In the remote western Himalayas lies an ancient kingdom, heavily influenced by Tibetan culture from the east and Persian culture from the west, isolated from modern developments and technology for centuries. Here, treasures have been preserved and traditions retained that elsewhere have been lost. Ladakh has plenty to truly reward the adventurous travellers who make the journey to visit it.
Many of the top sights in Ladakh are monasteries – remnants of the age of the Tibetan Empire, which once included Ladakh. However, on top of these are several other perhaps overlooked but absolutely unforgettable experiences that should not be missed on your journey beyond the clouds in the Himalayas …
1. Villages on the northern outskirts of Leh
All travellers begin in Leh, the capital of Ladakh. But the best way to get under the skin of this village-like city is to take a walk to explore the smaller villages on the northern outskirts of the city, such as Sankar. Although a wide road winds up the hill from the city centre, travellers are better off on foot finding their way via the small lanes and pathways that pass between the houses and farms. You will meet the local people, who smile as they greet you, may encounter holy cows grazing on overhanging fruit trees, and will stumble upon local shrines (walk around them clockwise). This is also a great area for views of the Palace without city buildings in the way.
2. Leh Palace
Once the home of the Ladakhi royal family, the palace was turned into a museum and opened to the public when the royal family were moved to Stok Palace, just across the river. The palace is unmissable, holding a commanding fortress-like position on the spur of a ridge. Higher above it is a small temple, which is also worth the climb up the sandy path for excellent views of the whole Leh valley, and is popular with locals. On the way up to the palace from the city, follow the arrows and hand-painted directions on the cluster of ruins and ancient houses, and stop in for a peek at some modern Ladakhi art at the LAMO museum.
3. Hemis Monastery
Heading east down the Sengge River, hidden up a narrow and steep side valley is the largest and richest monastery in Ladakh – Hemis Monastery. While the monastery itself is beautifully painted and delightful to spend half a day exploring, the real highlight is in the museum below it – hundreds of religious and cultural artefacts have been gathered, and are displayed with clear explanations of what the object is and what it is used for in traditional Ladakhi life.
4. Pangong Tso
Carrying on from Hemis Monastery, you can reach the lake of Pangong Tso (“tso” means “lake”) in a long single day, or easier two-day drive from Leh. Sparkling blue waters stretch out under desert sand dunes, while nomads graze their herds of yaks on the nearby meadows. Pangong Tso is an interesting sight to visit, as one end of it lies in Indian Ladakh, and the other end crosses the border into Chinese Tibet. Although you cannot cross the border here, you can see the expanse of the Tibetan plateau just on the other side of the water.
5. The Women’s Alliance of Ladakh
Situated at the top of town is the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh. These women have achieved great things in the region – it was their campaign that led to plastic bags being banned in Ladakh, and they have established women’s alliances in almost every village in Ladakh now to empower the local women through education and practical training, enabling them to run businesses and participate in areas of society that were previously restricted for them. Here in Leh the WAL run a small shop stocked with their own locally made products, and open their workshops to show visitors how some of these are made.
6. Alchi Monastery
Going the other direction from Leh, following the Sengge River west, you’ll reach the small but impressive Alchi Monastery. Renowned in the world of Himalayan art for it’s fine paintings, any visitor can clearly see why when they step foot inside the first chapel. The style has been heavily influenced by Persian and Greek art, brought along the ancient trading routes, and the figures of Buddhas and their retinue look almost like European Christian figures. The paintings are carefully preserved, meaning no photography, but books and postcards are available for sale, which also supports further preservation of the monastery. Afterwards have lunch or even join a cooking class at the award winning Alchi Kitchen, serving up delicious traditional Ladakhi meals.
7. Traditional Home-stay Experience
One of the businesses that the Women’s Alliance has been encouraging in Ladakh is Home-stay experiences, so that women can work from their village without having to move to or travel daily to the city. Now, in almost every village in Ladakh you can find traditional homestay experiences that range from sleeping on the floor on mats to proper comfortable beds, helping with daily life in the fields to being treated to locally grown and homemade delicacies. Speak to us before your journey to arrange this for you.
8. Lamayuru Monastery and “Moonscape”
Further on from Alchi Monastery, past several more small villages and through a dramatic canyon, you’ll reach Lamayuru Monastery and the so-called “Moonscape” scenic area. Lamayuru Monastery seems precariously balanced on the edge of a cliff, when seen from below, and overhangs several small meditation caves that can only be reached through narrow tunnels burrowed into the cliff. It looks like a film, too impossible to be real. Surrounding Lamayuru is the distinctively weathered rock that has become known as the moonscape, due to its extra-terrestrial appearance.
9. Stok Palace and Museum
Coming back toward Leh, Stok sits on the south side of the Sengge River, directly across the valley from the capital. Stok is where the royal family reside, and near to the palace is a monastery-museum filled with beautiful royal treasures dating back centuries. It is a fascinating insight into the life of the royal family of Ladakh and their historic pedigree.
10.. Eat your heart out
Finally, one of the top experiences in Leh is to sample the local food – go for the organic dried apricots (or fresh if there in August!) and apples, sip on chai or fresh mint tea, try the momos, thukpa or skyu, the staples of Ladakhi home-cooking. Leh also has a wide selection of western-influenced Ladakhi food if you’d like something a little closer to home – try the yak cheese pizza or chocolate momos for a unique meal!