Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Ladakh Diaries 3 - Leh - Sights of a Mountain town!

We got up late in the morning. We needed this sleep badly! After suffering sleepless night in Sarchu – blame it on AMS – we had a refreshing slumber.

But the problem started after we got up. I am fond of good filter coffee. So is Brinda. I am little fussy with my coffee. We face this problem whenever we travel in India, specially in North India. But, where can we get South Indian filter coffee in remote Leh? I somehow agreed for the compromise. We opted for Nescafe instead of “Chai” as we were not sure how the “chai” would taste. When I called up room service the “Kancha” – all the waiters being Nepali - confirmed that they could serve Nescafe. We heaved a sigh of relief. The instruction to “Kancha” was clear – to get hot milk, Nescafe and Sugar separately!

On the Previous day, Deleks, our Man Friday from Ladakh Safari had confirmed that we should take things leisurely till we get properly acclimatized in Leh. This is very important. “Drink lot of water” he told us as we saw him off in the evening with confirmation that the cab to take us around the Leh would be at hotel at 10 AM.

Coffee – Nescafe - kick started the day for us. Hotel Namgyal Palace - where we stayed - is a new hotel in Leh with good and spacious rooms. Not a “Star” hotel but a decent hotel with good sheets, towels and excellent service. The room had French windows, which gave a glimpse of the colorful garden. The many flowers, which I found difficult to grow in my house in Bangalore, were growing as if it was wilderness!

The breakfast was light - a cup of serial and two toasts. We wanted to keep it light as it was first day and we did not want to take chance. The packed lunch was already in the car. We could feel the rarefied Leh atmosphere with less oxygen as we climbed ten steps to reach the parking lot. We were already feeling tired.

Zigmet, our driver was a young bloke. A Ladakhi who stayed in his village, which is 15 KMs from Leh. We got into the Toyota Innova to start our tour of Mountain town.

Leh is a small town. It is the largest town in Ladakh. A big valley town on the banks of Indus and surrounded by mountains. It could be as big as a small suburb in a Metro. What immediately struck me was the cleanliness on the roads. The roads were spic and span and we could hardly see any rubbish. Ladakhis are very friendly and are able to converse in Hindi quite well.

Prayer Wheels - You find them at many places in Leh
Our first stop was Stok palace on Leh – Manali road. The sun was bright and was playing hide and seek behind the clouds. The mountains were bright with the tallest peak in Ladakh range – Stok Kongri (the tallest peak in the pic) - basking in glory. It was a pleasant drive to the palace. The roadside is interspersed with white “Chortems” of all sizes and huge prayer wheels. We halted to take pictures of beautiful Chortems built by Dalai Lama. As we exited the Leh town, we were now driving through military area. Armed forces have a huge presence in Leh.

Chortems on the way to Stok Palace
Seven stupas built by The Dalai Lama
Beautiful landscape on the way to Palace
The Stok palace is on a small hillock overlooking a green valley next to Indus River. The setting of the palace is very romantic - the ranges of himalaya as backdrop, the river in the foreground with green fields with a dash of yellow in between. A slow climb – no exertion please - of few steps led us to the entrance of the palace. This is the palace where present maharajah and his family live. A four storied mud structure, it has a colorful and carved entrance. The windows were colorful as well. Not an architectural rave, it made up as a pleasant place. The palace has a museum, which is not worth its salt. The balconies of the palace provide you a panoramic view of Indus valley.

Colourful balconies of the palace
The Palace on the hillock
Thiksey Monastery is the next stop, said Zigmet. Touted “Mini Potala palace”, the monastery is located in a beautiful setting. The best part of monastery hopping in Leh is that you will get to see the different landscape. Thiksey again was on a small hill. Thanks to good road, the car was able to climb up till the entrance. But the climb from here was quite steep. We had to stop couple times with gulps of water before we reached the courtyard.

Thiksey Monastery - Striking resemblance to Potala Palace of Tibet

Colourful entrance to the monastery
The monastery looked deserted with very few monks as most of them had left for Nubra where The Dalai Lama was camping. Thiksey being the second largest monastery in Ladakh, was well maintained. The courtyard leads to the two shrines. The walls are painted with Buddhist tangkhas and look very colorful. The Piece-de- Resistance was the 40 feet statue of “Maitreya – the Future Buddha”. It is a beautiful sculpture with a pleasing face of Maitreya. Notice the intricate work on the crown. Climbed up to the terrace of the monastery to get the awesome views of the surroundings.
Colourful walls of Tangkhas in inner courtyard 
Colourful balconies of the monastery
Captivating image of Maitreya Buddha
Panoramic view of Indus valley from Monastery
We were feeling tired and when we went back to the car it was relief. After gulps of water, we were moving towards Shey palace – the old palace of maharajah – a mud palace being restored by Archaeological survey. The palace is on a steep hill and will be tough to climb if not properly acclimatized. We climbed, but stopped at least three times. The palace is in dilapidated condition and being restored. There is shrine inside with a 30 story tall statue of Buddha.
Shey Palace
Buddha in Shey Palace
It was nearing lunchtime and we were also tired. The lunch was on the banks of Indus river. It is a pleasant place for a chilled beer and lunch – I missed beer though. Thank god there weren't hordes of tourists in this place – as there is no boating in the river - the place was very quiet and we could hear the sound of water flowing over pebbles. The water was very cold. Every year the Ladakhi government conducts “Sindhu Darshan” festival at this place. A peaceful lunch and a bit of rest, we were raring to explore the other parts of the town.

