Experiencing Leh was like exploring a foreign land. There was a huge cultural shift, strong enough to make me feel like I was not in India. The vast green valley surrounded by dry, brown mountains on all sides offer a contrasting sight right at the outset. But more than just the geographical alienation and landscapes it was also the dominant Buddhist culture, that makes it foreign in every sense.
Buddhism is the major religion but Muslims are also a majority in the region. Some believed Muslims have surpassed Buddhist. For ages regardless of their religion they have coexisted peacefully. The mosque right below the palace and gompa shows how well they have stood together in harmony. On personal terms, it came as a surprise to me. Ladakh is often called Small Tibet because of Tibet’s cultural and religious influence and I have always considered Leh as the hot seat of Buddhism. But Muslims too have their deep root in Leh with their vibrant traditions.
Leh was once the capital of Himalayan kingdom, Ladakh. Today, it is the second largest district in India only next to Kutch District of Gujarat. The valley is surprisingly greener than most of us would have imagined, having driven through parched landscapes for hundred of miles. The landscape is changing drastically and even the localities agree on this. My hotel owner who was in his mid 40’s had grown up in Leh, then had lived in Delhi and other cities before returning to his hometown. He said that the city had become a lot greener in the past decade or so. “Earlier we could see the airport from this hotel. There was nothing to block the view. But now you can hardly see 10 feet away,” he said. “Today people plant trees in their gardens”, he added.
Leh receives exceedingly huge number of foreign tourist footfall each year. 77,800 tourists visited Leh in 2010. The numbers of visitors keep on fluctuating depending on many factors like financial stability and the situations in Leh. It has become so popular that tourist have started showing up even in winter which was earlier considered as not an ideal time for tourism. For many travellers Leh is their second home. Like migratory birds they navigate through the same road every year to spend some months there.
Leh attracts tourists with its exotic landscapes and monasteries. Also, a lot of these popular tourist destinations have cheap places to stay and good food to offer. But there is also the safety factor and the hospitality. Ladakhis and inhabitants of Leh have an easy going nature and they are hospitable people, who would go on length to make your stay as comfortable as possible. Leh is a place where you land when you are planning on a long stay cut out from the world.
Leh is at an altitude of 3,524 m. At this height tourist arriving from lower lands need some time to acclimatize to the low oxygen content air. It is advised that travellers take proper rest on the day of arrival and not indulge in any heavy hiking or exploring.
How to Reach Leh:
By Air - Leh has an airport and is connected to major cities like New Delhi, Jammu and Srinagar. Indian Airlines provide service to Delhi from Leh, thrice in a week. Air fares hike considerably in peak seasons.
By Road - Leh is well connected to the rest of the country by Manali-Leh Highway (473 km) and Srinagar-Leh Highway (434 km). The roads are open in summer but closed mostly in winter.
Where to Stay:
Leh has many budget hotels and guest houses mostly along the Changspa Road and nearby areas. These are some of the best value for money hotels you’ll find anywhere in India.
Some Tourist Places in Leh:
1. Leh Old City:
Though the city has expanded inexplicably with new boom in tourism, it has not affected Old City. The dull gullies are the most interesting features of the Old City. A walk around the gullies would give a good sense of the Old Ladakh World. Lala’s Art café in Old City organizes city walk tour for Rs. 300-400, which includes tour around the old gullies, Leh Palace, Tsemo Fort and the Museum. Do look out for the almost hidden stupas.
2. Leh Palace:
Leh Palace was inspired by the Potala Palace of Lhasa and is located on the Namgyal Hill in Leh. It hovers above Leh and it has many cultural and historical significance. As a religious and cultural hub of the Buddhist, Leh Palace is much revered and very much a part of Leh's idendity. The nine storey high building was the tallest building in the world when it was built in 1553.
3. Shanti Stupa:
Shanti Stupa stood on a hill overlooking Leh and offers one of the view of Leh. The white stupa stood out from the brown-parched mountain. The Stupa was built by a Japanese Buddhist named Bhikshu Gyomyo Nakamura. Construction work began in 1983 and it was inaugurated in 1991 by his holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. The Japanese considered India to be sacred as it is the birthplace of the Buddha. This stupa was also built to commemorate 2,500 years of Buddhism.
4. Donkey Sanctuary:
This sanctuary is 3 km from the main city and it is home to around 30 donkeys. The sanctuary was initiated by an individual named Joanne Lefson, a photo journalist from South Africa. She was disturbed to see the donkeys in implorable conditions and therefore started this mission to give shelter to the injured and weak donkeys. Joanne along with her local friend Stanny Wangchuk founded the Sanctuary to improve the living conditions of the donkeys in Leh. The sanctuary is maintained by money donation from well wishers and animal lovers. Some Tourist Places in Leh:
5. The Namgyal Tsemo Gompa:
The gompa was built in 1430 by King Tashi Namgyal, a devoted Buddhist follower. It was built above Leh Palace on a higher ground overlooking Leh city. The gompa has a three story high Buddha image and some ancient manuscripts and frescoes. The gompa can be reached by steep steps carved out on rocks.
Best Time to Visit Leh:
The best time to visit Leh is from June to September