Soaking in the sunshine in a Leh restaurant, munching your apple pie or asparagus pizza and letting the sounds of Ladakhi, Hindi, English, Kashmiri, Nepali, German, French, Korean, Gujarati, Bengali and more wash over you, consider for a moment that this town is still the cosmopolitan hub that it has been for centuries.

But in a radically new way. Earlier, it was traders, missionaries, colonial intrigue mongers and nomads who converged on Leh — the convenient entrepot for trade between Kashmir, Punjab, Tibet, Baltistan, and over the Karakoram on to the Silk Route. And now, it is backpackers, mountain worshippers, trekkers, photographers, ecologists, adventure seekers and holidayers who descend in hordes to taste Ladakh’s undoubtedly unique charms.

Of these charms, heritage takes pride of place, right next to beautiful landscapes. Ladakhi built heritage is inextricable from its locales; its monasteries could not be located anywhere but on those dramatic craggy hill tops. Its flat roofed, whitewashed homes anywhere but among those bright green fields that stand out like oases in this cold desert.

What Ladakh has created has to do with the mountain desert clime, its position cradled between India and Tibet, and it having hosted monks, merchants and mountain people over centuries. Vajrayana Buddhism, and the spectacular monasteries it has gifted Ladakh, are certainly the most visible of this heritage, but no less are the timeless rivers—Indus, Zanskar, Nubra, Shyokrunning across and shaping these old oasis-villages; or the high mountain passes over which trans-Himalayan caravans have defied the elements for centuries; or the palaces and politics of royal lineages; or the gathering together of Ladakhis for celebrations in long cold winters; or the salty butter tea….

ORIENTING TO LADAKH

For a tourist, the defining experience of this northernmost tract of India is in its landscape: largely pristine, beautiful, disconcertingly bare, isolated. Mountain passes across the Great Himalaya at dizzying heights, like Tanglang La (16,400 ft) on the Manali-Leh route, lead to the region. The capital Leh itself stands at 11,500 ft, high enough for you to need to acclimatise to the reduced oxygen in the air. In the rain shadow of the Himalayas, water is available in this high altitude desert land only from melting snow that you meet in the form of streams and rivers, to which small villages cling and grow precious barley, wheat, some veggies and fruit. The snowy winter makes all but locals flee from October to April; the road routes from Manali and Srinagar do not open till June-July, when snow on the high mountain passes melts.

The main tourist circuits in Ladakh are roughly:

Central Ladakh Leh and the monasteries near the Indus, reachable from Leh.

Nubra Valley Roughly, to the northeast of Leh and reachable in 7-8 hours, this valley offers the quiet settlements of Diskit and Hundar on the river Shyok, Teger and Panamik on the river Nubra, and the recently opened village of Turtuk which is barely 12 km from the Pakistan border.

Zanskar To the west of Leh, mostly unexplored because it is not directly connected by road to Leh and requires a week-long trip in its own right.

Kargil The bustling town is bypassed by most but is worth a dekko, if only as an extension to a Lamayuru monastery trip, or a pit stop en route Zanskar.

Lakes The sublime high-altitude lakes —Pangong Tso, Tso Moriri and Tso Kar —lie to the south-east and south of Leh.

Ladakh4

Things to See & Do

The capital of Ladakhi kings from the mid-16th century, Leh was also the trade hub of this region. Traders travelled here from Tibet, Baltistan and Kashmir, and trade between Punjab and China was also conducted via Leh. Silk, wool, salt, tea and opium were the staples being carried, among many others. When you travel from Leh to Nubra Valley today, you are following the age-old busy Nubra trading route that went on to the central Asian cities of Yarkand and Khotan.

Leh’s warren-like old town curls up in the shadow of a hill on top of which are located the old Leh Palace and the Tsemo Gompa (Temple of the Guardian Deities). In the early 16th century, Ladakh was divided between two brothers, with their capitals at Leh and Shey, and Basgo and Temisgam, respectively. Bhagan, the king of Basgo, made war on his cousins at Shey and, deposing them, united Ladakh and took on the title of Namgyal, ‘the victorious’. This was the name of the dynasty in power until the Dogra invasion in 1834. His younger son, Tashi Namgyal (1555-75), was equally energetic. On the hill above Leh, later known as the Namgyal Tsemo Hill, he built the Tsemo Gompa, still in good repair. The earliest known portrait of a Ladakhi king is that of Tashi Namgyalit exists as part of a court scene beside the guardians that adorn the walls. The temple is part of a fort, the first royal residence to be built in Leh.

