Leh is the capital of Ladakh with a population of 30,000. The town is situated at 3,500 metres above sea level in the Indus valley, nestled in the Indian Himalayas between Tibet to the east, Kashmir to the west and Himachal Pradesh to the south. Leh is accessible by road between May and November from Manali and Srinagar, crossing some of the highest motorable mountain passes in the world. Leh also has a small airport with daily flights to Delhi. There are many hotels, restaurants and shops, most of the places of interest are within a short walking distance and it is easy to get around the town on foot.
The Main Bazar (also known as Main Market) is a pedestrian street in the heart of the city. This is a lively area with numerous shops, restaurants and villagers selling homegrown vegetables. The Jama Masjid mosque and the Gompa Soma (Buddhist temple) are located in this area. North and west of the Main Bazar is the Old Town with many narrow lanes lined with stupas and mud-brick Ladakhi houses. South of the Main Bazar is the Moti Market, a busy local market where one can find all kind of shops (barber, tailor, jewellery, spice, music, kitchenware…).
Leh Palace is an imposing nine-storey building overlooking the old town. It was built during the first half of the seventeenth century by the king Singey Namgyal. The palace was inhabited by the royal family until 1836 when it was besieged by the Droga forces and the royal family relocated to Stok Palace, 20 kilometres south of Leh. The Archaeological Survey of India has been working on the restoration, a few rooms have furniture and the palace museum comprises a good collection of objects including jewellery and paintings. The palace’s roof offers a good viewpoint on the town below.
This mud-brick Buddhist monastery built during the fifteenth century is located 150 metres above the Old Town at the summit of Namgyal peak (the Victory peak). Namgyal Tsemo Gompa is a famous landmark of Leh and it is visible from anywhere in town. A steep trail goes from the Leh Palace to the monastery from where the view on the valley is spectacular. The temple contains an 8-metre-tall statue of Maitreya Buddha (also known as the Future Buddha).
Shanti Stupa is a large white stupa dominating the town of Leh. It was built on a rocky hillock by Japanese monks and was inaugurated by the fourteenth Dalai Lama in 1991. The stupa was designed to symbolise world peace and harmony and to celebrate the 2,500 years of Buddhism. It has two levels decorated with colourful carvings and paintings depicting scenes from the life of Buddha. Shanti Stupa can be accessed by a 100-metre-high stairway starting from Changspa. The stupa offers one of the best viewpoints in Leh, the panorama at sunset should not be missed.
This temple was built in the middle of the last century, it is located next to the Main Bazar in a large and peaceful courtyard. It is accessed through a small gate just opposite of the State Bank of India building. Gompa Soma has a golden triple roof strung with hundreds of prayer flags and it houses several finely decorated statues. There are dozens of prayers wheels all around the building as well as a large prayer wheel in a room on the right side. The Ladakh Buddhist Association headquarter is also located within this complex.
This museum located beside the airport honours the Indian Army and its role in the region. It provides information about the various battles fought with Pakistan during the twentieth century such as the military conflicts on the Siachen glacier, the highest and coldest battlefield in the world where both countries have approximately 2,500 armed forces personnel permanently deployed at an altitude of 6,000 metres. The museum also has a few rooms dedicated to Ladakhi culture, history and nature.
Shey Palace, located 14 kilometres from Leh on the Leh-Manali road, was built in middle of the seventeenth century by the king Deldan Namgyal (also known as Lhachen Palgyigon). It was used as a summer palace by the kings of Ladakh until 1834. Today, the palace is mostly in ruins. The palace monastery was also built by the king Deldan Namgyal in homage to his late father the king Singey Namgyal, it was consecrated in 1647 by Tagsangrepa. The temple contains a highly revered 12-metre-tall copper statue of Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha) gilded with approximately 5 kilograms of gold.
Thiksey Monastery, 20 kilometres east of Leh, is one of the largest and most impressive gompas in Ladakh. Its architecture reminds of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. The monastery belongs to the Gelugpa order, approximately 80 monks live in the whitewashed huts on the lower part of the hill, the prayer halls and temples are located at the top. The monastery complex has many temples and shrining rooms including a prayer chamber containing a fascinating 14-metre-high statue of Maitreya (the future Buddha) in a finely-decorated headdress.
