This trip was originally published on travelfreak
You need to be prepared for what you will encounter when you visit this remote region of India. Anything you may have heard about it before (and I am sure you would have heard a lot!!), nothing prepares you for the sight that will actually welcome you when you land there... Natural beauty at its peak: mountains, rivers, valleys and even deserts.. Its got it all and everywhere.. While driving around this region, every turn you take, you would be welcome with a new sight, a picture-perfect moment. And as hard as you may try, its very tough to gather it all in your mind and your memory, the amount of beauty this place embodies. (Its even tougher to choose which photos to post on the blog and which not!!)
Jammu & Kashmir state, where Ladakh is located is divided into three regions, and surprisingly all three are completely different: in the landscape, the religion as well as the way of life. There is the Jammu region, which is a plain region and the prevelant religion is Hinduism. Then Kashmir with the picturesque valleys and mountains is the Muslim dominated region. And the third and often neglected part of the state is Ladakh located in the north eastern part of the state with a dominant Buddhist culture.
Ladakh is the forgotten part of the state where population is scarce and development very low. The landscape there is of mountain deserts, with huge brown mountains and no vegetation at all. Just big expanses of brown land full of natural beauty and breathtaking views.
There are three ways of reaching Ladakh. By road, you can come via either Manali or Srinagar. Both routes are supposed to be very scenic and help to acclimatise better. The roads are closed though for 6 months of the year due to snow. At such times the only way to reach this area is by flying directly to Leh.
Its actually quite a nice flight, flying over the Himalayas and you can get top views of the mountains below. The Leh airport is also a feat by itself, how suddenly you land into the valley and see the town emerge from the gap in the mountains! Though be prepared, more often than not, because of bad weather the Leh flights have to turn back to Delhi and then try to make a try for it again later in the day (maybe that's why they are so expensive).
Leh is the capital and main town of the Ladakh region, the biggest (and maybe only) town too. Its the seat of religious and administrative control over the city. It is also the tourist centre which is used as a base for all travels in this region. The river Indus flows through the town and there are couple of picnic spots where you can spend some time. Also, you will notice that most of the landscape there is bare with no vegetation, except next to the rivers (and Indus in this case) where you will see a lot of trees during the spring months and this would be the only green patch in the whole area!!
Leh is situated at a height of about 11,500 feet. Its a high altitudelocation, and oxygen levels are lower than what our body is used to on the sea level. So, you need to get your body used to such environmental conditions, and so when you fly to Leh, you need to acclimatize for at least one day in Leh itself. That means one day of no exercise at all, just eat, sleep and eat some more!
Leh does not have that much to do actually, its more like the tourist centre. The markets in Leh are full of Tibetan stuff being sold: stones, jewellery, warm clothes, handicrafts etc. You can visit the Shanti Stupa which is at the top of the mountain. Its a huge white Buddhist stupa, not very old, which has been built to spread peace in the world. Also, given that its at such a height, it gives a good view of the town below (again mostly bare, with some small patches of green somewhere). Then there is the kings palace also within the town which is in ruins, but which is open for visitors. You can visit the monasteries in Leh (as well as the countless ones which spot this whole region).
There are monasteries in Leh which are often visited, Thiksey andShay. They are similar to any other Buddhist monasteries you may have visited. Though, if you go during the tourist season in the summer, you would see lot of activity happening at the monasteries: local dances, shows, festivities, prayers, processions etc (I din see it though!).
There are many many monasteries in this region, in the towns and away from the towns on the roads to other places as well as in many unreachable areas as on top of a hill etc. The structure of the monasteries is similar mostly, there are lot of small rooms where all the llamas stay, study,work and pray. Then each monastery will have the prayer hall, where all the llamas pray together. The Buddha statue would be in this prayer hall and it would be ornately decorated with handicrafts, paintings and sculptures in bright red and golden colours.
Other than in Leh, the other two places recommended by everyone visiting Leh are the Pangongso lake as well as the Nubra valley.
Pangongso lake is this huge 150 kms long saltwater lake about 4-5 hours drive away from Leh. Apparently, it is sea water that got stuckup in the Himalayas when the Indian subcontinent met the Asian continent and the mountains rose. Its like a blue gem in between brown and yellow mountains all around! It looks like a painting, completely unreal and out of this world. The colours are so vibrant and stunning, its completely unbelievable that such a place can exist in this world!
