Leh in Ladakh Travel Guide: Attractions, Festivals, Hotels

Leh, Ladakh.

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Leh is the erstwhile capital of Ladakh and the most common entry point into the region. It's also one of the highest permanently inhabited towns in the world. Bounded by two of the world's largest mountain ranges and surrounded by alpine desert, Leh's dry barren landscape is dotted with historic Buddhist monasteries making it an incredible sight to behold. This Leh travel guide will help you plan your trip.

History

Leh primarily functioned as an important trading hub on routes along the Indus Valley, between Tibet to the east and Kashmir to the west. It became the capital of Ladakh in the early 17th century, during the region's golden period when trade flourished. King Senge Namgyal completed building a royal palace in Leh and relocated the capital there from Shey. Unfortunately, the royal family were forced to abandon the palace and relocate to Stok in the mid 19th century, after the Dogra invasion.

Location

Leh is located in Ladakh, near the Indus Valley, in the furthest far flung corner of northern India. Its altitude is 3,505 meters (11,500 feet) above sea level.

How to Get There

Direct flights to Leh operate regularly from Delhi. There are also flights to Leh from many other cities in India. Some of them are non-stop.

Alternatively, the roads to Leh are open for a few months of the year, when the snow has melted. The Manali-Leh Highway is open from around June to October each year, and the Srinagar-Leh Highway is open from June to November. Bus, jeep, and taxi services are all available. The trip takes about two days because of the difficult nature of the terrain. If you have the time and are in good health, do travel by road as the scenery is amazing. Plus, the gradual ascent will help you acclimatize.

When to Go

The best time to visit Leh is between May and September, when the weather is the warmest. Ladakh doesn't experience rain like elsewhere in India, so the monsoon season is the perfect time to travel to Leh. 

The two-day Hemis Festival takes place in June or July at the Hemis Gompa to commemorate birth of Guru Padmasambhava, who founded Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. There's traditional music, colorful masked dances, and a fair full of beautiful handicrafts.

The Ladakh Festival is held during September. It opens in Leh with a spectacular procession through the streets. Villagers dressed in traditional costumes dance and sing folk songs, backed by an orchestra. The festival also features musical concerts, dances performed by masked lamas from selected monasteries, and mock traditional marriage ceremonies.

Leh, Ladakh.
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What to Do There

Most tourists spend some time exploring Leh's main market area and the ancient old part of town, while acclimatizing and making onward travel plans. Drop into atomospheric Lala's Art Cafe for something to eat while wandering. It's inside an immacutately restored Ladakhi house that was once lived in by a monk. Go on this guided heritage walk so you don't miss anything.

Leh Palace and Shanti Stupa are renowned for providing dramatic views over Leh.

The Hall of Fame is an interesting museum dedicated to the soldiers who helped defend India during wars with Pakistan. The museum also provides information about Ladakhi history and culture. It's operated by the Indian Army and has a collection of weapons, exhibits and sovenirs.

Those who love animals will find a visit to the Donkey Sanctuary worthwhile. It provides a home for abandoned and injured donkeys.

What to Do Nearby

The Buddhist monuments around Leh are the biggest draw. Spituk is the closest monastery to Leh, and the 800 year-old Kali temple with a fascinating collection of masks is another attraction there. You can stop at a huge prayer wheel on the way. The other monasteries can also be visited on day trips from Leh. These include Hemis (the wealthiest, oldest, and most important monastery in Ladakh) and Thiksey.

It's possible to have a regal stay at Stok Palace, about 30 minutes south of Leh. The royal family still lives there and part of it has been turned into a private museum of the Ladakhi royal family.

The picturesque confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers can be seen from a viewpoint on the Srinagar-Leh Highway not far from Nimmu.

Outdoor enthusiasts will find appealing hiking opportunities in the area. There are also many longer trekking trails to choose from, such as the popular four-day Sham Trek from Likir to Temisgam (for beginners), and Markha Valley from Spituk.