The fifth and the greatest king of the dynasty was Sengye (‘Lion’) Namgyal who built the nine-storeyed Leh Palace, an imitation of the great Potala in Tibet. It was he who had the capital shifted from Basgo to Leh.

This white Shanti Stupa is a relatively new addition to Leh, in the Buddhist tradition of building as an act of piety. It was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1985. Climb up the steps from Leh’s Changspa area, or drive up, for photogenic views of Leh town as well as the Zanskar Range.

Stok Palace Museum (17 km S of Leh): ‘Palace’ maybe a bit of a misnomer; Stok is more like a simple aristocratic mansion. The Namgyal royal family of Ladakh has been living here since they were ousted by Jammu’s General Zorawar Singh in the aftermath of the Dogra invasion in the 1830s. Only a part of the structure, converted to a museum, is open to tourists. Here you can see swords, shields, quivers, bows and arrows, and matchlock guns as well as old coins, old photographs and some precious centuries-old thangkas.

Gompas Around Leh

‘Gompa’ means a solitary place, and indeed, if you visit the famous monasteries of Hemis or Alchi, hidden magnificently among folds and turns of mountains, you do appreciate the word. The same goes for the equally celebrated Thiksey and Lamayuru, today close to the highway, but like many of these gompas grandly presiding from near the top of a dominant hill. These days the solitariness is joyously compromised during the monastery festivals—the Hemis Festival, for example, is absolutely full of visitors, photographers and localsand at the time of the Ladakh Festival.

The monasteries are a whole world in themselves, serving as places of worship, with rooms for monks to stay, schools and staying arrangements for young monks, library, kitchens and attached fields. The Ladakhi Vajrayana form of Buddhism is especially fascinating to visitors because of its esoteric elements the dark prayer halls with centuries-old frescoes often lit by a single lovely shaft of sunshine from the skylight, the ferocious-looking icons of guardian deities, the tantric depictions of sexual union, the concentrated fragrance of ghee and incense, the deep chanting…. The monasteries we see today were mostly built from the 16th century onwards, after King Tashi Namgyal unified the Ladakh kingdom.

Jitender Gupta
Young monks learn to debate
Young monks learn to debate

THIKSEY (19 km SE of Leh)

The huge mid-15th century Thiksey Monastery, covering a whole hillside, is an impressive treat. It is built like the Potala Palace in Tibet and is run by the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect. On entering you are immediately greeted by a temple on your right, which houses a huge 2-storey representation of the Maitreya (future) Buddha. The gold painted statue, though relatively new, diffuses an aura of serenity and beauty. You then move on to the dark atmospheric main assembly hall—the du khang. Here, you can see some old murals on the wall, mostly of tantric deities, often in sexual poses. There are wooden book-racks with ancient manuscripts and the mystical smell of ghee and incense is omnipresent. Thiksey’s rooftop offers a stunning panoramic view of the fertile Indus Valley, guarded by mountains and the snowy Stok Range beyond. It’s well worth the climb.

Shey, the ancient capital of Ladakhi kings stands on a spur not far from Thiksey and makes for a pleasant package with it. There are remains of a very old fortress on the hill, and a palace with old paintings and a large 17th-century statue of the Buddha.

Monks perform traditional masked dances during the annual Hemis Festival
Monks perform traditional masked dances during the annual Hemis Festival

HEMIS (48 km SE of Leh)

Off you go along the Indus on the Leh-Manali Highway till you come to Karu. Here, crossing the river, marvel at the wealth of old and faded prayer flags on the bridge, themselves a heritage of cloth and prayer. Then, after many loops and twists, and many barley fields and poplar trees, Hemis reveals itself, vast yet cosily tucked away in a cleft of the Zanskar Range.

