The Land of mountain passes – Ladakh is a mesmerizing destination with its varied and stunning landforms. An ultimate destination for backpackers, bikers and road trippers, this has now become a popular family and honeymoon destination too.However, Ladakh with its unusual terrain requires a fair bit of preparation before you visit it. This is where I see a lot of you have reached out to me with questions on where to go, what to pack, what to carry, where to book etc. Best I bundle it all together as a Ladakh Travel Guide for you.
Located in the state of Kashmir, the Ladakh region is encircled by different mountain ranges. It used to be a part of the Silk route and therein lay its historical and strategic importance. With its rugged terrain and proximity to various country borders like Tibet and China, there are several restrictions that you will need to be aware of when you plan to visit Ladakh. Also, given that it is one of the highest plateau and mountain regions, there are certain health precautions that everyone must take. Lack of roads adds to the challenges of a road trip and then, of course, the kind of accommodation that you can expect here. I have tried to include them all in this Ladakh Travel Guide based on my travel experience. Hope you find it useful.
Ladakh Travel Guide: Getting to Leh
The biggest city in Ladakh is Leh and this I suggest, should be your center point for this travel. The first thing you need to do is decide how you are going to get here. There are basically only two options – Either Fly or take the Road. There is no railway connectivity to Leh.
Leh By Flight:
There are a limited number of flights to Leh and most of them originate from Delhi or Srinagar. Naturally, they are quite dear when it comes to cost and booking them early is the only way to beat the prices.
The other option of a partial flight and road trip from Srinagar. You can fly to Srinagar and then take a road trip via Kargil to reach Leh. The thing to keep in mind is that you must keep aside at least a day to reach Leh for you will need to halt either at Sonamarg or Kargil for the night and then reach Leh. The total distance from Srinagar to Leh is 421 km along mountainous ranges and high passes. It is not just the terrain but the military restrictions and timings that will force this halt for you need to clear certain passes like the Zozila Pass by a certain time or wait until the next day. Remember, the Srinagar area is politically sensitive too. The good part about this option – you get to experience the gorgeous green Kashmir Valley.
Leh By Road
Leh by road is one of my best ever road trips in India. The stunning landscapes and the myriad colors of the mountains are so surreal. Everyone talks of Europe road trips and its gorgeous scenic routes- and having been on some myself, I can tell you that a road trip to Ladakh is frankly no less beautiful. I would swear by this for I did the entire Ladakh trip by road. You can check out my entire route through this post.
Assuming a start from either Chandigarh or Delhi, you can follow two routes to Leh. You can choose to take the route from Manali to Leh or the one from Srinagar. Here are the pros and cons of both –
Manali to Leh Route
Manali – Keylong – Sarchu- Leh
This takes you via the gorgeous Rohtang Pass and gives you a flavor of the lovely Spiti Valley at Keylong before you turn to the mountain deserts of Sarchu and then Leh. The drawback of this route is that you might experience delays owing to landslides and rains and also, that this is a steep climb to Leh, which could cause AMS or acclimatization problems. More on AMS coming up below.
Srinagar to Leh Route
Srinagar – Sonamarg – Kargil – Leh
Another scenic stretch that takes you through the best of Kashmir Valley and the stunning views of the Amarnath camps before you hit the coldest point Drass and then Kargil. From Kargil, you will be able to stop at the various ancient monasteries like the Lamayuru Monastery, that make the whole journey interesting. The good thing is that it is a gradual ascent and your body gets acclimatized quickly. The drawback is the possibility of landslides and the volatile Srinagar political situation.
Best time to Visit Ladakh
The best time to visit Ladakh is from July to October when the temperatures range between 5 degrees Celsius to 30 degrees Celsius. You can also, experience various cultural festivals of Ladakh like the Hemis festival during this period.Winters are fairly harsh here but there are some amazing treks to attempt during this season like the Chadar Trek.
Places to Visit in Ladakh
How many days should you plan for Ladakh is best answered by what you want to do in Ladakh. From treks to mountain climbing, biking, and camping, there are just tons to do here. This can be a separate post from me but for now, let me just list down all the possible places that you can plan a visit to in Ladakh. You can click on the linked text to know more about these attractions. And while you make your list from the Ladakh Travel Guide, remember to keep at least a day in Leh where you acclimatize yourselves to avoid AMS (More in the next section)
- Leh Palace
- Shanti Stupa
- Hemis Monastery
- Hall of Fame Museum, Leh
- Drass Memorial or the Kargil Memorial Hall
- Spiktuk Monastery & Stok Palace
- Lamayuru Monastery
- Nubra Valley
- Diskit Monastery
- Thiksey Monastery
- Pangong Tso
- Tso Moriri
- Tso Kar
I can keep going on but for starters, these should give you a fair idea of what key destinations you would want to include in your itinerary. Remember that these are just the main stops. Along the way, you will find plenty of photo-worthy and epic stops like the passes – Khardung La, Chang La, Fotu La Pass, the Zanskar – Indus confluence, Magnetic Hill etc. Remember to watch out and stop for them when you travel to these places.
Cognizance of AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness)
I am dedicating a major part of this Ladakh Travel Guide to this section. The average altitude of Ladakh is around 3000 m and hence, the air is very thin out here. Given the thin Oxygen levels, a sudden ascent to Ladakh can cause what is called AMS or the Altitude Mountain Sickness. This if ignored, can get quite severe and life-threatening. However, when you are cognizant of it, it can be easily handled and you will find Ladakh a breeze – just as I did!
The key symptoms of mild AMS include
- A Headache
- Shortness of breath
In severe cases, you will find that the person is unable to breathe properly, has turned blue, is unable to walk in a straight line or is coughing up blood. Given this, it is best to rush him to the nearest medical facility.
