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If you are looking for information on trekking Ladakh, stop right here! You won’t find any. The day we arrived we decided against it - too hot, no shade, too expensive... Given these conditions, our already meager motivation made a trek never happen.
Our three-week trip in July & August 2013 started in Amritsar / Punjab where we explored the amazing Golden Temple. An equal amount of time - three days - we spent in Srinagar. It’s the lake and the breathtaking scenario surrounding it you come for. Of course we stayed on a houseboat.
The trip Delhi - Amritsar, Amritsar - Srinagar we covered by plane. The last leg, Srinagar to Leh, we travelled by car. Leh, the capital of Ladakh, we used as a hub for travelling to the Nubra Valley & Baltistan, the lakes of Tso Moriri & Tso Kar and the monasteries of Lamayuru, Likir, Alchi, Hemis and Thiksey. Be aware that visiting too many monasteries in a row can get you easily overdosed - It would be a shame to lose interest in these magnificent places of ancient Ladakhi culture.
Do not be mistaken! Ladakh is no longer a well-kept secret. Leh is a congested and noisy mess, in the summer months anyway. First of all, the season is very short so most tourists arrive within two months. Besides, there is no way of avoiding this city for organizing trips, permits and finding travel companions. Unless you have an agency arrange everything way ahead (which is definitely not necessary)...
So why is Ladakh so attractive for tourists? A mélange of mystic, ancient monasteries, breathtaking landscapes, remote and still partly untouched villages like Bodgang in Baltistan. The main outdoor attraction is trekking, anything from 1 to 23 day (treks), but also rafting on the Zanskar River. Ladakh has also become increasing popular for motor-bikers, usually small groups - some very inexperienced. Climbing a windy mountain road up to 5.600 meters is the adrenaline push that so many men (we only saw male bikers) long for. We passed quite a few women on bicycles, though. And there are highlights for the “been there, done that crowd”, like passing the highest motorable road on earth, at 5.602 meters.
Also times are changing and many middle class Indian families (they are by far the vast majority of tourists) can afford a holiday in the Himalaya. For them, the many foreign tourists are an additional attraction: they love to have their photo taking with them.
How easy is it to travel?
Ladakh is very easy to travel, when it comes to touristic infrastructure. Roads are improving fast and are now mostly in good to excellent conditions, especially considering you are driving on top of the world and often what seems the end of the world. Leh has every kind of accommodation you could dream of, from 5* deluxe hotels to places for a couple to Euros. About 100 travel agencies are competing for your business. Even remote places like Turtuk have acceptable guesthouses. Food can get very, very monotonous in rural area, though.
Travelling? Of course renting a jeep is the most convenient way, which we did, but always shared with a couple of fellow travellers (travel agencies are helpful in arranging this). Do not rule out public transport altogether. It is doable, but very time consuming.
What’s not sooo easy to deal with is the altitude, at least not for everybody. Knowing this we slowly worked our way up through Punjab and Kashmir and when we arrived in Leh, we felt like so great and full of energy that on our second day we set off on a motor-bike exploring nearby monasteries. Well, the result of this foolishness was that Gilles spent the next afternoon in the hospital. True, the hospital visit itself was an experience! Heidi on the other hand could not sleep, lost all her appetite (yeah!) and had a light, but permanent headache. Our advice, even if you are itchy to check out the place: do nothing but walk around, read, drink lots of water and check out a few travel agencies for the first couple of days.
Trekking or not trekking, that is (in our opinion) not the question…
For many visitors, Ladakh is synonymous with trekking. We did not trek a single day! Initially we had intended to do a short 2-3 day trek, but once we there, we could not really understand why anybody would do so in July and August. In this altitude desert, without any vegetation, no shade protects you from the scorching sun. Temperatures are high during the day (up to 35 degrees Celsius) and nights can be freezing, at least in higher places. This sounds negative? Many people we met loved the trekking. But for us walking a small hill meant puffing and huffing, so climbing up a pass at 5.000+ meters was beyond our imagination…
Who has not dreamt of riding a Royal Enfield on the highest road in the world? Lots of people do, and so you see plenty of bikers, mostly in small groups, winding their way up and down these mountains. And believe it or not, a lot of them are beginners… The challenge of riding a windy, maybe gravel mountain road is one thing, but at 5.600 meters, it is a completely different story: the altitude can play all kinds of tricks on you!
Three ways to reach Ladakh - Which one to choose?
• Fly directly into Leh. Book your flights months ahead! And be prepared to gasp for air: this takes you straight to 3.500 meters, with all the side effects...
