Leh, Ladakh, India: Elevation 3425 meters
Leh, located in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, is one of the most fascinating towns in the Himalaya…and one of the most beautiful. The town has a population of around 35,000 and has an interesting mix of Buddhist Ladakhi’s and Muslim Kashmiri’s. The architecture in the town shows both Buddhist and Muslim styles. From just about everywhere, you can see a sweeping panoramic view of the Himalaya’s rising above town. The highest peak in the vicinity is Stok Kangri, a 6153 meter peak that is popular in the summer months for trekking and summiting.
On my first journey to Leh, I was quick to find out how friendly the people were. Coming from my home on the Tibetan Plateau, there are no direct flights to India. My travel route in mid April several years ago took, me to Singapore and then on to Delhi, where I spent the night. The airlines lost my bag somewhere in Singapore and since I was staying the night in Delhi, I was just wearing lightweight clothing. I packed all my winter clothing in my bag, which was now lost. The next day I flew to Leh, where it was still late winter, without my winter gear! I stayed at a simple, but pleasant guesthouse in the Old Town of Leh that was owned by a kind, older Kashmiri man. I told this man my situation and he personally made it his responsibility to track down my lost bag. He spent several hours talking to airline officials in Delhi, finally tracked down my bag and had it sent up to Leh the next morning. I was amazed at this man’s kind hospitality towards a complete stranger. If you have been to Ladakh before, you will know that most people are like this man…extremely hospitable and friendly.
The Leh Palace was built in the 17th century and served as the home of the royal family until the middle of the 19th century. The royal family then moved to the Stok Palace, 15 kilometers south. The Leh Palace is 9 stories high and is built on a mountainside. Its architecture is modeled after Lhasa’s Potala Palace. A major restoration project was been underway at the Leh Palace for several years, but it remains open to the public. The views of Leh and the surrounding mountains are quite impressive from the palace.
The Shanti Stupa, built in 1991, is located a few kilometers south of town, several hundred meters above town. You can take a taxi there or climb an endless series of stairs (I don’t recommend climbing the stairs until you have had a couple of days to acclimatize to the elevation). The view of Leh and the Himalaya is quite amazing from Shanti Stupa. Be sure to bring your wide-angle lens!
Leh isn’t very big. It can, for the most part, be navigated on foot. There are many excellent guesthouses and mid-range hotels to choose from in town. I recommend choosing one that offers good views of the mountains. There are also numerous restaurants around serving great Indian, Tibetan, Kashmiri and Western food. Most restaurants, hotels and travel agencies can speak English well. The Ladakhi language is very similar to the Amdo dialect that is spoken in far eastern Tibet.
There are 2 main roads leading to Leh, however, both roads are closed in winter time due to heavy snow. The first road is the 422 kilometer road connecting Srinigar to Leh via Kargil. The road closes in the early winter due to heavy snow at the Zoji La Pass. The second road connects Leh with Manali, which is 479 kilometers to the south. This road is normally only open for 4 or 5 months each year due to heavy snow. In addition, there are daily flights from Leh to Delhi all year round and weekly flights to Srinigar and Jammu.
Leh is the starting point to other amazing areas in Ladakh including the Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso Lake, Tso Moriri and many more. Leh has numerous travel agencies that can arrange great treks (including winter treks) and climbing expeditions to nearby Mt. Stok Kangri as well as journeys to other places in Ladakh.