One of the largest of Ladakh’s gompas, Hemis was founded in the 1630s under the patronage of King Sengye Namgyal. It is possibly the largest, and the richest, of Ladakhi monasteries. Its du khang, shrines, mazelike stairs and courtyards, and rooftop are all worth exploring.

Hemis has become particularly well known thanks to the annual Hemis Festival, which falls on shifting dates in June or July. The two-day festival is dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava. The monks wear masks, mostly fearsome ones, and dance at a rather hypnotic slow pace to cymbals and long horns. Every 12 years, Hemis’ great treasure, an enormous embroidered thangka of Padmasambhava, embellished with pearls, is ceremoniously unrolled to a reverent audience. The monastery complex has a cafeteria and a stream running downhill alongside, where people go camping.

Driving back to Leh from Hemis, your imagination will be captured by the photogenic, small Stakna (‘Tiger Nose’) Gompa on the left, which perches on an isolated hill right by the Indus. Stop by and you get an excellent all-round view of the river and valley

BASGO (14 km NW of Leh)

One does run out of adjectives in Ladakh! Basgo is—no help for ityet another spectacular and dramatic site, which used to be the capital of a branch of the Ladakhi ruling family in the 15th and 16th centuries. Basgo is particularly atmospheric because of its majestic location looking over a gorge and the small quiet oasis of Basgo village, its ruined fortifications isolated and eerie. Among these stand three beautiful shrines, all dedicated to Maitreya. The main temple, high up, hosts some rare original 16th-century murals while the huge Maitreya Buddha himself produces an especially moving feeling. The Ser Zang, also a Maitreya temple, possesses some precious manuscripts in gold and copper dedicated by the famous king Sengye Namgyal.

LIKIR (68 km NW of Leh)

Our recommendation for those looking for something relatively ‘non-touristy’, the Likir Gompa enjoys a lovely location, a little off the highway. The monastery building you see dates to the 18th century and hosts a collection of old thangkas and manuscripts.

Prashant Panjiar
The Green Tara at Alchi Chos Khor, an ancient seat of learning
The Green Tara at Alchi Chos Khor, an ancient seat of learning

ALCHI (70 km W of Leh)

However many monasteries you see in Ladakh, you will not see anything like Alchi. To begin with, it’s not a gompa but a chos khor, a sacred enclave and a seat of learning. No monks live at Alchi and it is lamas from nearby Likir who look after it. For another, Alchi holds a record of Buddhism from the time of the 11th and 12th centuries that is quite unique. A place of importance in these centuries, it was abandoned as a place of worship—for unknown reasonsin possibly the early 16th century, which accounts for the superb preservation of its exquisite frescoesrare Ladakhi pieces of art that have not been painted over for centuries. Alchi also thus depicts Buddhist art from before the time Ladakh looked to Tibet for religious inspiration; from a time when Kashmiri artists were painting the Ladakhi walls with their style of depiction.

Popular belief credits the great 11th century sage and scholar Rinchen Zangpo (the Great Translator), who is believed to have founded 108 monasteries in the Indian Himalaya, with the setting up of Alchi. Inscriptions suggest that it was a nobleman Kaldan Shesrab, who was a follower of Rinchen Zangpo, who founded the chos khor.

Alchi’s du khang and the unique Sum Tsek temple can keep the art lover absorbed for hours. The small mud-plastered Sum Tsek rises three storeys high, and astonishes you with gigantic statues of Avalokiteshwara, Maitreya and Manjushri in alcoves in the three walls; their robes painted with exquisite scenes of Buddhist lore in gold, green and red. The ceiling is cut to enable these Bodhisattvas to tower up. On the walls are some priceless murals; note especially the green Tara near Avalokiteshwara, on your left as you enter.

The du khang (called Vairochana Temple in the signboards) begins with a pillared verandah that has cloisters decorated with murals of a thousand Buddhas. Huge, intricate mandalas cover much of the du khang walls. Spot the secular scenes on the walls near the entrancekings, queens, courtiers, wine drinking, battles, all exhibiting a rather Central Asian air.

The other shrines in Alchi are the Lotsawa Lha-khang (with a painting of Rinchen Zangpo himself), Manjushri Lha-khang and Lha-khang Soma.

