Making it to Leh, the main city in Ladakh, was certainly an adventure. I arrived at the airport in Perth at 6:20 am only to discover that my flight had been delayed by 12 hours. The airline claims to have informed my travel agent, but regardless of whether they did, it came as a surprise to me. Ordinarily this would have been inconvenient, but wouldn’t have posed much of a problem. However, given that I had to book my flight to Leh separately because only three airlines fly into the city, it meant missing my connecting flight to Leh the following morning without any sort of refund. Fortunately, my replacement connecting flight from China to Delhi was sold out so the airline was able to transfer me to Thai Airlines for my two flights to Delhi. In the end I actually arrived two hours earlier than anticipated. I spent the night in a hotel in the Delhi airport once again, and took a 5:00 am flight to Leh.
The flight to Leh was absolutely stunning. The town is in the middle of a gorgeous mountain range so landing in the tiny airport in the middle of an enormous valley was magical. The airport is next to a big military base (given the proximity to the Chinese border and the past military conflicts between the two countries, there are dozens of military bases all over the place) so I had to be very discrete in taking photos. I took the photo below with my cell phone, it gives you a sense of how tiny the airport is in comparison to the vast valley.
Whatever I write about Ladakh will not do it justice. I visited 134 cities/towns during my year of travels and I am confident that this was my favourite destination—truly remarkable for me given that the food was not particularly good. The city of Leh itself isn’t all that special, but for the gorgeous palace on a hill overlooking the city. However, the surrounding areas and monasteries in the general Ladakh region are gorgeous. I would highly recommend riding a motorcycle around to explore the awesome landscapes.
Leh is not an easy city to access. The town essentially shuts down between October and June because the roads connecting it to Kashmir/Jammu at large are impassible in the winter. In fact, the roads are so fragile in the area that any amount of rain washes them out even during the summer months. On that point, my best piece for advice for visiting Leh is to get your act together fast and book your daytrips right away. Much of the interesting stuff around Leh is a 2-6 hour ride away and generally requires an extra visa that can take 1-2 business days to acquire. Also, you cannot purchase visas individually so you need to either go through a travel agent or be travelling in a group. Then, if there is any semi-significant rainfall, the roads will wash out and it takes military engineers several days to patch them up. As such, you need to add in 2-4 extra days into your travel plans to deal with these very common problems. Give yourself a two day buffer between any major road trip and your flight out of the city in case the road gets washed out.
My second piece of advice relates to the altitude of the place. Leh itself is at a height of 3,500 meters so you feel the altitude hard the second you land, even if you’re taking altitude sickness pills as I was. Then if you do any road trips, you have to travel over the mountains to reach the next valleys which means that you can get as high as 5,500 metres. All of which to say, do absolutely nothing but rest on your first day, and DO NOT drink any alcohol during your stay, it will mess you up. I felt pretty horrible for much of my stay and was absolutely exhausted for all of it.
I stayed at the Hotel Kidar which was a 15 minute walk south from the main stretch of the town. I can’t complain, the room was spacious and clean though the hot water situation was unpredictable:
Some shots from Leh proper to give you a sense of the place:
I arrived in Leh in the morning, but since I was advised to do nothing but rest for the first day (but not nap) I mostly planned my various day trips in my hotel room, venturing out only for a quick dinner in the evening. As I mentioned before, the food in Leh was not great, with the exception of a tasty Tibetan restaurant. I ended up eating at a place called Bon Appetit most nights because their patio area was gorgeous and the pizza was okay:
A restaurant in the city known for its tasty small dishes. Alas, anytime I went by the place at dinner or lunch time, it was absolutely packed so I never got to try the food:
On my first full day in Leh I rented a motorcycle for $16 in order to explore the various sights near the town. They’re actually super paranoid about security in the region, so the motorcycle rental shop needs to write out a permit indicating where you will be traveling. As such, it’s a good idea to think ahead before booking a scooter.
My first stop of the day, Shanti Stupa:
Some shots from the road on the way to Leh Palace:
Leh Palace, dating back to the 1700’s:
Tsemo Matreya Temple right above the palace. The temple was built in the 1440’s by the first ruler of Ladakh:
Leh Palace once again:
A public square near Old Leh:
Next, I ventured south of the city to the Hall of Fame, a museum next to an Air Force base that celebrates heroes of the Indian military. The museum had a few interesting historical military uniforms and some cool high-altitude military gear, but aside from that it mostly consisted of written materials about the military exploits of particular soldiers.
After leaving the museum, I decided to venture out to Shay Monastery and Palace a 40 minute scooter ride away. Some shots of the awesome views from the monastery and the monastery itself:
I continued on for another 20 minutes to get to the next monastery down the road, Thiksey Monastery. A shot from the ride over:
I got into a bit of an accident on my way back into town. I was going no faster than 20 kmph in Leh, when a car pulled out of a parking spot without signaling and without looking. I slammed on my brakes and did not hit him, but the dude on a motorcycle behind me was following closely behind so he hit the back of my motorbike and wiped out. As far as I can tell, I was the only person who didn’t do something dumb in the situation, yet incredibly both the driver of the car and the person in the scooter behind me were under the impression that I was at fault. I later confirmed with locals that they were both on crack, there are no special rules operating in Ladakh that would have made that my fault. It didn’t matter I ultimately just rode off, but the driver of the car actually followed me for a bit to tell me off. I was completely baffled.
