Ladakh isn't a series of paintings hung up on a wall to be adored and taken snapshots of. Ladakh has to be felt, has to be experienced beyond sightseeing and the sound of the shutter of cameras. Get drenched in its waters, walk through the shores of its lakes, hike to its remote villages, cycle down from its highest passes and witness true spirituality at the morning prayers of its revered monasteries. un[travel] through the soul of Ladakh and make it a part of your being.
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.
Morning prayer at Thiksey monastery (6am-8am)
In the land of the Lamas, there's nothing more serene than beginning your day watching them in prayer. Gentle chanting and chiming bells as incense smoke slowly rises makes the early wakeup call seem a lifetime ago. Drive over to Thiksey monastery at the crack of dawn to Ladakh’s largest monastery. Serenity like none other greets you at the main prayer hall, lit with hundreds of oil lamps as monks sit around in intoning prayer. Low drumbeats and horn blows mingle with hymns adding to the atmosphere of reverence.
Village walk with local lunch at Stok village, and day Hike in Stok gorge
Drive down to Stok Palace and monastery after breakfast at your hotel. This monastery, founded in the 14th century, and palace have been well maintained through the years. Stok Palace, with beautifully interlaced courtyards, carved windows and painted balconies makes for an interesting visit. Head down to the village of Stok after a visit here towards the splendid gorge. Visit a local home here where the man of the house leads you through the village, its history and traditions. Walk past seasonal green fields and local produce before heading back to his home for hot butter tea. Join the family, if you would like, as they cook up a traditional Ladakhi lunch. Sit down together for a sumptuous meal. Enter as a guest, and leave like a member of the family.
Head down to the village of Stok after a visit here towards the splendid gorge. Stok Kangri peak is now clearly visible, and hiking down the path here would take you to the base of the peak. Tall mountain walls flank the wide gorge as you hike in deeper out to the towering peaks afar. Stony gravel pathway makes it a fairly easy walk, giving you time to look up and enjoy the views around. Stop for pictures here, surrounded by mountain walls. Hike a little further and then return to the base for the drive back to Leh.
Mountain biking - Khardungla top to Leh downhill
Descending from one of the highest motorable passes in the world, on a mountain bicycle is a trip like none other. Beautiful landscape with wide valleys and towering mountains makes for a lovely, distracting ride downhill from Khardung La.
Narrowly missing being the 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 known secrets. The main gateway to Nubra Valley and Siachen glacier, paved roads for the first 24 kilometres from Leh town to South Pullu checkpoint become gravel and dirt tracks for the last 15. Plenty of water before the trip could go a long way as you reach dizzying heights from 3500 metres to over 5300 metres in just a couple of hours. Crisp, cold air greets you step out on the roof of the world. Walk around for majestic views of valleys around Ladakh if you’re lucky enough to be visiting on a clear day. Stay no longer than 20 minutes, however, as acute mountain sickness (AMS) could kick in thanks to the altitude.
Also called K-Top, put your gloves on, strap on that helmet and you’re ready to set off for a thrilling ride downhill. You could also begin this ride from South Pullu checkpoint, from where the road is paved and smoother all the way upto Leh. Almost effortless pedalling on winding roads leaves you with enough energy to have a good look around as well. Zip by mountain walls and loops to reach the valley below where smooth tarmac lets you dart past. Our support van will always be in pursuit, in case you need any assistance.
These 40 kilometres, thrilling ride ends at Leh.
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. 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.
Camping under the stars
Just a couple of kilometres south-west of Leh, besides the spectacular green floodplains of Indus, the quaint village of Phey lies en route to Kargil. Narrow streets past stark white houses (with maroon windows) are filled with little children skipping along their way to the village school. Our local guide will tell you more about culture and traditions as well as legends that surround Phey. Hike back to the campsite for lunch before heading back to interact with the locals. Dinner under starlit skies in cloudless climes, sit around a small fire before you fall into a deep dreamless sleep here at the camp. Watch the changing colours of the landscape as the sun comes up over the mountains before your wrap up those tents after breakfast for the drive back to Leh.
Camping spot 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.
Day Hike – Maan village to Merak
Here’s the bigger picture. If you really want a clear view of the enormity and beauty that is Pangong Tso, you do need to get out and walk along its shores from Man village to Merak. After breakfast at the camps, the local guide will take you on a 11-kilometre hike past the vast emptiness of the lands here. As the day progresses, the ever-changing lake turn a deep shade of blue.
Stonewalls and solitary green specks of trees make an appearance every now and then moving closer to Merak village. This tiny hamlet, with just a couple of homes, offers superb views of the lake and green trees against grey-brown mountains with whitewashed houses.
Lots of memorable photographs and a sumptuous local lunch at Merak later, drive back to the campsite.
Notably, you can only hike to Man and Merak if you’re staying in the village of Man.
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.
Hemis and Thiksey monastery
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.
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.