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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Travel Spots: Leh, the Buddhist mountainous region of North India

The best season to visit Leh is between June to September
The temperature can range from −28 °C in winter to 33 °C in summer.
Average elevation is 3,500 metres (11,483 feet)
Coordinates: Leh is located at 34.17°N 77.58°E
Attractions : Trekking, Mountaineering, Camping, Water Rafting, And Buddhist Monasteries, along with an incredible view all around.
Religion: Buddhism, Islam, Hindu

See towering mountains reach up to a clear blue sky, and seem to touch it. Hear the rhythmic chant of Buddhist monks in an ancient monastery where time stands still, in a land with a mix of religions living peacefully with each other. See the rushing waters of an icy river, the Indus (Sindhu) surge down from a glacial height. This is all part of what Ladakh (the Land of Passes and the Roof of the World) awaits you. From age-old Buddhist monasteries to exciting adventure tours, Leh (the capital of Ladakh) has a lot to offer. Explore a Gompa, go mountaineering in the Himalayas with sheer slopes and rocky cliffs, camp on the Ladakh plateau, trek on treacherous and breathtaking routes and see rare mountain goats ascend the slopes. Tour a land that will amaze you with its stark beauty and delight you with the warmth of the Ladakhi people.
Leh has a cold, arid climate with long, harsh winters from October to early March, with minimum temperatures well below freezing for most of the winter. The city gets occasional snowfall during winter. The weather in the remaining months is generally fine, and leads to a tourist season that peaks between July and September.

Leh (capital of Ladakh) on Google Maps:

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Travellers flock to Ladakh from all corners of the globe, and Ladakh is becoming an adventure for a large number of Indians as well. This trans-Himalayan district of Jammu and Kashmir has now become a favourite of both adventure freaks and culture enthusiasts, and a good place to consider going to when you want to avoid those commercial tourist locations.
Leh, the capital of Ladakh is a fascinating destination. Monasteries that seem from the ages, quaint lanes, colorful markets, friendly people, and stunning views of the Himalayas make Leh an exotic destination. Leh is where your adventure in Ladakh begins. You can go trekking through the mountainous terrain of Ladakh, or even enjoy a game of polo in a high altitude arena or watch a local contest of archery between local residents. Mountaineering, white water rafting and wildlife tours are other adventurous attractions of Leh.
Leh is is bounded by Pakistan occupied Kashmir in the West, China in the north and eastern part, and Lahul Spiti of Himachal Pradesh in South East.

