Ladakh, spectacularly representing the Himalayas, features in the bucket list of both adventurers and peace seekers. How magical. The land of snowcapped mountains, sprawling valleys and uninhabited hinterlands truly set the stage for adventure tourism –trekking, most enthusiastically. The walls of the dramatic mountains that hem in Ladakh are an unforgettable landscape, like the rivers of Indus, Zanskar and Shyok that accompany the high mountain ranges and passes all the way. Cradled between India and Tibet and least populated in J&K, ‘Little Tibet’ here has hosted monks and mountain people for centuries and is a marvellous land of mystical Buddhist monasteries.
On a clear day, from one side of the aircraft can be seen in the distance the peaks of K2, Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum and on the other side of the aircraft, so close that you feel you could reach out and touch it, is the Nun Kun massif. Your exhilarating journey in Leh Ladakh is full of exactly the sights and sounds that make for a complete holiday – you can’t miss the precious, strange gompas (Buddhist temples) perched on soaring hilltops, dwarfed by towering jagged mountains; notice how the shattered landscapes come alive with surprising streaks of brilliant patches of green; sheer rock carvings that ancient palaces hold on to tight. Inhabited by people of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent, your company in this immensely colorful place is warm hearted and delightful. Several popular trek routes (to Nubra Valley, for instance) and popular places of interest make a trip to Leh Ladakh most worthwhile.
Full of pristine and natural beauty, Leh Ladakh has a number of the popular places you must visit during your incredible trip:
Situated atop a high, rocky ridge in Changspa village, the white-domed Buddhist monument of Shanti Stupa is one of the most popular attractions of Ladakh and a place you must go to for spectacular bird’s eye views of Leh town and its high mountain passes. The Shanti Stupa holds the relics of the Buddha at its base, enshrined by the 14th Dalai Lama himself. Built by a Japanese Buddhist monk as part of a Peace Pagoda mission, Shanti Stupa has been inspiring peace among all kinds of visitors ever since – for its religious importance and for some of the best photographs of Leh you could get.
PANGONG TSO LAKE
Tibetan for ‘high grassland lake’, Pangong Tso is one of the largest brackish lakes in Asia. You may recognize its timeless beauty from its feature in Bollywood film 3 IDIOTS (2009). This disputed territory and saline water lake is in the process of being identified as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. It will be a first trans-boundary wetland in South Asia under convention! Situated at a height of about 4,350 m (14,270 ft) in eastern Ladakh region, charismatic Pangong Tso can be reached from Leh in a five hour drive on mostly rough and dramatic mountain road. The road crosses the villages of Shey and Gya and traverses the Chang La, where army sentries and a small teahouse greet visitors. At the first glimpse of the azure, tranquil waters and shaky lakeshore, it is hard to imagine that the lake sprawls over an area of 100 kilometers across the borders of India and Tibet.
The Zanskar Valley – deep in the mountains – is that land far away you may have dreamily imagined when you were a child. Described often as a lost Shangri-La, Zanskar is part of the Kargil district in India’s northernmost state Jammu and Kashmir. The most isolated of all the trans Himalayan Valleys, Zanskar comprises a tri-armed valley system lying between the Great Himalayan Range and the Zanskar mountain. The region’s two principal drainages meet to form the main Zanskar River. 10,000 strong, mainly Buddhists population live along the course of the valley system. The tableland of Panzila Top (4401 m) is described by two small alpine lakes and snow covered peaks. The largest glacier in Ladakh, Drang-Drung looms into full view as the Zanskar road winds down the steep slopes to Stod Valley, one of Zanskar’s main tributary valleys.
In spite of the fact that Ladakh is home to many beautiful lakes, it is in fact a cold desert. Located 3000m lower than Leh, Nubra valley is a dash of lush greenery in the moonlike landscapes and slopes of Ladakh; the distant hamlets and patchwork fields give this place a human touch. The region – nestled in the Karakoram Range – actually comprises two valleys: Nubra and Shyok, and is nourished by the two rivers. Brimming with sea buckthorns and alfalfa, summer see a carpet of pink and yellow roses in the valley, and by autumn, wild lavenders. The places to visit in Nubra Valley include the regional hub of Diskit (with its lovely monastery), Hunder (for white sand dunes and several mid to high-range camping options), Sumur and for comfortable home stays, Turktuk. Sand dunes that lie between Hunder and Diskit in Nubra Valley have lured many tourists, with the camel safari being the main attraction. Hunder, which falls on the historic Silk Route, used to be a busy trade stopover with caravans of Bactrian camels moving in and out of the Nubra Valley. The Bactrian camels are large even-toed ungulates native to the steppes of central Asia. It is one of the two surviving camel species. They have two humps on its back, in contrast to the single-humped Dromedary camels. When they aren’t released into their herds and into the wild, the camels are used to take keen tourists around on a unique, memorable trek.
