Part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the very north of India, Ladakh, 'Land of High Passes', is an area of unique and spectacular landscapes. A former Buddhist kingdom with strong cultural ties to Tibet, everything about Ladakh is dramatic - even the journey to reach it - a series of cloud-scrapping passes that are only open from October to May as long as the snow isn't heavy! The mountain-enveloped town of Leh is the largest town and a great base for exploring. From here you can strike out to all of the sights below, and soak up the dramatic panoramas of precariously-balanced monasteries, colourful fluttering prayer flags and the snow-capped peaks of the Kunlun and Himalayan ranges.
Capital of Ladakh when it was a kingdom of its own Leh, at 3,524 metres above sea level and surrounded by mountains, once sat on the crossroads of the trade routes between Tibet, Kashgar and Tibet. It is a town that many travellers have fallen in love with, and it’s easy to see why – as dramatically -situated as it is, its easy-going, traveller-friendly and wonderfully vibrant. Above the Old Town looms the ruins of the palace and fort of the Ladakh royal family, built in the Tibetan-style. At the foot of the palace’s rocky bluff, the narrow lanes of the bazaar radiate outwards, full of stalls hawking antiques and curios.
Whilst you can fly to Leh from Delhi, it is a good idea to journey by road from Manali or Srinagar, both routes are spectacular, as it gives you more time to adjust to the altitude.
Ladakh as a whole is full of monasteries and gompas, and the area around Leh is particularly resplendent:
Hemis Monastery: The largest and best-known monastery in Ladakh, Hemis is particularly known for its annual festival held in June/July. The monastery in its current form was founded in 1672 but it is said to have existed in the the 11th century. Hemis is 45 kilometres from Leh.
Thiksey Monastery: Sat in the Indus Valley, Thiksey bears a striking resemblance to the Potala Palace in Tibet. This large monastery, home to 60 monks, houses much Buddhist art.
Shey Palace and Monastery: Both Shey Palace and Monastery were built in 1655, when the village was Ladakh’s summer capital. The palace is now mostly in ruins, but the monastery is home to a magnificent copper and guilded gold statue of a Shakyamuni Buddha.
Phyang Monastery: Founded in 1515 and located 15 kilometres from Leh, Phyang is home to many sacred shrines and a museum with an extensive collection of idols and other religious artefacts.
Spituk Gompa: Tumbling lazily down a hillside overlooking the Indus River, Spituk was founded in the late 14th century and is still home to 100 monks. It is just 5 kilometres from Leh.
The Sham Valley has plenty of sights to visit, but is also known for one of the easiest and most enjoyable treks in Ladakh. Once the heart of the ancient Kingdom of Sham, the valley offers a glimpse at a more rural way of life, and is a spot of great scenic beauty. If you just wanted to see the main sights, the valley can be easily reached and explored on a day trip from Leh. See the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar Rivers, the ruins of Basgo Palace and its monastery, Likir Monastery and Alchi Monastery.
This huge brackish lake stretch 100 kilometres straddling the border between India and Tibet with beautiful deep azure waters. Backed by rugged peaks, Pangong Tso is located at 4,250 metres altitude and five hours drive from Leh. Wonderfully tranquil and a visual feast, the lake is also a great place to spot birds – it is an important breeding ground for many ducks and gulls.
The Nubra Valley is located about 150 kilometres from Leh, and it reached on a spectacular drive that peaks at Khardung La pass, which is 5600 metres above sea level. The valley is backed by high peaks and contains a high altitude cold desert, complete with sand dunes and bactrian camels, and little vegetation, giving it a dramatically stark beauty. Once a stretch of the Silk Road, Nubra today is dotted with ancient monasteries and small communities – Disket, with its impressive gompa, is the valley’s hub. From here you can venture into the cold desert sand dunes to explore by camel, soaking up some of India’s most spectacular scenery.
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