A Complete Guide to Tour Ladakh

The region of Ladakh is the highest plateau in India which is drained by River Indus (or Sindhu). It lies within the high mountain ranges of the Himalayas and the Karakoram. Also known as the upper Indus river valley, this high-altitude desert land, with lofty mountain ranges and multiple rivers snaking through offers a striking geographical and topographical landscape. One of its major rivers is Indus which gave our nation the name India. Today, I will share my journey through this incredible land of high mountains, rivers, and valleys scattered with man-made monuments and statues aesthetically blending in.

The upper Indus Valley
The upper Indus Valley
The high-altitude Himalayan desert of Ladakh
The high-altitude Himalayan desert of Ladakh

It might sound silly that one can be so crazy to visit this place. Yes, I had an ardent urge to visit Ladakh since my childhood. I wanted to pass through the highest motorable road in the world (then the Khardungla Pass). Even after touring many places across India from my childhood till this age, I could not make it to Ladakh. The place that was once an utterly offbeat destination has now transformed into a popular summer destination. Still, I could not visit this land. As a child, I used to get fascinated listening to the stories of my father’s visit to Leh. The landscape, the people, the culture and tradition, every little thing in his story used to awe me in amazement.

Finally and probably after the longest personal wait, I made it to Ladakh in the summer month of June this year. A lot of planning and a lot of anticipation and speculation went ahead of the tour as I was literally beyond my control. It seemed like once in a lifetime opportunity for me and I wanted to tour through as many places as possible in a span of just ten days, ignoring the high-altitude health constraints and the mountainous roads and finally the no-road situations. I made my plan, got the air tickets and booked the hotels online where ever it was available. But did the biggest mistake of looking for a vehicle to tour after getting all the previous arrangements done.

Strange topography around Hemis
Strange topography around Hemis

So here is a complete guide for the first-timer in Ladakh. I choose the term first timer because there are many people who visit Ladakh multiple times for its sheer beauty. Today Leh and the well-known surrounding places like Nubra Valley and Pangong Tso are densely crowded with tourists and taking a picture of any remarkable statue or any milestone free from the crowd is almost next to impossible. The only respite comes in the form of the vast open landscape where you can stop at any turn and capture nature with your camera.

Gududwara Shri Pathar Saheb
Gurudwara Shri Pathar Saheb

Prerequisites before visiting Ladakh:

  1. Visit a doctor and get the medicines for high-altitude travel (Diamox tablet is generally prescribed but people who previously had Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) at high altitude are given some other additional medicines too.)
  2. Get proper warm clothes (preferably for layering) if planning to travel beyond Leh.
  3. Carry charged power banks, torches and extra camera batteries (or charge them whenever possible) if planning to travel beyond Leh as electricity is a major issue in places like Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso, Hanle, Tso Moriri and other places.
  4. Carry all required medicines and a first aid kit. There is a probability of any pain being triggered (tooth or joint pain) due to a severe cold while travelling beyond Pangong Tso, so carry the required pain suppressant.
  5. Those who are planning to self-drive or ride, do carry enough fuel along as fuel stations are hard to find beyond Leh.
  6. Over and above there is limited cellular connectivity across Ladakh. Only BSNL, Airtel and Jio (all post-paid connections) are operational. While in Pangong and beyond only BSNL post-paid connection works, that too in limited zones.
  7. Carry good quality sunscreen and moisturiser as the skin gets dry because of the cold atmosphere.
  8. Carry nasal spray as many people suffer from dry and stiff noses.
  9. Get the permit online by providing your Id details, if travelling beyond Leh. Online permits can be done from this link.
  10. Plan your tour with a couple of initial days as a buffer for acclimatization. It’s also good to have buffer days for return as the weather is unpredictable and flight schedule gets altered quite often while road travel also has the dependency of road blockage due to landslides or other factors.
Confluence of Indus and Zanskar
Confluence of Indus and Zanskar

With all these prerequisites checked you start your trip to the northernmost, high-altitude territory of India. Once offbeat, today Ladakh is one of the most popular summer destinations for tourists. April to late August is the peak season and getting reservations in hotels and booking vehicle becomes a tough job. It is always better to plan early. We were lucky to have ours even at the last hours.