Mountain climbing trips can be booked to peaks such as Stok (20,177 feet), Goleb (19,356 feet), Kangyatse (20,997 feet) and Matho West (19,520) in the Zanskar mountains.

White water rafting is one of the top adventure activities in Ladakh. It takes place in July and August along the Indus and Zanskar rivers, with various grade rapids for all levels. Spash Ladakh is one of the best rafting operators that offers day rafting excusions from Leh.

Dreamland Trek and Tours is an eco-friendly adventure company that organizes a wide range of trips in Ladakh, Zanskar and Changthang. Other reputable companies include Overland Escape, Rimo Expeditions (costly but high quality), and Yama Adventures. It's recommended that you compare many companies to see what's on offer.

Side Trips from Leh

Most people who visit Leh also visit Pangong Lake, which featured in the Bollywood move The 3 Idiots. It's one of the world's highest saltwater lakes and looks really surreal.

The Nubra Valley is another must-visit destination. Khardung La connects Leh to the Nubra Valley and is one of the world’s highest motorable roads. Camel safaris, on hairy double-humped Bactrian camels, are an iconic thing to do in the Nubra Valley. The Balti village of Turtuk, near the Pakistan border, is fascinating as well.

Permits are not required for local sightseeing around Leh, Zanskar, or the Suru Valley.

Where to Stay

A short distance away from town in the agricultural and backpacker hamlet of Changspa, family run Oriental Guesthouse is a charismatic place with clean rooms, hot water, Internet, library, delightful garden, and stunning view. There's accommodation for everyone in three buildings, ranging from economy to deluxe. You’ll also love the home-cooked, organic, freshly prepared food. This area is a popular place for homestays.

Padma Guesthouse and Hotel, on Fort Road, also has rooms for all budgets and a fabulous roof top restaurant. The modern rooms at the Spic n Span Hotel on Old Leh Road, close to the market, are priced from 6,7000 rupees per night. The Hotel City Palace is recommended as well. Rates also start from 5,000 rupees per night for a double.

Looking for somewhere exceptional to stay? Try these luxury camps and hotels in and around Leh.

Homestays with Trekking and Expeditions in Ladakh

An appealing alternative to camping out while trekking around Ladakh is to stay in local homes in remote villages, which you reach along the way. This will give you a fascinating insight into the life of Ladakhi farmers. You'll even be fed traditional home cooked meals, prepared by the farmer families. Local Ladakhi trekking expert Thinlas Chorol organizes such trips, as well as many other custom trekking itineraries to places off the beaten path. She's the founder of the notable Ladakhi Women's Travel Company -- the first female owned and operated travel company in Ladakh, which uses only female guides.

Also, consider the expeditions to remote villages offered by Mountain Homestays. You'll get to stay in people's homes and take part in initiatives that enhance the livelihoods of the villagers. This includes documenting the traditional handcrafting and organic farming techniques of Ladakh.

Travel Tips

Make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to acclimatize after arriving in Leh (ideally three days if you've flown in) because of altitude sickness. Medication called Diamox (acetazolamide) can help speed up acclimatization process. A doctor's prescription is required. Anyone who has a pre-existing condition such as heart or lung disease, or diabetes should also consult a doctor before traveling.

Laptops also don’t appreciate the high altitude and hard drives are known to crash.

Nights still get chilly during the summer so do bring warm clothes to layer.

Leaving Leh by flight can be a lot more challenging than arriving. Demand for flights is high in peak season, so book well in advance. In addition, flights are sometimes canceled because of weather conditions, so it’s advisable not to book the last flight of the day. Hand luggage also poses a problem. Only laptops, cameras and cell phones are permitted as hand luggage. Also keep in mind that passengers must identify their checked-in luggage, outside the departure lounge, before it's loaded on to the plane.

It will be marked against the luggage tags on the boarding cards.

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