Ladakh – The Land of Lamas
Top 15 Places You Must Visit in Ladakh
Ladakh– the land of high passes and the land of Lamas is a barren yet beautiful region in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. Located at a height of over 11500 ft. above the sea level, Ladakh is a high-altitude cold desert amidst the majestic Himalayas with extremely scarce vegetation. It is a fascinating combination of beautiful lakes, barren mountains, greenery and snow – all in one panorama. With its most unbelievable sunsets, out of the world lakes, clear blue skies, rugged terrains, occasional flowers and calming prayer flags, the road of Ladakh takes you through the mesmerizing landscapes you can only dream of. From being a part of the Kushan Dynasty in the 1st century to becoming the land of Lamas with a strong Tibetan and Buddhist influence, this magical region has a prolonged and interesting history. Ladakh also houses the highest battleground of Siachen Glacier where the line of control between India and Pakistan ends. It is the second longest glacier in the world’s non-polar areas. Due to its strategic location, there is a strong hold of Indian Army in Ladakh. The vistas of barren mountains broken by blue snaking rivers, the intriguing palaces that stand in ruins and the monasteries that have survived the test of time – everything will tickle your desire to explore more of the history and culture of Ladakh. Here is a list of top 15 places you must visit in this Himalayan Kingdom.
1. Hemis Monastery
Hemis Monastery, or Hemis Gompa as widely known, is one of the most popular and ancient monasteries in Ladakh. It is located at around 45 kms from Leh, the capital city of Ladakh, and can be reached by hiring a cab or bike from Leh. Hemis is tucked in the heart of a Himalayan mountain on the west bank of the peaceful Indus river. It belongs to the Drukpa lineage. Founded in 1630, the monastery pays homage to the two large statues of Lord Buddha and Guru Rimpoche (Lord Padmasambhava). The architecture of the monastery is quite remarkable. There are various stupas in this Gompa that are said to be made of precious metals like gold and silver. There is a sacred meditation cave 3 kms above the monastery where one can witness footprints and handprints of the great Gyalwa Kotsang. The monastery also houses a museum that exhibits a large collection of Buddhist relics, historical paintings and several ancient articles pointing towards a rich culture that once existed here. If you plan your trip in July, you can enjoy the two-day Hemis-festival that is celebrated every year in the square courtyard of the monastery. The festival includes mystic Masked Dance, Cham Dance and the display of age old paintings.
2. Thiksey Monastery
Located at around 18 kms from Leh city, Thiksey Gompa (monastery) is one of the largest monasteries in the central Ladakh. Its iconic architecture is settled on a hill top and offers a breathtaking view of the Indus valley and other monasteries like Shey and Stok. The Gompa is affiliated with Gelug sect of the Tibetan Buddhism. This twelve-storied monastery boasts of ten shrines, a large assembly hall and a nunnery. It is a home to around 120 monks. It is also referred to as ‘Mini Potala’ due to its resemblance to Potala Palace, Lhasa which was the residence of Dalai Lama and is now a heritage site. Thiksey Monastery houses many items of Buddhist art such as statues, stupas, wall paintings, thangkas, swords and a temple of Goddess Tara. The major point of interest is a 15 metres high statue of Maitreya Buddha covering two stories of the building. It is the largest such statue in Ladakh. Between October and November, the famous Gustor festival is celebrated here with great excitement where locals enjoy the event with sacred mask dance and music.
