Jullay everyone! We are super excited to be visiting Ladakh this April. This is a trip that we have wanted to do for quite sometime. Ladakh is a desert area in the Himalayas, with a distinct cultural backdrop as well as some pretty stunning scenery. It is a special place, situated in the midst of the greatest mountain range on planet earth! Due to its remote location as well as high altitude, one needs to put in more effort and time (than usual) into planning a trip to this region. The usual topics of trip-planning would include figuring out how to get to your destination, duration of stay, places of visit, activities, transport, food ,etc. But in case of Ladakh, all of those topics are affected by one big factor…Altitude Sickness. Being more than 10,000 feet above sea level, your body needs to get acclimatized to the “thin air” that is a feature of such altitudes. If you do not give this high altitude the respect it deserves, then it can potentially throw your trip in disarray. I have personally found this out from friends who had visited previously.
Getting there: The first thing to do when planning a trip to Ladakh is figure out how you will get there. There are 2 main ways as of 2017, by air and by road. If you are short on time, then you will want to fly there, as the road trip will take at least 2 days from the starting points of either Srinagar or Manali. If you believe in the argument “its about the journey to the destination and not just the destination itself”, then you will most definitely want to go by road, because the routes from both Manali and Srinagar are perhaps one of the best road trips in the world. We were short on time, and so we bought flight tickets. If you are going to buy flight tickets, then you better do so way in advance. We bought ours almost 7 months in advance! Once you get in the 3 month timeframe, tickets become ridiculously expensive. We must have saved a good 60% on our tickets by buying them in advance.
If you plan to go by road, then your options will be dictated by weather factors (and security factor too). The Manali route opens only in May, and so if you are going in the shoulder season of April like we are, then Srinagar is your only option. This is where both the and security factors come in. Snowfall and landslides can cause the Srinagar-Leh highway to close and being close to the border, Srinagar (and surrounding areas) can get somewhat edgy at times. So be flexible in your itinerary if you go via this route. This route is however the ideal option, because the ascent to higher altitudes is gradual as compared to the Rohtang Pass from Manali, which has a steep climb and altitude sickness becomes a bigger factor with that route.
General Research and online interaction: Read forums and blogs on Ladakh. Some helpful resources which I used were Tripadvisor Leh-Ladakh Forum, Xploreunxplored, Devil on Wheels, Vistet’s Updates, YouTube (great resource for finer details of what to expect) and Google in general. I may also suggest that you should message people whose comments you find relevant on Tripadvisor forums and reviews. The good thing about Tripadvisor is that it allows such interactions and what better than to get tips from fellow travelers who have already visited the place. You can ask them any particular questions that you have about visiting a location or staying at a particular hotel/home-stay in the Leh/Ladakh region.
Duration of trip: We had to figure out how long we were going to stay in Ladakh. This mainly depended on our budget and places that we wanted to visit. A typical itinerary is 7 days long which starts with 2 days of rest/take-it-easy stuff, and then includes overnight excursions to Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake. The rest-day part in the beginning of your trip is quite important and every blog/forum lists it like a thumb rule with almost no exceptions. After taking complete rest on day 1, if you feel ok on day 2, then you can do some local sightseeing (confluence of Indus Zanskar, Gurudwara, Hall of Fame/Army store) and go up to Lamayuru/Alchi (it is at a lower altitude than Leh). People who do not follow the classic 7 day itinerary tend to visit places like Turtuk (a Balti town further north from Nubra), Tso Moriri (a lake similar to Pangong but a lot quieter and with some wildlife along the way), Zanskar Valley (west of Leh/towards Kargil) or Chushul-Hanle-Nyoma track along the Chinese border. Adding these locations will mean either adding days to your trip or substituting one place with another. So do your research and take into account drive times on unpaved rocky mountain roads, which are a lot longer and bumpier than what google suggests.
Due to a time and budget constraints, we went with the 7 day itinerary as follows:
Day 1: Rest
Day 2: Local sightseeing and then drive up to Alchi monastery (maybe Lamayuru, if we are feeling ok)
Day 3: Drive to Nubra, stay overnight
Day 4: Come back to Leh
Day 5: Rest/Local market shopping, Shanti Stupa. This way we get a break sitting in the car on long drives.
Day 6: Drive to Pangong, stay overnight
Day 7: Return to Leh
Day 8: Fly out early in the am
Places of visit: Apart from the places mentioned above, we are also planning to visit a few monasteries. Thiksey, Hemis, Lamayuru, Stakna are all good options. There are also other monasteries such as Alchi, Likir, Chemdey that people tend to visit. There are lots of monasteries throughout the region and it can get quite repetitive, so our idea will be to choose 3 or 4 that we will visit en route to our excursion destinations. Hemis, Thiksey and Stakna are on the way to Pangong Tso. Apart from monasteries, one can also visit Hemis National Park, Shey Palace, Shanti Stupa, Stok Palace, and any other places listed online if you can find the time to do so and find them interesting. If you are into wildlife photography, then you will find animals near Chumathang on the way to Tso Moriri. If you are into adventure sports, then you can try river rafting on the Zanskar, but that apparently opens by mid June.
