Western Ladakh, known as "Sham" (which means "West" in Ladakhi) is composed of 3 areas:
1. the west part of the Indus valley (where major monasteries such as Alchi and Lamayuru are located),
2. the Dha-Hanu valley (where the Brokpa people live),
3. the Kargil district.
The Indus valley monastery tour towards Alchi and Lamayuru usually takes 2 days. You will visit some of the most impressive Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh such as Basgo, Likir, Alchi, Rizong, Lamayuru, Phyang and Spituk gompas and you will discover authentic and charming Ladakhi villages. The tour also includes the visit of the mysterious Magnetic Hill, the Sikh place of worship Gurdwara Pathar Sahib and the confluence of Indus and Zanskar rivers known as Sangam.
With one or two extra days, you could extend the tour to explore the Dha-Hanu valley and spend a night in one of the villages inhabited by the Brokpa community where you could learn more about their unique culture and traditions. Then, you could follow the Indus river up to the village of Batalik located only 8 kilometres from the border with Pakistan and you could visit Kargil, the second largest town in Ladakh situated midway between Leh and Srinagar. On the way back to Leh, you will have the opportunity to visit the small troglodyte monastery of Shargole and the impressive 8-metre-high Maitreya Buddha rock carving at Mulbek.
If you have only 1 day for this tour, it is possible to go to Lamayuru and back to Leh within a day or you could go only up to Sangam and Alchi.
Choose the itinerary which suits your travel plans among these tours in west Ladakh:
The Sham valley is one of the most visited valleys in Ladakh. It is located on Srinagar-Leh National Highway NH1 and famously known as the abode of apricot trees. Apricot is an integral part of Ladakhi culture, locally called ‘chuli’. Sham, which is also known as ‘lower Ladakh’, is warmer as compared to the rest of the region. The villagers practice both primitive and subsistent farming, especially organic farming. You will find a wide range of organic products on this route. This enchanting valley consists of varied cultures, languages, landscapes, wildlife and flora and fauna. Some of the oldest, remotest, unique temples and monasteries of Ladakh are also situated here. It’s also popular among trekkers for many routes from elementary to advanced grade treks.
Commonly known as Alchi Choskor (religious enclave), this unique temple is one of the oldest Buddhist sites in Ladakh. Unlike rest of the monasteries located on hilltops, Alchi monastery is situated down amidst Alchi village on the left bank of the Indus river. We bet you haven’t had witnessed or seen the 10th century Kashmir’s exquisite and meticulous paintings and sculptures as depicted in Alchi ever before. The temple was established by Lostawa (Translator) Rinchen Zangpo from Western Tibet during the later dissemination period of Tibetan Buddhism. The Choskor consists of several temples like Sumstek (three-tiered temple), Lotsawa Lhakhang (the translator chapel), Jamyang Lhakhang (Manjushri temple), Vairocana temple to name a few. There is a huge willow tree said to be planted by the founder and hence reckoned as the oldest willow tree in entire Ladakh.
Lamayuru monastery is located on the Srinagar-Leh road, at a distance of 116 km from Leh. The monastery, surrounded by stupas and mani walls, stands perched on a hill overlooking the village Lamayuru. The erstwhile name of the monastery was Yungdrung (Swastika), after a swastika drawn with grains when a votive offering was made to Naga spirits to obtain their permission to build the monastery. In the 11th century, the great Tantric master Naropa visited the monastery and meditated inside a cave. It is widely believed that the oldest temple of Lamayuru monastery is among 108 monasteries and temples built by Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo in the 10th century. It is called Singe Lhakhang and lies beneath the main gompa complex and enshrines a stucco image of Vairocana. The monastery includes the temple of Mahakala, Avalokiteshvara and an assembly hall. Traditionally, it belongs to the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Among the most spectacular monasteries, Basgo is situated just next to National Highway NH1, on the hill of terracotta landscape in the middle of the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges. Basgo means “bull’s head”, named after the shape of the boulder where the village exists. The beauty of this palace cum monastery is its mystic charm of the ruined structure. You really cannot take eyes off of this mysterious place. Its story dates back to the 16th century when King Drakpa Bumde built the citadel and temples. The centre of attraction is a two-storied golden Maitreya statue in copper-gilt, erected by king Sengge Namgyal as a symbol of the funeral to his father king Jamyang Namgyal. Basgo used to be the capital of Ladakh, and its palace was popularly known as Basgo Rabstan Lhartse Khar.
