It is said that while coming out if you look back at the Taj Mahal; you will be back one day. I have also heard the saying that pick up a pebble from Ladakh and you will be back for sure. I have done both! Success rate of these sayings; I had been to the Taj thrice since 1993 and Ladakh once that too only last year. Needless to say I picked up not one but quite a few pebbles on my way back.
Ladakh had always been on my travel wish list. With so many people visiting and coming back with so many stories; who would not want to go to Ladakh. It's the dream destination for hardcore bikers across the country. I am not a biker. But Ladakh fascinated me since I started my career in travel industry in 2003 and its only in 2014 that I finally landed there. While I was always a Ladakh fan, now that I had been to this magical place; here goes my top 6 ways of travelling to and in Ladakh without cutting a big hole into your pocket. These are what we ( I & P) did. Trust me when I say this; budget travel is very much possible here.
1. Land in Srinagar. Srinagar is more well-connected to the rest of the country than Leh. Limited flights to Leh and during the " season" air fares touch the sky. While airfare to Srinagar is also no less, but if planned way in advance you could save a lot. You can always fly out from Leh. The road transportation in Leh will be on the higher side if you are a solo traveler hiring the whole vehicle to yourself.
2. Depending on your fitness level, you can take a shared cab to Leh directly or if you wish to take it slow and go the recommended way; take a shared cab to Kargil. Spend one night there and then next day continue to Leh. The distance between Srinagar and Leh is approx. 435 km.You will be travelling on NH1; one India's best roads and will be greeted by breathtakingly beautiful sceneries in each turning. This will give you ample time in acclimatizing yourself to the heights. Srinagar to Kargil takes 6 hours and from Kargil to Leh 5 hours. In Srinagar just go to the TRC ( Tourist Reception Centre) previous evening or same day very early morning to catch a shared cab to Leh or Kargil. The other scenic road to reach Leh is from Manali. I have heard that too is mesmerizing. That's next on my wish list.
3. There are tons of stay options available in Leh town. From expensive hotels to simple homestays; you will be spoilt for choice. We stayed at a hotel called Oriental Guest house. Even they have 3 wings with 3 different rates. Wing A and B with simple rooms with attached bathrooms @ Rs. 800 - 1000 and the newer Wing C with wooden flooring and bigger rooms with spectacular view @Rs.2000 - Rs.2500. ( Recommended to cross check the rates as they are revised each year)
4. Don't worry about travelling to Pangong or Nubra valley or any other place for that matter. Walking around Leh market keep looking out for the notice boards put outside local travel agents. They put out notices for shared travel to all places. Travel is also about meeting new people and sharing your stories; isn't it? We shared a cab to Pangong lake with 3 Korean students and 1 girl from Delhi. It was fun and even though we spent the night at Pangong at different places we came back together again. Besides that you can hire a bike too if you want to ride to these places.
5. Leh is full of eateries suiting all palates. From simple Thukpa to lavish Italian fine dine, you name it you have it. Let me share some of the places where we ate and loved. Café Jeevan on Changspa road. Just be there, sit enjoy relax while gorging onto their excellent food. For Pizzas it is Il Forno. We went there during the day; but during evening the whole place wears a different look. We had dinner once at World Garden Café. They serve super momos and wood fired pizzas. And our last night in Leh we went to Bon Apetit, a place highly recommended for a special evening. The ambience, the service and the food : just perfect for a cozy relaxed evening. We had Khao Suey. They do not serve alcohol. It's a task to find this one though!
6. Ladakh is a highly eco sensitive zone. Please be responsible and avoid plastic or any hazardous material as much as you can. Water is precious in this barren desert. While packaged drinking water is sold in every shop, it is highly recommended to keep on refilling the bottles at your guest house or any place with the sign of " Refil your water bottle here". They charge very nominal. If you are carrying any plastic or any other such things on your rides or trips; please make sure you bring them back with you. There is no recycling plant available in Ladakh yet. This little place should not be turned into a garbage ground in a few years. This is our responsibility.
Besides these, Ladakh is not the place to show off those hot pants. Please refrain from doing so and respect the sensibilities of the locals. I have heard many people who had been to Ladakh say that this place touches you like no other. Something is stirred within and you become a different person than the one you were. Now I completely believe that. The harsh barren terrains of this cold desert, rocky naked mountains, the clear sky, the fresher air, the colourful prayer flags swinging everywhere and above all the simple people living in the extreme conditions; they all touched me like no other place in India. And I cant wait to go back; again and again.