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.
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.
Southeast of Leh, the Indus Valley broadens to form a fertile river basin. For some 35km, both sides are dotted with spectacular Buddhist monuments, and many travellers visit one, some or all of them on day-trips from Leh. The northeastern bank of the river has a better road, and sees most traffic; here you’ll come across Shey, site of a ruined palace and giant brass Buddha, then the stunning monastery of Thikse. After crossing the Indus at Karu, you’ll see Hemis, Ladakh’s wealthiest monastery and the venue for one of the region’s few summertime religious festivals; heading back to Leh, you can also mop up Matho, a gompa boasting superb views from its roof terrace; and Stok Palace, home of the Ladakhi monarchy. Note that there’s accommodation outside or nearby most of these sights, giving travellers an easy chance to spend a night outside the “big” city; there are also places to eat dotted here and there.
Ladakh’s most photographed and architecturally impressive gompa is at Thikse, 19km southeast of Leh. Founded in the fifteenth century, its whitewashed chortens and cubic monks’ quarters rise in ranks up the sides of a craggy bluff, crowned by an imposing ochre- and red-painted temple complex whose gleaming golden finials are visible for kilometres in every direction. Thikse’s reincarnation as a major tourist attraction has brought it mixed blessings: its constant stream of summer visitors spoils the peace and quiet necessary for meditation, but the income generated has enabled the monks to invest in major refurbishments, among them the Maitreya temple immediately above the main courtyard. Inaugurated in 1980 by the Dalai Lama, the shrine is built around a gigantic 14m gold-faced Buddha-to-come, seated not on a throne as is normally the case, but in the lotus position. The bright murals on the wall behind, painted by monks from Lingshet gompa in Zanskar, depict scenes from Maitreya’s life. For most foreign visitors, however, the highlight of a trip to Thikse is the view from its lofty roof terrace. A patchwork of barley fields stretches across the floor of the valley, fringed by rippling snow-flecked desert mountains and a string of monasteries, palaces, and Ladakhi villages.
Thanks to its famous festival – one of the few held in summer, when the passes are open – Hemis, 45km southeast of Leh, is visited in greater numbers than any other gompa in Ladakh. Each June or July, hundreds of foreigners join the huge crowds of locals, dressed in their finest traditional garb, that flock to watch the colourful two-day pageant. At other times, the rambling and atmospheric seventeenth-century monastery can be disappointingly quiet: although it’s one of the region’s foremost religious institutions, only a skeleton staff of monks and novices are resident off-season. The main entrance opens onto the large rectangular courtyard where the festival chaam dances are performed. Accompanied by cymbal crashes, drum rolls and periodic blasts from the temple trumpets, the culmination of the event on the second day is a frenzied dismemberment of a dummy, symbolizing the destruction of the human ego, and thus the triumph of Buddhism over ignorance and evil. Once every twelve years, the Hemis festival also hosts the ritual unrolling of a giant thangka. The gompa’s prize possession, which covers the entire facade of the building, it was embroidered by women whose hands are now revered as holy relics. Decorated with pearls and precious stones, it will not be displayed until 2028.
Pangong Tso, 154km southeast of Leh, is one of the largest saltwater lakes in Asia, a long narrow strip of water stretching from Ladakh east into Tibet. Only a quarter of the 134km-long lake is in India, and the army, who experienced bitter losses along its shores in the war against China in 1962, jealously guard their side of the frontier. Until the mid-1990s, this area was off-limits to visitors, and tourists still need a permit to come here. The lake, at an altitude of 4267m, with the dramatic glacier-clad Pangong Range to its south and the Changchenmo Range reflected in its deep blue-green waters to the north, measures 8km across at its widest point and provides a tantalizing view of Tibet in the distance, although the bitter winds blowing over the brackish water make it one of the coldest places in Ladakh.
