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Passages through India
Himalaya Sojourn
Jewels of the East
Ladakh: Little Tibet
Land of the Mahajaras
Serenity of the South
Wonders of the West
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Ladakh: Little Tibet
Text by Sarina Singh    Photo by Steve McCurry
Photo: Likir Monastery, India
The view from Ladakh's Likir Monastery looks out over the Likir Valley .

Affectionately dubbed "Little Tibet" because of its geographical and cultural proximity to Tibet (it also is host to many Tibetan refugees), Buddhist-flavored, politically semi-autonomous Ladakh is India's most remote and least populated region. A land of soaring snow-topped peaks and plunging green valleys, this austerely beautiful region is like nowhere else in India. The stark mountain landscape, with its rocky ridges, dry plains, and glassy lakes, is peppered with colorful gompas (Buddhist monasteries), palaces, villages, and seasonal orchards.

Over the years Ladakh has emerged as prime trekking territory, offering travelers a blood-pumping array of scenic hikes. First-time visitors may want to make trekking arrangements with established international outfitters, such as Aquaterra Adventures
or Himalayan High Treks. Many Leh-based outfitters also offer guided tours and excursions. For a list of travel agencies in Leh, visit this website.
 
NOTE:
Because of its remoteness and challenging geography, Ladakh's electricity and telephone service can be spotty. Additionally, residents of the smaller towns and villages may not speak English or other Western languages. It is therefore advisable to try to plan most accommodations through your travel agent.

For general information about Ladakh and its home state of Jammu and Kashmir:
Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Department Official Website

Official Website of the Jammu and Kashmir Government


Leh

Likir

Alchi

Sumur (Numbra Valley)

Tso Moriri Lake

Padam (Zaskar)



Leh

The capital of Ladakh, traveler-friendly Leh is picturesquely enveloped by the snow-capped summits of the mighty Himalaya range. The town is dominated by its imposing 17th-century royal palace, which overlooks the town's labyrinth of winding lanes and colorful bazaars. It also is a popular jumping-off point for explorations of Ladakh's smaller towns, Buddhist monasteries, and trekking trails. 

How to Get There
Leh boasts one of the world's highest airports; the flight over the mountains is truly spectacular. Note that flights are prone to delays and cancellations when the weather turns inclement; it is wise to not pre-book onward tickets, in case your flight from Leh is suspended.

Leh is also reachable by bus or private taxi from late May to October, subject to weather conditions; check with local authorities for the latest conditions before setting off.

How to Get Around
Walking is the best way to see this small city (population around 10,000), although taxis are also available. Several outfitters rent bicycles; for information, ask your hotel. 

Attractions
Leh's nine-story palace is in a state of disrepair, despite ongoing bouts of reconstruction. Reflecting traditional Tibetan architectural styles, this 17th-century edifice was inhabited by Ladakh's royal family (which still owns it) until they transferred their residence to another palace, in the village of Stok, in the 1940s. The palace is visitable, but bring a flashlight and watch your step.

Leh also has some fine old gompas, including the Namgyal Tsemo and the Soma.

The lively annual Ladakh Festival (September 1-15) gives visitors a wonderful window into Ladakhi culture. Locals wear their traditional costumes and music fills the air. You can watch displays of archery, polo, Ladakhi dance, Buddhist ceremonies, and more. Ladakh has a multitude of other festivals; check guidebooks for details, or visit this website
.
 
Attractions Around Leh
The 16th-century Tikse monastery, some 12.5 miles (20 kilometers) southeast of Leh, is a striking work of architecture that spills down a hillside. Its top section houses a huge golden head of Buddha; colorful murals decorate the surrounding walls. The views from the monastery's rooftop terrace encompass miles of surrounding landscapes. Visitors can observe the monks at prayer at 7 a.m. daily, followed by the traditional blowing of enormous Tibetan horns.
 
The four-story Stok Palace, constructed in 1825, is the current residence of the Ladakhi royal family. Five of the palace's 80 or so rooms can be visited by the public, including the palace museum, which exhibits an intriguing collection of royal memorabilia, featuring some lovely old tankas (Tibetan cloth paintings).
 
