A Summer Exploring the Culture and Sights of Ladakh

brown and pink mountains with a white building and grass

Elen Turner 

Look up “how to get to Ladakh,” and you’ll usually be given two options: a quick flight from Delhi, or a longer overland journey from Manali, in Himachal Pradesh, or Srinagar, capital of Kashmir. Traveling to the high-altitude, culturally and ethnically Tibetan territory of far-northern India is always an adventure, but in the 21st century, it doesn't have to be painfully difficult. That is unless you choose to take local buses all the way from Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, 1,300 miles to the east. Like I did.

The bumpy, hot, but awe-inspiringly beautiful week-long journey was a prelude to an unforgettable summer in Ladakh. My Nepali partner and I traveled from our home in the hills of Nepal, along the scorching summer highways of Uttar Pradesh, through Delhi in its pre-monsoon stupor, up through the orchard-covered hills of Himachal Pradesh, and over to the “other” side of the Himalaya, to the edge of the Tibetan plateau.

The 293-mile journey between Manali, in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, and Leh, Ladakh's capital, is often said to be one of the greatest road trips in the world. It leaves the green, damp, fertile hills of Himachal Pradesh behind and crosses to the Himalaya Mountains' rain-shadow, crossing mountain passes of more than 16,000 feet. This journey can only be made between June and September. We were traveling in early June, still early in the season, and what was sold as a 16-hour journey ended up being more like 22. Lingering snow and snow-melt on the roads significantly slowed us down. At one of the passes, our mini-bus convoy drove through open-topped tunnels of snow that had only been shoveled aside a few hours earlier.

One major advantage of taking the overland route to Ladakh instead of flying is that acclimatization to Leh’s 11,482 feet is a little easier. When flying from Delhi, which is only 700 feet above sea level, the huge jump to high-altitude Ladakh can be challenging. A few days’ rest after arrival is recommended. Traveling overland is no guarantee that you won’t suffer from altitude sickness, but the chances are less. The town of Manali is already at 6725 feet, so going this way allows for gentler acclimatization.

Even so, I took it easy my first few days in Leh. I wasn't in a hurry, as I planned to spend the summer there, exploring the monasteries, mountains, and trekking trails. But, first and foremost, the rivers.

rafts floating on a grey river surrounded by brown mountains
Elen Turner 

Rafting the Zanskar River

My partner was an experienced white-water rafting guide and had long been planning to work in Ladakh over summer, during Nepal’s off-season. I decided to tag along. While I was sleeping off the journey and recovering from a headache that might have been altitude-induced, might have been exhaustion, he started work on the Zanskar River.

Most white-water rafting trips in Ladakh depart from camps at Nimmu, a village on the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus Rivers. These legendary South Asian waterways start high in Tibet and are so cold that falling off a raft into the grey silty waters can be life-threatening. In summer, the water temperature only reaches about 40 degrees F. In winter, the Zanskar freezes completely, and locals use it as another thoroughfare through the mountains.

A new convert to white-water rafting, I found the experience in Ladakh to be very different from what I’d become used to in Nepal. For a start, it was essential to wear wetsuits, even just to protect from the spray. And, the guides reacted very swiftly and seriously if someone fell in the water.

At first glimpse, Ladakh’s landscape is a dusty barren brown rock. The rivers are the same grey-brown muddy color in the summer. But the mountains are shot through with seams of plum purple and faded teal, a result of the mineral deposits in the rock. Small villages, often centering on a Buddhist monastery or stupa, are surrounded by green fields irrigated by river water. From the river, looking up at the green, purple, orange, and gray canyon walls, with the pointed snow-capped peaks visible around the bend, it’s easy to forget that rafting isn’t just a scenic boat ride. That is, until your guide shouts, “Around the next bend, there’s a really big rapid. Paddle hard! And if the raft flips, don’t panic.”

Despite getting quite familiar with the 17-mile river journey between Chilling and Nimmu after a few half-day trips, I didn’t want to spend the whole summer at the rafting camp. To get a different perspective of Ladakh’s mountains—an extension of both the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges—I wanted to trek through them.

brown rock houses built into a cliff
Elen Turner 

A Short Trek at High Altitude

Some travelers trek independently in Ladakh, but as a solo female traveler (with my partner busy on the river), I hired a young woman guide through a female-only trekking agency. Besides employing women guides and porters, the Ladakhi Women’s Trekking Company will only take women clients or men if women in their group accompany them. As well as creating a more comfortable travel atmosphere for female travelers, hiring a woman guide also allows getting to know local women, which is not always that easy as a traveler in India. My guide, Tsogyal, grew up in Ladakh's Markha Valley, and we even dropped in on some of her relatives en route.