The Indus flowing timelessly behind the enclave can provide some peaceful, secluded moments. The village too is pleasant with more poplars and apricots than people, white-washed houses and a few souvenir stalls and restaurants.

LAMAYURU (120 km NW of Leh)

After a beautiful drive from Leh along the Indus, and via some mind-boggling bends and expanses, Lamayuru comes as a fitting crowning end. While Lamayuru village and its fields spread to the bottom of the valley, the gompa perches above it clinging precipitously to a high cliff that is dotted with caves. Scholars say it is the earliest surviving monastery of Ladakh; its proper name being Yung-drung (Swastika). It is associated with the great 11th-century Bengali yogi Naropa; indeed Naropa’s cave, well-lit and seen from a wall in the main assembly hall, is a highlight of the complex. It has life-sized images of Naropa, his disciple Marpa, and Marpa’s disciple Milarepa. The oldest part of the complex is well below the main hall, and is usually closed, but it has some old and beautiful murals. Wandering around the multi-levelled complex, discovering new perspectives on the mountains, is a pleasure.

Lamayuru falls on the Leh-Kargil-Srinagar Highway. This means that with a little time you can plan an itinerary that includes stopping on the way back at Alchi and Basgo, as well as driving an hour beyond Lamayuru for a dekko at the lovely Fatu La pass, scrumptious at dusk. Have more time? The 7th-century Mulbekh Buddha is less than a 30-min drive ahead of Fatu La. Also, don’t miss the monumental rock-carved statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara from the 9th century on a cliff near Lamayuru.

DHA-HANU (NW of Leh)

Neither gompa hotspots, nor conveniently on the way to one, the villages of Dha and Hanu are fascinating and beautiful markers of Ladakh’s evolving identity. Reachable by a day trip from Lamayuru, they are home to people of the Dard ethnic group, locally called the Brok Pa. They are the only Buddhist Dards, the rest being Muslim, and their religion has distinct touches of native Bon practices as well.

Today however, despite the distinctly different faces you find in Dha and Hanu, there are only a few old women who wear traditional headgear (decorated with coins and elaborate artificial flowers) and multiple plaits, and much of the community seems busy with fruit growing and trading as in any Ladakhi village.

Dha is a beautiful village situated on a hill, conveniently on the main road, at the lovely confluence of the Indus with a tributary. Apricots are abundant here, and the peaceful old houses and running water channels are a pleasure to walk through. Hanu is off the road —it involves a climbing drive and showing your permission papers to the army — but then greets you with a really beautiful mountain stream.

Dha is 40 km from Khaltse on the Leh-Srinagar Highway.

MULBEKH (164 km NW of Leh)

A pit stop on the way between Leh or Lamayuru and Kargil, Mulbekh treats you to an unexpected sight as you drive past on the highway: an ancient 22-foot tall image of the Maitreya Buddha carved into a rock face. The sacred figure is said to date to the 8th or 9th century CE and was in all probability sculpted by Kashmiri artists. It’s partially obscured by a shrine and trees, so stop by for tea at the restaurants opposite and wander over for a closer look.

NUBRA VALLEY (N of Leh)

Parth Sanyal
A ride on the double-humped Bactrian camels of the Nubra Valley
A ride on the double-humped Bactrian camels of the Nubra Valley

Across the Khardung La pass, acclaimed as the second highest motorable pass in the world, and after several hours of driving through a stunning but barren landscape that could not possibly lead to any inhabitation, you reach the valley carved by the Shyok and Nubra rivers. The grand majesty of the Siachen glacier is not visible but is a haunting presence in the background—Nubra River is locally called the Siachen since she arises from that glacierand all the mountains you see are a fitting tribute to it. Here, you can either go along the Shyok and visit Diskit Gompa and Hundar village and its sand dunes. And you can cross over to visit the friendly Tegar village and monastery, as well as Panamik’s hot springs, by the side of the Nubra.

DISKIT-HUNDAR (120 km N of Leh)

At the pleasant old Diskit Gompa which perches a little way away from and above Diskit village, you can see heritage in making. An immense landmark statue of a golden seated Maitreya Buddha, 106 ft high, which took six years to make and was finished in 2010, is doubtless going to become the star tourist attraction of this area. The 15th century gompa itself hosts about 70 monks, and has an interesting Gonkhang—the  shrine of the fierce guardian deities, apart from two prayer assembly halls. And most of all, stunning views of the valley.

