Compared to the ease in reaching the major cities across India, heading up to the mountainous region of Ladakh is considerably harder. And after you’ve reached Leh, the capital of the Jammu and Kashmir region, travelling overland to lakes, valleys and other interesting sites will involve climbing hundreds of meters up mountain passes and around meandering rivers. As such, set aside at least a week to enjoy the adventure in the this beautiful land the Indians fondly call the Crown Of India.
This itinerary assumes that you fly in from Leh. Check out Drifterplanet’s 10-day itinerary if you’re looking to head up from Delhi.
Day 1: Acclimatise in Leh
You can either get into Leh by bus or plane. Take some time off to acclimatise to the altitude – at 3,500m above sea level, Leh is high enough for travellers to exhibit acute mountain sickness (AMS) symptoms. You can sleep it off in one of the many affordably-priced guesthouses or hostels, or stroll down the Main Bazaar, a 200m stretch of shops and cafes that serve as Leh’s city centre.
If you’re up for it, the 30-minute climb up to Leh Palace offers a 360-degree panorama of the entire city, backdropped by the majestic Himalayan mountains. Don’t rush the climb, and certainly do not try it if you’re not feeling up to the task.
If you’re looking a clean and well-furnished place with nice backpacker vibes, check out Raybo Hostel. It’s a 10-minute walk from the city centre, but offers good opportunities to find fellow travellers to share taxis or tours with. The private rooms are not expensive either, and totally worth the upgrade. Check out the latest prices and room availability.
Alternatively, visit Booking.com for the following deals:
Day 2: Take a bus or shared taxi to Pangong Tso
The blockbuster movie “The Three Idiots” brought Pangong Tso to the attention of a global audience, and this scenic saltwater lake is now a must-go on every Ladakh itinerary. You can get here by catching a public bus (~8 hours), renting a shared taxi (~6 hours), or for experienced riders, renting a motorbike to take on winding gravel roads that spiral up to the Changla Pass at 5,360m (17,590 ft). Note that buses run only on Saturdays, Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, so you’ll want to plan ahead if you only have a week to travel.
Where to stay in Pangong Tso
At Pangong Tso, spend a night in a guesthouse or a campsite. The average cost of accommodation range between 500-1,000 Rupees per person, mostly centered in the town of Spangmik. Don’t expect reliable electricity supply or hot water in this remote settlement, but generators power the town in the evenings to around 11pm.
There’s no need to book tents usually, since accommodation options are plentiful. In fact, you can just drop in and find a place pretty much anytime.
But if you need to shower with hot water, or can’t travel easy without making reservations ahead of time, Pangong Sarai is a relatively expensive but comfortable stay. It’s the best this remote place can offer, and some comfort goes a long way on a cold windy night. Check out the latest prices and room availability here.
Booking.com also offers occasional deals on accommodation options:
Day 3: Return to Leh
The journey back to Leh will take an equal amount of time, or possibly more if the drive back is interrupted by a roadblock caused by construction works. Roads need to be constantly repaired after each winter season, so take these incidents in stride, and it’s inadvisable to try to catch a flight or bus on the same day.
Spend the rest of the day in Leh’s many cafes, or hanging out with other travellers in your hostel. You will also want to find a shared taxi or bus to Nubra Valley. Another stunning alpine lake, Tso Moriri, is less popular, so you can start putting up a shared-taxi request at travel agencies first.
Day 4: Take a bus or shared taxi to Nubra Valley
The next day, head to Nubra Valley by first climbing up to the world’s highest motorable road, the Khardung-la Pass. Before you start celebrating though, you might want to note that the 5,359m height falls short of other road-based passes. Just don’t be a downer and dampen your fellow travellers’ excitement, ok?
From the Khardung-la Pass, the road winds down through Grand Canyon-esque scenery, following a river that cuts through steeps mountain slopes and eventually leads you to Diskit, which is easily recognised by an impressive monastery and a huge Maitreya Buddha statue.
From Diskit, head 11km down to Hunder, which is famed for sand dunes that look out of place in this mountainous landscape. There’s also white water rafting, ATVs and other activities to do from Hunder or Diskit. At the end of the day, you can easily find a guesthouse to spend the night in either town.
Where to stay in he Nubra Valley
Consider these Booking.com deals, if you’re looking to book a room ahead:
Day 5: Return to Leh
Spend another half day travelling back to Leh, once again taking in the awe-inspiring scenery as you climb up the Khardung-la Pass.
Back in Leh, if you haven’t found a shared taxi to Tso Moriri, you’ll want to look around for one. Otherwise, you can plan a day trip to Lamayuru the next day (2 hours drive from Leh) or visit the nearby monasteries just 30 minutes outside Leh.
Day 6: Visiting monasteries in Thiksey, Shey and Stakna
Forgoing Tso Moriri, I rented a motorbike to visit the nearby monasteries, but you could also easily hire a driver for a half day to do the same trip. Rental motorbikes might not be in the best conditions after years of abuse by tourists, so you’ll have to inspect the bike throroughly before riding off. A 220CC Bajaj Avenger cost 1,000 Rupees for a full day rental, and a 350CC Royal Enfield costs 1,100 Rupees.
The Thiksey monastery is pretty interesting for an hour’s visit, but if you’re into pretty landscapes, the view from the Stakna monastery is simply breathtaking.
As a side trip, fans of The Three Idiots should also make a stopover at the White Lotus School, the filming location where the main protagonist Rancho was finally found by his friends (no spoilers here!)
Day 7: Spend some time for yourself and recover from the hectic week
On the last day of your whirlwind tour through Ladakh, you can spend a day buying souvenirs in the Main Bazaar, chill at a bookstore cafe, or ride on further to even more towns outside Leh. There’s too much still left to do, so a return visit might be warranted!
What should you bring?
Pack light, unless you have a private driver and car. As the weather in the Himalayas can change rapidly, make sure you have warm clothing, enough to keep you warm in single digit temperature (Celsius, that is). Here’s a short list of useful items to bring to Ladakh:
- Winter jacket
- Spare batteries (Smartphone, camera etc)
- Power adapter
- Sunglasses (the sun here is very strong)
- Daypack (a small bag to carry out when hiking)
- Waterproof shoes
- A good book (for long bus rides)
- Padlock (some hostels do not have lockers or padlocks)
Generally, staying in India is cheap, with hostel beds from as low as US$5 for a decent place. If you have a bit to spend, a private room is usually more comfortable and safer. Note that if your sharing a room with other travellers, make sure you secure your belongings. Theft happens, and it can really screw up your trip.
On a side note, buy insurance too. It’s the least you can do, if you’re saving a lot on accommodations already.
Leh is simply an amazing place to travel, and it doesn’t take a lot to get around. It’s remote, adventurous and scenic – as long as you stay safe. Look out for symptoms of altitude sickness, and take care when hiking in the mountains or riding a bike.
This itinerary covers just the area around Leh. If you have more time, there’s a lot more places to check out in Jammu and Kashmir. All you need is a sense of adventure!