3. Leh Palace
Built in the 16th century by King Sengge Namgyal, Leh Palace is royalty in ruins. Located on the Tsemo hill, It is a nine-storey high former royal palace overlooking the city of Leh. The upper floors of the palace accommodated the royal family and the lower rooms were used as stables, store rooms and servant lodgings. This beautifully constructed palace was abandoned by the royal family in the mid 19th century when Dogra forces took control of Ladakh. The royal family moved to Stok Palace. Built with bricks, mud, wood and sand, it is a remarkable work of Tibetan architecture. The ruins of the Leh Palace are being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. If you love peeping into a bygone era, this place is a must visit for you. The palace is open to public and is now an archaeological museum which holds rich collection of Jewellery, ornaments, crowns, ceremonial dresses, cutlery, old utensils, and 450 years old Chinese sooth paintings that still retain their intricate designs and bright colors derived from crushed gems and stones. There are fascinating structures that embellish the base of the palace – the famous Namgyal Stupa, Chandazik Stupa and Chamba Lhakhang Stupa. The top floor of the palace is called victory tower. It offers the mesmerizing views of the Leh city and the Himalayan ranges. The palace looks stunning when it is lighted at special occasions.
4. Magnetic Hill
Magnetic Hill is located at the Leh-Kargil-Baltlik national highway around 30 kms from Leh. It is a small slope of road that defies the phenomenon of gravity. Situated at a height of around 14,000 ft. above the sea level with Sindhu river flowing to the east, the backdrop of this place is a picture perfect frame. The hill is known to have magnetic properties that are strong enough to pull cars uphill and force passing aircrafts to increase their altitude to escape its magnetic influence. There is a yellow box marked on the road a few metres away from the magnetic hill. When you park your vehicle in that box in neutral gear, it starts to move uphill at a speed of 20 kmph. Strange but true! There is another theory that considers the phenomenon as merely an optical illusion that makes the downslope look like an upslope. There is no conclusive theory till date. However, the locals and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel claim that if the aircraft comes within the radius of Magnetic Hill, it starts to jerk. The Indian Air Force pilots steer clear of the magnetic hill. Anyone who has experienced this phenomenon knows there’s something magical about it. I could not believe it until I experienced it myself. So, this place should certainly be on your hit list when visiting Ladakh. Stock your vehicle with enough snacks before heading to Magnetic Hill point as it is a barren area and there are no food joints on the way.
5. Shanti Stupa
Shanti Stupa is a white-domed magnificent Tibetan structure dedicated to Buddhism. Perched at an elevation of 4,267 meters, it is one of the major tourist attractions of Ladakh. The marvelous stupa was built between 1983 and 1991, mutually by the Japanese and Ladakhi Buddhists to mark the completion of 2500 years of Buddhism. It is a remarkable work of architecture and a great example of the ties between Japan and India. Shanti Stupa houses various relics of old Buddhist culture including the gold embellished statue of Buddha, the Dharamachakra (wheel of life) and paintings on walls depicting the different phases of Buddha’s life. Shanti Stupa is famous for not only its religious significance, but also the breathtaking views it offers. Since it dominates the Leh city from a high edge, one can get stunning views of the city as well as the surrounding mountain ranges. One simply lacks words when describing the mesmerizing beauty of this gorgeous spherical structure. Even though the place is always flocked with tourists and locals, one can still experience a sense of tranquility and peace – a rare combination only a few places offer. Just relax, relish the views and connect with the spiritual energies around. Click a lot of pictures and make incredible memories. There’s a café near the stupa where you can enjoy tea and snacks. Shanti Stupa is a 15-minute strenuous climb up from Changspa. So, make sure you wear a comfortable attire.
6. Sangam Point
The Sangam Point is a beautiful spot in Nimoo village around 30 kms to the west of Leh. ‘Sangam’ is a word derived from Hindi which means ‘Convergence’ or ‘Union’. As the name suggests, it is the meeting point of two rivers – Zanskar and Indus. Both the rivers then flow towards Pakistan ending up in the Arabian sea. Watching a spectacular sight of the merging of two rivers in a breathtaking valley is an enthralling experience. You can easily spot the difference in colors of both the rivers. Zanskar looks muddy while Indus looks more greenish. Dip your feet in the river and enjoy the enchanting view surrounded by cool mountain winds. Don’t forget to click your favorite memories! Being a barren area, there are no food junctions on the way. Make sure you carry your own snacks.