Major tourist attractions

• Leh Palace: This is a building built to reflect the grand traditions of Tibetan architecture, and which is said to have inspired the more famous Potala palace in Lhasa (Tibet), built half a century later. The palace was built long back, in the 17th century and had nine storeys with different floors for the royals and for those who server them, but it is now dilapidated and deserted (It was the home of the royal family until they were exiled to Stok in the 1830s). Within the palace are Buddhist wall paintings, centuries old 'tankas' or painted scrolls and other artefacts. Above the palace, at the top of the Namgyal hill, is the Victory Tower, built to commemorate Ladakh's victory over the Balti Kashmir armies in the early 16th century.
• Leh Monastery and Gompa: The central area of Ladakh has the greatest concentration of major Buddhist monasteries or gompas, incredibly beautiful and a must see. Of the twelve situated on or near the Indus, the oldest monastery is that of Lamayuru, which is believed to have been a sacred site for the pre-Buddhist religion known as Bon. The monasteries of Phiyang, Hemis and Chemrey were all founded under the direct patronage of members of the ruling Namgyal dynasty. Phyang represents an act of penance by the 16th century King Tashi Namgyal for the violence and treachery by which he reached the throne.
• Spituk Monastery - The Gompa is famous for a wonderful view of the commanding river, the Indus. Further, the gompa stands on the top of a hillock, 8 Kms. from Leh. Many icons of Buddha and five thankas are found in 15th century monastery. There is also a collection of ancient masks, antique arms, and an awe inspiring image of Mahakal.
• Shanti Stupa: Shanti Stupa is a fairly recent monument, build with the support of the Japanese Government, and build by a Japanese who wanted to spread Buddhism around the world. The Shanti Stupa is located at Changspa, on the hilltop, and was inaugurated by Dalai Lama in 1985. Its state of the art work attracts a lot of tourists to Ladakh and is spectacular to watch. The stupa is connected by a ‘motorable’ road and a steep flight of stairs. The view from the top is great, and you can stop for a snack in the tea shop, and enjoy the panoramic view of the chain of mountains and the peaceful little village of Changspa (having typical Ladakhi houses built along a gushing stream), and the towering Namgyal Tsemo in the distance.
• Shey Gompa: 15 Kms upstream from Leh, a 7.5 metre high copper statue of Buddha, plated with gold, and the largest of its kind, is installed in the palace.
• Soma Gonpa (Jokhang): The Ladakh Buddhist Association in 1957 built the small Gonpa opposite to SBI, in the main bazaar, which is open throughout the day for visitors. The Gonpa contains a statue of Joyo Rinpochey (crowned Buddha).
• Stok Palace Museum: 17 km from Leh town, this museum exhibits precious stones, thangkas, coins, royal crowns and dresses and prayer instruments.
• Namgyal Tsemo Gompa - The Namgyal Tsemo Gompa was built in 1430 by King Tashi Namgyal on Namgyal Tsemo peak overlooking the town. The monastery contains a three-story high solid gold idol of Maitrieya Buddha (future Buddha also called laughing buddha) and a one-storied statue of Avaloketesvara and Manjushri along with ancient manuscripts and frescoes. The fort above this gompa is ruined, but the views of Leh from here are breathtakingly beautiful. The associated temples here remain intact, but they are kept locked except during the morning and evening hours when a monk toils up the hills from Sankar Gompa to attend to the butter - lamps in front of the images.
• Leh Mosque - Apart from all the Buddhist structures, the striking green and white Leh Mosque, an exquisite work of Turko-Iranian architecture, stand in the Main Bazaar of Leh. This historical mosque was built in 1666-67 A.D. consequent to an agreement between the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and then ruler of Ladakh, Deldan Namgyal.
• The Nubra Valley - The Nubra valley gets clad in endless bushes of yellow and pink wild roses. However, once the rose season is over, a carpet of wild lavender lies gently on it. Nubra is also a relatively warmer valley in Ladakh making it perfect for crops and fruits to grow. Diskit Village located near Khalsar, dotted with apricot plantations is one of the larger village of the Nubra valley. The road between Diskit and the quaint little Hunder Village winds through a gorgeous stretch of sand dunes. A quiet and pleasant evening can be spent amidst nature with snowcapped peaks in the background
• Pangong Lake - This lake is situated at a elevation of 14,000ft. In the Eastern sector of Ladakh, at a distance of 154km. from Leh across Changla pass (17,000ft.). This lake is one of the largest and most beautiful natural brakish lakes in the country. It is located 1/3rd in India, and 2/3rd in China, and one needs a permit to visit the Lake. The trip to the lake is half the pleasure of the lake itself.

Things to do:

Trekking : Leh is a trekker's paradise. The treks from Spituk to the Markha valley and Lamayuru gompa to Chiling village alongside the Zanskar River are the most popular treks in the region. Another trek route is from Likir to Temisgam. Treks are open from the June end upto mid October. The passes for trekking are as high as 5,000 m in altitude, so you need to attempt these only if you are fit, and have experience. Many trekking agencies in Leh offer trek packages with a guide, packhorses, food and supplies.

Polo : Polo is also very popular in Leh. Apart from a well-maintained polo ground, regular matches and competitions are organised during the Ladakh festival.

River Rafting : One might also take fun of rafting in the Zanskar River in the month of July to September.

