Getting into Ladakh wasn't easy; mighty snowed-in passes, unforgiving rivers, landslides and long distances made it difficult to foray into the valleys. It has become a lot simpler since the opening up of the Leh Airport for civilian aircrafts. But the feeling of making your way into Ladakh through its treacherous yet rewarding roads is unparalleled. The changing landscape after every few kilometres never lets you doze off and fills you with awe. Starting from Manali, entering Ladakh and ending at Srinagar is one of the most splendid road journeys you can make in India. Spend night in comfortable tents under the stars as you make your way into Leh. Witness the ancient monasteries perched on solitary hills, the blue shades of Pangong, the high pass of Khardung-La, the sand dunes of Hunder in Nubra valley and the hot springs of Panamik. Rafting in the Zanskar fulfils your thirst for adventure in this pristine place. un[travel] Ladakh the way it's meant to be.
Arrive in Manali
Rest and prepare for an early start the next day
Check in at India's favourite hill station, a welcome relief after the overnight journey from Delhi and slow-moving uphill traffic. Head out to Manali's renowned markets, temples and cafes for the rest of the day as you get used to being up in the mountains. Explore old Manali later in the evening for some old-world charm away from the madding crowds of town. You could spend your day visiting Hidimba, Manu temple or Vashisht for those amazing natural hot springs. A quick stop over at a fascinating caf? would be the perfect way to begin your first day away from the chaos and stress of everyday life. Call it a night early enough for a good rest before you head out on the highway to explore more of un[travel]ed Himachal.
Manali to Jispa, via Rohtang Pass
Get your motor running, head out on the highway. Looking for adventure, or whatever comes your way - take the Manali-Leh highway after breakfast towards Jispa. Past mountain slopes covered with grass interspersed with tiny purple, pink and yellow flowers, spectacular scenery goes the distance here in summer. Fairly narrow ascents make for a slow scenic drive as you stop for a quick lunch at Keylong. Approach Jispa in the evening for a memorable night in tents, under the stars, after a much-needed hot dinner.
Jispa to Leh
Open your eyes to gigantic barren mountains stretching across the horizon set against clear blue skies. Get back on the road to Leh past the spectacular stretches of Gata Loops and Moore Plains. These 21 Gata Loops are, what the rest of the world knows as hairpin bends, on roads up the mountains to Nakila pass. Flat dusty stretches of the Moore plains make a welcome break from those stomach-churning winding roads. Watch as the turquoise Indus river appears in the horizon with Ladakh's picture-postcard views of quaint homes next to small-cultivated farms and gardens against barren mountains and clear blue skies.
Once you reach Leh, check into the hotel and get a good night's rest post dinner. These rugged barren mountains, at phenomenal heights, require enough time for you to get acclimatised to gear up for the next day.
Tour of Shey palace, Thiksey and Hemis monastery, and Rancho school
Begin your day out in Leh with a quick breakfast before the 15-kilometre drive to Ladakh’s summer capital, Shey. A mere kilometre northeast is the now-famous Druk White Lotus School also known as the Rancho School. Renowned across India thanks to the Bollywood blockbuster 'Three Idiots'.
Drive on to Thiksey monastery, about 4 kilometres away. Now one of Leh’s largest monasteries, there is a separate residential building for females as well. With fascinating wall paintings throughout the 12-storey complex, stupas, thangka paintings, statues and numerous artefacts make for a very interesting visit. Hemis Monastery, unlike most of Ladakh’s other monasteries, isn't visible from afar. Built on a green hill, hemmed between lofty mountains, Hemis is literally India’s Shangri-La. Although founded in 1672, Hemis monastery is said to have existed before the 11th century.
Leh Palace and Shanti Stupa in the evening
The epitome of peace and harmony, Shanti Stupa's white dome stands tall on a raised pedestal against brilliant blue skies. Built by Japanese and Indian monks,this has been blessed by the present Dalai Lama.
Leh Palace is apparently modelled on Potala Palace in Tibet's Lhasa. With picturesque views of Stok Kangri peak ahead, look out of the windows for unhindered views of the Indus river and the mighty Zanskar range beyond it. Ensure you hit the sack early after dinner, ready for another day in the mountains.
Leh to Nubra Valley, via Khardungla Pass
A quick morning breakfast later, begin the scenic drive to Nubra valley via Khardung La to the sand dunes of Hunder. Narrowly missing being teh world’s highest motorable pass, by a couple of hundred feet, Khardung-La at 5300 metres above msl (modern data puts it at 5359) is one of Ladakh’s best non secrets. A couple of lovely photographs later, descend to Nubra Valley.
The drive does get relatively more comfortable after North Pullu wif better roads as the valley opens up. Make your way towards the spectacular Diskit Monastery, crossing the quaint Khardung village.
Once you check-in your camp in Hundar village, move on about 7 kilometres to the sand dunes of Hundar. The interesting two-humped Bactrian camels here are ready for rides across teh sand dunes. Impressive views of grey dunes, the glacial river and rugged snow-capped mountain peaks set Hunder in a league of its own here in Ladakh. Hundar, apart from housing the mandatory gompa with ruins of a once majestic King's 'elephant' palace, is a charming little village with several shrines higher up. Spend the night here in this surreal valley, staring at starry nights in cloudless climes.
Nubra valley to Pangong Tso Lake, via Shyok
After an easy morning, head towards your next destination, Pangong Tso. You can also spend some more time at the sand dunes of Deskit monastery before getting on the road to the Lake. The road to Pangong goes along the River Shyok, and connects to the Pangong basin via Shyok village.