7. Hall of Fame
Hall of Fame is a glorified museum located around 4 kms from the city of Leh. The museum is constructed and maintained by the Indian army. It is dedicated to the memories of the brave soldiers who lost their lives during the Indo-Pak wars. The museum showcases the seized weapons of Pakistani army during the Kargil war operations, as well as the weapons used during the war. There is a wall displaying the pictures and biographies of brave Indian soldiers. There is another section in the museum that displays Siachen border area and the difficult life on the glacier, exhibiting the apparel and amenities used by Indian Army in that region. A lot of pictures proudly display the tough training of the soldiers to survive in extreme conditions. Apart from this, the museum also houses several items related to Ladakhi history, culture, vegetation and wildlife as well as a souvenir shop. An anti-aircraft gun is situated at the entrance of the Hall of Fame. This place is simply fascinating and not to be missed when in Ladakh.
8. Spituk Monastery
Spituk is yet another beautiful Buddhist monastery located around 8 Kms from the Leh city. Originally founded as a Red Hat institution, it was taken over by the Yellow Hat sect in the 15th century. The word Spituk means exemplary. When the Rinchen Zangpo, the Mahaguru and translator of Sanskrit Buddhists, came to this place, he said that the exemplary religious community would arise there and hence the monastery was called Spituk. It is constructed in a series of tiers with courtyards and steps. The monastery is a home to 100 monks. In addition to the principle Buddha statue, it also houses an enormous statue of Goddess Kali and the Mahakal temple containing the shrine of Vajrabhairava. The terrifying faces of the deities are covered and only revealed to public at annual festival. There is a huge praying wheel that you can spin clockwise. Located at a height of 10,852 ft, Spituk offers commanding views of the Indus valley and the Ladakh airport. You can see the aircrafts flying overhead. The two day Gustor festival is celebrated here annually. One needs to trek 135 steep stairs to reach Spituk. So, before taking this trek, make sure your energy level is high and you are wearing a comfortable attire.
9. Gurudwara Pathar Sahib
Situated on the Srinagar-Leh road around 25 Kms from the Leh city, Gurudwara Shri Pathar Sahib is a beautiful shrine dedicated to the first Guru of Sikh religion, Guru Nanak Dev Ji. Pathar is a word derived from Hindi which means stone.
The history of this shrine is quite interesting and dates to 1517 AD when Guru Nanak Dev Ji travelled to Ladakh region and blessed people with his sermons. The locals called him Nanak Lama. A wicked demon used to live in that area who terrorized people. One day when Guruji was in deep meditation, the demon tried to kill him by throwing a huge stone on him. As the stone touched Guru Nanak, it softened like warm wax and came to a halt against his back. The demon was taken aback to see Guruji unharmed. He kicked the stone furiously with his right foot, but to his surprise his foot got embedded in the wax-like stone. The demon realized his own powerlessness and begged for Guruji’s forgiveness. The stone with the imprint of the body of Guru Nanak Dev Ji and the footprint of the demon is housed in Gurudwara Pathar Sahib.
Make sure you tie a scarf over your head as you dip your feet in cold water before entering the shrine. The canteen in the premises offers hot tea and jalebis (Indian sweet) to everyone. Visiting the place during the lunch time is recommended when you can relish the yummy food of the divine langar. You can also initiate to help in serving langar to other people. Visiting Gurudwara Pathar Sahib is such a divine experience.
10. Jama Masjid
Located in the main market of Leh, Jama Masjid is a beautiful, historical and biggest mosque in Ladakh. The mosque was constructed in 1666-1667 AD as a symbolic seal in return for the Mughal protection provided to the Ladakhi Kings. The agreement was signed between the ruler of Ladakh Deldan Namgyal and Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Today, the Jama Masjid is a glorious symbol of magnanimity and seamlessly blends with the spiritual and religious force field of Ladakh. This double domed grand structure was intricately carved a few years back replacing the old mosque with the present-day design. Jama Masjid houses a memorial known as Shahi Hamdan, which is dedicated to a great Muslim Sufi Saint, Mir Sayed Ali Hamdani. The mosque is open to men only.
