We sent Chandrika on a once-in-a-lifetime Ladakh trip. She came back to tell us how everyone can make it happen.
A land many have heard of, but only the ones with adventure in their hearts have dared to venture to. A land of rugged mountains that coexist alongside the mystical chants of Buddhist prayers – the recently declared Indian Union Territory of Ladakh is this and so much more!
Located in the northern part of the Indian sub-continent bordering Tibet, Ladakh is shrouded in a certain mystery, despite having gained a lot of popularity in the past few years. Filled with adrenaline-inducing twists and turns, high mountain passes and some of the most beautiful mountain ranges in India, a trip through Ladakh is the perfect way to get an introduction to the Himalayan region.
Ladakh is a high altitude region, meaning, no matter which part of Ladakh you are at, you’ll find yourself at a minimum altitude of 3000 meters (9800 feet) above sea level. This is important to mention here because this is considerably higher than most people are used to and the high altitude affects many aspects of travel in this region.
To help you execute that dream Ladakh trip, this 7-day itinerary designed by India Someday and Unplugged Life will take you through some of the biggest highlights of the region, while giving you a sense of what it means to be traveling in a destination as unique as this.
How to get to Ladakh
Before we dive deep into the specifics of the itinerary, it’s crucial to plan your arrival in Ladakh. The best way to reach Ladakh is to fly in. The biggest town in Ladakh is Leh, which is connected by air with India’s capital city, New Delhi.
Daily direct flights are running between Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport and Leh’s Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, run by 3 Indian airlines – Air India, SpiceJet, and GoAir. If you are traveling from another country or Indian city, you’ll first have to get to Delhi to catch the 1.5-hour flight to Leh.
Although there are multiple flights available daily, do keep in mind that the weather in Leh largely determines flight schedules. Turbulent weather is pretty common in this region so flights taking off an hour early or an hour late is not unheard of. Having said that, we have to admit that the destination is worth all that trouble!
Ladakh 7-day itinerary
Day 1 – Land in Leh and rest
The erstwhile capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, Leh is perched at an altitude of 3524 meters (11562 feet) and is home to some of the most popular attractions in the region. The landscape in Leh is rugged, with a backdrop of barren mountains, while the weather is generally dry and very hot during the day and slightly chilly at night, depending on which month of the year you visit.
Most flights to Leh land sometime in the morning or early afternoon, so you can expect to have more than half a day to spare. But this is a day to take it easy. Remember you’ve just landed at a high altitude destination practically from the sea level (Delhi lies at an altitude of roughly 200m above sea level) and that means your body needs time to acclimatize to this drastic change.
The process of acclimatization can take a while, about 24-48 hours for most people. But no matter how you feel on day 1 (we know you’re excited!), you must take as much rest as you can and keep yourself hydrated. This is a day of barely any physical activity, so go ahead and enjoy the views from your hotel and indulge in the local Ladakhi food to gear up for the next day.
Where to stay in Leh: Gangba Homestay
A picture-postcard like setting with a traditional Ladakhi-style building, an apple orchard and a view of snowy peaks in the distance – Gangba Homestay is truly a home away from home.
Run by a local family, they are the warmest, most welcoming hosts you could ask for in Leh! To top that, the food served in the homestay is delicious and homely, while the rooms are very spacious, well-equipped and comfortable. But what sets Gangba Homestay apart is their hospitality and the staff’s mindset to always go the extra mile to care for their guests.
Day 2 – Leh city tour
Your second day in Ladakh will also be spent in Leh to continue with the acclimatization process. However, on this day you’ll be taking a tour of the beautiful city and its surrounding areas.
Confluence (Sangam) of the Indus and Zanskar Rivers
Located around 35 Km away from Leh town, the point of confluence of the mighty Indus and Zanskar Rivers is your first stop for the day. The different shades of green of the two rivers’ water are distinctly visible with bare eyes, making it a place worth visiting during your stay in Leh.
You can either choose to drive down to the exact point of confluence, maybe enjoy the view with a cup of steaming hot tea, or you could also get a bird’s eye view of the confluence from a vantage point. Depending on which time of the year you visit, you’ll notice how different both rivers look individually, leading up to their meeting point.
A very popular tourist attraction in Leh, Magnetic Hill is technically a small stretch of road on the Leh-Kargil Highway. It is popularly known to be a spot where gravitational forces can be defied, due to a so-called magnetic pull from the surrounding mountains. Although this spot has maintained its popularity among tourists, there is not much truth to what happens here.
The landscape of the surrounding mountains and slopes is such that, to our eyes, it looks like the road is sloping uphill, but in reality the road slopes downhill making cars roll down even on neutral gear. But having said that, it’s a great spot to stop by for a while and get a good look at the stunning landscape.
