Ladakh (La-Dags – “land of high mountain passes”) is the most remote and sparsely populated region of mainland India, a high-altitude desert surrounded by the Karakoram and Great Himalayan ranges and crossed by numerous razor-sharp peaks and cliffs. Described as “Little Tibet” or “The Last Shangri-La”, and culturally and administratively isolated from the rest of India, the region is one of the last Mahayana enclaves. Buddhism, which has been its dominant religion for nearly a thousand years, is most evident in Ladakh medieval monasteries: perched on rocky hills and tucked into sheer cliffs, these gompas are both repositories of ancient knowledge.
Best travel tips for visiting Ladakh
The highest concentration of monasteries is in the Indus Valley near the regional capital Leh.
Set in an exquisite landscape and dotted with hotels, guesthouses and restaurants, this atmospheric little town, a staging post on the old Silk Route, is the point of arrival for many visitors, and an ideal base for side-trips.
North of Leh, across the Khardung La, one of the highest drivable passes in the world, lies the Valley of Nubra, where sand dunes carpet the valley floor. Another attraction is to visit the vast wilderness around Lake Tso Moriri at Rupsu, southeast of Leh, and glimpse Tibet from the banks of the Pangong Tso in the far east of Ladakh. For all these areas, but, you need a permit.
Likewise west of Leh, the windswept Fatu La and Namika La passes, Buddhist prayer flags flutter outside as you approach the Muslim-majority Kargil district. Ladakh’s second largest city, at the mouth of the breathtakingly beautiful Suru Valley, is the jumping-off point for Zanskar, the vast wilderness in the state’s far south that borders Himachal Pradesh’s Lahaul.
Restricted Areas in Ladakh
Parts of Ladakh are still inaccessible to casual tourists, but with tensions on the border between India and China easing, much of this incredible land has been opened up. Three areas in particular are now popular with travelers: the Nubra Valley, north of Leh, bordering the Karakoram Range; the area around Pangong Tso, a lake east of Leh; and the region of Rupsu along Lake Tso Moriri southeast of Leh.
How to get Ladakh Protected Area Permit?
Indian and foreign visitors need a permit to visit these areas, the cost of which includes an environmental fee. Permits are issued by the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Leh, but the office deals only through several tour operators in Leh, who charge a fee. But permits are issued to groups of at least two people with only one guide. However, in practice travel agents are usually happy to issue permits to single people traveling independently, although you will have an imaginary companion (usually a person applying at the same time) listed on the permit to meet the official requirements. As long as your name and passport number are allowed the checkpoints will be quite comfortable about how many of you there are.
However; You will need two photocopies of your passport and visa pages. If you apply in the morning, permits are usually issued the same day. Once you have your permit, which is valid for a maximum period of seven days and covers all restricted areas, make at least five copies before setting off because officers at checkpoints sometimes want to keep a copy when you report. With an organized tour, however, the driver takes care of all this and you never have to handle your permit.
What is the best time to visit Ladakh?
Kashmir’s harshest weather is in Ladakh, an area that only opens up between late June and late October, when the sun is strongest and the weather, at least during the day, is pleasantly warm. Although it is officially a high-altitude desert, bouts of rain in July and August have been increasing in recent years, sometimes making the trek difficult. From November, the temperature drops rapidly, falling to minus 40 degrees Celsius between December and February, when the only way in and out of Zanskar is the frozen surface of the river. Note that almost all hotels and guesthouses are closed from October to April, while many garden restaurants are only open during the peak summer months.
How to get here?
To reach Ladakh located in the northern part of India, the most common mode of transport is by air. Kushok Bakula Rimpochi Airport in Leh, the capital city of Ladakh, is well connected with regular flights from major Indian cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Srinagar. But there are also slower, more rewarding routes.
From The Road
Two legendary “highways” connect Ladakh to the rest of India: the Srinagar-Leh road, and the route up from Manali, about 500 km to the south. These two, as well as the unpaved road from Kargil to Padum in Jhanskar, connect most of the larger settlements of Ladakh with the capital.
Nowadays, most visitors arrive at the Leh airport, although doing so may increase the risk of altitude sickness.
Services along the main Indus Valley Highway are very frequent and reliable, but become less frequent the further you get from Leh. Some services are offered as “summer only”; The season usually runs from April to October.
By Jeep or Taxi
Off-track side valleys and villages are very easy to reach in a day if you hop into a jeep or minibus taxi, widely available in Kargil and Leh.