Ladakh lies between latitudes 30 degrees to 36 degrees East and longitudes 76 degrees to 79-degree North. It is spread out over an area encompassing all of 96,701 km2 with a population of just 2 Lakhs.
First-time visitors to the region are hypnotized by the stark, desolate landscape and the fascinating cultural milieu that is completely different from anywhere else in India. Everything about the Ladhaki people is unique – their clothes, dialects, religious practices, folklore and tradition have all been the subject of deep introspection.
The exoticism is best summed up by a visitor:
Hard to get there maybe, but harder to leave. The environment between moonscape, sand dunes, moving Nubra river bed and some orchards of Apricot, Apple and Willow trees. Fascinating location! and a...
Ladakh is often referred to as the “Little Tibet” due to its cultural and environmental similarities with Tibet. The villages and hamlets are replete with Buddhist Gompas wherein thousands of Buddhist monks and hermits are engaged in meditation.
The gates have now been opened by the government and Ladakh today is easily accessible to both Indian and foreign tourists. The picturesque city of Leh has witnessed rapid growth from a sleepy Himalayan town to the present day hub of the discerning international tourists seeking the harmonious balm of Buddhism complemented by pristine Alpine flora and fauna.
The intrepid thrill seekers have found in Ladakh’s desolate landscape the much needed escape route from the grueling rigors of modern day living and the scorching heat of the plains.
To complement and perhaps heighten the unique Ladakhi atmosphere, visitors now have the option of staying in unusual hotels which once used to be the royal retreat - century’s old palaces and lodges that are evocative of the region’s authentic Ladakhi vernacular architecture.
In the burgeoning Indian hospitality landscape, there is a new-kid-in-town – Rare dedicated to preserving heritage and conserving nature. Rare is a PR & Communications brand that promotes unique and immersive holidays for visitors from a list of truly outstanding homestays, retreats, wildlife lodges, heritage palaces and forts.
Rare branded properties exude with the prospect of “mindful and conscious exploration” of an India you never knew existed. The stress is on sustainability, local community experiences and conservation, all of which create a value that catapults the discerning visitor to India to an altogether different pedestal where the ancient Indian way of life Vasudhaiva Kutumbakkam – literally meaning, the world is one, can be literally felt.
Ladakh being a hotspot for the discerning world traveler, Rare have identified three outstanding properties – the Stok Palace within close proximity to Leh, the enchanting capital city of Ladakh, the Chulli Bagh villas on the orchards around the Stok Palace and the awesome Lachang Nang located in the rarefied Nubra Valley.
The picturesque city of Leh is the capital of Ladakh and is located at an altitude, which is 3505 meters. This enchanting Himalayan city spreads out from the bottom of a typical Tibetan palace replete with a labyrinth of brick and concrete. On one side there is the desolate cold desert-like surroundings while on the other there are verdant farmlands.
As you approach the city of Leh, crossing dangerous hairpin bends, you will have an idea of how the Trans-Himalayan mountain trade used to be conducted in the days of yore. Legend has it that the then emperor of Ladakh – King Sengge Namgyal in the 17th century took the initiative to relocate his royal court from Shey to Leh and post-relocation, Leh witnessed unparalleled growth and prosperity as a hub of the Silk Route trading zone.
Leh’s prosperity as a trading hub received a rude jolt when the Chinese border was sealed in the year 1950, thereby effectively ending its supremacy in the world of Himalayan trade. Leh being a strategic point on the Indo-Chinese front, the presence of the Indian Army is very conspicuous. In fact, the Army and Air Force base are the foundation around which the local economy sustains.
Most visitors to Leh consider it as an ideal base point from which to explore the hitherto rarefied places like Nubra Valley, Dha-Hanu Valley, the high altitude lakes like Pangong Tso and the Tso Moriri Kar, Suru Valley and Zanskar Valley.
What to see
Leh Palace, Stok Palace, Tsemo Gompa, General Zorwar’s Fort, Yung Drung Gompa, Shanti Stupa, the monasteries of Shey, Thiksey, Hemis, Stakna and Matho as well as the monasteries west of Leh.
Where to stay:
The impeccably restored 17th century Rare certified Stok Palace hotel is outstanding in terms of aesthetics. Visitors who have time on their hands end up spending a night out in Chulli Bagh villas nearby the orchard.
The magnificent Stock Palace hotel is located at the rim of a scenic pastoral locale, just 15 kms. away from Leh city. It has been beautifully refurbished and offers a peek into the centuries-old royal Ladakhi traditions. The best part of being a guest of this hotel is that the 34th generation of the royal family is still in residence.
For Buddhist aficionados, the Stok Palace commenced operations way back in 1980 with the blessing and consent of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and no wonder that visitors from far-off lands have been the discerning guests of this outstanding hotel.
Where to eat
Of late Leh indeed has come of age when it comes to world cuisine. After two decades of sustained tourism with a significant number of international visitors every year, a variety of fashionable eateries and restaurants have come up in the Leh landscape that offers the very best of world cuisines at a very competitive rate. Apart from European and Tibetan cuisine, one is also likely to come across restaurants dishing out Israeli delicacies.
For Tibetan cuisine drop in at Tibetan Kitchen or Amdo Café. For Continental and Mughlai fare, Summer Harvest is a good option. For mouth-watering Kashmiri fare, there is Budshah Inn near Jamia Masjid. For light snacks and tea/coffee, Pumpernickel German Bakery at Zangsty Road and Penguin Café in the Main Bazar are good options. The latter is famed for its Pastas and Banana Pancakes.