The drive to the lake is again studded with magnificent views along the way, the same landscape everywhere. On the way, there are lakes where you can see clearly multiple colours as shown here. This region is so full of beauty at every turn of the road, it just awes you so much. Even the first view of the lake that you get from a gap in between the hills takes your breath away. You actually wonder, how can something like this exist!
The lake is part in India and part in China. There is army presence there which patrol the lake. You can even drive a few kms just next to it. If lucky you can even boat in the lake, though in a limited area only. There is apparently no life in the lake because of the salty water. There is also a mountain next to the lake, which is called the opal mountain. Apparently, you can find opals here and there on the mountain, you can try your luck there if you are feeling lucky:).
The other place to be visited in this regions is the Nubra valley, where you go via the Khardungla pass, "the highest motorable pass in the world":). Its again a 5-6 hours drive from Leh, and the drive being awe-inspiring as usual. You can even spot yaks in this region.
The Khardungla pass is always cold! And snow is present there mostof the year round. Its the highest motorable pass in the world and you will see a sign saying the same at the top (Sorry for no photos, all the photos with the board have us posing with the board, typical patel spot it is!!). You definitely should enjoy the hot chai at the top of the pass. You will never ever find a tea so welcome! Also, don't stay too long at the top of the pass, the wind is so strong and chill factor is so high, its not even safe to stay there for so long. The drive till Nubra is again through dangerous roads and pretty sights on the way. We went to Leh in October which is actually the end of the tourist season. Its the time of the year when the snow starts and roads start getting blocked. Even when we were going to Nubra, we got stuck before the Khardungla pass for a couple of hours as it had snowed the previous night and the pass was closed. Also driving through the snow seems so precarious so many times, its fun and enticing!
Just after crossing the pass with the snow, you will enter the Nubra valley and the landscape will again change completely. Nubra valley is famous for the sand dunes, almost resembling an actual desert(complete with camels)! The drive till Nubra is next to the Zanskar river and the sand dunes and you will see patches of green in between and then bare lands and then valleys with the sand dunes and the sandstorms.
Nubra is also famous for the two humped camels which are only found here in India. Apparently these camels wandered here from Central Asia and have since been here. You can take a ride on the camel, it almost feels as if you are in Rajasthan:) ( with sand dunes, sand storms camels and completely dry air!!). From here, you can also go to the Siachen base camp, if you have the guts to:) !
The last place we visited was the Kargil and Batalik region. Its on the way to from Leh to Srinagar. The route is different, as slowly and slowly, you can see the culture changing from Buddhist to a Muslim tinge, plus you also see the vegetation en-route gradually increasing. You will see these small villages on the hillside where the whole hill is bare, but the villages are surrounded by trees. Every time you take a turn and another breathtaking sight greets you!
Somewhere on this route, if you get a chance you should stop at the 'magnetic hill'. Its this location somewhere on the way which is said to have a magnetic field from a hill nearby which pulls metal including cars, bikes etc towards itself. You stop the car of the road where the marking is made and you will see your car being pulled in the direction of the magnetic hill. Is a very weak magnetic field, but still worth seeing. Interesting, isn't it?
We also visited a village in this area which is supposed to be one of the last few pure Aryan villages left in the country. There are a couple of these villages in this region, where the features of the people are different from the rest of the populace around. Their customs are also different and their eyes are blue! According to some, these people are the original Aryans who had come to the Indian subcontinent from Central Asia and settled here rather than moving inward into the mainland. They retained their original customs and features as they never intermingled with the local populations. In fact all these villages only marry within each other and hence are a dwindling population. We saw the traditional dance being performed by the villagers complete with the traditional attire, music and all. We also interacted with them and learned a little bit about their life.
We also saw the locations which were involved in the Kargil war of 1999 (Tiger hill which was conquered back from the militants and some others). The were bare, with no tree cover, and just loose stones on all sides. Taking a look at these mountains, you would wonder how anyone could climb it, leave alone climb it knowing that the enemy on top just has to push the rocks on the top to start a landslide and finish off your whole team, without ever needing weapons! Hats off to those brave souls, takes a lot of courage to try to fight a war in such inhospitable conditions and to win it too!!
There are lot of options for adventure sports in Ladakh, you can do white water rafting or trekking in the high ranges or take part in the Tibetan marathon. Guess if you are interested in this, then Ladakh offers a lot more than to an average tourist. I of course haven't done any of this, so don't know for sure.