I had lunch at this place in Leh:
I visited quite a few Buddhist monasteries during my travels, but I never encountered these massive prayer wheels anywhere else. There are several of these in Leh, and pretty much every monastery has one as well:
A shot of a shop in Leh at night:
The following morning I hired a driver to take me on a tour of some monasteries that I selected. We ended up covering 90 km over 5.5 hours, so for $60 it was a relative bargain.
Our first stop, Spituk Monastery right next to the airport and the military base:
This area is referred to as Magnetic Mountain because there is an optical illusion that makes it seem like you are pointing uphill when you are in fact facing downhill. If you put the car in neutral and let it roll, it seems like you’re being pulled up towards the mountain. This was actually really common on many of the mountain roads. I noted many occasions when I was absolutely convinced that I was going downhill but was baffled by how much the motorcycle was struggling. So I’d let the motorbike roll only to go backwards.
This is where the Indus and Zasker rivers meet. You can tell from the slightly different colours of the waters:
The next stop was Likir Monastery which ended up being my favourite stop of the day:
Alchi Monastery was the most different of the monasteries in the region. For one, it is by far the oldest, dating back to 1020 C.E. Also, instead of being on a mountain, it is located right next to a river. The monastery is one of the few remaining examples of early Indian Buddhism, prior to the Tibetan influence in the region.
I made it back into Leh by 2:30 pm, just in time for a late lunch at the best restaurant in town, the Tibetan Kitchen:
I took the rest of the afternoon/early evening to explore Old Leh on foot:
Another thing to mention about Leh is that the travel agents in the city are apparently on a mission to prevent tourists from seeing the area. The first travel agent I met with took my contact information and the various daytrip destinations that I wanted, then promptly disappeared, closing his shop and never opening again for the duration of my stay. The second travel agent inexplicably lied to me about a particular road being closed and then cost me a day by not getting the permit I requested. The trips I was able to book were through the assistance of my hotel manager, and a third travel agent. Given that travel agents in Leh have to make their full year of money between June and October, I was completely baffled by the obstructionism. So that’s yet another reason to book at least 6-7 days in Leh in order to do 4 days of sightseeing.
The following day I rented a motorcycle again, and travelled 1.5 hours south to check out Chemre Monastery, with plenty of stops along the way to photograph the stunning scenery:
Chemrey Monastery was by far my favourite of the monasteries I visited. The location was absolutely gorgeous:
I travelled the 1.5 hours back to Leh, and then headed north for another 1.5 hours to the mountain town of South Pullu. The ride was one my favourite scooter rides of my year of travels:
Some videos so that you can get a sense of the lovely mountain road. I almost wiped out at the end of one of them, riding a motorbike with one hand is apparently a terrible idea. I should also note that there there is a bicycle service that you can hire that takes you 2000 metres up the the mountain, and drops you off with a bike to do the downhill ride.
00158 from Andres Hannah-Suarez on Vimeo.
00157 from Andres Hannah-Suarez on Vimeo.
00159 from Andres Hannah-Suarez on Vimeo.
00160 from Andres Hannah-Suarez on Vimeo.
00163 from Andres Hannah-Suarez on Vimeo.
00161 from Andres Hannah-Suarez on Vimeo.
00162 from Andres Hannah-Suarez on Vimeo.
Believe it or not I’m facing uphill in this shot, an optical illusion:
I hired a driver for my last full day in the city to go over to check out Numbra Valley. I was feeling pretty rough by this time, lethargic, very little appetite, and I’m pretty sure that my altitude sickness also resulted in a low grade fever for three days. I slept for much of the drive over.
This was the highest point in my travels, 5,359 metres. They claim it is the highest roadway in the world that is accessible by motor vehicles, but alas the highest road is actually in Tibet (only by 70 metres or so, the sign in the photos below overstates the actual altitude by 250 metres). There are signs up there urging tourists not to spend longer than 20 minutes at that altitude to avoid altitude sickness. To put that in perspective, the highest point in Whistler-Blackcomb is 2,184 metres. Everest base camp is at 5,380 metres:
Diskit Monastery, a three hour drive from Leh. I would not recommend going via scooter or even motorbike, after Kardung La there are a good 20-30 km of very rough dirt roads:
The Hunder sand dunes:
Two final shots of Nubra Valley:
Sadly, Leh marked the end of my year of travels. I flew to Delhi bright and early the following morning where I just spent one final night before taking a 2:00 am flight back to Toronto. I thank you for following me on my travels and I hope you enjoyed the photos along the way.