Diskit itself is an administrative centre and not that attractive a place for the tourist. However, 7 km ahead of Diskit, Hundar village is a heaven of serenity, satisfying dreams of a true getaway. Its low white houses, empty paths, running water channels, luminous green fields, and sand dunes created by the Shyok close by, all add up to a stay that slowly gains a hypnotic quality. Hundar’s contribution to the Ladakh heritage experience is quite unique tooit’s the only place that hosts double-humped Bactrian camels, descendants of those once used on the old Central Asian trade routes. A trip to the sand dunes for a ride on the camels is pretty much de rigueur here.

TEGAR-PANAMIK (144 km N of Leh)

Traditionally called Kyaghar or Tegar, now often called ‘Tiger village’, this quiet village of some 120 houses, close to the banks of the Nubra, is becoming a potential tourism hotspot because of the local administration’s efforts in this direction. Tegar’s literally crowning glory is the Samstanling Gompa on the hill above dating to the 1840s and attributed to a lama Tsultim Nimma.

Also don’t miss the traditional royal kitchen (Zimkhang) preserved as a museum by Tegar’s local erstwhile ruling family. It’s a marvellous space, in which you can easily imagine the household being drawn to the warmth of the fires, gossiping for long hours, amidst beautiful pots, pans and stoves. The family’s old palacenow in ruinsis called Zimkhang Gongma and can be seen from the road, high on the hill. Near the kitchen museum, the white village shrine Tegar Maney Khang, stands shaded by poplars, adding even more charm to the cows returning home and the children fetching water from the handpumps.

A quick hour’s drive from Tegar, Panamik village has some interesting hot water springs but despite attempts at cleanliness, you may not want to dip into the pool. Panamik’s biggest attraction is that it is the last visitable tourist spot on the road to Siachen.

Traversing the Khurna River
Traversing the Khurna River

ZANSKAR (SW of Leh)

Snowed under for seven months a year, unconnected to Leh by a direct road, and connected to it in winter by a traditional walking route on the frozen Zanskar River, Zanskar is perhaps one of the last regions that can seem like the remote Shangri La we have come to associate Ladakh with. It’s a hardy visitor who can envisage the stunningly beautiful and reasonably back-breaking journey from Kargil along the Suru River, past the glacial Nun Kun peaks, then along the Stod River, to the expanses of Zanskar Valley. If you break journey (as opposed to something like a 12-hr bumpfest), you have just the odd guest house that may not be open, and one reliable professionally run camp site at Rangdum to shiver the night away in.

Anyone who does this will nevertheless be more than thankful that she did. Despite the cluster of hotels in Padum—Zanskar’s only town, administrative centre and trekking-launch pointthis is still a place where people wait for hours, gossiping and at ease, for a bus or a lift-giving vehicle to pass by. A place where any lama or lay person you fall into conversation with would casually announce that they had done the frozen Zanskar River walk half a dozen timesand this is the famous ‘Chadar walk’, the dream of adventure enthusiasts from near and far. A place where, in case of a medical emergency in winter, a helicopter has to fly in from Leh. And, of course, a place where some wonderful old monasteries have been practicing their religion and art for centuries.

KARSHA (12 km NE of Padum)

The valley’s largest and most famous gompa is an unmissable treat up on a slope, not least for the dazzling views of the expansive river valley encapsulated by the Zanskar and Himalayan ranges, with Karsha village spread out like a painting at your feet. Legend attributes the foundation of the monastery to Guru Padmasambhava (8th century CE) himself but scholars say that there is a possibility that this gompa came up around the era of Rinchen Zangpo, when he set up a number of monasteries across the Himalaya in the 11th century. Most of the edifice dates from the 15th century, and the ancient frescoes have been refreshed often. This does not at all take away from the luminous glow and air of antiquity in the shrines, one dedicated to Avalokiteshvara, one to Maitreya, one to fierce guardian deities. Old thangkas and manuscripts add to the heritage ambience while child monks playing with paper airplanes add to a living tradition!