Lunch at a local Tibetan restaurant
Ladakh is not only well known for its natural beauty, but for its delicious local cuisine too. With heavy influences from the neighboring Tibetan cuisine, you’d be missing out on an important cultural element if you don’t give Ladakhi food a try.
Head to Tenzin Dickey Tibetan Restaurant, located less than a kilometer from Leh’s main market, for a sumptuous lunch of local dumplings, noodles, soups and an assortment of drinks. The restaurant is unassuming and cozy and the food makes you feel right at home.
Belonging to the Namgyal dynasty of Ladakh, Leh Palace is the former residential palace of the royal family. Perched on top of a hill, the palace overlooks Leh and has now been converted into a museum for visitors to get a glimpse of Ladakhi royal heritage.
A tour of the 9-storeyed palace takes you through almost 450 years of artifacts belonging to the royal family. Although the palace is still under renovation, it is worth a visit for the incredible bird’s eye view of the city it offers.
Leh main market
A colorful, bustling market in the city center, Leh’s main bazaar is the perfect place to spend a leisurely evening strolling through its narrow alleys. The market is home to shops selling all kinds of local products – from fresh produce to souvenirs and handicraft items.
Pick up Tibetan prayer flags and wheels or silver jewelry, taste local dry fruits like apricots, figs, and walnuts and end the day with a meal at one of the many cafes lining the street.
Day 3 – Drive to Nubra Valley via Khardung La
On your third day in Ladakh, it’s time to venture out of the city into the mountains!
The curvy roads of Ladakh can be unforgivable so it is important to be accompanied by an experienced local driver. Some stretches of road are steep and bumpy and you need a good car for better comfort. You can hire a private car but keep in mind that the cost of transport is quite high in Ladakh. A good option for solo travelers and couples is to use shared taxis that are available for all kinds of tours in Ladakh, including the 3-day Nubra-Pangong tour. This helps saving money by sharing the cost of transport with other travelers. Sharing a car also helps to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, and therefore, the pollution.
The drive from Leh to Nubra Valley takes approximately 5-6 hours. But the biggest highlight of the drive is climbing up to the Khardung La (La is the Ladakhi word for a mountain pass) and crossing it to get to the other side of the Ladakh mountain range.
The pass is situated at an altitude of 17,582 feet (5359m) and is considered to be one of the highest motorable passes in the world.
The winding mountain road leading up to Khardung La is spectacular and is a treat in itself. Once at the top of the pass, spend 15-20 minutes exploring the surroundings without exerting your body too much. It is important to remember that at such high altitude, there is very little oxygen available to breathe, so take it easy and enjoy the breathtaking views of the snow-covered mountains.
Once you cross Khardung La and start driving towards Nubra Valley, the landscape changes dramatically. The drive past Shyok River towards the lush green valley of Nubra is worth keeping your eyes peeled for!
By the time you get to your hotel in Nubra Valley after several pit stops on the way, it’ll probably be late afternoon.
Complete your check-in formalities and head to the famous Hundar dunes to catch the sunset, with herds of Bactrian Camels for company. The Bactrian Camels are native to this region and are known for their ability to withstand high altitude and extreme cold.
The landscape here is equally fascinating, to say the least, with rolling sand dunes as far as the eyes can see, enclosed by towering rocky mountains on all sides.
Where to stay in Nubra Valley – Stone Hedge Ladakh
A gorgeous property located just 10 minutes away from the Hundar sand dunes, Stone Hedge is one of the most luxurious hotels you will come across in Ladakh.
Like a little oasis in the desert, with a natural spring flowing in the backyard, a lush garden whichever direction you look and warm and cozy interiors, Stone Hedge sets the bar high. Their rooms are exceptionally well-furnished with perfect mood lighting, elegant wood furniture, a room heater (rarely found elsewhere in Ladakh) and a lovely balcony that opens up to the backyard.
Day 4 – Drive to Pangong Lake
Check out from your hotel in Nubra Valley this morning and head back to the dunes once again if you want to see it in daylight. The difference is stark and worth another visit. Alternatively, you can directly head to Diskit Monastery in Nubra Valley before starting the drive towards Pangong Lake.
The Diskit Monastery is the oldest and largest monastery in Nubra Valley. The iconic statue of the Maitreya Buddha stands tall here at a height of 32 meters and overlooks the vast plains of the Shyok River flowing nearby.
After a tour of the monastery, it’s time to get on your way to Pangong Lake. The drive is roughly 6 hours long and takes you through picturesque mountain roads. Flanked by the Shyok River on one side for most of the journey, this drive takes you from an altitude of about 10,000 feet (3048 meters) to 14,270 feet (4350 meters), where Pangong Lake is located.
Pangong Tso (Tso is the Ladakhi word for lake) is a saline water lake that spreads across India and Tibet. In fact, 60% of the lake lies in Tibet. But given its massive length and width, it would take roughly 3 hours to drive along its coast only on the Indian side.