• Travel overland via Srinagar - this is, in our opinion, by far the best option. Many tourists are scared off given the troubled political history of Kashmir and the on and off unrests. We happened to arrive when Kashmir was again in the media because of clashes between Indian police and protestors. Once there, we did not notice anything. The locals often learn from the tourists that there was some unrest in a village. The houseboats out on Lake Dal are a unique experience not to be missed. The road Srinagar - Leh is in very good shape, much better than the one coming from Manali, we were told.
• Travel through Manali - we did not - but of what we heard from other travelers, a very long, strenuous 3 to 4 day journey from Delhi. Most people get sick on the trip from Manali to Leh, because many drivers insist on making a stop at the now famous “Vomit Hilton” at 4.600 meters…
• Crossing Khardung La, a pass at 5.602 meters on the way to the Nubra Valley. Not only is this the highest motorable road in the world, but the landscape going up to the pass and especially down into the Nubra Valley is truly spectacular.
• Travelling to Tso Kar and then to Tso Moriri - the spectacular rock formation in the Puga Valley, getting a glimpse of the lives of nomads, Tso Moriri’s stunning landscape - all unforgettable. We recommend starting with Tso Kar and then continue to Tso Moriri!
• A night in Lamayuru at the Lion’s Den Guesthouse. From our room we watched the sun set over the “Moonland” and on Lamayuru Monastery. The evening we spent with the whole family in the large living room / kitchen.
• Discovering the village of Bodgang on the way to Turtuk - the local Balti people were thrilled to meet us who climbed up the hill to find this truly untouched environment. Being invited to the Middle School topped it off. We truly hope the school got the photos we sent.
• Crisscrossing Lake Dal in Srinagar / Kashmir on a Shikara (small rowing boat) and visiting the floating vegetable market at 05:00 am.
• Last but not least - Amritsar, which actually was our first stop before heading to Srinagar - The Golden Temple is one of the most stunning places on this globe and definitely the most spiritual holy place we have experienced in India. And the Sikhs are such friendly people! The other must-see is the flag ceremony at the nearby he Wagah Border with Pakistan.
What will always be remembered?
• Having horrid memories of cold nights on the Andean Altiplano, we expected similar sufferings. But what we remember most about Ladakh’s climate was the incredible heat during the day, with temperatures climbing up to 35 degrees Celsius / 95 degrees Fahrenheit. A scorching sun without any shade in a high altitude desert without any vegetation. True, nights in Tso Kar & Tso Moriri were cold, not a surprise at 4.500 meters…
• Patches of green in the otherwise bare valleys struck us. It was apricot season - street vendors sell these small, juice apricots for less than one Euro per kilo. What a change to our dal, rice and chapatti diet!
• The center of Leh - a noisy congested mess during July & August. We don’t know how it looks like the rest of the year but what we remember are hundreds of souvenir shops, more than hundred travel agencies and restaurants offering all kinds of food. Once we turned off the main drag, life is very different, real, with tailors, bakeries and small groceries.
• Restaurants in Leh specialize in Korean - Israeli - Russian - Italian - Chinese - Indian - Tibetan - Continental food… All in one place, no kidding! But don’t worry, it all tastes like Indian food…
• Road constructions are omnipresent in Ladakh, with people from the province of Bihar slaving away under terrible conditions, buildings roads, often with their bare hands for three Euro a day, living in tents engulfed in dust at 4.500 meters.
• Dal, Rice and Chapatti / Chapatti, Dal and Rice / Rice, Dal & Chapatti. Once outside the main tourist drags, this is all you get. Oh, let’s not forget Maggie instant noddle soup…
What we would do differently?
• Take it easy on the first few days in Leh: sit, relax, have a cup of tea, read a book. Do nothing! This is serious…
• Stop in Lamayuru when arriving from Srinagar, instead of driving all the way to Leh. It makes it a shorter trip and above all you don’t have to travel back to Lamayuru from Leh if you want to explore the area more in depth. There are frequent public busses from Lamayuru to Leh.
• If we had been really experienced motorbiker, we would have loved to discover Ladakh on a Royal Enfield. The challenge, as we experienced it, was the less the windy roads but the altitude!
As a conclusion?
Ladakh is no longer off the beaten tracks: it is popular both with Indian and international tourists. The center of Leh is an extremely busy tourist hub during the summer month. But once outside the capital, you will enjoy amazing Buddhist monasteries and breathtaking landscapes. You will meet very friendly and hospitable Ladakhi people in a still rather untouched environment and nobody leaves without passing the highest motorable road on earth at 5.602 meters…
For trekkers, we would strongly recommend avoiding the hot summer months, with temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius / 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and not a single place to hide from the scorching sun in this high altitude desert!
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