Indus river
Our next stop was the “Hall of fame” museum. This place on Kargil road was a pleasant surprise. Excellently curated by Army, it brought tears to our eyes as we saw the pictures of martyrs who had laid down their lives in various wars for the country in the region. The galleries depicting the Kargil war and Siachin are well done. Apart from exploits by the army and air force, it also showcases the flora and fauna of the region. The touching moments were when we read the last letter by Capt Vijayant Thapar who laid down his life in Kargil war and was awarded Maha Vir Chakra. This is one place no visitor to Leh should miss.

Brave men from Indian army who laid down their lives for the country
Our last stop before calling it a day was the City Palace. This one jetting out of the heart of city is again a mud palace. Being restored by Archaeological Survey of India, it is in better shape than Shey palace. The rooftop of the palace gives one a panoramic view of Leh town. A climb from the palace is the “stand alone” gompa – Tsemo Gompa that gives you breathtaking views of Leh and surroundings. Ideal during sun set.

City Palace or Leh Palace
Entrance to the palace
Leh town as seen from palace
The trail to the Tsemo gompa
We came back to the hotel - we still missed out Shanti Stupa - tired after a day long visits to lovely sights of Leh. We called Badri Prasad – the Kancha - for a cup of coffee. The coffee was never refreshing more!

Travel Tips

Getting there

By Air - One can reach Leh by air from Delhi. There are many flights operating out of Delhi. These flights are notorious for delays/cancellation due to weather condition in Leh.

By Road - Leh is accessible through breathtaking road journeys either from Manali or from Srinagar in Kashmir. Both these journeys will take minimum of two days. If you are travelling from Manali you can either travel in shared taxis or the buses operated by Himachal Pradesh Transport Corporation. to Srinagar, bus services have been stopped but you can travel in shared jeeps.

Please see posts titled Ladakh Dairies 1 & 2 for experiences on Manali - Leh road.

Stay options

There are many good stay options in Leh including Ladakhi home stays. Our stay in Hotel Namgyal Palace was very comfortable with excellent service and good food. One can also stay in homestays in Ladakh which will provide an authentic Ladakhi experience

Hotel Namgyal Palace - Namgyal Palace

Home stays in Ladakh - Ladakh Home Stays

Other information

a) Take it easy in Leh. Ladakh should be savoured slowly. If you are arriving by air to Leh, use day 1 for resting and acclimatisation. This is critical.

b) Leh is a small town with a busy market place which can be comfortably seen by walking. Carry water with you always.

c) One can take a numerous tour packages to Leh and Ladakh. You can also customise your tour package - that is what we did - in consultation with the tour operator. If your trip to Ladakh is not arranged through a tour operator, you can hire a cab at the taxi stand in Leh town to visit Leh and its surroundings.

d) Leh and surroundings require minimum of two days of exploration. The life in Ladakh is laid back. Make sure you do the sightings in leisurely manner.

e) All monasteries require removal of shoes when you enter. Please respect local sentiments.

f) Check out traditional Ladakhi cultural programmes in Shankar Gompa next to city palace.

g) Leh is also the place where you should try some good tibetan/ladakhi cuisine. Also you can get to at set some great international cuisine. Let your culinary adventure begin. Make sure you also taste the rice beer of Ladakh which is tasty.

h) If you are a trekking enthusiast, there are many options. Check out with good trekking operators for a hassle free treks in Ladakh.

i) Leh is also a place where you can pick up excellent antiques, Tanghkas etc. Hunt for them in many stores in the main market.

j) You can also hire motorcycle in Leh for exploring the nearby places. Unless, you have driven in the hills, do not venture out.

k) Due to huge influx of tourists and limited number of ATMs, the machines may run out of cash or there may be long queues. Plan accordingly.


Chai - Indian readymade spicy tea

Kancha - Boy in Nepali

Chortem - Stupa, a buddhist religious structure

Maha Vir Chakra - Second highest award for gallantry in War

Kargil and Siachin - Places in Kashmir where India and Pakistan have fought wars

Sindhu - Indian name for Indus river

Gompa - Bhudhhist Monastery

Some useful links on Leh

We recommend that you also see the following posts on our experience in Ladakh

Did you like this post?  Do you need help in planning a trip to Leh and Ladakh? You are welcome to write to me at poorna62@gmail.com.

Happy to help.

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