Popular for its stunning turquoise blue water, Pangong Tso is one of the biggest attractions in all of Ladakh. However, do keep in mind that the appearance of the lake largely depends on which time of the year you visit. The lake is completely frozen in the winter while the peak summer months from June to August is when it reveals all its colors.
Once you reach Pangong Tso, check into your accommodation for the night. After that, you’ll have the evening free to either take a stroll near the lake or sit at one of the small restaurants, enjoy the view while sipping hot tea. Do keep in mind that as the sun sets, it tends to get chilly in this part of Ladakh, the extent of which again depends on the season. So get ready to layer up some warm clothes and snuggle in for the night!
Where to stay in Pangong Tso – Native Huts
There are no permanent hotels near Pangong Lake, so be prepared for a night of adventure staying in these wooden huts specially constructed for tourists while the travel season lasts. The huts come with an attached western toilet and have basic amenities like fresh towels, warm blankets and charging points (operational from 6 pm to 11 pm).
The owners of these huts are very helpful and accommodating so if you want more blankets or hot water, just let them know. They also arrange fresh, hot meals for guests in a separate dining space inside another hut and that food at the end of a long, cold day truly warms the heart.
Read more: 10 Awesome Treks And Hikes In India
Day 5 – Drive back to Leh via Chang La
This will be the last day of driving through Ladakh, but expect it to be no less exciting than the previous two days! The journey from Pangong Lake back to Leh takes close to 6 hours and will take you via Chang La, a mountain pass situated at an altitude of 17,590 feet (5360 meters).
The drive to Chang La is relatively bumpier than what you would have experienced while driving to Khardung La, but the experience of getting to the top of the pass is incredible.
On the way from Chang La to Leh, make another stop at the famous Hemis Monastery. With a long and rich history, the monastery also houses a museum that showcases artifacts from the museum’s heritage.
Considered to be one of the largest monasteries in Ladakh, the highlight of visiting Hemis is the huge statue of Guru Rinpoche and the monastery’s unique architecture.
Day 6 – Explore Leh
Spend your final day in Ladakh seeing more of Leh and wrapping up your visit. This would be a good day to revisit the local market to pick up souvenirs to take home, in addition to visiting the following places.
Start your day early with a visit to the Thiksey Monastery to witness the morning prayer chanting session. Get there by 7 am so you can get in the prayer hall in time without disturbing the monks. It may seem way too early, but the experience is magical!
As the sun rises and illuminates the surrounding snow-capped peaks, the monks begin their day together by rhythmically chanting Buddhist prayers – an experience not to be missed in Leh.
Constructed as part of a Peace Pagoda Mission, the Shanti Stupa was built jointly by the Buddhist community of Japan and Ladakh. While the iconic white dome sits at the top, the Shanti Stupa houses the relics of the Buddha at its base. Visited for its religious as well as architectural value, there’s a certain air of calm surrounding the Stupa, as it sits looking over the vast expanse of Leh.
Located on the western bank of River Indus, the Stok Palace was originally built as the summer home of Ladakh’s royal family. Currently, this is where the royal family resides all year long. The palace also has several museum rooms that display lots of ancient artifacts belonging to the royal family- from precious jewelry and royal attires to weapons and items of daily use.
A part of the Stok Palace has now been transformed into a heritage hotel and opened up to travelers who want to experience the royal way of living for a few days.
Lunch in the orchard at Chulli Bagh
After a tour of the Stok Palace, head to the nearby Chulli Bagh, which is essentially the royal family’s orchard, with apricot and walnut trees dominating the scene.
Settle down for a luxurious lunch amidst the lush greenery of the meticulously-maintained orchard and enjoy a delicious meal accompanied by freshly-plucked fruits from the garden.
Ladakhi cultural show
Now that it’s almost time to wrap up your final day in Leh, head back to the hotel to watch a vibrant cultural show displaying the beautiful dance forms and music of Ladakh. Ladakh has a rich culture comprising of beautiful folk dances native to different parts of the region, performed by both men and women, depending on the dance form.
Decked in traditional costumes and jewelry, it’s a real treat to watch the locals match steps while humming Ladakhi songs.
Day 7 – Depart from Leh
This is a day of no activity since you have to catch a flight out of Leh back to Delhi. Depending on what time your flight is, you may be able to squeeze in a couple of hours in the morning to visit the local market or the village if you want, for a final glimpse of life in Ladakh!
Ladakh is vast and a one week trip may not entirely do justice to its beauty. But if this is all the time you have, this itinerary is a good place to start planning your trip. For a curated, personalized itinerary, connect with India Someday and Unplugged Life for an unparalleled experience of Ladakh.
Read the author’s honest review of both companies.
Contributing members are responsible for the accuracy of content contributed to A World to Travel.