Stok Palace, built in 1820, is the official home to the Namgyal dynasty who was stripped of power in 1846. Today, the Ladakhi royal family still lives in the three-storey palace. There is an interesting museum exposing many of the family treasures such as jewellery, porcelain tea sets, ceremonial dress, the royal crown, the queen’s perak (traditional Ladakhi headdress) and unique thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist paintings) of the sixteenth century.
Stakna Monastery is a small gompa perched atop a rocky peak along the Indus River, a few kilometres from Thiksey. It was founded during the sixteenth century by the Drukpa order. The monastery was offered to Bhutanese lamas when they came to Ladakh, Bhutanese influence is obvious from the murals inside. The library has a large collection of books and the 30 resident monks spend countless hours reading religious texts. The traditional Tibetan loose-leaf books usually have top and bottom wooden cover plates and are carefully wrapped in cloth before being stored.
Hemis Monastery is the largest and the most prosperous gompa in Ladakh. The monastery existed before the eleventh century and it was re-established during the seventeenth century by the king Singey Namgyal, it is the main Drukpa gompa in Ladakh. Inside the monastery, there is a large courtyard and many temples. One of the temples houses an 8-metre-tall statue of Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche), the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. There is also a museum worth visiting. Every year, Hemis Tsechu festival is held during 2 days and mask dances are performed by the monks.
Chemrey Monastery was built during the seventeenth century in memory of the king Singye Namgyal and it belongs to the Drukpa order. This beautiful gompa dominating the village and the fields is located on the road leading to Pangong Lake, 45 kilometres from Leh, at an altitude of 3,650 metres. The monastery has many temples and prayer halls, a 3-metre-high statue of Padmasambhava can be seen in one of the shrines. It also contains a precious collection of sacred scripture decorated with silver and gold.
Spituk Monastery is perched on a hill overlooking the Indus River near Leh airport. The gompa was founded in the fifteenth century by the Gelukpa order, it is the oldest Gelukpa monastery in Ladakh. The Dukhang (the Assembly Hall) above the courtyard features fine murals and impressive statues of the protector deities including Vajrabhairava and bull-headed Yamantaka. A temple is entirely dedicated to Tara (also known as Dolma in Tibetan Buddhism), the protector of Tibet. It contains a magnificent collection of thangkas (Tibetan scroll painting) representing the 21 green Tara and the white Tara.
The Phyang Monastery was built during the sixteenth century by the king Tashi Namgyal. The gompa dominates the village and the fields, it has a community of about 90 monks. It belongs to the Drikung Kagyu order, a lineage founded in 1179 by Kyobpa Jigten Sumgon. The main chamber has impressive statues of Avalokitesvara and Amitabha. There is a museum which showcases a wonderful collection of Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian firearms and weapons. The Phyang Tsetup festival takes place annually and a giant thangka is unveiled once every three years on this occasion.
Gurdwara Pathar Sahib is a Gurdwara (place of worship for Sikhs) which was built in 1517 in homage to Guru Nanak Dev, the founder Guru of Sikhism who visited Ladakh and Tibet at that time. The temple houses a holy Pathar (stone). According to the legend, this stone or boulder was used by a demon in an attempt to kill Guru Nanak while he was sitting in meditation, but the boulder softened like warm wax when it touched the Guru, leaving him unharmed. The imprint of Guru Nanak’s body as well as the demon’s footprint can be seen on the boulder.
Magnetic Hill is a stretch of road which defies gravity. Shut off the engine of your car with the transmission in neutral and you will see the vehicle starting moving uphill. It is said that this phenomenon is due to a strong magnetic force originating from the hill which can pull vehicles upwards. It is also said that the aircrafts of the Indian Air Force have been diverting their route to avoid the high magnetic field in this area. There are many theories trying to explain this mysterious phenomenon, the 2 most commonly accepted are the magnetic force theory and the optical illusion theory.
Sangam (“confluence” in Sanskrit) is the point where the Zanskar River flows into the Indus River. The Indus River (known as Sindhu) originates from the Tibetan plateau near Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash. It is 3,180 km long and it flows through Ladakh, Kashmir and Pakistan until the Arabian Sea near Karachi. The Zanskar River is 120 km long, its source is near Shingo La and it flows north through Padum (the capital of Zanskar). The Indus River is green in colour while the Zanskar River is blue or brown depending on the season. Sangam is located on the Leh-Srinagar road, near the village of Nimmu.