Famous for the large herds of kiang, or wild ass, which graze on its shores, the lake of Tso Moriri, 210km southeast of Leh, lies in the sparsely populated region of Rupshu. You need a permit to travel here. Twenty kilometres long, the lake nestles in a wide valley flanked by some of the highest peaks in Ladakh – Lungser Kangri (6666m) and Chanmser Kangri (6622m) – and is home to flocks of migratory nangpa or bar-headed geese, as well as occasional herds of pashmina goats and camps of nomadic herders. Located on the shores of the lake at an altitude of 4595m, the only large village in the area is Korzok, a friendly place with a small gompa. To help protect the fragile ecosystem against the influx of tourists, a new directive stipulates that no habitation can be built within 700m of the shoreline. Visitors should bring their own food supplies and make sure they take all their rubbish away.
The open spaces around Tso Moriri make for some pleasant trekking, including the relatively easy – if you are acclimatized – three-day, 40km circuit of the lake. Another route gaining popularity is the trail from Rumtse near Upshi via Tso Kar to Tso Moriri. Some trekking operators in Manali and Leh can arrange more ambitious routes such as the ancient trade route linking Spiti to Tso Moriri and Leh via Kibber. Treks start from around $50 per person per day in a group of four, which usually includes transport, food and tents.
Driving past on the nearby Srinagar–Leh highway, you’d never guess that the spectacular sweep of wine-coloured scree 3km across the Indus from Saspol conceals one of the most significant historical sites in Asia. Yet the low pagoda-roofed Chos-khor, or “religious enclave”, at Alchi, 70km west of Leh, harbours an extraordinary wealth of ancient wall paintings and wood sculpture, miraculously preserved for more than nine centuries inside five tiny mud-walled temples. The site’s earliest murals are regarded as the finest surviving examples of a style that flourished in Kashmir during the “Second Spreading”. Barely a handful of the monasteries founded during this era escaped the Muslim depredations of the fourteenth century; Alchi is the most impressive of them all, the least remote and the only one you don’t need a special permit to visit.
If one sight could be said to sum up Ladakh, it would have to be the gompa at Lamayuru, 130km west of Leh and 107km east of Kargil. Hemmed in by a moonscape of scree-covered mountains, the whitewashed medieval monastery towers above a scruffy cluster of tumbledown mud-brick houses from the top of a near-vertical, weirdly eroded cliff. A major landmark on the old silk route, the gompa numbers among the 108 (a spiritually significant number) founded by the Rinchen Zangpo in the tenth and eleventh centuries. However, its craggy seat, believed to have sheltered Milarepa during his religious odyssey across the Himalayas, was probably sacred long before the advent of Buddhism, when local people followed the shamanistic Bon cult. Just thirty lamas of the Brigungpa branch of the Kagyu school are now left, as opposed to the four hundred that lived here a century or so ago. Nor does Lamayuru harbour much in the way of art treasures. The main reason visitors make a stop on this section of the Srinagar–Leh road is to photograph the gompa from the valley floor, or to pick up the trail to the Prikiti La pass – gateway to Zanskar – that begins here.
Though it is surrounded by awesome scenery, most travellers don’t spend more than a few hours in Kargil, capital of the area dubbed “Little Baltistan”, which rises in a clutter of corrugated-iron rooftops from the confluence of the Suru and Drass rivers. As a halfway point between Leh and Srinagar, its mundane hotels fill up at night with weary bus passengers, who then get up at 4am and career off under cover of darkness. Although the town has expanded several kilometres along and above the riverside, the central area around the main bazaar, which loops round into a northerly orientation, is very compact and walkable. Woolly-hatted and bearded old men and slick youngsters stroll the streets past old-fashioned wholesalers with their sacks of grains, spices and tins of ghee, and butchers displaying severed goats’ heads on dusty shelves. The town feels more Pakistani than Indian, with the faces and food deriving from Kashmir and Central Asia.
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.
Top image: Thiksey buddhist monastery in Ladakh, India © Mazur Travel/Shutterstock