Places to stay:

Mehek Guest House
Green Land, Ladakh Hotel
Khangri Hotel, Ladakh
Laser Mo Hotel
Hotel Lumbini
List of places to stay (link to post)
Chamba Camp
The Grand Dragon
Hotel Caravan Center
Hotel Cho Palace
Hotel Dragon
Hotel Gawaling International
Hotel Holiday Ladakh
Hotel Khanglachan
Hotel Mandala
Hotel Lotus
Hotel Namgyal Palace
Hotel Omasila
Hotel Royal Palace
Hotel Shambha-La (link)
Hotel Spic N Span
Hotel Yak Tail
Sangaylay Guest House
Hotel Singge Palace (link)

By Air: The airport is approximately 8 kms away from Leh.

By rail: Jammu is the closest among all with a distance of 620 Kms.

By road: Kashmir valley is the closest place to approach Leh. The approach road to Leh is either through (434 km) Srinagar-Kargil-Leh, or through (473 km) Manali-Keylong-Leh. Both roads are open only on a seasonal basis.

External articles / blogs:

1. Biking from Srinagar to Leh (link to article):

Early on the 10th June we started for Leh. After 8.5KM of uphill we took a 5KM deviation from the main road to visit the Likir monastery. The ride from Likir monastery till the main road was an easy downhill and later the road was relatively flat till Nimmu (our Lunch halt). After climbing up till the Magnetic Hill and facing some heavy wind which made even standing difficult we reached the Pattar Sahib Gurudwara. The road beyond the Gurudwara was a neatly paved downhill for more than 10KM. This stretch gave us an oppurtunity to touch a maximum speed of 77.7KMPH and soon we entered the busy Leh city!

2. Proposed drive to Leh on the 4th of July (link to article)
3. Drive from Srinagar to Leh with some great photos (link to article)
4. Complete guide to Leh-Manali Road (link to article)
It is the difficulty involved in traversing the road that attracts travelers to make the journey from Manali to Leh by road. Nowhere else in India do you get to drive hundreds of kilometers without seeing a single permanent habitation. The road runs above ten thousand feet for almost entire journey, and the highest point on the road is above 18,000 feet. The landscapes are unparalleled. The superb greenery on the way out of Manali will be the last stretch of abundant vegetation that you encounter until the day you return from Ladakh

5. Ice hockey in Leh (link to article)
The famous Karzoo Ice Hockey Rink has become the most sought after destination in Leh during winters for the localites as well as tourists having a passion for Ice Hockey. It is the highest Ice Hockey rink in the country, which is situated at an altitude of 3483 meters above sea level. 2009 has been an year of achievement for the local players from Ladakh, where they got an opportunity to represent their county in International Ice Hockey Federation Challenge Cup of Asia held at Abu Dhabi.

6. Khardung La - World's Highest Motorable Road (link to article)
Khardung La (la means pass in Tibetan) (elevation 5359 m) is a high mountain pass located in the Ladakh region, Jammu and Kashmir, India. The local pronunciation is "Khardong La" or "Khardzong La," but, as with most names in Ladakh, the romanised spelling varies. It is the highest motorable road in the world as signs put up by the Border Roads Organization proudly proclaim. The views from this pass are no doubt breathtaking – with the Ladakh range to the south and Karakoram to the north. And snow capped peaks at almost touching distance all around. The pass experiences up to 10 feet of snow in winters, with temperatures dropping to 40 degrees Celsius below zero. Even though temperatures in summers average 20 degrees Celsius, the weather can turn for the worse suddenly.

7. Not walking to Leh (link to article):
We traveled to Leh, in northern Kashmir, a few years ago. Good sample-the-local-culture tourists that we are, we traveled on crowded buses, hitchhiked on trucks, and once, memorably, on a fully loaded gasoline tanker truck driven by a dozing driver. One thing we did not try to do much was hike.

8. Whether safe to plan to drive in October on the highways (link to forum post)
I'm looking at doing the trip from manali to leh. Trying to coordinate the trip with some friends overseas and the only time that works for all of us would be early - mid october. Also we'd only have 12 days from arriving in delhi to leaving delhi. So first of all how trafficable is the route at this time of year - I've heard it officially closes in september. We would be self supported on mountainbikes so not opposed to a bit of snow and the like but don't want to do anything stupid. Also what would we find in the way of tent villages and permanent villages along the way. As for the 12 days (probably 10 by the time you bus out to manali and fly back from leh) is it realistic in this time. I don't expect or want this to be an easy ride but I don't want to bite off more then I can chew.