You can stop at Agham village to see the prehistoric petroglyphs.
Drawing huge crowds annually, Pangong Tso is best known for being a part of the last scene Bollywood's blockbuster "Three Idiots". This unbelievably lovely 604-km2 lake is partly in India and China as well. The most fascinating thing here, other than the lake being high up at 4305 metres above msl, is ever-changing water with different shades of blue, as the day gets older. Crystal clear lake water will actually have you counting the pebbles underneath. Head over to Spangmik village as the sun slowly goes down and the chill sets in. A warm bed, beside the lake is all ready for you as you step out for a short ramble post dinner. Floyd's diamonds have never seemed closer as the stars shine on in the clear night sky.
Drive back to Leh
Spend some time by the lake in the morning, as transparent waters turn blue with the sunrise. A hearty breakfast later, begin the long drive back to Leh.
Stop for lunch at Karu on your way back to Leh. Stunning views of hillocks and the mountains beyond with the contrast of rare green and barren lands against spotless blue skies make most of the drive on rugged terrain from Hemis to Thiskey.
Head back to your hotel or visit the local markets once you're back in Leh. Hot dinner awaits at the hotel after your long day in the mountains.
Rafting on River Zanskar
Essentially cut off from the rest of the world in winter (thanks largely to unreliable road access because of the weather), Zanskar is a huge must-visit if you’re here in summer. Rafting, anywhere in the world, is a super adrenaline-charged activity that nobody can get enough of. Rafting on the mighty Zanskar, however, takes this to a whole new level. Drive westward from Leh, early in the morning post breakfast. Stop by at Sangam (confluence) where the Zanskar meets the Indus, turning the beautiful turquoise blue Indus into a muddy brown amalgamation. Follow the Zanskar for a good 14 kilometres to the banks where our instructor and raft await. A brief introduction to rafting and safety guidelines later, move on to the finer details with real time demonstrations on using the oars to move as well as manoeuvre the raft.
Essentials, mobiles and cameras are tucked into waterproof bags, lifejackets strapped on, and you’re ready to roll. Deep gorges that the Zanskar leads you through remind you of boat rides through Middle Earth with tall walls of water-cut mountains standing strong and sturdy on either side. Careful while you steer through Grade 3 rapids that leave you with more than a simple sense of adventure. Hilltop monasteries, rising as a part of the mountain, snow peaks, quaint villages and their stepped greens make for spectacularly distracting views as you hold on to the raft to keep from falling off.
Get back to Sangam a good hour and a half later, probably drenched, but glad for the bright sun and café ideally located nearby. A satisfying lunch and hot beverage later, drive back to Leh.
Walk through Leh’s markets or just spend some time in leisure gazing at the mighty mountains and panoramic views.
Leh to Kargil via Shaam valley, Lamayuru and Mulbekh
Stop for an inspirational visit to the Hall of Fame just outside Leh. Constructed in memory of Indian soldiers who have lost their lives in India-Pakistan wars, the memorial contains information on the wars fought, the soldiers and their sacrifices, and some artillery used in the Kargil war.
A drive of nearly 48 kilometres from Leh town would take you to the point where the rivers Indus and Zanskar meet. Just before Sangam, get up close and personal with the super-charged famed magnetic hill. Watch your eyes deceive you as a car climbs up without any thrust on seemingly uphill tarmac.
A few of kilometres more, and gently fluttering prayer flags and smiling children mark the entrance to Lamayuru. Formations that resemble the moon surface start appearing as soon as you get close to Lamayuru with its 11th century monastery. Walk up a little to 'meditation hill' for some spectacular views of the lay of the land and its rock formations.
Made world famous mainly because of the 1990s India-Pakistan war, Kargil's inhabitants now have rather sad stories of how things have changed since. Ladakh's second largest town, it doesn't disappoint as far as spectacular scenery and friendly locals, but there still is an overlying layer of general sobriety in the air with the country's border just around the corner.
Check in at your hotel after a visit to the sandstone wall with names of all Indian army personnel who laid down their lives in the Kargil war.
Kargil to Srinagar, via Zojila pass
After an early breakfast, head over to Srinagar via the Zoji La pass. The road takes you through stunning vistas.
Just before reaching Drass, you pay a visit to the Dras War Memorial that commemorates the martyrs of the Kargil War. The sandstone wall has all the names of the martyrs inscribed on it. Step in to the souvenir shop for a little memorabilia to remember the bravehearts. Dras is a small hamlet and is known as the 'Gateway to Ladakh'. It is also known to be the second coldest inhabited place in the world and the coldest inhabited place in India. Average winter temperature hangs around minus 22C. Further along the road is the Zoji La.
The Zoji La sits mighty atop 3,528 metres above msl. When captured by Pakistan in 1947, the Indian Army had deployed tanks to win it back. It was the first instance of deploying tanks at a high mountain pass. You reach Srinagar in the evening to the glittering Dal Lake. The lights from the houseboats on the water surface makes for a pretty picture. Head to your hotel for a sumptuous dinner and a comfortable bed after a long day.
Airport drop; Fly-out of Srinagar
Expect much heavier bags, and probably no space left for pictures on your camera's memory card, as you get your baggage tagged for your flight home. Picturesque views and memories of these unique mountains will keep you on a happy high for a long time yet.