A Ladakh Travel Guide: Explore the land of mountain passes

posted in: Asia, India, Jammu & Kashmir, Nature, Tips | 58

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.

The unusual terrain of Ladakh requires some preparations
The unusual terrain of Ladakh requires some preparations

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

Ladakh Travel Guide: Keep Leh City as your main destination in Ladakh
Ladakh Travel Guide: Keep Leh City as your main destination in Ladakh

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.

Ladakh Travel Guide to getting to Leh - Crossing the Zozila Pass before it is shut down for the day
Ladakh Travel Guide to getting to Leh – Crossing the Zozila Pass before it is shut down for the day

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 

Ladakh Travel Guide: One of the routes to Leh from Manali via Rohtang Pass
Ladakh Travel Guide: One of the routes to Leh from Manali via Rohtang Pass

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

Ladakh Travel Guide: Route two through the valleys of Sonamarg
Ladakh Travel Guide: Route two through the valleys of Sonamarg

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

Ladakh Travel Guide : Best time to visit Ladakh is July to October. Picture taken at Drass
Ladakh Travel Guide: Best time to visit Ladakh is July to October. Picture taken at Drass

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

Sunrise at Pangong Tso
Sunrise at Pangong Tso

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)

  1. Leh Palace
  2. Shanti Stupa
  3. Hemis Monastery
  4. Hall of Fame Museum, Leh
  5. Drass Memorial or the Kargil Memorial Hall
  6. Spiktuk Monastery & Stok Palace
  7. Lamayuru Monastery
  8. Nubra Valley
  9. Diskit Monastery
  10. Thiksey Monastery
  11. Pangong Tso
  12. Tso Moriri
  13. 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!

Ladakh Travel Guide: Dealing with AMS at 17688 ft above sea level at Changla Pass
Ladakh Travel Guide: Dealing with AMS at 17688 ft above sea level at Changla Pass                         PC: Swati Jain

The key symptoms of mild AMS include

  • A Headache
  • Nausea
  • Sleeplessness
  • Weakness
  • 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.

Ladakh Travel Guide: Visiting Tso Moriri needs an ILP
Ladakh Travel Guide: Visiting Tso Moriri needs an ILP

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

"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

Ladakh Travel Guide: Dress up in layers and wear Trekking shoes
Ladakh Travel Guide: Dress up in layers and wear Trekking shoes                                             PC: Abhinav Singh

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
  • Socks
  • Mittens
  • 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

Ladakh Travel Guide: The only places to stay near Pangong Lake are tents
Ladakh Travel Guide: The only places to stay near Pangong Lake are tents

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

Vegetable Thukpa
Vegetable Thukpa

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.

"Ladakh

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!

 

 

 

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58 Responses

  1. Danijela WorldGlimpses

    No wonder this is one of your favorite road trips, just look at those landscapes! I’d probably love it myself. Not only that I enjoy driving, but I also love roads such as that curvy one coming down at the Zozila Pass. Fascinating really! It must have been incredible to take a photo of the road from afar, after you drove through there. 🙂
    Also, I didn’t know that Ladakh is so high. Thanks for the altitude sickness tips, good to know!

    • Ami

      Thanks Danijela. Ladakh surprises you at every corner but as I said, you need to be well prepared to ensure that all is well . Hope you get to visit it sometime.

  2. Danik

    Oh my god! he first few photos reminded me of a certain area of Switzerland. I totally would love to do this road trip as I love mountains. Can’t get enough of them. So want to go here right now. 🙂 Love this post. Bookmarked it for the future.

    • Ami

      Danik, after having done Switzerland when I visited Kashmir, I felt so proud and a tad bit ashamed that I traveled so far for the same scenery that was in my backyard. Now that I know it, hope to return to it. I hope you visit it too.

    • Ami

      I hope you plan a visit here. Trust me, it is one of its kind. Thanks for stopping by

  3. Fiona Maclean

    Thank you for such a comprehensive guide to Ladakh. I’d never heard of it, but it looks stunning. The drive does seem like the best way to get there – do you drive yourself or would you recommend hiring a driver?

    • Ami

      Thanks Fiona. You can drive yourself if you are ok with no roads, off roads and mountain trails or just hire a driver while you enjoy the views.

  4. Kavita Favelle

    It’s so interesting to see how Ladakh has really become more visible as a popular destination not only for the more adventurous bikers and trekkers but for honeymooners and regular holiday-makers too. I think the prevalence of more blog post content about it, especially from in-India travellers, has really helped raise the profile. I would certainly love to visit and had not considered it before a year or two back. It’s surprising that there is no rail connection but at least if one can fly, the main big distance journey is covered. Then I’d want to be driving for the exploration of the area itself. I also appreciate your tips on time of year versus temperature, a key consideration for sure.

    • Ami

      It would be difficult to get the rail connection given the rugged terrain. You got to travel this to know what I mean. The road, in my opinion, is the best to enjoy the scenery. Hope you can visit soon.

  5. Kirstie Marie Saldo

    The landscapes are breathtaking! But, I’ve never heard of this place before. I am not a hiker or what, but it has been a goal to travel and take photos of stunning landscapes such as yours! India is a very big place, it’s daunting. But soon, when I am more well traveled than I am today, I think I can take on India. I believe that India is not a place you can truly enjoy when you are not an experienced traveler. I’ve only been to 4 countries, this month I’ll be to 3 more, that’s 7. I think maybe 2-3 more countries after my coming trip, I can take on India. I will remember Ladakh

    • Ami

      I dont think you should wait that long. India is not so difficult but yes, lots to see. So come with lots of time.

