Leh

Leh is the capital of the Ladakh division of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India.

Understand

Leh

Leh is located in the Indus river valley at a crossroads of the old trading routes from Xinjiang, Tibet and Kashmir. There is a pass that links it directly to Khotan. The city's importance as a trading town slowed down with the partition of British India, and ended with the closure of the border in 1962 during the Sino-Indian war. Since opening to tourists in 1974, it has become a bustling tourist town, with large numbers of Kashmiri traders. Since 2000, domestic (Indian) tourists have started visiting Ladakh, with a dramatic increase in 2010 after the movie Three Idiots.

It's a small town, so it's easy to get most places by foot. The old town is a compact area of mud brick houses and narrow lanes directly to the east of Main Bazar. Changspa is the agricultural "suburb" northwest of the center, with many guesthouses.

The main Bazaar's elevation is approximately 3,555 m (11,490 feet) and Changspa is higher, so take it easy on your first few days there or risk possible altitude sickness. Even experienced high altitude travellers (Andes) might have some trouble.

Winters are very cold and due to the drop in tourism lots of stores, hotels, and trekking companies will be closed. If you plan to visit during the winter and are an independent traveller, double check all arrangements (call your hotel instead of booking online).

Get in

There are two roads in to Leh — one from Manali in Himachal Pradesh in the south, and one from Srinagar in the west. Both routes are equally spectacular in different ways, and both are time consuming with winding, narrow roads, and numerous military checkpoints.

The main advantage of taking the road from Srinagar, covering a distance of 434 km (270 mi), is that it runs at a lower altitude, and thereby reduces the risk and severity of altitude sickness. It is also open longer - normally from the beginning of June to October - and follows the traditional trade route between Ladakh and Kashmir, which passes through many picturesque villages and farmlands. The disadvantage is that it passes through areas of higher risk of militant troubles. It takes two long days, with an overnight stop in Kargil. Tickets cost ₹370/₹470 on ordinary/deluxe buses.

The route from Manali to Leh, covering a distance of 473 km (294 mi), is the one more commonly taken by tourists. It takes two days, normally with an overnight stop either in Keylong (alt. 3,096 m) or in tent accommodation in Sarchu (4,253 m) or Pang (4,500 m). Making the first stop in Keylong drastically reduces the risk of altitude sickness (AMS). It traverses one of the highest road passes in the world and is surrounded by wild, rugged mountains. The scenery is fantastic, though it is definitely not for the fainthearted. This historical trade route was linked to Yarkhand, severed by the India-China war in 1962, and later was transformed into a military supply road. Reliable access is limited from mid-June to the end of September, as it is blocked by snow for the rest of the year.

Clearing of snow on both these roads starts some time in early April. Once the whole road is cleared of snow and has been opened for public transport, this is announced at the official website of Leh.

By bus

State buses run from Srinagar and also privately operated deluxe buses. From Manali, Himachal Pradesh Tourist Development Corporation (HPTDC) operate Deluxe buses that stop overnight in Keylong, between July and September. Costs ₹2000. Himachal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC), the state run buses, ply the road during the officially open period, allowing you to stop in a number of places along the way. Total cost ₹130 (Manali-Keylong) + ₹513 (Keylong-Leh). Private buses stop in Keylong, Darcha or Sarchu - the last alternative (800 m higher than Leh) involving a high incidence of altitude sickness. It is possible to book tickets direct Delhi-Leh, but the best option is to break off the journey in Manali and at the lower end of Lahaul: Sissu, Keylong (main population centre) or Jispa - all around 3,100m altitude.

Unfortunately the Leh bus station is far from a highlight, it's chaotic and poorly organised. There are two sections, one for local transportation within Ladakh, and one for the state run buses.

The local buses get exceptionally crowded, times of departure fluctuate greatly, and there is no ticket office (just board the bus, and pay to the conductor). When planing a trip to a destination in Ladakh ask around to find when the departure time roughly is, and show up at the station half an hour early; ask people there what bus to take, don't trust the destinations marked on the buses; take a seat and wait for the bus to depart. Then expect to spend at least an hour at the bus station.

The state buses run to Srinagar, Manali, and even a direct service to Delhi (3 days away), there is a ticket office, and bookings are taken days in advance. The process here is more straight forward and less time consuming.

By jeep

The fastest way to get to Leh from Manali is by 'jeep'. Shared jeeps do the trip in one long day (of about 20-24 hours) as opposed to two short ones on the bus. Keep in mind that that all single day rides comes with a risk of being stranded near five thousand meters without being acclimatized, with severe altitude sickness as a result. The journey costs up to ₹1500 for a seat on a shared jeep. During the high season tickets for the jeep rides must be bought in advance of the day of departure and the main street in old Manali is full of ticket touts, you won't have to find them for yourself.

Leaving Manali before dawn, arrival in Leh is sometime after sunset. Although this is the longest and most uncomfortable car journey you will ever take it's an experience unparalleled in India. Crossing over the five thousand meter passes affords views of stunning and the bizarre territory. It is advised to take a front seat in the jeep and by no means allow yourself to be seated in the boot. These seats (in the boot) are inward facing and 24 hours sitting on one of those will take all the pleasure out of the trip.