According to a fanciful myth, Likir monastery was built inside a ring formed by the bodies of two great Naga serpent kings, ‘Nando and Taksoko’. Thus, the name Lukhyil originated. Lu means ‘Naga spirit’ and Khyil means ‘encircled’. The monastery lies at a distance of 58 km to the west of Leh, in a side valley of the Indus. It was the fifth king of Ladakh, Lhachen Gyalpo, who founded the monastery. Currently, it is under the patronage of Ngari Rinpoche (the younger brother of His Holiness the Dalai Lama) and is affiliated to the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The tallest structure of Likir monastery, in fact, the tallest in Sham valley, is a 22-metre-high statue of Maitreya Buddha. Likir Dosmochey is the annual festival, celebrated on the 28th and 29th of the twelfth month of Tibetan calendar.
You may ponder why the founder chose to build Rizong monastery in a remote and uninhabited valley. To observe strict monastic discipline advocated by the founder of the Gelug school of thought Je Tsongkhapa, his disciple Lama Tsultrim Nyima founded Rizong monastery in the 1830s to keep up to his guru’s instructions. The route to Rizong is quite bumpy as it situates in a remote valley some 77 km west of Leh. The principal building is the Dukhang which consists of images of Buddha Sakyamuni, Maitreya Buddha, Avalokiteshvara and Je Tsongkhapa. The monastery is one of few with no annual festival and the tradition of mask dance.
The tradition of Drikung teaching began with Skyoba Jigten Gombo. Drikung Kagyu is one of the sub-sects within the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. Phyang monastery marked the first establishment of Drikung teaching in Ladakh, and it lies about 21 km west of Leh. You can find the finest murals of Kagyu lineage of Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa. The prized possession of Phyang monastery is a five-storey painting of Skyoba Jigten Gombo. And of particular interest, the gompa has an exquisite collection of Kashmiri bronzes statues and paintings that resemble the ones depicted in Alchi temple. The protector deity of Phyang monastery ‘Apchi Choski Dolma’ could be seen as a veiled image.
Spituk monastery is just 8 km away from Leh and sits on a hill overlooking the airport runway. Locally known as Pethup Galden Targyasling, the monastery is the first Gelugpa monastery in Ladakh. It was founded by Lama Lhawang Lodoe. Originally, ‘Spe-thub’ means ‘efficient example’. People believe that this is the first Tibetan monastery in Ladakh. It’s headed by successive reincarnations of the Bakula Rinpoche, one of the sixteen Arhats. Statue of Sakyamuni is the central image alongside Guru Padmasambhava and Tara goddess. The monastery is particularly known for the annual festival (Spituk Gustor) which is held in the eleventh month of Tibetan lunar calendar.
Have you ever heard of a Magnetic Hill? In fact, at a height of 3,500m above the sea level, there lies a magnetic hill in Ladakh. A wide range of scientific explanations is available on the hill that defies the phenomenon of gravity. Some studies describe the presence of a strong magnetic force in this hill that could pull vehicles upward whereas some say it is just an optical illusion. Located 28 km from Leh in the barren landscape where you can also ride recreational dirt bikes.
Isn’t it interesting to find a sacred Sikh temple in Ladakh? The historical Gurdwara Pathar Sahib is situated on the Srinagar-Leh highway, just 25 km short of Leh. It is widely believed that the founder of Sikh religion, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, has not only lived and meditated at the place but also fought a demon. Around the 16th century, Guru Nanak reached Ladakh via Tibet, Nepal and Sikkim following the Yarkand route. Today, the pilgrims enjoy hot Langar, day-meal from their community kitchen. Among the locals, it is known as a pilgrimage where Guru Rinpoche paid a visit.
The confluence of two major rivers in Ladakh is popularly known as Sangam near Nimmu village. The mighty Indus river (Singye Khabab) originates from Mt Kailash of Tibet, flows in Ladakh and meets Zanskar river (a tributary of Indus) at Sangam forming a breathtaking sight. It resembles the vibrant culture of Ladakh by the colour contrast of turquoise and green-tinged rivers.