Around nine miles (15 kilometers) southeast of Leh is the ancient capital of Ladakh, Shey. The crumbling royal palace lies in the shadow of an old fortress. Inside the palace is a large, gold-plated statue of Buddha. A number of chortens (stupas) sit in the area around Shey. 
 
The Spitok gompa, five miles (eight kilometers) from Leh, is a peaceful 15th-century monastery perched atop a hill near the Indus River (Spitok translates to "exemplary"). The monastery's imposing statues of Buddha are only open to the public during the Gu-Stor Festival, in January (for exact dates, contact the tourist office).
 
Doorway to the Numbra Valley, Khardung La (Pass) is, at more than 17,000 feet, among the highest motorable roads in the world. This high pass is the site of a military base (where permits are checked for those crossing into Numbra Valley) and a couple of simple tea shops. The pass is only open to one-way traffic: from Leh to Numbra in the morning, vice versa in the afternoon.
 
Places to Eat
Visitors have many choices for dining out in Leh, with restaurants offering a mishmash of cuisines, including some of the best Tibetan food in the country.
 
The very popular Tibetan Kitchen rewards hungry travelers with filling Tibetan fare, from delectable momos (stuffed dumplings) to soul-warming thukpa (noodle-based soup). Hotel Tso-Kar, Fort Road; tel. +91 (0)1980 253071.
 
An old favorite is the unpretentious Norlakh Restaurant, which serves tasty, inexpensive Tibetan dishes. These include momos and a range of fine noodle dishes. The restaurant has good views of the Soma gompa. Main Bazaar Road.
 
For tremendous Indian vegetarian food, try the Lamayuru Restaurant—the curry sauces are positively divine. To sample a selection of dishes, order the excellent thali (all-you-can-eat meal), which is a great value at under $1. Fort Road.
 
Places to Stay

A popular accommodation in Leh is the centrally located Padma Guest House & Hotel, which offers a mix of budget and mid-priced rooms. A new section has modern rooms with private bathrooms, while the atmospheric old building has large rooms sharing communal bathrooms. Rooms in both sections are clean and comfortable. Guests can chill out in the well-tended garden and dine at the vegetarian rooftop restaurant. Off Fort Road; tel. +91 (0)1982 252630; e-mail
padma22@sancharnet.in.
 
One of the most comfortable places to stay in around Leh is the 35-room Omasila Hotel, situated just out of town in Changspa (northwest of the center). Apart from its well-furnished rooms, this friendly place has a big terrace with magnificent mountain views. On site is a very good restaurant that uses fresh vegetables grown in the hotel's garden. Changspa; tel. +91 (0)1982 252119.
 
Also away from the town's busy center is the family-run Silver Cloud Guest House, in the tranquil area known as Sankar (just northeast of town). Surrounded by fields, the guest house features upper-middle-range rooms, which are cozy and well-maintained. Some rooms come with mountain views and private balconies. Near the Sankar gompa, Sankar; tel. +91 (0)1982 253128; e-mail
silvercloudpsd@hotmail.com or silvercloudstd@rediff.com.
 
It is also possible to stay in a Ladakhi home. For details, visit the Himalayan Homestays website
. Accommodations are available in selected villages; profits are split between the individual homeowners and community projects.
 
General Tips
It is advisable to take it easy for your first 24 to 48 hours in Leh in order to acclimate to the high altitude. You should also drink plenty of water and abstain from drinking alcohol. 
 
For More Information
Leh Tourist Office Main Bazaar Road; +91 (0)1982 253462.
Tourist Reception Center Around two miles (three kilometers) south of the town center on Airport Road; tel. +91 (0)1982 252094 or +91 (0)1982 252297.
Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Department

Reach Ladakh
 
 
 

Likir

A popular trek in Ladakh runs from the village of Temisgam to the village of Likir. This three-day ramble takes you through the bleakly beautiful terrain that characterizes much of Ladakh. As a counterpoint to the generally rocky landscape, trekkers also pass through valley villages with green fields, willow groves, and apricot orchards.
 
How to Get There

Most travelers arrive by jeep or taxis organized by trek outfitters. Buses are a colorful local option.
 
How to Get Around
By foot.
 