Privately hired jeep allows the luxury of stopping wherever you like, and allow you to decide on how many people you will travel in your group.

If you are coming from Srinagar, go to #1 taxi stand in town. Book only your seat on sumo taxi jeep to Kargil for ₹500. Stay overnight. Book your seat for Leh from Kargil and pay ₹400 upon arrival in Leh. Get them to drop you at Fort Road which is the heart of the tourist area and accommodation is close by. Make sure you ask for middle seat in the taxi. Too crowded in the front and too uncomfortable in the back. Fantastic scenery for whole two days.

If you are coming from Leh, you can buy tickets either from various agencies around the town, or directly from office located in bus station. It is in the first floor of the nortern (uphill) building, doors facing away from the buses. Price there was ₹1500 for front seat in September 2009, and the ride down to Manali took 23 hours starting midnight.

By truck

It is also possible to travel between Leh and Manali by truck. These trucks ply the route when it opens in summer and they will be no new sight for anyone who has been in India for even a few days. Making the 490 km (304 mi) journey in the cab of one of these trucks is an experience; they are not as comfortable as the jeeps, nor do they give as good visibility as either jeeps or buses, and take anywhere up to 3 days to complete; but sleeping in the cab and eating the same food as the locals is worth it. You can pre-arrange truck drivers in Manali by going to the main truck stop in the new town. Here the drivers stop on their way from Delhi to Leh and will be more than happy to give you a ride for ₹500. Make sure you don't pay before you travel. In Leh there is a similar truck park. Try to pick a truck with the least amount of passengers already otherwise your trip will be even less comfortable. Those staying longer in Ladakh are likely to find themselves traveling by truck at some point, and probably don't need to go out of their way to take one.

By motorcycle

The road from Manali to Leh is often known as a Biker's Paradise. Bikes (motorcycles) are available for rent at Manali. A popular place is Hardev Motors - located behind the Private Bus Parking Ground. Also Into Himalayas, near Manali mall road is a great place for bikes, especially Enfields. If you are looking for Pulsars and Royal enfields, you can check Bike rentals manali. Their office is in Vashisht. Heard good reviews about them.

When biking to Leh it is advisable to travel at a slow pace to allow acclimatization. A suggested itinerary is: Day 1 Manali - Jispa (110 km; 68 mi), Day 2 Jispa - Pang (130 km; 81 mi), and Day 3 Pang -Leh (130 km; 81 mi). Essential supplies include: puncture repair kit, spare clutch cables and some good carriers (to hold luggage). The next bike workshop after Manali is Keylong (110 km; 68 mi) and then at Leh (400 km; 249 mi).

By plane

Planes fly year round, and are the only option in the winter. Book early and give yourself at least a few days of flexibility as flights are often delayed due to weather conditions. Air India, Jet Airways and GoAir have daily flights from Delhi. Air India Flights are also available from Srinagar, and Jammu.

Those arriving by air are strongly advised to rest for at least one day in order to acclimatize to the high altitude. (See article on altitude sickness)

When leaving, make sure you have a printed copy of your ticket, otherwise you will not be able to enter the airport.

By train

The closest train stations are Pathankot or Chandigarh, both at least three days away by bus. A new station added recently is Udhampur which is linked by rail to Jammu. Please check the Train schedule as trains may not run on daily basis.

Jammu is another nearest railway station, which is around 734 km from Leh. AS the city doesn't have any railway station, train travel is impossible. Tourists should take hire cab or take a bus both of which require 2 days to reach at Leh.

Get around

See

Sankar Monastery is a half hour's walk from Leh

For such a historic site and popular tourist destination, Leh has surprisingly few tourist sights (though a great number more are accessible as day trips):

Monasteries and temples

Most travellers use Leh as a base to visit the numerous gompas, the Buddhist monasteries of Ladakh.

Villages

Do

Learn

Buddhism

Work

There are many NGO's in Ladakh working out of Leh doing important work, many of them taking on travelers who want to work as a volunteer for a few months.

Since Ladakh was featured in the 3 Idiots film in 2010, the town has been getting lot of recognition as a tourist spot. As a result of that employment opportunities in tourism sector have recently increased drastically.

Buy

The Main Bazaar and the surrounding streets have numerous shops selling souvenirs, mostly Tibetan antiques or replicas. The Tibetan market is a good place to buy little jewelery, souvenirs, and various other goodies such as Pashmina shawls (about ₹4500-7000).

There are half a dozen good book shops with an excellent range of books on the Himalayas, including guidebooks, phrase-books, books on history, and on Buddhism, as well as novels.

People needing to pick up some warm clothing shouldn't miss out on the second hand clothing bazaar near the jeep stand. Quality used clothing from first world countries goes for next to nothing here, especially handy if you are only in the cooler climate for a little while.