The mild form of AMS is best handled when you acclimatize yourselves. This is where you need to ensure that you take it easy when you arrive in Leh and rest at least one day before starting your excursions. That one day of acclimatization is essential for your body to get used to the O2 levels of Ladakh. It does not matter what your fitness levels are, this in my Ladakh Travel Guide is a norm. Here are the other precautions that you must take –
- Avoid a speedy ascent to Leh on a road trip. As mentioned earlier, the Srinagar Leh route is a gradual climb Vs. the Manali route. However, if you choose the Manali route, take adequate breaks and do not drive fast.
- Drink plenty of water. I, as a rule, had set a timer to ensure that I had my share of water. This does wonders in helping you acclimatize.
- Keep high energy food with you like Chocolate
- Avoid Smoking and Alcohol
- Do not overeat
- Avoid exertion till you get used to the climate. Do not run or attempt those high adrenaline activities for at least 24 hours after arriving here
- Carry your emergency medicine with you. Diamox is the most commonly recommended medication for AMS but it is best if you visit your doctor for the prescription and advise.
- Take it slow and be aware. Most people in Ladakh know of this and are quite ready to help. An Army camp is the best place to approach for qualified help.
Ladakh Travel Guide to Inner Line Permits (ILP)
If Pangong Tso and Nubra Valley are on your travel list, then whether you are an Indian or a Foreign tourist, you will need to get an ILP. This can be got online through this website. Alternately, you can approach any of the local travel agents to arrange for it. You need to have a Govt. photo ID as a document when procuring these permits. Note that the online permit is only an application that you can fill and get ready for your visit. This will need to be printed and stamped at the Leh TIC office between 9 am to 3 pm. You will also, need to pay INR 400 as an environmental fee and INR 20 per day per person as the fee. The detailed list of places that you need this permit for can be accessed here.
There are no vehicle permits required except for one at Rohtang Pass if you happen to come via Manali. This can be procured at Manali by providing the Vehicle documents, Insurance papers and Drivers License.
Road Trip across Ladakh
The only way to travel within Ladakh is by road. Whether you hire a bike or a car or a car with a driver, is your choice. You can make this choice and hire your vehicles from Leh itself. The pricing there is pretty standard. There are packages that include the car for you. However, here are some things that you need to keep in mind.
- There are quite a few places that have absolutely no roads. The pathway goes through gushing streams and bed of rocks. Consider getting a 4 wheel drive or a hardy bike for this reason
- Ensure that you have a seasoned driver to handle these offroad conditions. If you are driving yourself, be well prepared for the same.
- Stock up fuel at Leh for your trip to Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri. There no fuel stations along the way.
- Ensure that your spares and toolkits are well in place. There are only a few remote army camps if you get stuck like the way we did at Chushul with a Flat Tyre. You can read about our experience in this road trip to Ladakh post.
- Road Side toilets are almost non-existent. You will have to use small shed that just has a hole and no flush.
I highly recommend reading my article on 10 Tips for a Road Trip as a part of this Ladakh Travel Guide to prep you up the best. This ain’t an ordinary trip and this extra reading will definitely help your checklist.
Packing for Ladakh
Throw away those sleeveless and shorts and get ready to pack long sleeves and thermals with coats and caps. An unusual terrain and climate do require you to make your packing list in advance and actually go shopping for it. Here is my suggested one as a part of this Ladakh Travel Guide.
- Thermals – tops and bottoms for the evenings and nights.
- Cotton or Woolen Tops and trousers to layer up during the day
- A Nice warm snow jacket for places like Tso Moriri and Pangong Tso
- A pair of Trekking shoes or boots. Highly recommended even if you are not doing trekking
- A woolen cap
- Goggles – the sun is so harsh that you might have light sensitivity
- Sunscreen with at least 75 SPF – Absolutely essential as owing to the thin air, you will have quite a strong exposure to the sun. Most of us had some skin peeling off our noses and foreheads, despite the precautions.
- Wet Wipes and Hand Sanitizers
Pack everything into rolls for a backpack. Avoid trolley bags as it is difficult to trudge them around on an uneven and high terrain.
Places to Stay in Ladakh
Leh has a good range of hotels – from the expensive 5-star ones to the budget hotels. Most of them can be booked online. However, when it comes to accommodation in places like Hunder, Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri, you do not have a lot of choice in terms of the type of stay. Most of these places have tented accommodations that you will need to book through a local agent. The washrooms and the mess facilities in most of them are quite basic but clean.
Ladakh Travel Guide to Food
Leh and Kargil have quite a few places to eat out but when you visit the other villages and towns like Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake, you will be at the mercy of the mess. The food is quite basic and wholesome here. Maggi and Instant Noodles are available in small tents along the roads at various small settlements. However, considering how remote these are, it is best to stock up some packaged food with you for the road trip.
Among the specialty food, don’t forget to try out the momos and the hot piping Thukpa. Especially in the cold nights. 😉
Mobile and Internet connectivity in Ladakh
BSNL and Airtel postpaid are the only connections that work in Leh. Once you get away from Leh, you can expect even these to die out. The Internet is almost non-existent here. You are going to be out of touch and it is best to keep your family & friends of the same. Just so that they don’t worry.
This has a bearing on your cashless transactions as there is no connectivity. Carry cash everywhere as cards just do not work.
Well, that I think covers all the major points of this ultimate Ladakh Travel Guide. I hope this answers all your queries. And yes, one more thing – be prepared to catch the Ladakh fever as I did. One that gets you so Ladakh sick that you will want to return everytime you think of it. And one that you will pass on to others as I am doing to you. 🙂 Smile and Julley (Hello in Ladakhi) to you!