From the moment you step foot in Leh, you get a sense that you’ve crossed the threshold into an otherworldly place. Though it’s only an hours flight from Delhi, nothing feels familiar; it’s India but not as you know it. The stretch of barren mountains fills every direction and fold into the rocky valleys that burst with life along the winding pale jade waters of the Sindhu River. Leh is the capital of the former Himalayan Kingdom of Ladakh and home to the early caravan traders crossing India’s north. Even in summer, when the days are long and warm, the circle of mountains are capped in snow and the exposed bluffs still wear the ice from the first snowfalls of November.
The heart of Ladakh
Leh is bursting with Tibetan culture brought to life with its ties to Buddhism that stem from the 12th century. Wherever you travel, crisp white stupas dot the landscape and monasteries edged into the mountain slopes climb upwards into the clear thin sky. Shanti Stupa set on a hilltop in Changspa was built to commemorate 2,500 years of Buddhism and to promote world peace. The “peace” Stupa overlooks Leh and offers panoramic views of the city and the expansive mountains. At night the Stupa is lit up and this is one of the best times to enjoy its grandeur. Just 15 km out of Leh at Shey Palace the line of weathered stupas are crisscrossed with colourful prayer flags that float on the breeze and epitomise everything you expect Leh to be; spiritual, wistful and serene. Ahead, along the Leh-Monali Road are two of the regions most well known and elaborate monasteries, Thiksey and Hemis. Their entrance gates with their pristine and colourful Tibetan inspired motifs are works of art and as you reach the central courtyards to enter the temples, even they pop with the colours of happiness. Red and gold prayer wheels, cobalt blue rooftops, terracotta walls and peppermint flags tied to Buddhist prayer poles swirl gently. Inside the temples, hand painted Buddhas reflecting scenes of life and rebirth press into the walls and fill the space with peace.
Places to visit on your road trip
Beyond the mountains into the garden of Ladakh
It’s only when you venture beyond Leh and cross the Khandungla Pass that you see the surrounding beauty of the broader Ladakh region. The road is nothing short of treacherous; it zigzags narrowly around sharp mountain bends without any safety barriers at all. As the snow melts into sludgy puddles on the uneven surface its hard to feel comfortable, but the road is home to thousands of bikers who want the full experience of taking in the spectacular views at 18,380 feet above sea level on the worlds highest motorised road. Snowy mountain tops curve into each other as far as you can see, with little vegetation and only yaks and mules grazing. It takes at least 4 hours to traverse the 90 km, and still the other side only gives way to more mountains. It’s this drive that eventually winds its way into the Nubra Valley also known as the Garden of Ladakh, and for good reason.
From dusk to dawn the skyline is filled with sweeping mountains and as you drive through the winding Kashmir Valley the grand cliff faces shroud the life below. Along the river flats, forests of Birch, Elm, Apricot and Willow trees sparkle in the sun. It’s a wild ride but it dishes out the kind of scenery found in photographic expeditions of Tibet, Mongolia and India. As you approach the village of Diskit, their 600-year-old Buddhist monastery offers a glimpse of its grand past. From the roadside, the brightly painted sitting gold Buddha is a bolt of colour against the stone backdrop and the statue rises like a Phoenix rising from the valley peering out across the snowy mountain ranges. The climb up the 150 steps to the temple welcomes with embroidered silk draped and tied to the columns Iike a celebration. Their Tashi Gang restaurant is also a perfect spot for the weary traveller to refresh. Across the Nubra Valley, there are plenty of quaint accommodations options; organic farm stays, camping sites and hotels made up of clusters of huts with whitewashed walls and a great vibe of togetherness.
From the valley depths to India’s largest northern lake
The Ladakh region of Kashmir has a rich history that cradles India, China and Tibet in the land poetically known as Indo-China. It is also home to the serene Lake Pangong Tso bordered by the mountain range that stretches across India to China. There are two ways to reach the lake from Leh, one over the Khardungla Pass and the other via Changli Pass, neither is less inhospitable than the other and both will likely leave you feeling a little shaky when you reach solid ground. Lake Pangong itself is as ever changing in colour as the exposed mountains and sky above it. From the natural wildflower gardens of the Nubra Valley, it’s a 6-hour drive on an almost unmotorable road to Lake Pangong, but with its serene glass-like surface and lapis blue shoreline, the lake makes the journey absolutely worth it. Lake Pangong sits at over 13,000 feet and is an expansive 134 km long, giving the impression of a calm narrow sea. Spread along the waterfront are a line of unassuming Dhaba’s and campsites to bolster the journey and help imbibe the dazzling views.
A land of contrasts
Leh Ladakh is a land of contrasts; there are clearwater streams running alongside sand dunes, it snows in summer, it is a peaceful Buddhist community surrounded by the functional military of the Indian Army and its icy blue skies are a world away from Delhi. Though there is much natural wilderness to see across the mountains and sweeping valleys, there are many ways to take it all in; camel rides, All Terrain Driving on the world’s highest sand dunes and white water rafting at the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. These experiences connect you with the soulful journey of India’s beguiling Kashmir. Nonetheless, Ladakh may challenge you with her cultural nuances, troublesome road trips and expansive distances, but what she lacks in predictability, she’ll charm you with her cultural diversity, imposing landscape and an age-old mantra of tolerance that welcomes you body, mind and spirit.