  6. Milijana

    Kashmir and Ladakh seem so distant and mystical to me. Such wonderful landscapes! To travel there sounds like a gorgeous and interesting adventure!

  7. Stella Jane

    This is a very comprehensive guide. It would be interesting to be in a place that doesn’t really have internet access. It looks worth it though, because your photos are so beautiful. I don’t drive so I would hope to find a tour that goes through the area.

    • Ami

      Driving here is best left to expert given the rugged terrain. You will find plenty here. Hope you can visit here Stella. You will love it.

  8. Hannah

    Wow, the drive over the Rohtang Pass looks crazy – those winding roads! Great tips about AMS and the permits you’ll need – it’s this kind of information that is invaluable if you haven’t been to the Ladakh region before. That Thukpa looks delicious, and just the kind of warming food you’d need during your visit!

    • Ami

      Thank you Hannah. Glad you liked the sound of Ladakh and I assure you that you will love it in person. Hope you can visit it soon.

  9. zestinatote

    Great information and travel tips on Leh, Ami, especially on AMS. I have traveled here by riad (Manali – Kaylang – Sarchu – Leh route) more than a decade ago. My husband and I are figuring the best way to do this for a family trip with our 7-year old.

    • Ami

      Try the other route this time Shweta. I think you will find it easier. Thanks for stopping by

  10. Ghia Lorenzo

    Such an informative post! Ladakh looks an amazing destination to visit. I love all of the photos, they are all stunning and gorgeous. The valleys and the sunrise of Pasong tso are so perfect.

    • Ami

      Thank you Ghia and i hope you can plan your visit soon. It is the right season now. Cheers

  11. ansh997x

    Last year, I spent a month and half in Ladakh tracking the activities on Snow Leopard (didn’t see any) but I found some very interesting ways to commute and explore in that region.

  12. Denny George

    Ladakh has been on my wish list for the longest time now. For someone who takes pride in having visited most places in India, Ladakh is the one shameful omission from my kitty. Your recommendations and the detailed guide will certainly come in handy whenever I do make my way there. The photographs all look amazing.

    • Ami

      Thank you Denny. These mountains are something else and anyone who goes there gets charmed by them. Hope you can make it this year.

  13. Tamz

    It’s not easy to compile a travel guide for Ladakh owing to the enormity of various factors while traveling to this region. Yet, this post is quite precise and informative for first time travelers to Leh-Ladakh. I havent yet been there but whenever I go, it is probably going to be a road trip. Sounds much more fun and cost effective than flying there.

    • Ami

      Road trip is actually the best for Ladakh. The beauty of the place is best experienced with this. Thanks Tamshuk for stopping by. Cheers

  14. Partha Bose

    Feeling almost I am in Ladakh now. Thank you very much for the blog. Reading your post is an amazing and thrilling experience . Keep going.

  15. Alok Singhal

    Leh Ladakh would be the first place I would want to visit if I relocate to India permanently. The beauty as I’ve seen is mesmerizing…club it with offbeat attractions it offers, and you can’t get enough of that!

    • Ami

      I am glad it is on top of your list. It is just so mesmerizing and I bet one visit will make you want to go again.

  16. Sam Sparrow

    I’d never heard of Ladakh before, but I love mountainscapes purely for the aesthetic (although not so much for the hiking and walking!). Some of the houses remind me a little of what I saw on the Atlas Mountains, I just wouldn’t have expected to find scenes like this in India. Thanks for the tip on Altitude Sickness though, it’s not something I would have thought of.

    • Ami

      This is a not so touristy but yet now getting popular destination in India. And trust me, it steals your heart. If you ever get here, don’t miss this one out Sam. Thanks for your lovely comment.

  17. Giulia

    it’s a very comprehensive post, thank you for sharing. I like to explore off-the-beaten path regions, I’m adding this to my India pinterest board 🙂

    • Ami

      Am sure you will see a very different India here. Hope you get here soon as it is the season for Ladakh now. Cheers

  18. Nisha

    Loved, loved it! Those tiny little houses in the valley look so fragile that for a moment I was worried. Why do they live there? 🙂 Nonetheless, the place is just out of heaven.
    This is a complete comprehensive guide where you have taken care of everything. AMS is very important factor to pay attention to.

    Thanks, your each post is so detailed and helpful. 🙂

    • Ami

      Thank you Nisha. That feels so good to hear. Ladakh is special and quite different from the rest of India. It does need some prep as I realized 😀

  19. Sue Davies

    Great post and beautiful photos. Srinagar road trip looks a little scary but amazing.

    • Ami

      The Srinagar route is amazingly green and pretty. You will love it and with an expert driver, feel quite safe too. Thanks for stopping by

  20. Nancie cKinnon

    I have to say I had never heard of Ladakh. Your photography is mesmerizing. What a stunning part of the world. If I ever decide to go to India, I’ll add a visit to Ladakh to my itinerary. Excellent guide.

    • Ami

      Thank you Nancie. Glad you liked the place. It is even better in person. And I do hope you plan a trip here.

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