Over high passes, lies some of Ladakh's most beautiful valleys, which along with the region around Leh make for some stunning views. How much time, you ask? Well, grab a week and we show you some of the best of what Ladakh has to offer. 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. Distances are incredible, but under the blue skies and through sweeping valleys, you keep yearning for more. un[travel] the glorious valleys of Ladakh in just a week's time.
Arrive in Leh; Short tour of - Leh Palace, Shanti Stupa and market
The thing about getting to these splendid barren mountains in Leh is that, even if you're raring to head over to Nubra Valley, you absolutely need to rest and get acclimatised first. Refreshed and ready to explore, we take you around to offer you the best of Leh in half a day. Drive through Ladakh's majestic mountains, after lunch (either at the hotel or at the market), down to Shanti Stupa. The epitome of peace and harmony, Shanti Stupa's white dome stands tall on a raised pedestal against brilliant blue skies. At 3,609 metres above sea level, the stupa offers unparalleled panoramic views of Leh town. Usually a lovely green in summer, the trees here turn leafless and brown in winter.
Head back to the 17th century Leh Palace with the aura of erstwhile royalty that surrounds it. The Archaeological Survey of India is now slowly restoring this 9-storied palace, and work is still in progress today. Modelled on Potala Palace in Tibet's Lhasa, Leh Palace offers unhindered views of the Indus river, Stok Kangri peak and the mighty Zanskar range beyond it. Move on to the bustling Leh market area, like most Tibetan markets across the country, but with clearly a lot more authenticity. From Pashmina shawls and winter wear to handcrafted prayer wheels and unique turquoise jewellery, prepare to spend a fortune. When you're done, head back to the hotel, with heavier bags perhaps, but considerably lighter wallets. Ensure you hit the sack early after dinner. These rugged barren mountains, at phenomenal heights, require enough time for you to get used to them before you begin exploring the next day.
Shey Palace and Rancho School
Begin your day out in Leh with a quick breakfast before the 15-kilometre drive to Ladakh’s summer capital, Shey. Perched on a hillock, from afar, Shey Palace and the Shey Monastery, seem impervious to time that has passed since 1655. The monastery is another story altogether, still maintained with the same vigour as it was before the Dogras invaded in 1842. With the second largest statute of Buddha in the Ladakh region, the monastery’s main attraction is this 12-metre tall statue of Shakyamuni Buddha that occupies three floors. 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'.
Hemis and Thiksey monastery
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. The scenic last leg of the day’s visits takes you through the valley’s rugged terrain over 25 kilometres from Thiksey to Hemis. With stunning views of hillocks and the mountains beyond, the contrast of rare green and stark barren lands against spotless blue skies are worth a million pictures. 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.
Shaam valley tour - Hall of Fame, Magnetic Hill, Gurudwara, Sangam Point
Clearly not as chaotic as Allahabad's Sangam, the confluence of rivers here in Ladakh is a big draw for its serenity set in stunning landscape. 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. Muddy waters of the Zanskar merge with the turquoise blue of the Indus to flow westwards. The Indus' turquoise shade disappears as it assumes the brown-tinged colour of the Zanskar here.
Head back to Leh with a pit stop at the revered Gurdwara Patthar Sahib. The large boulder and at one end of the gurdwara has a seemingly hollow impression of a person. Sikhs believe this to be Guru Nanak's impression. Legend has it that a demon who terrorized the area, pushed a boulder onto Guru Nanak who had come to help. This large stone then ended up with a dent while the Guru remained unscathed. Discovered in the 1970's while building a road, the boulder has now been placed in the gurdwara maintained by the Indian Army.
Moving on,15 kilometres away, is the earthy Spituk Gompa Monastery. This lovely 11th century monastery overlooks Leh airport's airstrip on one side and the gorgeous Indus on the other. Home to about 100 monks, ancient masks, beautiful thangka paintings, miniature chortens and idols adorn the halls here. A little higher up is the Mahakal Temple with its veiled Vajrabhairava deity; witness its unveiling if you do visit in January for the festival here.
End this fascinating day with an inspirational visit to the Hall of Fame. Constructed in memory of Indian soldiers who have lost their lives in IndiaPakistan wars, the memorial contains information on the wars fought, the soldiers and their sacrifices, and some artillery used in the Kargil war.
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.
Airport drop; Fly-out of Leh
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.