KHARDUNG LA PASS
Climbing steadily out of Leh and the Indus Valley, the road leading to Nubra Valley crosses the Khardung La pass at 5602 m (18,379ft). The (disputably) highest motorable road in the world serves as a gateway to Shyok and Nubra valleys. The pass offers tourists gorgeous views of the valley and the roads winding up the mountain. The clear air, scenic vistas and just generally more likely to be on top of the world-type feeling have made Khardung La a popular tourist attraction.
19 km from Leh, Thiksey Gompa is a popular monastery that grandly presides over a whole hillside. The monasteries we see today were built mostly 16th century onward, after King Tashi Namgyal unified the Ladakh kingdom. These places of worship (complete with rooms for monks to stay, schools and staying arrangements, library, kitchens and attached fields) have long fascinated tourists with dark prayer halls, frecoes, deep chanting and more. Upon entering, the temple on your right, known as Lakhang Nyerma, was a huge temple in its time, today it stands mostly in ruins. The beautiful monastery houses a huge 2-storey representation of the Maitreya (future) Buddha. There are also a number of sacred shrines, valuable artifacts and ancient relics right within the monastery complex. Where you move on to next – the du khang, a dark atmospheric main assembly hall – you will see old murals of tantric deities on the wall. Sited on a hilltop to the north of Indus River, Thiksey’s rooftop offers a stunning panoramic view of the fertile Indus Valley. There are about 35 monastic foundations or gompas spread across the entire region of Leh Ladakh, and Thiksey Gompa serves as the residence of approximately eighty monks. Your gompa hopping list for the day should include Shey, Spituk, Chemde, Hemis, Stakna, and Alchi.
Mysterious Magnetic Hill is a place one absolutely must visit in Ladakh. It is so fascinating because it is a gravity hill alleged to have magnetic properties strong enough to pull cars uphill and is notorious also for forcing passing aircraft to increase their altitude in order to escape magnetic interference. Is it an optical illusion or a real natural phenomenon? Guess you’ll have to see for yourself. Word has it that if you leave your vehicle at the base of the hill with brakes unlocked, it will start to move uphill – all on its own. That ought to pique your interest. Located on the Leh-Kargil-Baltik national highway, about 30 km from Leh, Magnetic Hill is bordered by the Sindhu River.
Also referred to as the ‘Lhachen Palkhar’, built in 1553 AD and 19 stories high Leh Palace sits on a hilltop and was apparently one of the tallest buildings in the world at a time. Although in ruins now, the palace is now being restored by the Archaeological survey of India. The palace also has a museum which holds a rich collection of jewelry, ornaments, ceremonial dresses and crowns. The paintings in the museum, it would appear, are more than 450 years old Chinese thangka paintings. From the roof top of the palace, expect spectacular views of Stok Kangri and the Ladakh mountain range.
GURUDWARA PATTHAR SAHIB
The Indian Army maintains a sikh Gurudwara near Magnetic Hill where the first of the Ten Gurus of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev, meditated in the 15th century. At a distance of about 20 kilometres from Leh, this beautiful Gurudwara Sahib was built in 1517 in memory of Guru Nanak. The shrine houses an immovable rock, considered to have a negative image of Guru Nanak. It is considered auspicious to visit this gurudwara before venturing into the tough roads ahead.
Go on an excursion to Sham Valley. This is an easier drive along Indus river towards Kargil. Visit Hall of Fame and Alchi Monastery (oldest Buddhist monastery of Ladakh) on your way, and as you move ahead from Magnetic Hills, just before Nimmu Village, you will be greeted by the famous confluence of the two rivers of Indus (coming from Tibet on the left) and Zanskar River from the Valley on the right. Zanskar River is known for its famous Chadar Trek.