Beginners Travel Guide: Leh
With travel restrictions continuing through the summer months, Indians are now looking inward to find Instagram worthy spots to explore, and Leh has turned out to be this season’s clear winner. Now that it’s raining in Goa, beaches are closed and people need a new destination — so I thought I’d share my experiences of travelling through Leh with you to make this journey a little easier.
To be clear, this is the first time I’d travelled to Leh so I would only read this for very basic knowledge about the area. It was my boyfriend’s birthday in August and we wanted to do something special, which is how Leh came about. During the monsoon, it’s hard to find good weather in India and summer is actually the best time to visit Leh. The temperature varies between 10 degrees (celsius) at night and can go up to the low 20s during the day depending on how sunny it is.
The sun is incredibly strong here, even when cloudy so always wear sunscreen, carry lip balm and a cap/scarf. Leh is one of those places that you must visit at least once in your life, it’s visually the most unique and captivating place I’ve ever seen and it has a truly otherwordly quality. Oftentimes I’d look out the window and imagine them shooting The Martian here.
We did a very short trip of only 5 nights which I wouldn’t recommend. I think you need at least 6 nights to enjoy Leh. My boyfriend and I both had COVID-19 in April/May and so I’m not sure if this had anything to do with our slow acclimatisation but trust me — it is REAL. Leh sits at 3,500m and many of the places you visit will go up to 4,500m which is why getting used to the low oxygen (6% compared to our regular 18–20%) is essential.
The day you arrive, you will immediately start feeling a little breathless, especially when walking up steps. Check into your hotel and go to sleep till lunchtime, get something to eat and sleep some more. We did manage to walk through the town at night however, breathing was difficult and the entire group had mild headaches. The other couple we travelled with fared slightly better than us, though had not had COVID-19 which is why I feel this could be a factor. I would say we only felt normal — though not to the point of working out for example — till day 5, the day before we left.
When you drive up to higher spots like Khardung La and Pangong Lake, you will likely feel the effects more as well so don’t worry, it’s totally normal. We made sure we had an oxygen cylinder with us through our journey but didn’t need to use it. Also, there is some medicine you can take in advance of your journey (Diamox) if you’re worried about this, which you can find out about from your doctor.
Day 1: Land in the morning from Bombay, check into a hotel in Leh and have breakfast. Sleep till lunch, eat and hang out a bit, then go back to sleep till dinner. Eat an early dinner at Bon Appetit and go to sleep by 10 pm. This was one restaurant everyone recommended to me but our meal was quite average, though the setting is lovely.
We stayed at Gomang Boutique Hotel which is very well-located. It’s a small hotel that feels like you’re staying in someones home. The staff is super helpful and the owner is a lovely guy as well. My only complaint here would be the size of the rooms and the quality of breakfast. Every other meal was fantastic but the breakfast could be better. Also, we must have drunk litres of their ginger, lemon, mint tea. It was delicious!
Day 2: Visit local monasteries and palaces in Thiksey, Himes and Shay. Some people really love the monasteries, for me, they were alright. I think Thiksey was probably the most beautiful.
We left around 9 am and were back by 2 pm so we stopped by the Tibetan Kitchen for lunch where we had a delicious meal of thukpa, thenthuk and momos.
We went back to the hotel and slept till dinnertime. We drove to the Ladakh Sarai hotel and had an incredible meal at Syah (reservations required). The location, food, service and presentation were all exceptional and I would highly recommend this! Note that most places in Leh do not serve alcohol nor would I recommend drinking there, but if you’re keen, carry your own and restaurants will serve you.
Day 3: We set out at 9 am for Diskit in the Nubra Valley via Khardung La, the highest motorable road in the world. Here you’ll be surrounded by snow! The drive is scary and quite long (4–5 hours) but the road is excellent. Nubra Valley has incredible scenery and is quite different from the other side of the mountain. Here we stayed at Creek Diskit which is a rustic, glamping experience — they had excellent food and very helpful staff.
Once you check-in and eat lunch, you can rest till the sun starts to dip as it’s quite harsh here and then head out to see the Diskit monastery. I would recommend skipping the Hunder sand dunes as they are super commercial and crowded and instead drive to a river near the Hunder monastery. It’s completely secluded and absolutely stunning. You will see the dunes during your drive.
You can also go on ATVs around Nubra valley but there aren’t many dunes so it’s quite underwhelming, but a great photo opp.
