Pradesh.
Parts of Ladakh are still inaccessible to casual tourists, but with the easing of tensions along the border between India and China, much of this incredible land has been opened up. Three areas in particular are now firm favourites with travellers: the Nubra Valley bordering the Karakoram Range to the north of Leh; the area around Pangong Tso, the lake to the east of Leh; and the region of Rupshu with the lake of Tso Moriri, to the southeast of Leh. Indian and foreign visitors need permits to visit these areas, the cost of which includes an environmental fee, though Indian tourists now only have to carry photo ID.
Permits are issued by the Deputy Commissioner’s Office in Leh but the office deals only through Leh’s many tour operators, who charge a fee – usually around ₹550–660 per head. As the areas in question are served by infrequent public transport, you may well choose to use a tour operator anyway. In theory, permits are only issued to groups of at least two people accompanied by a guide. However, in practice travel agents are generally happy to issue permits to solo individuals travelling independently, though you’ll have an imaginary friend (usually somebody applying at the same time) listed on the permit to fulfil the official requirement. As long as your name and passport number are on the permit, the checkpoints are quite relaxed about how many of you there are.
You will need two photocopies of the relevant pages of your passport and visa. Provided you apply in the morning, permits are usually issued on the same day. Once you have your permit, which is valid for a maximum period of seven days and covers all restricted areas, make at least five copies before setting off because officers at checkpoints sometimes like to keep a copy when you report in. If you go on an organized trip, however, the driver takes care of all this and you may never even handle your permit.
Most of Ladakh’s Buddhist festivals, in which masked chaam dance dramas are performed by lamas in monastery courtyards, take place in January and February, when roads into the region are snowbound. This works out well for the locals, for whom the festivals relieve the tedium of the relentless winter, but it means that few outsiders get to experience some of the northern Himalayas’ most vibrant and fascinating spectacles. Recently, however, a few of the larger gompas around Leh have followed the example of Hemis, and switched their annual festivals to the summer to attract tourists. The tourist office in Leh produces a listings booklet called Ladakh, giving dates for forthcoming years.
Gompas that hold their chaams (dance festivals) in winter or spring include Matho (mid-Feb to mid-March), Spitok (mid-Jan), Thikse (late Oct to mid-Nov) and Diskit (mid-Feb to early March) in Nubra.
Summer festivals include those at:
When water levels are high, between the end of June and late August, Leh’s more entrepreneurial travel agents operate rafting trips on the Indus and Zanskar rivers. The routes are tame in comparison with Nepal’s, but floating downstream in a twelve-seater rubber inflatable is a hugely enjoyable way to experience the rugged and beautiful landscape. Two different stretches of the River Indus are most commonly used: from Phey near Spitok to the Indus–Zanskar confluence at Nyemo (3hr), and from Nyemo to below the ancient temple complex at Alchi (2hr 30min). Experienced rafters may also want to try the more challenging route between Alchi and Khalsi, which takes in the 1km-long series of rapids at Nurla. The annual multiday expedition down the River Zanskar to the Indus is by far the most rewarding as it also includes the spectacular road approach to Padum. A popular shorter route on the Zanskar is from Chiling to Nyemo (3hr).
Several adventure tour operators in Leh offer whitewater rafting or kayaking on the Indus – two of the best are Splash Adventure Tours, Changspa Lane, and The Nomadic Way, Mentokling Complex, Changspa Lane.
The ancient footpaths that crisscross Ladakh and Zanskar provide some of the most inspiring trekking in the Himalayas. Threading together remote Buddhist villages and monasteries, cut off in winter behind high passes whose rocky tops bristle with prayer flags, nearly all are long, hard and high – but never dull. Whether you make all the necessary preparations yourself, or pay an agency to do it for you, Leh is the best place to plan a trek; the best time is from June to September.
Trekking independently is straightforward if you don’t mind haggling and are happy to organize the logistics yourself. To find ponies and guides, head for the Tibetan refugee camp at Choglamsar, 3km south of Leh. Count on paying around ₹600 per horse and ₹500 per donkey each, plus around ₹600 per day for a guide; two people trekking through the Markha Valley, for example, would pay around US$60 each for the entire week. By contrast, a package trek sold by a trekking agent in Leh will cost at least US$60 per day, and more if your group is less than four people.
You can rent equipment, including high-quality tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats and duck-down jackets, either through your chosen agency or at somewhere like Spiritual Trek, Changspa Lane. Independent trekkers might consider buying Indian equipment in the bazaar, and then later selling it on.
Minimize your impact in culturally and ecologically sensitive areas by being as self-reliant as possible, especially with food and fuel. Buying provisions along the way puts an unnecessary burden on the villages’ subsistence-oriented economies, and encourages strings of unsightly “tea shops” (often run by outsiders) to sprout along the trails. Always burn kerosene, never wood – a scarce and valuable resource. Refuse should be packed up, not disposed of along the route, no matter how far from the nearest town you are, and plastics retained for recycling at the Ecology Centre in Leh. Always bury your faeces and burn your toilet paper afterwards. Finally, do not defecate in the dry-stone huts along the trails; local shepherds use them for shelter during snowstorms.
