At an altitude of over 11,000 feet, bountiful with nature’s blessing – snow-capped mountains, an azure blue sky and gazing at the clearest of star filled night skies you would ever have seen, Leh, in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir is the most popular vacation destination of our nation. Unlike many assumptions of a town packed with tourists and shopkeepers hollering at them for their attention, Leh is a brilliantly painted picture of a town, nestled between the hills and blanketed with its own unique kind of serenity. The journey to Leh is equally, if not more interesting and is filled with excitement and adventure. And only once you arrive do you realise that Leh, is not really a destination, but an experience – of a lifetime.
Two roads take us to Leh – one from Manali in Himachal Pradesh in the south (of Leh) and one from Srinagar to the west. Both the roads are exciting, time consuming, winding and narrow almost all the way through, lined with military checkpoints, and equally amazing in their own ways.
There is however, an upside to taking the route from Srinagar. Pulled across a stretch of 434 km, the route runs at a lower altitude, reducing the risk of altitude sickness- which often escalates to alarming levels at such elevations of terrain. It is also allowed access through, for a longer period of time – beginning of June, to October and runs the traditional course between Ladakh and Kashmir, passing through a number of picturesque villages and farmlands. The catch is – and quite a risky one – that a few areas under risk of militant troubles fall on this route. The journey takes two long days, with the option of an overnight stop in Kargil. Bus tickets are reasonable at 400-500 rupees on ordinary/premium bus services.
The one from Manali to Leh, pulled across 473 km is more of a tourist route. This too, takes two days with an overnight stop at either Keylong (3,096 ft) or pitching in Sarchu (4,253 ft) or Pang (4,500 ft). Stopping at Keylong first, reduces the risk of altitude sickness by a great deal. Traversing one of the highest road passes in the world, and surrounded by rugged mountains, the scenery offered by the route is amazingly beautiful, though not for the faint of heart. This was a historical trade route severed by the Indo-China war in 1962. Access is limited from June to September as the route is blocked by snow through the remaining part of the year.
There are multiple travel options to Leh. It has an airport that is connected with direct flights to Delhi, Jammu and Srinagar, shared Jeeps doing the trip in one, continuous drive of 20-24 hours and buses doing the same in two days. The best way however is neither by air or on four wheels, it is on two.
Best known as Biker’s paradise, the road is teeming with motorcycle and other enthusiast groups alike in the open road season. Hundreds of Bikers ride up to Leh every year – some all the way from down South – Bangalore, Chennai, Kanyakumari and from the far East and West alike. Motorcycles are also available for rent at Manali.
Riding to Leh, requires a slow pace to allow acclimatisation. A suggested itinerary would be spread over three days with overnight stops at Jispa and Pang before finally reaching Leh. Essential supplies would include, puncture repair kits, spare clutch cables and good luggage racks with extra bungee cables. Bike workshops being sparse and 100 and 400 kms respectively, apart.
For those looking to take a leap of faith and trust (no, there’s no pixie dust here) on themselves and their ride, leaving Manali before dawn can get them to Leh a little after sunset. The longest and slightly more than uncomfortable for some doing such a distance on their bike for the first time – it is an unparalleled experience simply because of the bizarrely and unrealistically stunning views. Your helmet visors – for the while of the ride – shall change into 3D panoramic displays of Discovery’s best travel shows.
It is only natural for the body to take its time to adjust to the low pressure and thin air, specially after the exciting, adrenaline (and low temperature) driven, and draining journey to Leh. Help is always at an arm’s distance in medical needs and emergencies in the form if the Indian Army base hospital in Leh. There is also an army medical unit in the snow laden Chang La Pass at 17,586 feet, making it the third highest pass in the world, along with an army tea stall serving complimentary hot tea.
From Leh, you have to cross the Chang La Pass, to arrive at the breathtaking Pangong lake – the one popularised further by the movie, 3 Idiots. You could see upto seven different shades of blue in the lake.
Other must dos are visiting the Nubra valley – famous for being a cold desert, the charming Old Town – great for photography, the Shanti Stupa, 400-year-old Jama Masjid, the ancient Leh palace, and riding on the world’s second highest motorable road at Khardung La, at an altitude of more than 18,000 feet. One can get embroidered tee-shirts back in Leh declaring their conquest – another tick off their bucket list.
Those looking for adventure would simply not be able to stop since there is a lot to be done – river rafting, kayaking, trekking, and hiking, although Leh is best explored on foot with a number of possible trekking routes on offer.
With the number of tourists from outside the country competing with that from inside, Leh is flooded with restaurants and small cafe’s serving all kinds of cuisine – German, Italian etc. Also highly recommended is digging into momos, thentuk and thukpa (noodle dishes) in order to complete the Leh’xperience.
June has already gone, and with three fourth’s of the season remaining, it is now one of the best times to plan a trip to Ladakh. So pack your bags, get your ride serviced, and prepare in every manner required, to get “Leh’d”.