The hotel set up a bonfire at night and let us play music, a few guests were having drinks. We had dinner and went to sleep by 10 pm.
Day 4: This was definitely the most challenging day for us. We left the hotel at 6 am and headed toward Pangong Lake, a cool 275km away. This drive was definitely the most beautiful of our entire journey. You’ll cross stunning little streams and drive alongside rivers for the entire duration of your journey. We spotted fields of horses, yaks, cows and sheep. It was idyllic.
We got to Pangong Lake by 12.30 pm and drove past the crowds to a quiet spot where we just stared at the water and took in the vastness of this amazing lake. It’s the highest saltwater lake in the world! We chose not to stay here as the accommodation is quite simple, however, if you’re okay with camping this is a great stop to make. I’ve heard the Pangong Sarai is the best ‘luxury’ option here but it was sold out when we went. We attempted to have lunch here but the dining options are incredibly basic and not clean at all so I would recommend asking your hotel to pack you something.
Heading back to Leh from Pangong is where the trouble began. The route goes via Chong La, another pass (the 2nd highest motorable road), which is famous for landslides and avalanches. This is why there is barely a road, it’s more a dirt path cut into the side of this massive mountain. The drive is bumpy, dusty and very uncomfortable.
It’s also about 3 hours long so be prepared. I get very carsick and took a tablet called Avomine which literally saved my life. Take it after eating at least 30 minutes before you leave.
Day 5: We were all up early, somehow I was getting great sleep in Leh, maybe because of the lack of oxygen? And was up each morning before 7 am. We ate a light breakfast and head out toward the Zanskar River for white water rafting. The earlier you go the better because this gets SUPER crowded after around 11 am. You’ll arrive at the location and will be given wet suits to wear — I wore workout leggings, a sports bra and a top under mine — along with crocs. The entire experience is amazing, the rapids are pretty small but you do get to jump into 4-degree water and feel like you might die. Carry a change of clothes and once you’re done, head for lunch.
There is a gurudwara and Army Hall of Fame nearby as well if you’re keen to check these out.
Depending on how you’re feeling, you could go on a short hike, someone from your hotel could help you organise this. We were quite tired so we ended up hanging out in the garden of our hotel playing cards. For dinner, we stumbled across a very cute Korean restaurant called Amigos, though the food was maybe a 6/10, the ambience and experience were excellent. Definitely try the chicken BBQ and bibimbap!
WHERE TO STAY
Depending on how much time you have, here are a few options:
Staying in Leh: Grand Dragon hotel for 5-star luxury/Gomang Boutique Hotel for local charm
Slightly outside of Leh: Ladakh Sarai
25 minutes outside of Leh: Chamba Camp Thiksey for luxury tents
THINGS TO KNOW
- Carry LOTS of snacks, you’ll be in the car for hours without any shops or restaurants so load up on cookies, chocolates, chips, protein bars, etc. for these long drives.
- If you have had COVID-19 recently, consider taking Diamox or something similar before travelling and speak to your doctor about this.
- Carry layers. The weather changes drastically through the day from blazing heat to windy and cold; so make sure you have enough layers to stay comfortable.
- Wear sneakers. It’s super dusty in most parts and quite cold so avoid sandals (apart from when you’re rafting).
- Please respect the locals and their environment. We say tons of plastic bottles and food wrappers — we even found a Snickers wrapper floating in Pangong Lake. Carry bags to store garbage in the car, do not litter and use as little plastic as possible.
- Be kind to everyone you meet. Ladakh only hosts tourists for 3–4 months after which many guides, drivers, hotel staff and vendors have to shut shop and survive on their savings. Be considerate and compassionate to these amazing people who are hosting you as their guests.
- There are no proper bathrooms anywhere outside of Leh so carry toilet paper and other pee equipment with you. Try to stay hydrated but also be aware you will be in the car a lot.
- Moisturise! Lotion, lip balm, face cream, sunscreen. You can never have too much, it’s super dry in Leh and your skin will suffer.
- Only Jio phones work there, and that too only near Leh so definitely carry one Jio number if you can.
- Soak it all in. You will never have an experience like this again, and the pictures just don’t do it justice. Go with an open mind, take a few days off work and enjoy the beauty of this incredible place.
Let me know if you have any more questions and I’d be happy to try to help!