Ladakh’s most famous trek is the roughly six-day Markha Valley trek, but I opted for a shorter three-night/four-day route in the Hemis National Park. A great thing about trekking in Ladakh is that you can stay in village homestay accommodation, unlike in other parts of the Indian Himalayas where camping is necessary. One night, the “homestay” was actually a room in a monastery, but on the other two nights, accommodation was in the guest rooms of villagers’ houses.

With Tsogyal translating, I chatted with my hosts and learned about their lives in this remote part of the world. Their lives are dictated by the seasons. They plant and harvest crops in the summer, which then sustains them through the long and harsh winter. They get the chance to make a bit of extra money by renting out their guest rooms to trekkers in the summer. Because the homestay system is a cooperative and works on a rotation system, all participating villagers get the chance to host travelers and make money this way.

All of the trek was at high altitude, above 10,000 feet, with the high Ganda La pass at 15,912 feet. It's important not to try to fit too much into a day when trekking at these altitudes. Each day I trekked for about four or five hours, leaving plenty of time to enjoy delicious food at the homestays and slowly explore the villages. I was well-acclimated to Ladakh by then as I'd been there for a couple of weeks. But, I met other trekkers who weren't and suffered from bad headaches yet still walked double the recommended distance each day. I'm sure it caught up with them at some point, in some way.

white and gold Buddhist stupa with brown and green fields in the background
 Elen Turner

Ladakh's Monastery Circuits

As well as being naturally beautiful, Ladakh is also culturally fascinating. On the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau, it's culturally, religiously, and linguistically Tibetan, although with regional differences. In 2019, Ladakh became a Union Territory of India, but it was still part of Jammu & Kashmir state when I visited. Ladakh's status as a Buddhist-majority territory within a Muslim-majority state within a Hindu-majority country made it especially interesting. One way to experience this is to tour the ancient monasteries dotted around the mountainous landscape.

I’d spent many years traveling through India and had become used to turning up at bus stations and being able to get wherever I wanted to go. However, that tactic doesn’t work in Ladakh. There are fewer bus services here, many only run once a day or on certain days of the week, and the places of most interest to travelers aren’t well connected. I found this out when attempting to get the bus from Nimmu to the monastery at Alchi. I flagged down a long-distance bus on its way to Kargil, on the border with Pakistan-administered Kashmir, but was dropped at the side of the highway. This left me with a two-mile uphill walk in the blazing sun to reach Alchi (luckily, a passing monk stopped and offered me a ride). When I wanted to return, I discovered I’d missed the only bus of the day that could get me back to Nimmu, and eventually managed to find a group of travelers with a private vehicle who could drop me off.

Travelers on a very tight budget could patch together a bus sightseeing itinerary for many places around Leh, but it’s much more convenient to hire a driver and a vehicle. Typically, travelers hire a driver to take them on two monasteries circuits: one west of Leh and one east. Each of Ladakh’s monasteries has a unique culture and history, beautiful art, architecture, and artifacts that set them apart. Don’t be fooled into thinking if you’ve seen one monastery, you’ve seen them all. Unless you’re on a very tight itinerary, it’s worth visiting at least five different monasteries to understand Ladakh's religious history and culture better.

white cliff-side monastery with brown mountains behind
 Elen Turner

One highlight for me was Alchi Gompa, west of Leh. Although this monastery is quite unremarkable from the outside and isn’t terraced into the hillside like many other Ladakhi monasteries, it contains some of the most unusual and important artworks in all of Ladakh. Travelers interested in art and history will especially enjoy Alchi, as it's older than most other monasteries of Ladakh. The detailed 12th-century murals of Buddhas, Boddhisattvas, and other Buddhist iconography are in a totally Indian and Kashmiri in style, with little Chinese or Tibetan influence.

Another monastery highlight is Hemis, east of Leh. It's one of Ladakh's most important monasteries and holds an incredible three-day festival in the summer. Monks dress in colorful costumes and masks and perform dances based on religious stories. Travelers are welcome to attend, but it does get extremely crowded, and there is little shelter from the harsh high-altitude sun. Hemis Monastery is much more peaceful outside these three days, and there's a small basement museum.

After two months in Ladakh, my Indian visa was up, and I returned to Kathmandu. This time, I flew from Leh to Delhi, an easy trip of little over an hour, and then back to Nepal. Before the flight from Leh ascended into the clouds, I got a last glimpse of the Zanskar River winding through the deceptively brown mountains, the point where the historic Indus meets the Zanskar, and the rafting camp at Nimmu. It felt luxurious to return to Delhi so easily, but it also felt a bit like cheating. Summer in Ladakh was worth the effort it took to get there.