11. Zorawar Fort
The 19th century Zorawar Fort is a must visit for people with keen interest in History and Archaeology. Nestled above the historical Leh Palace, the fort is a ruined yet prominent monument of the city. Essentially made of clay, stones, wood and sun dried bricks, it is a tribute to the Napoleon of India – Late General Zorawar Singh who defended Ladakh from the Chinese invasion. He is still considered as one of the best high altitude warriors. The fort houses a small temple, a mosque and a natural spring of water. Zorawar Fort is used and maintained by the Indian Army. The old prisoner cells are now used as army quarters. There are observatory towers placed at each corner. The museum in the fort is a worth visit as it provides a great insight into the battle style of the bygone era. One can find the details of the wars fought in that region, the weapons used, as well as the personal armory and costumes of General Zorawar Singh. Entry to the museum is free, however, please make sure you check the museum timings before planning your visit. Situated at a height of 3200 m overlooking the Leh city, the fort also offers breathtaking views of the city and the surrounding mountain ranges. Zorawar Fort can be reached either by hiring a taxi/bike from the Leh city or you can also take a 15-minute trek from Leh.
12. Khardung La Pass
Elevated at a remarkable height of 18,380 ft above the sea level, Khardung La is the highest motorable road in the world. It is an adventurous drive of 39 Kms by road from the Leh city. The intensity of the adventure depends upon how you want to conquer the mountain heights – by hiring a cab, riding a bike or paddling a cycle. The main attraction of this place is the pristine air, the scenic beauty and a feeling to be on the top of the world. So, enjoy this feeling along with the mesmerizing views around. Play with the snow, click loads of pictures and dine at the world’s highest cafeteria. Another interesting thing I found here was a board displaying the story of Maggi instant noodles. You may experience acute mountain sickness. Make sure you carry a bottle of aerated drink and some chocolates. If you have never been to such a height before, please carry appropriate medicines to cure the altitude sickness. There are two check posts on the way where you need to take inner line permit to continue the journey. This may include standing in long queues. To avoid that inconvenience, make sure you obtain an inner line permit in advance. This can be done on the recently launched online portal (http://lahdclehpermit.in/) by paying 400 INR per person as an environmental fee + 20 INR per day as inner line fee. The best time to visit Khardung La Pass is between May to October when the pass is open. There is no accommodation here. You can either plan a day trip or carry on with your journey further to Nubra Valley.
13. Nubra Valley
Situated at around 150 Kms from the Leh city and almost 3000m lower than Leh, Nubra is a stunningly beautiful valley you must visit on your trip to Ladakh. It is a dash of lush greenery in the cold desert of Ladakh. This is the place where the Skyok river and the Siachen river meet to form a beautiful valley separating the Ladakh and Karakoram ranges. Surrounded by the snow-capped Himalayas, Nubra is fondly known as the Orchard of Ladakh. It mainly consists of prime farm land. The villages here are irrigated and fertile. Their produce includes blood apples, apricots, walnuts, almonds, wheat, barley, peas and mustard. With a major stop-over at the famed ‘Silk Route’, Nubra is a major trade centre for woollens made of Pashmina wool and horticultural crops. Famous for its picturesque vistas, orchards, monasteries and double-humped Bactrian camels, the valley is also a land of Buddhism and boasts of several Buddhist learning centres. Explore the hidden holy lake Yarab Tso and a hot water spring in Panamik village. This is the final frontier village of India and is nestled very close to the Siachen Glacier. Enjoy the double-humped Bactrian camel safari from Hunder sand dunes to Diskit. Visit the 14th century Diskit monastery which is the largest and oldest monastery in Nubra Valley. It houses a 106 feet tall Maitreya Buddha Statue. There are stories of a devil’s wrinkled hand and head being seen in this monastery. If you are not short of time, you must visit Turtuk village that offers a completely different landscape and cultural orientation than the rest of Nubra. It is the last village on India’s northern border towards Pakistan. The best time to visit Nubra valley is between June to August. There are various hotels, camping options and homestays available in the valley. Since it is the actual line of control area, an inner line permit is required for all tourists to visit the place.