The descendants of Alexander the Great can be found in India; in fact, they are from Ladakh. Yes, the people of Dha-Hanu valley distinguish themselves as the ‘pure-blood’ Aryans. Well, this seems true with their unique eyes and physical features. The tribe is known as ‘Brokpa,’ and their valley is located 160 km away from Leh. It is popular for apricot, grapes, wine, walnut, and berries. Brokpas have a very distinct identity, especially their culture, language, costumes and tradition that are significantly different from the rest of Ladakh. To safeguard their unique identity, they celebrate ‘Aryan Festival’ every year. The two-day affair has all the ingredients for a perfect festival that includes folk dance and songs, food stalls, wine and an amicable atmosphere.
Located in the harsh terrain of mountains, Batalik was the strategic site and principal town of contention during the Kargil war. The town is well connected to Srinagar-Leh National Highway, just 56 km away from Kargil. It is also the nearest village bordering Pakistan. Both Buddhist and Muslim households live together in this village. The Buddhists belong to the Brokpa community and Muslims of Shia community.
Kargil is the second largest town of Ladakh after Leh. The region is a gateway to Kashmir from Leh and is home to a few ancient monasteries, war memorials, melting glaciers, mountain passes, valleys, and picturesque landscapes. Just nearby, Drass is the second coldest inhabited place in the world after Siberia. Through Kargil, you can visit Zanskar valley via Suru valley, Rangdum and Penzi la. Kargil has 11,000 inhabitants and the majority of them are Shia Muslim with a unique set of dialects, traditional practices, cultural values that are quite different from the neighbouring district Leh. You should stop at Kargil town on your way to Leh, Zanskar or Srinagar.
A rock carving of 8m of the future Bodhisattva (Gyalwa Chamba) overlooks the main road at Mulbek. An interesting fact is that it was carved during the period of Kushan dynasty in the first century. A small temple underneath the statue has sacred relics and amazing wall paintings. Mulbek is just 50 km away from Kargil city and is the oldest village in Kargil district. It’s a Buddhist dominated village with a cordial and peaceful relationship with Muslim majority Kargil district.
Just ahead of 10 km from Mulbek, amidst Shargole village lies the Shargole cave monastery. The only cave monastery in Kargil district is located at the centre of a grenade pattern cliff. This monastery belongs to the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Unfortunately, the monastery remains closed most of the time; however, it is worth visiting.
Sham is one of the warmest regions of Ladakh and it offers various landscapes and cultures. Most importantly, it is well connected because the Srinagar-Leh NH1 route passes through the valley and there is no high-altitude pass on this road. Hence, Sham valley is accessible around the year.
The Sham region is the part of Ladakh which is at lower altitude. Indeed, all the villages in the west part of the Indus valley located between Leh (3,500m) and Lamayuru (3,370m) are all at an elevation below 3,500m above sea level, the Dha-Hanu valley is located at an average height of 2,700m and Kargil is at an altitude of 2,680m. Therefore, a tour in the Sham region is ideal at the beginning of your trip in Ladakh so that you can give time to your body to acclimate to the altitude before travelling to higher parts of Ladakh such as Pangong lake and Tso Moriri lake.
If you only travel along the Leh-Srinagar highway (Leh, Alchi, Lamayuru, Kargil), you do not need any special permit. However, if you plan to visit the Dha-Hanu valley and if you travel via Batalik, in this case you will need to obtain an Inner Line Permit from the administration in Leh before starting the tour.
As mentioned, due to its road connectivity, the phone service works pretty well through the Sham region, especially Airtel network. The internet service also works fine except for the remote and far-flung villages. Besides Airtel, BSLN phone service is available in almost every village.
There are various accommodation options in Sham. Almost every village in western Ladakh has homestays, a wonderful opportunity to experience village life, see how local people live and try local food. Popular villages for homestays are Alchi, Likir and Lamayuru but you can also find homestays in other smaller villages.
Those who would like to stay in camp can try Aryan Valley Camp in Dha-Hanu valley. In Nimmu village, near Sangam, Nimmu House is a luxury hotel in traditional ladakhi house; it has comfortable rooms and a gorgeous garden. In Kargil, several mid-range hotels can be found such as Hotel Kargil Heights.