Attractions
The village of Likir dates to the 11th century; some of the modest homes are 200 years old. About two miles (three kilometers) from the village of Likir is the beautiful Klu-kkhyil gompa, founded by Tibetan monks in the 11th century; its current incarnation is a renovation dating to the 18th century. Attractions include a 75-foot-high (23-meter-high) statue of Buddha and a little museum with religious relics, some centuries old.
 
Places to Stay & Eat

Accommodations are very limited around Likir. Places to stay are also the best places to eat.
 
The quiet Gaph-Chow Guest House has plain, clean rooms with either shared or private bathrooms. Also available: a few (cheaper) tents. Guests are permitted to pitch their own tents on the grounds for a small fee. Likir village; tel. +91 (0)1982 227151. 
 
Another worthy option is the Norboo Spoon Guest House, offering simple, inexpensive rooms and a rooftop restaurant. Tents can be pitched in the garden for a minimal charge. Near the Klu-kkhyil gompa; no phone.
 
For More Information
Leh Tourist Office Main Bazaar Road, Leh; +91 (0)1982 253462.
Tourist Reception Center, Leh Around two miles (three kilometers) south of the town center on Airport Road; tel. +91 (0)1982 252094 or +91 (0)1982 252297.
 
 
 
 
Alchi

Around 40 miles (70 kilometers) west of Leh, south of the Indus River, is the little village of Alchi. The majority of travelers to Ladakh make just a fleeting stop here, but it's worth spending a night or two in Alchi to get a feel for Ladakhi village life. Apart from its blissful tranquillity, Alchi has some of the subcontinent's most impressive collections of Indo-Tibetan artwork.
 
How To Get There
Most travelers arrive in hired jeeps, but Alchi is also accessible by bus from Leh. 

How To Get Around
You can easily get around by foot. Those who have come in their own hired vehicle should take a driving tour beyond the village.
 
Attractions
Founded in the 11th century, the Alchi monastery complex contains the temples of Sumtsek and Dukhang, which house some of the most exquisite Indo-Tibetan art in India.
 
Places to Stay & Eat
Alchi has a handful of places to stay; they are also the best places to dine.
 
The most upmarket option is the Alchi Resort, which offers accommodations in huts, each with two rooms and a private bathroom (with hot water). Rates are in the upper mid-range. Alchi village; tel. +91 (0)1982 252234.
 
The mid-priced Samdupling Guest House is another popular choice, with tidy rooms that come with attached bathrooms (with hot water). Alchi village; tel. +91 (0)1982 227104.
 
Travelers on a tight budget like the down-to-earth Choskor Guest House, which offers basic guest rooms. Also offered: even more budget-style dormitory accommodations. Alchi village; tel. +91 (0)1982 227084 (very basic English).
 
For More Information
Leh Tourist Office Main Bazaar Road, Leh.; +91 (0)1982 253462.
Tourist Reception Center, Leh Around two miles (three kilometers) south of the town center on Airport Road; tel. +91 (0)1982 252094 or +91 (0)1982 252297.
 
 
 
 
Sumur (Numbra Valley)

This small, scenic village is in the remote Numbra Valley, a rugged area north of Leh that is fed by the Shyok and Numbra Rivers. Several temples and little villages dot the valley.
 
How to Get There
The most convenient way is to hire a private vehicle from Leh; you'll have transport at your disposal once you reach Sumur.
 
How to Get Around
By foot around the village; a vehicle to explore the environs.
 
Attractions
Near Sumur village is the 19th-century Samstemling gompa, which contains seven temples, sections of which are open to the public. Here you can see an assortment of magnificent tankas (Tibetan cloth paintings) and well-preserved murals. It is also possible to watch the monks at morning and evening prayers.
 
Places to Stay & Eat
There are only a few good places to stay in Sumur—and these also offer the best dining options. Most lodgings are fairly simple and provide hot water by the bucket (sometimes at a small charge).
 
The cheerful Namgyol Guest House, part of a functioning farmhouse, offers low-priced rooms with communal bathroom facilities. Wholesome meals are prepared on the premises. Sumur village.
 
The somewhat nondescript Galaxy Guest House, a sound budget choice, has neat and spacious rooms with shared bathroom facilities. Sumur village.
 
