When most people think about traveling to India, they imagine crowded and polluted places, colourful dresses and spiritual rebirth. These impressions are true for almost all except one region in India, called Ladakh. It is found in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, at the most northern tip of Indian subcontinent.
I visited Ladakh in May 2016 with my boyfriend from India. I experienced the uniqueness of this region with the help of an Indian travel agency. First we thought, why not we plan the trip ourselves as we did many times before for other places? Firstly – budget. It makes almost no difference to book a pre-planned group trip through the agency or book every hotel and transport separately. And secondly, May marks the beginning of the high tourist season in this region, as the snow in the mountains is mostly melted and the rainy season has not started yet, so it is difficult to find accommodation if you don’t book months in advance.
Arriving at Leh, the capital of Ladakh region
There are two ways to reach the largest town of Ladakh called Leh. I always wanted to experience going there by road, taking the Manali-Leh highway. But the journey would take at least 2 days and the road trip although one of the most spectacular one – it is among the most dangerous ones in India. So instead we decided to take the flight from Delhi to Leh, which took only one hour. During the flight we could also enjoy the beautiful views of snow-capped mountains, as we flew directly over the Himalayan range.
The first day of our 8 day adventure was spent resting and doing absolutely nothing. I know, what a waste of time, right? Well, not so much because we did not want to spend the rest of the days in a hospital! The city of Leh is situated in the middle of mountains at an altitude of around 3,500 m and if reaching by flight, it is recommended to take at least one full day of rest to let your body acclimatise to the high altitude. We saw many tourists who were too confident and started exploring the city on foot right away, which resulted in getting “acute mountain sickness” (AMS) and going to hospital… not much fun in that!
Sightseeing around Leh
The real adventure finally started the next morning when we met our driver and the family who shared the cab with us for the week. We spent the day driving around and stopping at the interesting sights including Buddhist monasteries, rivers, and surreal views, which made me feel like I am walking on the moon, not in India! Except for the road and few small villages on the way, there was almost no signs of humans… our only company was the hot sun, dry dusty air and endless mountains covered in rocks.
Khardung La Pass, highest motorable road
The next day we said good bye to Leh and started our journey to the Nubra valley, a true heaven on Earth. The road trip took 6 hours (one way) but was not boring at all. The road from Leh to Nubra valley is a part of the historic caravan route called Silk Road, and the most important part of it is Khardung La Pass, which is world’s highest motorable road (it reaches the elevation of 5,359 m at the top). Our driver told us that we should not stop at the top for more than few minutes if we don’t want to risk getting dizzy and sick, but we stopped for few clicks anyway, as I could not imagine passing by without taking the evidence that I was there.
Nubra valley, a heaven on Earth
We reached our camping site in Nubra valley in late afternoon and after a tiring day spent on the road, I was overwhelmed by the place I found myself in. The camp was set in the middle of a small forest near the Nubra river, the nearest village was a few km away. It was the most peaceful and beautiful natural place I could imagine, where only sounds of river and birds could be heard. After spending the night in cute small bungalows, we had the whole day to explore the beautiful sights in the valley.
The main attractions of the valley were the Diskit monastery and white sand dunes at Hunder. The monastery lies at the top of a small hill and is perfect for capturing the interesting views and landscapes, looked over by a huge statue of a sitting Buddha. But I was even more surprised on reaching the white dunes where they offer rides on two hump camels. The sand dunes are the result of river erosion and surrounded by mountains, which together with camels made an impression of some African desert which somehow made its way to the Nubra valley… a really crazy experience!
The beautiful Pangong Tso lake
The next day we took the same road back to Leh, where we used the free time for resting and preparing for another long day. The last planned adventure was the journey to Pangong lake and back in one day, which was one of the longest road trips I ever did. Not because of the distance, but because of the curvy road which took us through another high mountain pass called Chang La (5360 m altitude, only few meters less than Khardung La). At the top we were welcomed by the fresh snow and bitter cold, and really smelly toilets! The views were not too spectacular because of cloudy weather, but nonetheless a breath taking place (literally).
After a bumpy ride we reached the Pangong lake by around noon, and what a sight it was! The mountains suddenly gave way to stunning view of the most colourful lake I could imagine. The blue colour was so intense that I could not believe it’s real. Our driver took us to the most famous point along the lake shore where we had an hour to enjoy the magical sight, despite the really cold strong winds. The Pangong Tso lake is around 5 km long and lies in a disputed territory of Chinese border, only around half of the lake is in India, the other half is part of China. So after walking and clicking around for a while we had to turn around and take the same road back to Leh, from where we took the flight back to Delhi the next morning.
I will never forget this short but intense trip and we both hope to come back to Ladakh again one day and explore more of it secrets!