14. Pangong Lake
Situated at a height of 14,270 ft. around 160 kms from Leh, Pangong is the one of the highest brackish water lake. It is 134 Kms long and 5 Kms wide at its broadest point. It is not just a lake but also a fluid border between India and China. Around 60% of the length of Pangong lake lies in China and the 40% is owned by India. This is the same alluring lake from the last scene of the famous Bollywood movie ‘3 Idiots’. The 5-hour journey from Leh to Pangong is a dramatic drive through mountain roads surrounded by rocky terrains. However, the first look of the azure blue waters of the lake in the lap of magnificent Himalayas surrounded by the chills of mountain winds compensate for the tiresome journey. The lake changes colors throughout the day owing to the playful colors of the sky. There are no fishes in the lake due to its saline water. You may spot flocks of seagulls, some migratory birds, Yak herds and marmots here. Due to security reasons, boating is not permitted on the lake. The temperature here ranges from -5°C to 10°C. Despite being saline, the lake freezes completely in winters and one can walk over it. A gala festival of ice skating on the frozen lake is organized during winters which calls for many skiers and ice skaters from around the world. The best time to visit Pangong is between June to September. The accommodation available here are basic tents, luxury tents and eco cottages. There is no mobile network and no Wi-Fi available. So, just relax, enjoy the beauty of the place and click loads of pictures. Carrying a lot of snacks is recommended as there are not much snacking options near the lake. However, the local food prepared for lunch/dinner (as per your package) is delicious. If you plan to spend a night at Pangong, carrying an oxygen cylinder from Leh is recommended. The area is barren and the oxygen level dips at night. An Individual in line permit can be taken for Indian tourists. Foreigners require a group permit (a minimum of three people) accompanied by an accredited guide to visit Pangong lake. All permits can be obtained from the tourist office in Leh.
15. Tso Moriri
Towering at a height of 4522 metres, Tso Moriri or Lake Moriri is a magnificent blue lake in the lap of Himalayas. The 7-hour drive from the city of Leh takes you through some of the most beautiful landscapes. You may stop on the way to click pictures of the Yaks grazing along the Indus river, or some marmots peeping from their warrens, or just the pictorial landscapes. The view of the crystal-clear lake surrounded by barren hills and snow covered mountains at the backdrop gives you an out of the world feeling. The lake measures around 26 Kms long and 6 Kms wide from its broadest point. Its brackish waters are fed by springs and melting snow from the neighboring mountains. Tso Moriri is higher than Pangong lake and is not crowded. Its serenity supports a varied wildlife. You may spot various migratory birds, wild asses, marmots, nomadic herds of goats, yaks, cows and (rarely spotted) Tibetan wolves. A night stay is recommended here to experience the mesmerizing beauty of one of the most beautiful sunset and sunrise. Being a wetland reserve and a sanctuary for migratory birds, it is restricted to pitch camps near the lake. However, you can pitch camps in the tented colony near Korzok village or get an accommodation in local lodges or homestays in the village. Both the places offer a clear and broad view of Tso Moriri. The peak season to visit the lake is between May and August. The off-season visit can be between September and Early October when the place is in full glory and less touristy. You may get a lot of better deals during this time. Carrying an oxygen cylinder is recommended here. Other basic medical aids are available in Korzok village. There are no mobile signals and no ATM’s here. Make sure you carry enough cash from Leh. There are no petrol pumps in Tso Moriri. The nearest one is at Karu (204 Kms). It is advisable to top-up the fuel from Leh itself. There are no food joints here. The only dining options are homestays or the overnight camps where you will be staying. In line permit is required for all tourists to visit Tso Moriri.