SANI (5 km NW of Padum)

A rare gompa built not on a hill slope but self-deprecatingly on the ground, this may be the oldest monastery in Zanskar and has some attractive old murals. It’s particularly interesting for what you find behind the buildingan ancient chorten called Kanika Stupa which is popularly associated with king Kanishka (1st century CE). It’s certainly of a much older style than the other stupas you would see. In a small shrine near this you can see lovely old icons and murals preserved behind glass. Monks don’t live in Sani and just one old monk does duty as your host.

DZONGKHUL (25 km NW of Padum)

Though it falls out of the way, on a rough dirt track, Dzongkhul is interesting because its main shrine lies within a dark cave where it is believed the 11th-century yogi Naropa meditated. Naropa wrote the famous treatise, The Six Yogas of Naropa, and was one in an illustrious line of revered gurus. Dzongkhul’s highlight is what is believed to be Naropa’s footprint on a rock, apart from its near-surreal location at the mouth of a valley that leads to the Umasi La on to Kishtwar.

STONGDE (17 km NE of Padum)

Another hilltop gompa that offers some gorgeous views of the Zanskar Valley, Stongde manages a perfect harmony between friendly monks who show you around and an air of silence and stillness. It was founded in the 11th century, possibly by the great sage Marpa. The seven temples in this monastery have pleasant frescoes and statues, mainly those that you may be very familiar with by now—Maitreya, Shakyamuni and Manjushri.

BARDAN AND PHUGTAL (S, SE of Padum)

South of Padum, both these monasteries, but especially Phugtal, are known for their dramatic location. The 17th century Bardan Gompa is located on a sheer hill top rising above the Lungnak River, a tributary of the Zanskar. On the average day, hardly any monks are to be seen, and the fading colours and beautiful murals recreate the centuries gone by effectively. Phugtal (70 km SE of Padum), famous for its cave setting, has some exquisite murals similar to those at Alchi but cannot be reached by road. Bardan is 12 km S of Padum

The relatively unimpressive Pibiting Monastery, walking distance from your Padum hotel, could be given a miss if on a tight schedule, except for the lovely little village and the expansive 360º views of the valley at the centre of which this gompa perches.

Where to Stay

Leh has many places to stay across budgets, and hotels, guest houses and homestays are now coming up all over Ladakh. Most Leh hotels arrange your permits to go to restricted areas, fix up taxis, vehicles and help with nitty gritties of your travel.

The Leh bazaar area, Old Road and Fort Road are flush with decent-enough hotels. The areas away from the bazaar and Changspa offer many cheap and hospitable guest houses, mostly backpacker oriented. Most hotels and nearly all guest houses close for the winter (roughly November to April)

LEH AND AROUND

The Grand Dragon (Tel: 01982-257786, 255866, Mob: 09906986782; Tariff: 7,500-18,500) is Leh’s most upmarket option with central heating, LCD TVs, elevators, and attractive all-inclusive packages. Another good value upmarket option, with good facilities and walking distance from the central area, is Hotel Lasermo (Mob: 09419178084, 09906986081; Tariff: 3,500-5,500). For old-world charm, and about a mile’s distance from bustling Leh, stay at the Hotel Shambhala (Tel: 09810035145, Mob: 09871766688; Tariff: 4,300-7,000, with 2 meals). The building surrounded by poplars and orchards has a serene feel to it. Hotel Omasi La (Tel: 255248; Tariff: 3,080-4,720) is a well-run and beautiful place, about a 20-min walk from the bazaar.

The popular Oriental Guest House (Tel: 253153, Mob: 09419178774; Tariff: 1,000-2,400) is a family-run, hospitable place in Leh’s quiet Changspa area, miles better than the usual guest house. Lovely ambience, lovely breakfasts and great views in ‘Building C’.

ALCHI

Several guest houses have come up at Alchi and Zimskhang Holiday Home (01982-227086, Mob: 09419179715; Tariff: 2,557-3,135) is one of the better ones. The deluxe rooms are much more cheery; food is good. Open mid-April to mid-October. Hotel Potala (Tel: 205030, Mob: 0941988018; Tariff: 1,800) is also a possibility.