9. Trip to Leh (link to article)
For the spiritually inclined, the monasteries of Thiksey, Hemios, Spitup, and Lamayuru provide perfect refuge. Most monasteries also have small guest houses where visitors may stay and participate in Buddhist rituals with the resident monks. These monasteries offer great insight into the culture of Leh – with their museums holding great treasures of tourist interest. Religion plays an important part in Leh’s culture and it is advisable to listen carefully to your guide so as to not disrespect any religious sentiments.

10. Leh and Ladakh (link to article)
11. Long trip covering Leh and Amarnath (link to forum post)
12. Ketchup with Aubs (link to article)
The capital city of Leh offers a rare insight into what Tibet was like before the Chinese invaded the country. It also boasts the highest golf course in the world at the Indian army base (at about 3,200m). Permission can be sort to play a round. Similar to the Gulf, you carry a piece of artificial turf around and aim for the "greens", which are actually brown - a mix of oil and sand which offers a seriously challenging putting surface.

13. Manali-Leh highway (link to article):
From Manali, a pretty village in the green foothills of the Himalayas, the journey takes two days and ends up 500kms north in Leh, Ladakh’s capital - a staggering 3505m above sea level. It’s certainly an experience worth having, but the combination of Indian driving and a disconcerting lack of barriers on the windy mountain roads makes for a nail-biting trip. Rather alarmingly, our driver was suffering with altitude sickness and kept momentarily blacking out, reminding me to ‘grab the wheel’ if he fainted. On the plus side, he did own the full Bob Marley collection which blared most of the way, so, you know, swings and roundabouts.

14. Adventure on the Leh-Manali highway (link to article):
arlier this week I took a 20-hour jeep ride from Leh to Manali. Their were 10 people (I was the only non-Indian) in a jeep that was made for 7, so it was uncomfortable. Despite, the discomcomfort, or perhaps because of it, it was a ride I will never forgot. The scenery was stunning, and the road was terrifying. The road was rarely more then 1 lane wide and was on the edge of a mountain atleast 75% of the time.

15. manali-Leh highway (link to article)
The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful. The road is only open between June and October, and by this time the landscape is a vast expanse of barren, snow-capped mountainous and deep canyons with rivers running through it. There’s the odd house or tiny settlement along the way, but the most people you’ll see are at the numerous rest-stops where drinks and snacks are sold. There are no toilets though – you’ll have to bare your bum at the side of the road – not so bad higher up where you can hide behind a mound of snow, but pretty embarrassing in the open, barren expanses lower down.

16. Wonderful post on travel through India (with Leh at the lower section) (link to article):
I visited Thiksey Monastery (or Gompa) first, leaving at sunrise and watching the incredible changes of light on the harsh, bare, and beautiful mountains. Thiksey sprawls down a mountainside, and has the usual monastery accoutrements of small shrines, huge Buddhas, and many steps. What it did not have many of, that day, was monks, as they were mostly visiting in the village for a funeral. It was fascinating to wander around, though, and is very aesthetically pleasing.
The monasteries have incredible artwork, but what I loved best about this area is the flowers. The garden at my guesthouse is a small treasure, and everywhere at the "gompas" (monasteries) and along the roadsides in the valleys there are flowers of all shapes and sizes, most noticeably vivid hollyhocks. They have such a short season that everything seems to grow with abandon.

Photos of Leh / Ladakh:

1. Photos from Srinagar to Leh (link to article)

2. Photos of Leh-Manali highway (link to photos)
3. Beautiful photos of Leh (link to post)
4. Photos at (link)
5. Official site (link)
6. Leh Photo Gallery at (link)
7. Photo Gallery at (link)
8. Blog + Photo Gallery (link)

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