Julley, Welcome to Leh.
Reaching Leh is the end of one journey and beginning of another. One can spend days on end just exploring the local sights and then proceeding to short trips around Leh. If you are staying in Leh you are most likely living in or near the Leh market. Although, online bookings beforehand will ensure availability of hotels & tours on reaching, you’ll find many tour operators in the market for the spur-of-the-moment plans.
In fact, there are flyers and posters in internet café and shops with info about the trips one can take, and availability of space in shared tours.Depending on your interest, time and level of fitness there are monasteries, architectural delights, lakes, valleys, treks, biking, camping, eating & drinking joints and much more available here.
Here are my Top Ten must do in Leh. Please note that it is impossible to rank them so they are in no particular order.
Since you’d already be in LEH MARKET, I think it is best to start there. You know, get into the groove of taking life easy and enjoying the little things in life. There are small Tibetan bazaars, general stores and some souvenir shops spread about in the many lanes of Leh Market. Get a custom made embroidered patch made in an hour, some pashmina shawls, prayer wheel or flags and silver artifacts.
The best part about this market is the food; you’ll find influence from all over the world. If you feel the restaurants remind you the vacation you had last winter in Goa, it may be because you went to the very same restaurant in Goa. Most restaurateurs move to Goa in the winter season. What a life! Right?
We spent many hours at a German Bakery run by a sardarji & watched a FIFA match with bonfire at Summer Harvest. Good Times!
Now that you are acclimatized, lets venture out. My list starts with the mighty PANGONG TSO. It is about 150 km from Leh and I can bet you have seen nothing like this before. On the way we crossed Chang La. It is the 3rd highest motor able road in the planet! Pangong is an army outpost, requiring one to climb 17,500 feet before descending to 14,000 feet to reach there. Some trivia – the lake is 134 km long, 6o% of it is in China and the rest in India. It is an Endorheic Lake, meaning it is a closed drainage basin that retains water without any outflows to rivers or oceans & the Lake freezes completely in the winter even though it is a salt water lake. There is a garnet hill near the lake, and I have actually picked up rocks with teeny-tiny pieces of the red garnet in them.
KHARDUNG LA lies at a distance of about 40 kms of Leh. It is believed to be the highest motorable pass & road in the world, 5602 meters above sea level . To visit Khardung-la foreigners need to obtain special permit in Leh.
NUBRA VALLEY was a stopping place on the historic Silk Route. Caravans of traders along this route used the double-humped Bactrian camels. People travel far and wide to see the camels today. To get to Nubra Valley, one has to take the road through Khardung La. The drive to Nubra Valley is enchanting, especially crossing the Shyok Valley. Permits will be required here also.
TSO MORIRI in the Rupshu Valley is a remnant lake, these lakes are originally structural but represent the remnants of vast lakes. Some other examples are Tso Kar, Pangong Tso and Dal Lake. Tsomoriri Wetland Conservation Reserve is heaven for wild life photographers. Since you are there, check out the Korzok monastery which lies on the western bank of the lake is one of the oldest settlements of the world.
MONASTRIES & GOMPAS
MONASTRIES & GOMPAS are and will always be the major attraction for tourists travelling to Leh. My recommendation is seeing Hemis, Thikse, Spitok & if time permits- Shey.
Among all the monasteries in Leh, I have a special place in my heart for Hemis. I saw the Hemis festival many years ago and can still recall the fascinating images. The annual festival of the gompa is held in the summer in the honour of Guru Padma Sambhav’s birth anniversary. Situated 40 Kms from Leh, Hemis is the wealthiest, best known and biggest Gompa of Ladakh. It also has the largest thanka in Ladakh which is unfurled once in 12 years. The next unfurling will take place in 2016.
Thikse is located about 17 kms south of Leh travelling towards Karu. It is probably the most photographed monasteries of Leh. A magnificent complex with its red and yellow main building rising grandly above the numerous monk cells. The Chamba lhakhang houses an impressive Maitreya Buddha. The roof of this monastery provides a panoramic view with the Zanskar range in the backdrop.
Spitok stands prominently on the top of the hillock at one end of the airport runway. The fifteenth century monastery houses, what many consider to be Kali Mata. I have read that it is actually Yidam Dorje Jigje. There is also a collection of ancient masks, antique arms, and an awe inspiring 600 year old painting in the temple.
Shey Monestry, 15 kms upstream from Leh, the palace was once residence of the royal family. The palace is believed to have been the seat of power of the pre-Tibetian kings. A 7.5 metre high copper statue of Buddha, plated with Gold, and the largest of its kind, is installed in the palace. It is now in ruins and restoration work is going on.
HALL OF FAME MUSEUM
Learn some facts about Ladakh at the HALL OF FAME MUSEUM. The Museum houses information related to Leh culture, way of life, history, vegetation and animals. It is a fascinating place run by the Indian Army showcasing the history, glory and the tools of the trade related to army operations defending India in some of the most hostile terrain in the world. It also has a captivating display on the Siachen battlefield – the highest and more arduous battlefield in the world.
SHANTI STUPA was constructed by a Japanese Buddhist organization, known as ‘The Japanese for World Peace’. I recommend a visit for the spectacular views at sunrise and sunset.
GURDWARA PATHAR SAHIB
GURDWARA PATHAR SAHIB is just 20 kms away from Leh. It is a must stopover for hundreds of truck drivers who pass through the Leh-Kargil road and also for Army convoys and has an interesting legend behind it.
Enjoy a spa experience by diving into one of the hot springs at CHUMATHANG. The hot sulphur water springs are known to have healing properties for various ailments like arthritis.
Places of interest that didn’t make it to my top ten lists are
The Leh Palace, that includes Namgyal Tsemo Gomp and Tsemo Castle. Alchi Gompa 70 kms from Leh. Phyang monastery 17 kms from Leh. Lamayuru 125 km from Leh. Other almost famous monasteries – Chemrey Monastery, Deskit Monasteries, Stok Monastery, Matho Monastery, Karsha Monastery, Phyang Monastery, Shachukul Monastery, Dakthok Monastery, Sani Monastery,Soma Gompa and about a dozen more. Jama Masjid a historical mosque is situated in the heart of Leh town and Masjid-e-Shah-e-Hamdan in Shey village.
Some other non-religious attractions include Magnetic Hill, Panamik- another hot water spring that bubbles out of the earth and is reputed to have therapeutic qualities.
Sangam of Indus and Zanskar just 4 km before Nimmu village. Enjoy the rafting experience on Indus and Zanskar Rivers only between July and September.
Drokpa Valley, where the main attraction is the Drokpa Community resides, considered as the last race of the original Aryans.
There are many opportunities for adventure sports lovers like trekking, camping, river rafting, mountain climbing, cycling, camel safari, yak safari…the list is endless.
I can bet on one thing. Whatever you see or do, you will not come back with any complains.
(c) Photographs by Ritika Sabharwal and Sharninder Khera