In the morning, starting from Leh, visit the Magnetic Hill, Sangam, Basgo monastery and Alchi monastery. You can have lunch in one of the garden restaurants in Alchi village. After lunch, head back towards Leh and visit Likir monastery, Gurdwara Pathar Sahib and Spituk monastery.
Start driving early from Leh towards Lamayuru. In the morning, stop at the Magnetic Hill, Sangam and Alchi monastery. After a lunch break in the picturesque Lamayuru village and the visit of the monastery, drive back to Leh and visit Likir monastery and Gurdwara Pathar Sahib on the way.
Note: It is recommended to do this tour over 2 days so that you can spend one night at Lamayuru and you can visit more places in this beautiful part of Ladakh.
From Leh, follow the Indus river to the west and visit Phyang monastery, the Magnetic Hill, Sangam, Basgo monastery and Alchi monastery. Night in Lamayuru.
Visit the spectacular Lamayuru monastery in the morning. Then, visit Rizong monastery, Likir monastery and Gurdwara Pathar Sahib. Finally, stop at Spituk monastery just before reaching Leh.
Note: If you want to have more time to visit each site, you could do this tour over 3 days instead of 2. In 3 days, you would also have time to visit the Hall of Fame museum just outside Leh.
From Leh, drive west to the Magnetic Hill, Sangam and Alchi monastery where you could have lunch. In the afternoon, drive to Lamayuru to visit the monastery and the village. Then, drive to Kargil and stop Mulbek on the way to see the impressive rock carving. Night in Kargil.
After a morning walk in Kargil city centre, head to Shargole, Likir and Basgo monasteries. Then, stop at Gurdwara Pathar Sahib before going back to Leh.
Note: It is quite a long drive between Leh and Kargil and it could be worth doing this tour over 3 days so that you can stop and visit more places on the way.
To start this 3-day tour, drive to Phyang monastery which is located just located just 21 km west of Leh. Then, head to the Magnetic Hill and Sangam. You could stop for lunch in Nimmu village, near Sangam. Next, visit Basgo monastery and drive to Alchi village which is famous for its magnificent monastery complex. Night in Alchi or in another village in the area.
Drive to Lamayuru and visit the stunning monastery that overlooks the beautiful medieval village. Then, stop at Mulbek and Shargole monastery on the way to Kargil. Take a stroll in the town. Night in Kargil.
Head back towards Leh and stop at Rizong monastery and Likir monastery. Visit Gurdwara Pathar Sahib and Spituk monastery before reaching Leh.
In the morning, visit stop at the Magnetic Hill, Sangam and Basgo monastery. Take your lunch in Alchi and visit the famous monastery. In the afternoon, drive to Lamayuru monastery and then to the Dha-Hanu valley. Night in the Dha-Hanu valley.
Explore the Dha-Hanu valley in the morning. Then, drive back towards Leh and visit Likir monastery and Gurdwara Pathar Sahib.
Note: In 2 days, you will only have a small amount of time for each visit. Therefore, it is recommended to do this tour in 3 days or more so that you have more time to enjoy and you can also visit more places such as Rizong and Spituk monasteries.
In the morning, drive from Leh to Alchi via the Magnetic Hill and Sangam. Visit the spectacular Alchi monastery and take your lunch nearby. In the afternoon, head to the Dha-Hanu valley and meet the Brokpas. Drive to Kargil via Batalik. Night in Kargil.
Drive to Lamayuru monastery via Mulbek. Then, visit Likir monastery and Gurdwara Pathar Sahib on the way back to Leh.
Note: If you would like to have more time for the visits and if you would like to see more places, we recommend that you do this tour in 3 days.
From Leh, go to Alchi monastery via the Magnetic Hill, Sangam and Bago monastery. Then drive to the Dha-Hanu valley and discover the unique culture of the Brokpa people. Night in the Dha-Hanu valley.
Head to Kargil via Batalik and stroll around the town. Then, drive to Lamayuru via Shargole monastery and Mulbek rock carving. Visit the photogenic Lamayuru village and its gompa. Night in Lamayuru.
Visit Rizong monastery and Likir monastery. Stop at Gurdwara Pathar Sahib and Spituk monastery while going back to Leh.