Basgo, 45 kilometres west of Leh, was the capital of lower Ladakh until the kingdom was united in 1470. The ruins of the citadel crown several rocky peaks. Three miraculously preserved temples can be visited, one of them is the Chamba Gompa which houses a two-storey-high statue of Maitreya Buddha (the Future Buddha). The temple’s walls are decorated with magnificent frescoes of bodhisattvas and guardian deities. The village of Basgo appears like an oasis in the rugged mineral landscape, it is a pleasant place for a stroll.
Tucked into a side valley, Likir Monastery is one of the most important Gelugpa gompas in Ladakh with the one in Thiksey. Although studies estimate that its foundations date from the eleventh century, no trace remains of this time and the monastery was probably erected during the fifteenth century, the golden age for the Gelugpa order in Ladakh. Led by the younger brother of the Dalai Lama, the monastery is home to about 120 monks and a school for young monks. A gigantic 22-metre-high golden statue of Maitreya Buddha located beside the main temple was completed in 1999.
Located on the left bank of the Indus River, Alchi Monastery is the most famous gompa in Ladakh. Indeed, the extraordinary wall paintings and sculptures are in an excellent state of conservation and they constitute an exceptional testimony of Ladakh’s Indo-Tibetan art in the eleventh century, at the time known as the "second spreading" of Buddhism in Tibet, when Ladakh was still part of the kingdoms of Western Tibet. The monastery was founded by the Great Translator Rinchen Zangpo. According to the legend, the poplar tree at the entrance of the complex is Rinchen Zangpo's walking stick which turned into a living tree.
Rizong Monastery is an isolated gompa tucked away at the far end of a narrow gorge. It was founded in 1831 by Lama Tsultim Nima, his sacred relics are kept inside a large chorten (stupa) in the monastery. 40 monks of the Gelugpa lineage reside in the gompa, following very strict rules. Several meditation caves can be found around the complex, it is believed that the eighth-century Buddhist master Guru Padmasambhava meditated in one of these caves. Surrounded by apricot trees, the Chulichan Nunnery is located 2 kilometres from the monastery, it is home to 20 nuns.
Lamayuru Monastery (also called Yungdrung Gompa) is one of the oldest in Ladakh, established by Rinchen Zangpo in the eleventh century. The whitewashed medieval gompa, spectacularly located atop a rocky crag, overlooks an impressive lunar landscape known as "moonland" (which was once the bottom of a lake) surrounded by barren mountains. A small cave in the monastery's main prayer hall is said to be the cave where the Indian scholar Naropa meditated. Lamayuru is located on the Leh-Srinagar road, 116 kilometres from Leh.
The Khardung La Pass is the world’s highest motorable road at an altitude of 5,602 metres above sea level (18,380 feet). Connecting Leh to the Nubra valley, the road is strategically important to the Indian army because it is used to carry supplies to the troops posted at the Siachen glacier near the India–Pakistan border. The road was built in 1976 and it was opened to public vehicles in 1988. The pass is kept open year-round by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). An Inner Line Permit is required to access Khardung La Pass and a proper acclimatization is important to avoid altitude sickness.
Clinging to the side of a rocky hill, Diskit monastery was established in the fifteenth century by the Gelugpa order. It is the largest gompa in the Nubra valley and it offers a breathtaking view on the valley. 108 chortens (the Tibetan word for “stupa”) are aligned along the road leading to the monastery. A colossal 32-metre-high statue of Maitreya Buddha was built recently at the top of a nearby hill and was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in July 2010.
Beyond Diskit, the road leads to a small desert with rolling sand dunes known as Hunder Sand Dunes. This area is home to double-humped Bactrian camels which were brought from the Gobi desert in Mongolia when Hunder was a stopping point for caravans travelling on the ancient Silk Road between Xinjiang and India. The small village of Hunder, with little bit more than 1,000 inhabitants, offers several accommodation options.
Turtuk is a charming Muslim village on the banks of the Shayok River, just 12 kilometres from the Pakistan border (also called “Line of Control (LOC)”). It is inhabited by around 3,500 Baltis, an ethnic group of Tibetan origin. This remote farming village surrounded by green barley fields and snow-capped mountains is located at 2,800 metres altitude, it is warmer than the rest of Ladakh and apricots are grown here. Turtuk was under Pakistan's control until 1971 when it was annexed to India during the Indo-Pakistani war. Turtuk was opened up to tourists in 2010.