View from Tsemo Gompa
View from Tsemo Castle

Leh is located at an altitude of 11482 ft, which is high enough to trigger altitude sickness in many. The best way to travel via road is from Srinagar as this road attains a gradual ascend in altitude till reaching Leh. While the other route via Manali passes through much higher altitudes en route thus allowing little chance for acclimatization. The other easy way to reach Leh is by air. Here you gain altitude all of a sudden but you save the time of travel and can use it to rest and get your body used to the altitude. Once you are properly acclimatized, start to travel based on sectors (you can chalk out your places of interest and accordingly set the route as per the direction).

Hall of Fame
Hall of Fame

The main places of interest around Leh are:

Within Leh:

  1. Hall of Fame
  2. Shanti Stupa
  3. The Khar (Leh Palace, Tsemo Castle, Namgyal Gompa) 
  4. Sankar Gompa
Shanti Stupa
Shanti Stupa

On the way to Hemis:

  1. Stok Palace
  2. Shey Monastery
  3. Thiksey Monastery
  4. Hemis Monastery

(These spots are on the Leh-Manali highway and also the Leh-Pangong Tso road.)

Thiksey Monastery
Thiksey Monastery

On the way to Lamayuru:

  1. Gurudwara Pathar Sahib
  2. The confluence of Zanskar and Indus
  3. Sham Valley
  4. Alchi Monastery and village
  5. Lamayuru Monastery

(These spots are on the Leh-Srinagar highway.)

Alchi village
Alchi village
The view from Lamayuru Monastery
The view from Lamayuru Monastery

All these places can be travelled staying at Leh. We rented a bike to visit the above-mentioned places. For three consecutive days, we travelled to each set of places. Renting a bike is very easy and you can find bike rentals at every corner at every lane in Leh. Next, we toured places which were far from Leh and required a couple of nights’ stay. So again the sector was made based on the direction of the locations. Nubra Valley and Hunder via Khardungla to the North of Leh, Pangong Tso to the Southeast, Hanle to further Southeast of Pangong, Tso Moriri to the West of Hanle and finally Puga and Tso Kar.

Approaching Hemis Gompa
Approaching Hemis Gompa

A few kilometres after crossing the Khardungla Pass, the road bifurcates into two, the right-handed ones go to the Nubra Valley while the left one goes to Hunder.

Places of interest in Nubra Valley and Huder:

  1. Sumur Village
  2. Panamik hot spring
  3. Diskit Monastery
  4. Hunder Sand Dune
  5. Shyok River Valle
  6. Turtuk
  7. Thang
Apple orchard in Turtuk
Apple orchard in Turtuk

Road conditions were pretty much good till this part of the journey. We hired a vehicle from our hotel for the rest of our trip through Ladakh. The bike, as well as the vehicle rates, are fixed by the union and are the same everywhere. With our initial confusion in planning, we could not book the vehicle before and requested the owner of our hotel to arrange one. Our driver was an experienced one in his field as he knew the roads well. I am sharing his details here (Dorjee Namgyal – 9906001360/ 9469880137) so that anyone who is looking for any vehicle can contact him directly. While there are multiple other options to book the vehicle – there are websites with car renting details and there is a taxi stand in front of the airport from where vehicles can be hired too.

Near Magnetic Hill
Near Magnetic Hill

Hunder/ Nubra Valley

When you are beyond Leh, be prepared to compromise on the luxury that people of the plains are used to. The electricity here is limited only to a few hours after the dark in the evening. In Hunder and Nubra Valley, you will find various hotels with various electricity timings. Some offer 24 hours electricity with gen set back up, while others provide electricity from 7 PM to 10:30 PM on all the points in the room and keep a charging point active throughout the day. So are the hot water timings – at some places, it is 24 hours while at others they provide hot water once in the morning and once in the evening on an hourly basis.

Hunder Sand Dunes
Hunder Sand Dunes

Pangong Tso

One can directly go to Pangong Tso from Nubra valley or vice-versa as there is a separate road that takes you to Pangong Tso from Nubra Valley/ Hunder, there is no need to return back to Leh. The road conditions were pretty bad during our visit. In many places, road widening work was going on while in a few places the road was severely damaged by flowing water. It is always advisable to start early and reach your destination early. Places to stay at Pangong Tso are mostly situated near the lake and almost every property is in the form of Camps, so it’s better to be prepared with proper warm clothes as the nights turn out to be very chilly even in the summer months. There is no electricity throughout the day. Electricity is provided from 7:30 PM to 10:30 PM in the evening. Hot water in the tap is given for an hour in the morning.

