For the longest time, I had tried to ward off the idea of going to Leh and Ladakh. Having heard of the heavy inflow of tourists that the area receives year after year, and the negative impact this footfall has on the region’s fragile ecology, I had tried my best to not become one of the culprits and become a burden on Ladakh’s ecosystem. But when I randomly won a two nights’ stay at Raybo Hostel, Leh through an Instagram contest, I saw it as a sign that maybe after two years of being in love with the road, it was my time to finally head to this extremely popular tip of the country. For months still, I ignored my heart’s desire to book a ticket to Ladakh but when I finally ran out of travel plans by the end of August, my mind finally gave in. And pretty soon I was scouring through the net for ways to make the most of Ladakh and the incredible road journey that comes before it. Soon enough, I had a one-way ticket to Manali and a rough idea of how I was to chart the rest of my journey through public transport, before finally hitting Leh. Spending a good 5 days in Lahaul was a plan I had made unsure of myself but it’s safe to say that I thank the stars that made me reach this decision. But that’s a story for another day. This story is of Leh and all the other beauties that I got to witness along with it.
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How to reach Leh (using public transport)
Before I head into the details of my journey, I’d like to give a huge thanks to the Devil on Wheels blog that helped me with everything I needed to know about the Manali to Leh road journey.
Coming to the point, I first booked a bus from Delhi to Manali and took a day’s halt to get enough rest before I went on the long bus ride till Leh.
From Manali, I took the 6 am HRTC bus to Keylong and from Keylong (~200 INR), I boarded the 5 am JKSRTC bus headed to Leh (~850 INR).
I had to take this route since the HRTC buses from Manali to Leh usually get suspended by 15th September for the winter season. Alternatively, you can also have a look at the HPTDC tourist deluxe buses that run from Manali to Leh with a night’s halt at Keylong. The fair is a bit on the higher side but includes your dinner and breakfast, as long as one night’s stay at the HPTDC hotel at Keylong. I wanted the experience the journey through this bus as I have heard it stops on most tourist spots en route but this bus service gets suspended by 15th September each year as well. For details and bookings, click here.
Other ways of getting into Leh via road is from Srinagar. And of course, there is the direct Delhi to Leh flight but that is usually not recommended due to acclimatization issues.
Also read: 13 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Visit Spiti Valley.
Places to stay in Leh
My go-to lodging places while travelling solo is backpacker hostels. You get to meet fun, likeminded people who you can tag along with for city sightseeing or even make plans with to rent motorbikes and head to a ~400 kilometres road trip (like I did!)
Ree by Raybo
This is where I stayed for the first two nights of my stay. This is a nice hostel tucked up somewhere in Upper Takulcha Road, quite near to the Leh Main Market, somewhere around 10-15 minutes’ walk downhill. Their prices are reasonable as well, with breakfast included and the dorms are very comfortable and clean. What I liked most about this place is their exceptionally clean bathrooms- something you get to see very rarely in shared dormitories. They also sell merchandise like T-shirts and water bottles at the hostel and have a very cool library in the common area.
Since I was travelling in offseason, Ree was mostly empty and I was having trouble meeting fellow travellers. One day while strolling around Leh Palace, I bumped into a bunch of travellers who later invited me to dinner (one of them was making thukpa for everyone) and so I decided to move to goStops where all of these people were staying. Their common room is a riot of colours with comfortable mattresses to lounge on, and it also has a bunch of games including Jenga and Uno that made for a fun night amongst our lot. They also have a projector for film screenings and their bunks in the dormitories are suuuuper comfy. The biggest plus side was the manager’s pet dog, Ozil! What I didn’t like, however, was that they have about four shared bathroom stalls and toilets for each floor that are not the ~most clean toilets~ you’ll ever see. But I stayed here at a time when goStops, Leh was not even on Google Maps and we were the very first bunch of visitors in the place. So I’m hoping they will work up on that.