LAMAYURU

A very pleasant place to stay, bang in front of the breathtaking view of the monastery, Hotel Moonland (Tel: 01982-224575, Mob: 09419888508/19552; Tariff: 2,500 with 2 meals) has good facilities and food. Hotel Fotola (Tel: 224528, Mob: 09469048470; Tariff: 1,900 with 2 meals) is right below the monastery, on the highway.

NUBRA

Tegar village gives a very good option in Rimo Hotel (Mob: 09419864417, 09419218202; Tariff: 2,650). There are several rough and ready campsites near the river.

In Hundar, the only proper ‘hotel’ is Karma Inn (Tel: 01980-221042, Mob: 09419612342; Tariff: 3,400), which has LCD TVs, hot water, games, bonfires, a coffee shop, power back-up and a good broadband connection. Among the many tent stays, the most pleasant is Organic Retreat (Mob: 09469533956, 09469176076; Tariff: 3,590-3,900, with meals); the tents have attached loos, the grounds are lovely and the food is good. Hundar has many guest houses— most are hospitable, clean, with attached loos and with negotiable rates between roughly 1,000 and 1,800.

Lovely Turtuk offers a nice stay option in Maha Guest House (Tel: 01980-248040, Mob: 09419112174, 09622982145; Tariff: 1,000) with clean attached loos.

RANGDUM (EN ROUTE TO ZANSKAR)

Your only stay option (discounting village homestays) about 3/4ths of the way between Kargil and Padum, Nun Kun Camp (Leh Tel: 01982-252153, Mob: 09419178401; Tariff: 4,400) is an established tent-stay option with decent food and shared bathrooms. A practical quick night’s stay in utterly barren land, close to the Stod River and a visit to Rangdum Monastery thrown in.

PADUM (ZANSKAR)

Padum hotels are clean and functional but this is not a thriving tourism hub; you would do well to be flexible. Hot water may come in buckets and veggies may get repetitive. Among the better ones are Zambala Hotel (Mob: 09906990623, 09419242838; Tariff: 2,700); Gakyi Hotel (Tel: 01983-245010, Mob: 09469268717; Tariff: 2,600; open June end-Sep) and Hotel Ibex (Tel: 245012, Mob: 09419803731; Tariff: 1,000, open May-Sep).

There are homestays in the Zanskar villages but no standards have been established yet about facilities. Also watch out for government Tourist Rest Houses coming up in several villages.

Where to Eat

The most visible of Leh’s eating scene are the rooftop restaurants and German Bakeries. In the average Leh restaurant, you’ll find Indian, Italian, Kashmiri pancakes, sizzlers, beer, Kashmiri kahwa, you name it. Leh View Rooftop Restaurant has the best and most photogenic views, well worth the money. Steak with chips and Kashmiri dishes are popular. La Terrasse right opposite and Il Forno nearby is good for peoplewatching. Pizzas are a staple here. The German bakeries and cafés offer brownies, apple pie, lemon tarts, cinnamon rolls and the like.

There are two great resturants for sheer gourmet-level food: Bon Appetit, a rough-chic, glass-and-stone space overlooking fields has brilliant soups, dips, Italian, Continental and Asian dishes. Successful fusion too; try the chocolate momos! Look for signboards leading into a lane opposite the Moravian Mission School on Changspa Road; it’s closed between 3.30 and 5.30 pm. Chopsticks (Fort Road) has some amazing Chinese, Thai and other Asian cuisine; the Singapore Street Laksa, Thai curries, momosall hit the spot.

Tibetan Kitchen is an unsurpassed non-veg paradise; their Tibetan hotpot (gyakko) is legendary. Dreamland near the bazaar has superb Kashmiri food. On the way to Changspa, Zen Garden, with its sound of running water, gives decent pizzas, Israeli and Thai meals, and is a colourful backpacker’s hangout. Also in Changspa, Café Jeevan has hearty Indian and Italian meals.

In Nubra and Zanskar, most of the time your hotel or the restaurants of other hotels mentioned above are your best bet. Expect “standard North Indian, Chinese, momos and pancakes” in both places. Nubra, getting used to summer time package tours, also gives more veg options like paranthas.