Leh also has the best selection of food for trekking albeit not all that different from normal instant noodles, biscuits, powdered milk and chocolate that's available in any village with a shop, but with the addition of fresh and dry fruit and veggies, and a few other luxury foods.

Eat

Budget

Main Bazaar has a few sweet shops selling samosas, chana dhal with puri, and other Indian food in addition to the sweets. The shopping areas of the old town and the area around the bus station are good for Tibetan styled restaurants, although few offer more than thukpa (noodle soup) and momos (dumplings). Vegetarian dishes are difficult to find in these places.

Mid-range

Main Bazar has a decent selection of mid range Tibetan styled restaurants, popular with tourists and locals. In the summer numerous garden restaurants spring up in Changspa serving Tibetan, Western and Indian dishes. Also, OpenHand Shop and Cafe around the Old Fort Road has good South African, and Continental Cuisine. The place also has good western coffee, and some good Indian Textiles.

Drink

There is little in the way of nightlife in Leh. You can order a beer at many of the restaurants, but they close fairly early. For a more adventurous alternative, ask around the old town (or your guest house owner) for Chang the local home brewed beer, which costs about ₹15 for a litre; bring your own bottle.

There are a few springs scattered around Leh that provide a natural and plastic free alternative to using bottled water.

Clean filtered and boiled water is available from shops, such as the organic food shop, and guest houses.

Sleep

Leh has a large selection of mid-range accommodation, with some offering decent value. If you're coming from Manali you might find the selection somewhat limited, with attached bathrooms offering hot water somewhat hard to find. There are very few, if any, touts that are so common elsewhere in India, so looking around for accommodation here is much easier and less stressful as a result.

Most of the guest houses are located in Leh's northern suburbs in Changspa, Karzoo and surrounding areas, a 5- to 30-minute walk from the centre. In fact it seems as though most of the houses in Changspa have been converted to guest houses. Surrounded by farmers' fields and often with excellent views, they make wonderful place to spend a couple weeks unwinding. It's easy to wander around this area stopping at the numerous small guest houses to find something that suits your budget and needs.

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Connect

Leh is still in the early days of the communications revolution, and some Internet cafes use long distance, poor quality phone lines for dial-up. These are not only expensive, but also unreliable. There are numerous satellite run internet cafes and also mobile services (BSNL, Airtel) in Leh.

Mobile phones from overseas will not work in Kashmir, so warn your loved ones beforehand that you may be out of touch and start writing postcards. The numerous centres for international calls are fairly reasonably priced.

Computers used are mostly samsung which have automatic recovery of EC2. There are no easy way to get crashed computers or laptops repaired in Leh. There is a large samsung dealer shop in the Leh Main Market.

Stay safe

Leh is one of the safest places in India.

Carry a torch at night, as there is next to no street lighting, and there are some very deep drainage ditches. Beware of the stray dogs which rule streets during the night, especially in the inner alleys and around eateries.

If you feel breathlessness after some exercise, scared of height or any heart problem then avoid visiting Leh. But if you are still desperate to be in Leh then drink lots of water or eat in frequent times while in this beautiful place. Be extra careful while visiting Leh in winter. It is stunningly beautiful but extreme cold weather means a little discomfort for visitors.

Be cautious if you are driving on your own. Though roads are fine, the constant melting of snow tends to damage the road conditions. There are always a chances of landslides, so don’t venture at the edge of the road.

Cope

Floods

Ladakh was struck with serious floods and mud slides in August 2010. The airport was operational within days, and the major roads and bridges after a few weeks, and Manali-Leh was re-routed temporarily, until October after Rumtse, making it more than a hundred kilometres longer. The road was fully operational in October 2010.

Acclimatization

It is vital have your first acclimatization nights after arriving at altitudes over 3,000 m before venturing to higher altitudes. This means not going for the tent camps at Sarchu (4300) or Pang (4500) directly from Manali, i.e. no longer than Darcha the first night. All overnight stays are not planned, in September 2008 the Air Force had to evacuate travellers with altitude sickness from Sarchu in after massive snowfall, and landslides are not uncommon. Not allowing your body to acclimatize can result in altitude sickness, which has only one cure: turning back. Likewise stay absolute minimum two nights in after a fly in before thinking of going higher. So give yourself two nights to acclimatize and explore the city before you head to higher grounds.

If you are traveling from Delhi to Leh by road, the route which enables better acclimatization is via Shimla, and then towards Kinnaur & Spiti, which gives several acclimatization nights between 2,000 to 3,000 m: Sarahan (2,134 m), Kalpa (2,800 m), Tabo (3,265 m). After Kaza (3,600 m) and the Kunzum La (4,550 m) the road connects with the Manali-Leh highway just north of the Rothang pass.

If arriving by flight, rest at least over the first night before starting sightseeing, consider visiting Alchi first since it is lower than Leh.

Diamox is available over the counter in India (as opposed to all Western countries) and can be used with varying success to speed up acclimatization. Those that are allergic to sulfa medication can not use Diamox, and there are side effects to be considered: this needs to be discussed with a doctor beforehand.

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