Samstanling monastery is located 20 minutes walk uphill from the green village of Sumur, overlooking the Nubra River. This large gompa was founded in 1841 by Lama Tsultim Nima who also founded Rizong monastery. The 60 resident monks abide by the strict precepts of Vinaya. A school with 50 novice monks can also be found within the complex. The assemby halls are decorated with beautiful timeworn frescoes of bodhisattvas.
Panamik is located 23 kilometres north of Sumur on the way to the Siachen glacier base camp. It is a scenic village studded with whitewashed stupas on the left bank of the Nubra River. Panamik is famous for its sulphur hot spring which is believed to have medicinal virtues.
Chang La Pass (which means “Northern Pass” in Ladakhi) is the gateway to Pangong Lake and the Changthang plateau. It is one of the highest motorable passes in the world at an altitude of 5,360 metres above sea level (17,585 feet), it offers a beautiful panorama on the valleys below. Chang La Pass is controlled by the Indian army due to its vicinity to the frontier with China (also known as “Line of Actual Control (LAC)”). It falls within a restricted area and an Inner Line Permit must be obtained from Leh prior to travelling to this area.
Tangtse is a small village just after Chang La Pass, on the way to Pangong Lake. It is a good place to stop for lunch or overnight, several accommodation options are available. Tangtse Monastery, tucked into a rock cleft, is a small gompa containing a statue of Jigsten Gonbo.
Pangong Lake is located at an altitude of 4,250 metres in the Changthang region. The lake is 140 kilometres in length, 70% of it lies in Tibet. Despite its high salt concentration, the lake freezes completely in winter. The lake has a beautiful turquoise blue colour and it is surrounded by brown arid mountains. It is an important breeding site for migratory birds such as brahmini ducks, bar-headed geese and seagulls. A few families rearing pashmina goats live in Spangmik, a small village with mud-brick houses and barley fields on the bank of the lake. An Inner Line Permit is required to visit Pangong Lake.
The Shayok valley connects the Nubra valley to the Changthang region with a road leading to Pangong Lake. Shayok is also the name of a tiny village overlooking the Shayok River, 25 kilometres north of Tangtse. The Sayok River flows through Diskit, Hunder, Turtuk and further north through Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan. It is likely that you will spot marmots and pikas while travelling along this remote and isolated valley.
Tsaga La is a mountain pass on the road along the India-China border, between Pangong Lake and Tso Moriri Lake. The pass is situated at an elevation of 4,660 metres above sea level (15,290 feet), only 4 kilometres from the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Foreigners are not allowed to travel on that road unless a special authorization has been obtained from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in New Delhi.
Chumathang is a village situated 140 kilometres from Leh on the way to Tso Moriri Lake, at 4,000 metres altitude on the bank of the Indus River. Chumathang is known for its hot springs which are reputed to have a number of therapeutic benefits. A few restaurants and guesthouses can be found in the village.
Tso Moriri Lake is scenic 26km-long lake located at 4,530 metres above sea level, flanked by several 6,000m+ peaks (Mentok Kangri, Chamser Kangri, Lungser Kangri). The legend says that Tshomo (“Buddhist nun” in Tibetan) was riding a yak across the Rupshu plateau. When reaching the lake, the thirsty yak ran into the water. Tshomo shouted “Ri…Ri…” (which means “Stop…Stop…”) but they both drowned in the lake. That’s how Tso Moriri Lake got its name. Korzok is the only village on the bank of the lake, one of the highest village in Ladakh. Guesthouses and camps are available. Inner Line Permit required.
Tso Kar Lake is located at an elevation of 4,530 metres on the high-altitude plateau of Rupshu. It means “white lake” in Ladakhi, the white colour comes from the thick layer of salt deposited along its shores. The lake is surrounded by marshlands home to the Tibetan wild ass (kiang) and the rare black-necked crane, a heaven for birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts. The area is inhabited by nomads with their pashmina goats and yaks. They live in yak-hair tents and move from place to place in search of pasture. They spend the harsh winter months in Thukje, a small nomadic settlement north of the lake.
Taglang La Pass, with an altitude of 5,328 metres (17,582 feet) is the highest pass on the Leh-Manali Road. It is 108 kilometres from Leh and 365 kilometres from Manali.