Myriad of colours in Pangong Lake
Myriad of colours in Pangong Lake

Mostly many people end their trip to Ladakh at Pangong Tso and return back to Leh to take a flight back home or take the road southward to reach Manali. Though our trip was yet to get over. We travelled to Hanle from Pangong Tso. It was a journey through no roads and also no vehicles. This off-road track was traversed by a few military vehicles, just a couple of cars and some bikers. No fuel station was seen by us beyond Nubra valley. The cellular network was completely lost from Pangong Tso onwards. We carried both Airtel and BSNL post-paid connections but none worked. There were a few settlements on the way where a patchy BSNL connection was available.

Our first view of Pangong Lake
Our first view of Pangong Lake

Hanle

In Hanle, there is only a handful of homestays and guesthouses. Getting a booking there is pretty tough as most of them are previously booked. I am sharing the phone number of a couple of homestays here (Hanle house: 094198 18993, Padma Homestay: 094692 24302, Umling La Residency: 070510 61316/094191 24623). The rooms are basic, each with an attached bathroom with the running hot water facility only once a day, while cold water was available throughout the day. The electricity is also limited for the evening only from 6:30 – 10:30 PM. There were no networks on our cellular devices here too.

Observatory at Hanle
Astronomical Observatory at Hanle

Tso Moriri

Our next destination was Tso Moriri. Again through some isolated roads, we reached Tso Moriri and en route, there was another small one – the Kyagar Tso. The village of Tso Moriri beside the beautiful lake is a bit clumsy. Finding a standard stay there is again a tough job. There are only a couple of hotels and the rest are guest houses and camps, while all the accommodations are very basic and not very hygienic. The electricity and the hot water conditions remain the same as before. Breakfast and dinner are taken care of by the hotels or guest houses. Cellular network conditions remained the same.

Tso Moriri
Tso Moriri

Tso Kar

Ending our Ladakh touring we were set to return back to Leh via Puga hot water spring and Tso Kar. Till Puga, the road conditions were bad while after a certain area there was completely no road and only some severely uneven rocky track. It was pretty tricky to drive through that particular patch. After crossing Tso Kar and reaching the Manali-Leh highway the drive was smooth. Though we got back our cellular network much later. It was a few days sans the modern luxury of life – an adventure in its own way for the slaves of modern lifestyle and luxury. We enjoyed our trip as it was the much much-coveted one and also a totally different one. I shall be sharing my complete experience for each circuit of my trip in separate posts. So my dear readers, stay tuned. I end this post by sharing my Ladakh tour itinerary.

Tso Kar
Tso Kar

My Ladakh tour Itinerary:

    • Day 1: Reached Leh via flight. For the rest of the day, we rested.
    • Day 3: Visited Gurudwara Pather Sahib, Confluence of Indus and Zanskar, Alchi Monastery, Lamayuru Monastery.
    • Day 4: Visited Hemis Gompa, Thiksey Monastery, Shey Monastery, Stok Palace, Sindhu Ghat.
    • Day 5: Left Leh and went to Hunder via Khardungla Pass, Diskit Monastery and Hunder Sand dunes, night stay at Hunder.
    • Day 6: Went to Turtuk and Thang and returned back to the hotel in Hunder.
    • Day 7: Left from Hunder and reached Pangong Tso. Spent the evening by the lake and the night staying at a camp beside the lake.
    • Day 8: Went to Hanle from Pangong Tso, visited the observatory and saw the huge telescope, and night stay at Hanle.
    • Day 9: From Hanle, we reached Tso Moriri, walked around the lake, did some bird watching, visited the viewpoint and night stay at Tso Moriri.
    • Day 10: From Tso Moriri we went to Puga hot spring, from there to Tso Kar and via Tanglangla Pass we reached Leh.
    • Day 11: Flight back to Pune.
Bye bye Ladakh till I see you again
Bye bye Ladakh till I see you again

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