Local Transport: Transport will take up a big chunk of your trip expense because it is not so cheap to travel long distances in the hilly and mountainous terrain of Leh. The only way to get from one point to another is state run buses, taxis or a motorbike. You can hire a motorbike for Rs.1200-1500 a day (plus you pay for the fuel), or get a taxi. Buses, though very economical, run by the schedule and since we wanted flexibility, we went with a taxi. There are two options for taxi, shared or your own personal taxi. Backpackers/solo travelers/adventurous folks may find the shared option appealing, as prices are low and there is a possibility of meeting new friends. We went with a private taxi instead. I had found a list of contact numbers for various drivers in Leh on some website, and I decided to speak to a few of them. After getting quotes, I finalized a driver for our trip. There is a taxi union in Leh, and rates for various sightseeing places get published every year. Almost every taxi driver will go by these rates with some room for negotiation. So, find out the most recent published rates, and then take that as a benchmark to bargain as hard as you can. We were lucky to find a driver who not only quoted us reasonable prices, but also promised to help us bargain decent prices for hotel rooms in Nubra and Pangong. It certainly helps to have a local by your side when you travel to a new place.
Food: While Leh offers a fairly rich variety of food options (which is not bad for a remote area), the others areas outside of the town will have limited options. One thing I learned from my research is that one must be ready to eat maggi (popular Indian instant noodles) at any stage of the trip, as it seems to be available in most places. In Leh, one highly recommended option was the Tibetan cuisine, which included Momos and Thukpa. The Yak-cheese pizza at a place called Gesmo is also talked about a lot. We have made a list of restaurants where we can try some popular local items.
Sleep: Leh, being a tourist town has lots of hotels, lodges and home stays. Most of the locations are around the main market area, but there are also places to stay on Changspa road – which is a quieter and relatively less touristy part of Leh. We wanted the experience of staying with a local family, and so we decided to stay at the Tukchu Homestay, which gets a very high rating on various travel portals. Even though Tukchu is a little far from the main market area, the experience and ambience of Tukchu, along with the hospitality of the owner is raved about by many travelers who have stayed there. For Nubra Valley, we learned that there is the option of staying in a tent or in a hotel. Unfortunately, the tents don’t go up until May first week and since we would be visiting in April end, we would be going for a hotel. Our driver will help us find one when we are in Leh. Finding a place to stay near Pangong Tso was a bit tricky. There are very limited options considering that the lake is at a high altitude and the climate is hostile. There is apparently only one brick house in the whole region, and it is called the Pangong Camp Resort. However, upon inquiry, we were quoted a very high price even after bargaining quite a bit. I spoke to my taxi driver about this, and he said not to make any reservations in advance. He will set us up with something when we get to Leh. So, I will be going with his advice and figure it out when I get to Leh.
Trip Finances: One important part of any trip is money. More specifically, how much to carry and in what form to carry it. We found from research that there are a few ATMs in Leh town. Outside of that, things were uncertain. Even with the Leh ATMs, there was always the chance of a power cut. So, it was a good idea to take some cash. We made some advance payments to our homestay in Leh, and planned to pay the rest in cash when we got there. Though you can always visit the bank branches in Leh, it is a must to carry a certain amount of cash with you.
Clothes: Packing the right kind of clothes will be totally dependent on what time of the year you visit Leh. We got a good idea of the temperatures by visiting the wiki page for Leh. We learned that the best way to think about clothes was layers, because some places like Pangong (esp. at night) can be a lot colder than Leh, whereas the daytime sunlight can make the air quite warm. The high variation in day and night temperatures means you need cold weather clothes, but you should also be able to remove the layers when it starts getting warm. We were constrained in our packing by the fact that our flight allowed only 15 kg check-in luggage per person. So, one heavy jacket, one light fleece and some decent inner wear was the plan. Since the weather is cool and the air is cleaner, we figured that we will not sweat as much or encounter as much dust. So, we planned on wearing one pair of clothes multiple times. That allowed us to save on some luggage space too, which would be very useful if we did some shopping in Leh. For accessories, it is highly recommended to take a sunscreen and sunglasses. The sun at very high altitudes is very intense, and this part is really important.
That covers up most of the planning and setting up part of the trip. Feel free to share your ideas and opinions if you have anything helpful to add about planning a trip to Leh.