The most upmarket place to stay in the area is the mid-priced Hotel Yarabtso, which is a few kilometers south of Sumur in the village of Tegar. It has comfortable, if somewhat lackluster, rooms with private bathrooms. Tegar village.
 
For More Information
Leh Tourist Office Main Bazaar Road, Leh.; +91 (0)1982 253462.
Tourist Reception Center, Leh Around two miles (three kilometers) south of the town center on Airport Road; tel. +91 (0)1982 252094, +91 (0)1982 252297.
 
 
 
 
Tso Moriri Lake

Picturesquely situated in secluded, breathtakingly beautiful Rupshu Valley, the high-altitude Tso Moriri Lake is fewer than 155 miles (250 kilometers) southeast of Leh. Travelers can only visit with a permit. Most visit the lake with an organized tour from Leh, which usually includes camping equipment and a cook.
 
How to Get There
The best way to reach Tso Moriri Lake without an organized tour is by hiring a private jeep from Leh. During the summer there is occasional bus service from Leh.
 
How to Get Around
By foot.
 
Attractions
The saltwater Tso Moriri Lake, which is about 13,000 feet  (4,000 meters) above sea level, is approximately 18 miles (29 kilometers) long and up to five miles (eight kilometers) wide. Flanked by lofty mountains, this serene lake and the area around it attract a range of wildlife, including migratory birds, marmots, wild asses, and (rarely spotted) Tibetan wolves. Nomadic herders of goats, yaks, and cows live in the lake's vicinity.
 
Places to Stay and Eat
None around the lake itself. However, tents can be pitched in certain areas; you'll need to bring your own food provisions.
 
The only settlement in the general area, at Korzok, has one accommodation option: the rustic Nomadic Life Camp, which offers comfortable accommodations in tents. You can pitch your own or opt for one of the tents that are already set up here in the summer; these cost around $20 (the charge for pitching your own tent is less than $2). Meals are available in the tented dining hall. Korzok.   
 
General Tips
The area around Tso Moriri Lake has suffered environmental degradation due to increasing tourism. To help save the delicate ecosystem, always choose a tour operator that is environmentally conscious (removes all trash, sticks to designated trails) and makes the most minimal impact when visiting.
 
For More Information
Leh Tourist Office Main Bazaar Road, Leh.; +91 (0)1982 253462.
Tourist Reception Center, Leh Around two miles (three kilometers) south of the town center on Airport Road; tel. +91 (0)1982 252094 or +91 (0)1982 252297.
 
 
 
 
Padam (Zaskar)

The very remote region of Zaskar lies southwest of Leh and encompasses a cluster of mountain-ringed valleys. Its main settlement is the sparsely populated village of Padam, a summertime stop for trekkers thanks to its proximity to trek routes in the region. In the thick of winter, temperatures make visiting prohibitive.
 
How to Get There
The Zaskar area is accessible in summer by bus from Kargil, or with privately hired vehicles. The road trip from Leh to Padam takes two days. Due to its long winters (seven to eight months), Zaskar cannot be visited October-April other than by joining a weeklong trek along the frozen Zaskar River.
 
How to Get Around
The best way is with an organized group. Taxis can be hired from the Padam Taxi Union office, in Padam, but they can be costly.
 
Attractions
Padam, the region's administrative headquarters, is a rather unexciting place—though it is surrounded by brilliant mountain scenery. The only real attraction (apart from being a starting point for treks to outlying areas) is the little Tagrimo gompa, just outside of Padam.
 
Places to Stay & Eat
Padam has a small range of accommodations; expect functional rather than fancy. Most lodgings provide meals. Apart from the hotels, Padam has a sprinkling of simple eateries.

The
Hotel Ibex has good-value (upper-budget-priced) rooms that overlook a central courtyard. On site is a commendable restaurant. Next door is the Dharamsala Café, which offers inexpensive, tasty Tibetan fare.

Another good-value option is the budget-priced J&KTDC Tourist Bungalow, which offers reasonably well-kept rooms. The tourist office is located on the premises.
 
For More Information
Tourist Reception Center, Padam J&KTDC Tourist Bungalow, Padam; tel. +91 (0)1983 245017 or +91 (0)481 2562558.
Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Department 

Official Website of the Jammu and Kashmir Government


 


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