Things to do (and see) in Leh
One of the first things I did in Leh was catch the sunset from its rugged old palace that sits commanding over the city. I started climbing through the narrow lanes under a banner that welcomed me to the Old Leh Town and boy, was I surprised by the sudden change in architecture. Where all of Leh now (quite sadly) hosts building made of concrete and wrought iron, Old Leh still had the ancient brown mud houses intact.
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The moment you take the left from Leh Main Market to enter into Leh Old Town and start the walk to Leh Palace, all the hustle bustle and glitz of the market gives way to traditional Ladakhi architecture with mud and thatched roofs. This stark contrast is a shock to your senses with its narrow lanes and low doorways. With school children hanging around each turn of the path and women chatting with each other across houses, the charm of Old Town for me served as a glimpse into the life that once used to be called Leh. Not the colourful shops selling pashmina, not the endless cafes that now line the street, a life that was much simpler and existed beyond what is now Leh.
After a hike of about half an hour, I finally made it to the gate of the palace only to find it closed for the day. The security person had just locked it up and was starting up his scooter to go back home but upon my requests he obliged me, and a few other people just a little too late for a quick peek inside. He even let us spend some time on the terrace of the palace where I watched the sun go down, the sky turn pink and the Shanti Stupa glitter in the distance while the Stok Range shone majestically against a purple sky.
Pro tip: Reach the palace before 5 pm to enter the premises and enjoy a mesmerising sunset from the top.
Pro pro tip: Every Friday at 5 pm, Lonpo House hosts a cultural evening for Ladakhi folk songs and music, something that absolutely shouldn’t be missed!
I would say Leh has two prominent historical landmarks dominating the city. On one side situated atop a hill sits the enchanting Leh Palace and on the other side, one can spot the Shanti Stupa looking ever so tiny in the distance. And it’s safe to say, the views from both these places are first class. A fairly recent monument, this one, Shanti Stupa was built in the 1980s when Japan’s Bhikshu Gyomo Nakamura was struck with an idea to create a stupa that symbolized Ladakh’s vision of peace and tolerance.
The climb to this massive architectural marvel isn’t an easy one. An endless number of stairs coupled with low oxygen in the air makes for a very breathless Avantika. One can, of course, take the road as well but when you’re solo and can’t hire a scooter (because you don’t know how to ride one) and don’t want to pay 200 rupees for a taxi to see a monument, your options are, well… limited.
Visible from the Shanti Stupa itself, Tisseru Stupa is a smaller, bulky, mud structure that often remains obscured from the traveller’s eyes amidst yellowing poplar and willow trees. When I went to see this stupa, it was… *drumroll* CLOSED! Although it was in the middle of the day, all the gates to go inside the stupa were locked shut and there was not a single soul around whom I could have asked for the whereabouts of the key that opened these gates. So instead, I just sat at the base of the stupa and watched autumn work its magic over the trees while several Eurasian magpies (a very common magpie in Ladakh) flittered from one branch to the next.
Located some 13 kilometres from Leh, across an incredibly scenic highway is the tiny village of Shey and atop a hillock sits the Shey Palace overlooking a breathtaking valley lined with willow and poplar trees. My timing in Ladakh was just perfect as I got to witness the magnificence that autumn is, with the green leaves slowly turning deep yellow and the crunch of the fallen leaves under my foot, with the crisp air everything was just so perfect!
Built during by King Deldan Namgyal in the 17th century, the Shey Palace was a funerary memorial to the king’s father, King Sengge Namgyal. The palace houses a massive gilded copper statue of Lord Buddha Shakyamuni plated with gold and studded with precious gems and stones. This is a one of a kind statue in all of Ladakh. The palace is also known for housing the largest Changchub Chhorten- stupa of enlightenment- found in Ladakh.
Pro tip: Don’t forget to visit the Ladakh Rocks and Minerals Museum in Shey that sits right beside the palace. Sadly, by the time I was done going around the palace, I came down to see the doors to this museum shut.