What to buy
While in Leh, most visitors are fascinated by the indigenously manufactured handicraft items and Tibetan jewelry. Carpets and rugs too are a rage with the visitors. A thriving fake antiquities racket is in existence at Leh and so be very careful when it comes to purchasing carpets and Tibetan items. Ledeg Handicraft Shop is reliable and during the peak tourist season, an exclusive market (Tibetan Market) is set up on the Fort Road where one can buy authentic Tibetan goods and curios.
On your ascent to Nubra Valley
The breathtaking 150 km road journey from Leh to the Nubra Valley provides the ultimate thrill for an adrenalin-pumping mountain drive. Though the distance is small, just 150 km, it takes all of 6.5 to 7 hours to cover the stretch due largely to the very steep gradients of the road.
As you embark on your journey to Nubra Valley via the world’s highest motorable Pass - Khardungla Pass, located at an awesome height of 18,380 feet above sea level and passing the Shyok River, you come face to face with everything that is grand and awesome about the Himalayas.
A word of advice to those with little or no prior driving experience in very high altitudes – allow yourself at least 2 to 3 days to get yourself acclimatized in Leh, the capital of Ladakh.
To get the most out of your mountain journey from Leh to Nubra Valley, a 4 Wheel Drive is ideal. Tata Safari, Scorpios and Tata Sumos are perfect. You have to travel 150 km to reach Nubra Valley. Take the road North-East of Leh and go past Khardungla Pass. You will encounter Shyok River. After crossing the Shyok River, you will come across a bifurcation. If you take the road to the right, it will take you to the villages of Sumur, Tegar and Panamik while the road to the left extends all the way to the villages of Diskit and Hundar. Most visitors take the road to the left.
Khardungla Pass is famous for being the world’s highest motorable road and is located at a distance of 50 km from Leh. After crossing this high altitude pass, you will come across three intriguing Ladhaki villages of Nubra Valley – Khardong, Khalser and Deskit. There is also the enchanting Hundar village which is accessible by Camel Safari.
The Nubra Valley nestles between two impressive mountain ranges with peaks reaching heights in excess of 6000 m on both sides of the valley. The valley is replete with alpine desert-like landscape and verdant village hamlets. Every now and then you will come across herds of Yaks and double-humped Bactrian Camels wading past.
Try becoming friendly with the simple Ladhaki folks. Chances are that you will be ushered into their modest mountain huts and offered the traditional brew – “Chang”. The more courteous ones go that extra mile and offer a sumptuous Ladhaki meal.
It is believed that the kitchen is surprisingly the most important place in any Ladhaki house. It is not only a place to warm yourself up from the freezing cold but also a place where the entire family meets and offers their prayers.
Centuries back, Nubra Valley was an integral part of the overland trade route to Tibet and present day Turkmenistan and if you are traveling to the valley in the summer months, the entire valley is bedecked with many hued roses, while in the month of August the valley is swathed with Lavenders.
At Nubra Valley, you have the choice of visiting two famous high altitude lakes – the Pangong Tso and the Tso Moriri Kar lakes. You need to stay overnight if you intend to visit these two lakes. While Pangong Tso lake extends to 40 miles and large parts of it lies in China, the Tso Moriri is all 15/5 miles and is home to endangered bird species. The lucky ones may even sight the rare and elusive Himalayan Wild Ass “Kyang”.
Where to stay
The family-owned Lchang Nang is a great option. The respectable Kalon family have been the pioneers in Ladakh when it comes to promoting sustainable hospitality in the region.
At the Retreat you have the liberty to explore the fascinating local Ladakhi lifestyle and indulge in a bewildering array of activities to recharge and rejuvenate - Cooking, Village Walk, Walking, Yoga, Cycling & Mountain Biking, Performing Arts, Astronomy and Tea Experience.
Luxury camping in Ladakh
India's pioneer Mobile Luxury Mountain Camp run by the Ultimate Travelling Camp offers super luxurious high altitude camps to the discerning world travelers who come in search of ethereal experiences and immersion programs on Buddhism. TUTC’s camps in Ladakh (Thiksey and Diskit) are set up in idyllic Himalayan settings - the mesmerizing Great Ladakh Range and the invincible Stok Mountain Range is your constant companion.
The Diskit Camp is on the road north of Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The ethereal view of the confluence of India’s two ancient rivers - the Nubra and the Shyok is absolutely otherworldly. Mingle with Buddhists monks (Lamas), trek on high-altitude Himalayan sand dunes and immerse yourself in utter contemplation.
Guidelines for visitors:
- inner Line Permits to be obtained from the District Magistrate, Leh;
- carry spare fuel as there are no petrol pumps;
- warm clothing is a must. Carry heavy woolens, jackets with cover-up cap, snow goggles, gloves, spare woolen socks and a hardy pair of shoes with good grip to see you through the harsh weather conditions and landscape;
- a weather proof Swiss Tent is an absolute must, since there are no accommodations like hotels and resorts at Nubra Valley;
- carry foodstuff like noodles and fresh vegetables/meat/fish etc. according to one’s preference. A porter cum cook can be hired for the sake of convenience;
- first aid box with enough remedies for mountain sickness. Non-narcotic pain relievers (acetaminophen or paracetamol, ibuprofen) as well as throat lozenges;
- vehicle registration and insurance papers. Keep the originals in your luggage while the photocopies may be kept in the vehicle’s dashboard;
- carry sleeping bag and sleeping mat;
- a pair of torchlight with good visibility;
- a binocular for mountain viewing.