The Leh-Manali Road (also known as Leh-Manali Highway) is usually open from June to October when the passes are clear of snow. It takes 2 days to cover the 473 kilometres from Leh to Manali by car, with one night in Pang, Sarchu or Jispa. The road was built and is maintained by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). It is a 2-lane road (one lane in each direction) with a few narrow sections. It is one of the highest road in the world with an average altitude of 4,000 metres and the highest point at 5,328 metres at Taglang La Pass.
Rohtang La Pass, at an altitude of 3,978 metres above sea level (13,050 feet), is located 50 kilometres from Manali. The pass is a gateway to the high-altitude Himalayan districts of Lahaul and Spiti (in the state of Himachal Pradesh) and Ladakh (in the state of Jammu and Kashmir). Even though the pass is not very high, the weather conditions are unpredictable and snowstorms are frequent. The pass is normally open from June to October but even during that period it can get temporarily closed because of landslides or unexpected snowfall.
With a population of 8,000, Manali is a town nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas at an altitude of 2,050 metres above sea level. It is located in the Kullu valley, in the state of Himachal Pradesh. Manali is surrounded by towering green mountains and it offers many outdoors activities such as trekking, rafting, rock climbing and skiing in winter. It is a popular honeymoon destination too. The town is 473 kilometres from Leh and it takes 2 days by road. There are many daily buses to Delhi, the 550 kilometres are covered in approximately 12 hours.
The villages of Dha and Hanu are scattered around the bank of the Indus River. Lying at an altitude of 2,700 metres, temperatures are warmer and orchards of walnut and apricot trees can be found in the valley. The villages of Dha and Hanu are inhabited by the Brokpa (or Drokpa) community. The Brokpas have distinct features and fair complexion, they are believed to be descendants of the troops from the invading armies of Alexander the Great. Women wear a typical headdress called “kho” decorated with silver coins, ribbons, beads and flowers. An Inner Line Permit is necessary to enter this valley.
Mulbek is renowned for its 8-metre-high Chamba statue carved into the rock face. It is estimated that this resplendent rock-cut figure dates from the eighth century. Mulbek Rock Carving is the last Buddhist monument before the Muslim-dominated Kargil.
Shargole Cave Monastery is a small troglodyte gompa built onto a cliffside. It is located 2 kilometres away from the main road, on the left bank of the Wakha River above the picturesque village of Shargole. Access to the monastery is via a ladder and beautiful wall paintings can be seen inside, but finding the person holding the key to open the temple can sometimes be a challenge.
Batalik is the last village on the banks of the Indus River, it is situated only 8 kilometres from the border with Pakistan known as the Line of Control (LOC). It is a strategic location between Ladakh and Balistan, the Batalik sector infiltration was the key event which led to the armed conflict between India and Pakistan between May and July 1999. This conflict known as the Kargil War claimed the lives of thousands of army soldiers. Only Indian citizens are allowed to travel to Batalik, foreigners are not allowed to access this area unless a special permit has been granted from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in New Delhi.
Kargil is the second largest town in Ladakh after Leh, the majority of the 11,000 inhabitants are Shia Muslim. The town lies at 2,860 metres altitude, on the banks of the Suru River. Kargil central bazar is filled with vibrant workshops and stores. The town is 220 kilometres from Leh and 202 kilometres from Srinagar. From Kargil, you can also catch a bus or taxi to Padum, the capital of Zanskar. The Line of Control (LOC) is only 10 kilometres from Kargil. In 1999, Pakistani forces disguised as Kashmiri militants crossed the LOC, leading to the 74-day Kargil War.
Zoji La is a mountain pass between Ladakh and Kashmir, on the Leh-Srinagar road. It is located at 3,528 metres above sea level (11,570 feet), 320 kilometres from Leh and 102 kilometres from Srinagar. The pass is closed during winter but a 14-kilometre tunnel currently under construction will provide all-year access to Ladakh in the future. The road in the vicinity of the pass, in Sonamarg area, goes along beautiful high-sided alpine valleys.
Srinagar, located in the Kashmir valley, is the largest city in the state of Jammu and Kashmir with 1.2 million inhabitants. Top attractions include the Mughal gardens and the fabulous Dal Lake. This beautiful 18-square-kilometre lake is a must-see. You can hire a “shikara” (colourful wooden boat) for a tour around the lake, visiting floating markets and floating gardens blossoming with lotus flowers. You could also spend the night on the lake on a charming houseboat. Srinagar is 422 kilometres from Leh and it takes 1 or 2 days by road.