I’m considering renaming this blog to ‘a guide to Leh’s closed doors’…
I spent my final day in Leh with three fellow travellers riding a scooter for 17 kilometres to the mesmerising Thiksey Monastery. We had caught a glimpse of this monastery while on our bike ride out of Leh to Nubra Valley and each of us was left stunned by the sheer magnificence of this architectural wonder. Built-in steps covering an entire hillock, the views from the top of the monastery are magnificent. I could see the River Indus flowing, flanked by tens and hundreds of trees on its banks, then the village dotted with tiny white houses with thatched roofs and just a further bit from it the landscape changed entirely into a barren desert where the mountains sprouted from. Watching the golden hour give way to a fiery sunset here was one of the best things I’ve seen in my life!
The most striking feature of Thiksey Monastery is its Maitreya Temple which houses a massive 40 feet high statue of the Maitreya Buddha- the future Buddha- made of terracotta and clay, painted with gold. The face of Maitreya can be seen through the doorway of the temple and looked absolutely stunning with the soft golden sunlight pouring in and covering the face. As per Buddhist beliefs, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth in the future and teach pure dharma after achieving complete enlightenment. A giant, intricate statue of Maitreya can also be found at Diskit Monastery in Nubra Valley. I also read that on each full moon, new moon and half-moon, four monks from the Thiksey monastery chant the Maitreya Sutra- a prayer- continuously. I’m sure that’s a sight to behold but alas, the monastery closes each day at 6 pm.
Riding back those 17 kilometres to Leh, with three people on the scooter, leaving the dipping sun behind us somewhere in those mountains, I could tell I’m leaving a piece of my heart in Ladakh.
Ugh, enough corny sentimental travel reminiscences. Getting to the ~most~ important part of this guide.
Places to eat in Leh
Leh Ling Books and Coffee Shop
One of the first places I visited in Leh and god did I fall in love! It’s a cosy little place in the Main Market that houses a book shop and sells killer coffee with a decent WiFi connection. I sat here for hours people-watching through the giant glass window, catching occasional glimpses of the Leh Palace right in front, and finishing pending work because I am a *ahem* ~digital nomad~.
Go here if you want cheap, extremely delicious food from absolutely (almost) any cuisine in the world. From Indian to Chinese to Italian to the Mediterranean, Tibetan and even Ladakhi, they have it all and at unbeatable prices. Their special yak cheeseburger is my absolute favourite and I could stuff it in my face and wash it down with some lemonana all day, erryday. The spinach and cheese momos are pretty good here too.
Il Forno Restaurant
Photo courtesy: TripAdvisor
Just thinking of this place makes me want to catch a flight back to Leh pronto. A bit heavier on the pocket, but extremely, extremely worth it, these guys sell killer woodfire pizzas and lasagnas. The best I’ve probably ever had. My favourite was the Ale Olive Pizza with its thin and just slightly burnt crust, I could devour an entire one just by myself!
Real Coffee and French Bakery
I can still imagine myself sitting in that open verandah cafe, basking in the soft morning sunlight and ordering myself a plate of their ‘Set Breakfast’ a platter of 2 eggs, 2 toasts, butter, jam, and ~hash browns~ (or their version of it) served with a piping hot cup of cappuccino. I would follow that up with a chocolate ball and all this without burning a hole in my pocket. If there’s one place you choose for breakfast in Leh, let this be it!
Pro tip: They go by the name Yum Yum Food N Cafe on Google Maps.
Tips for Visiting Leh
- The only mobile networks that work in Ladakh are either postpaid connection (Jio and Airtel are the strongest) or a J&K SIM. No prepaid networks work in Leh.
- September and October are a great time to visit Leh if you’re looking for some peace and quiet and the autumn colours in Ladakh are just astounding.
- The Leh Main Market has enough ATMs including Yes Bank, HDFC, SBI and Punjab National Bank.
- The most common payment method is cash. Cards and online wallets/ UPI are usually not accepted.
- Scooter rentals are the easiest way to get around Leh. These are available at multiple places in the market.
- Spend at least two days in Leh to acclimatize to the high altitude and low oxygen levels before heading on to other parts of Ladakh.
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