The beautiful Markha Valley runs parallel with the Indus on the far southern side of the snowy Stok-Kangri massif, visible from Leh. Passing through cultivated valley floors, undulating high-altitude grassland and snow-prone passes, the winding trail along it enables trekkers to experience life in a roadless region without having to hike for weeks into the wilderness – as a result, it has become the most frequented route in Ladakh. Do not attempt this trek without adequate wet- and cold-weather gear: snow flurries sweep across the higher reaches of the Markha Valley even in August.
The circuit takes six to eight days to complete, and is usually followed anticlockwise, starting from the village of Spitok, 10km south of Leh. A more dramatic approach via Stok affords matchless views over the Indus Valley to the Ladakh and Karakoram ranges, but involves a sharp ascent of Stok La (4848m) on only the second day; don’t try it unless you are already well acclimatized to the altitude.
A driveable road along the old caravan route through the hills between Likkir and Temisgang makes a leisurely two-day hike, which takes in three major monasteries (Likkir, Rhizong and Temisgang) and a string of idyllic villages. It’s a great introduction to trekking in Ladakh, the perfect acclimatizer if you plan to attempt any longer and more demanding routes. Ponies and guides for the trip may be arranged on spec at either Likkir or Temisgang villages, both of which have small guesthouses and are connected by daily buses to Leh.
The five-day trek from Lamayuru, on the Srinagar–Leh highway, to Alchi is one of the toughest in the region, winding across high passes and a tangle of isolated valleys past a couple of ancient gompas, and offering superb panoramic views of the wilderness south of the Indus Valley. It’s very hard to follow in places, so don’t attempt it without an experienced guide, ponies and enough provisions to tide you over if you lose your way.
The trek across the rugged Zanskar Range from Padum to Lamayuru usually completed in ten to twelve days, is a hugely popular but very demanding long-distance route, not to be attempted as a first-time trek nor without adequate preparation, ponies and a guide.
Visible from most of Leh, Stok-Kangri (6120m) is reputed to be the easiest peak above 6000m in the world. Several agents in Leh advertise five-day climbing expeditions via the village of Stok with a non-technical final climb. It’s straightforward to walk up it independently, though you’ll need to carry enough food for three or four days.
Until 1994, the lands north of Leh were off-limits to tourists and had been unexplored by outsiders since the nineteenth century. Now, the breathtaking Nubra Valley, unfolding beyond one of the world’s highest stretches of driveable road as it crosses the Khardung La (5359m, though local signs claim a higher elevation), can be visited with a seven-day permit, which gives you enough time to explore the stark terrain and trek out to one or two gompas. The valley’s mountain backbone looks east to the Nubra River and west to the Shyok River, which meet amid silver-grey sand dunes and boulder fields. To the north and east, the mighty Karakoram Range marks the Indian border with China and Pakistan. In the valley the climate is relatively mild, though dust storms are common, whipping up sand and light debris in choking clouds above the broad riverbeds.
Walled in by the Great Himalayan Divide, Zanskar, literally “Land of White Copper”, has for decades exerted the allure of Shangri-La on visitors to Ladakh. The region’s staggering remoteness, extreme climate and distance from the major Himalayan trade routes has meant that the successive winds of change that have blown through the Indus Valley to the north have had little impact here. The annual influx of trekkers and a driveable road have certainly quickened the pace of development, but away from the main settlement of Padum, the Zanskaris’ way of life has altered little since the sage Padmasambhava passed through in the eighth century.
The nucleus of the region is a Y-shaped glacial valley system drained by three main rivers: the Stot (or Doda) and the Tsarap (or Lingit) join and flow north as the Zanskar. Lying to the leeward side of the Himalayan watershed, the valley sees a lot more snow than central Ladakh: even the lowest passes remain blocked for seven or eight months of the year, while midwinter temperatures can drop to a bone-numbing -40°C. Fourteen thousand or so tenacious souls subsist in this bleak and treeless terrain – among the coldest inhabited places on the planet – muffled up for half the year inside their smoke-filled whitewashed crofts, with a winter’s-worth of fodder piled on the roof.
Just a handful of Zanskar’s widely scattered gompas and settlements lie within striking distance of the road. The rest are hidden away in remote valleys, only reachable after days or weeks of walking. Improved communications, especially planned roads from Ladakh and Lahaul that are already under construction, may yet turn out to be a mixed blessing for Zanskar. While the existing road has undoubtedly brought a degree of prosperity to Padum, it has also forced significant changes upon the valley – most noticeably a sharp increase in tourist traffic – whose long-term impact on the region’s fragile ecology and traditional culture has yet to be fully realized. Increased tourism has, in fact, done little to benefit the locals financially, with agencies in Leh, Manali, Srinagar and even Delhi pocketing the money paid by trekking groups. Zanskaris, weary of seeing their region come second to Kargil, have been campaigning for years for sub-Hill Development Council status with more control over development. Buddhist concerns have also been heightened in the face of state government mismanagement and occasional communal tensions with their Muslim neighbours. There has been some outside aid emerging – one excellent initiative is the Dutch-based Stichting Zanskar Scholen foundation, which equips some of the impoverished state and monastery schools.
Top image: Lamayuru Temple, Ladakh, India © AkeTang/Shutterstock