The first piece of advice is for before you even leave Delhi. And that is, get on the 5.40am flight. It sounds brutal, and it is. But this is how you do it. Forget about going to bed, any sleep you get that night won’t be worth having. Instead, make sure you’re the first in the queue to check in, and insist on getting an A seat, at either the front or the rear. That way, you’ll be on the left side of the plane, facing away from the sun, and won’t have any wings or engines to get in the way of what is likely to be one of the most awe inspiring sights you will ever see out of the window of an aircraft.
And that is, of course, the Himalaya as it builds up from the hazy patchwork of the plains, to the craggy jigsaw of the foothills, to a massive crescendo of snow and ice that sometimes seems so close you could lean out and scoop up a handful. This goes on for a full twenty minutes. The mountains are so immense, so trackless, so pure and rich in their whiteness that you realize that the place you are going is no ordinary destination. This really is the back of beyond.
As a final flourish, the aircraft twists over the Indus valley, so that snow cones, cocoa brown ridges rippled with white, silver streams and turquoise rivers flit by the window in quick succession. This is home for the next few days.
Leh is a pretty easy place to get comfortable in. You can find a room with views of ripening fields of barley fringed by downy poplar trees with brooding mountains in the background, for a few hundred rupees. You can sip beer in garden restaurants with food from around the world. You can marvel at the crystal clear air and the dazzling light, the imposing palace and the hills crowned with Buddhist shrines. But let’s be honest. There’s not a great deal to actually do. Compared to what’s on offer elsewhere in Ladakh, Leh’s attractions are pretty average. The temples are nice enough, but there’s nothing to compare to the glories of Alchi’s murals, or the storybook wonderment of Thikse or Stakna. Leh’s views are pretty, but Pangong Lake knocks them for six.
Which is perfect, because if you’ve flown up you’re going to spend the first day or two in an altitude-induced daze, and if you’ve come up by road from Srinagar or Manali, you’re going to be even more in need of a rest. Relax, do some shopping, and take in a few sights as you gain strength to take on the serious stuff.
TAKE A WALK
Everything’s within walking distance in Leh — up to the main bazaar, once thick with caravans from Central Asia. Women in headscarves and maroon gongchas — the traditional dress of Ladakh — sell massive tubers on the pavement outside the shops. An entire stretch of footpath is given over to dried fruit. Bearded Muslims alternate with prayer wheel-spinning Buddhists, with the same sun blackened faces, all selling the same thing: exquisite, addictive dried apricots that fizz in your mouth, blonde sultanas, tangy dried tomatoes, cashews, almonds, walnuts, apricot oil and the juniper branches burnt in Buddhist offerings.
Wander down the alley, which runs parallel to the main shopping street, and wrestle with the temptation to go native. On sale are the tall, brocaded hats synonymous with Ladakh, known as tipi; felt shoes with curling toes known as papu; sheepskin lined, cross button vests known as gongchi, the lorol, a brocaded, sheepskin-lined cloak worn by Ladakhi women; and the ubiquitous gongchas. Stock up on Buddhist paraphernalia such as prayer flags, incense and embroidered wall hangings of the eight auspicious symbols or the mantra ‘om mani padmi hum’. Or head down Old Road, where colourful Chinese crockery is ranged neatly in the shop windows.
When it’s time for lunch, check out one of the Tibetan cafes in the main street. The Wok Tibetan Kitchen is the best. Or make the most of the view and international cuisine from the rooftop at La Terrasse, just off the main bazaar.
A couple of sights that the guidebooks direct you to in the centre of town are a bit of a disappointment. The mosque is a modern structure which dominates one end of the bazaar. Diagonally opposite lies the Jokhang, or central Buddhist temple, which is a simple affair. It does have a fine roof and an eye-catching fake gold and mother of pearl chandelier hanging from the atrium, though. The old town, just behind the bazaar, is a shadow of its former self, its character now buried beneath acres of concrete. The winding lanes and very occasional old doorway give a sense of its former charm, but only just.
Time for dinner. And it’s time to be honest again. Because they had to, OT sent me to Leh to research this story in April. That meant that almost all the restaurants were closed, and most of the hotels. In fact, with the passes closed for seven months, there was barely a skerrick of fresh food in the entire town. For six days I lived on tough chicken, greasy chowmein and Maggi noodles. (There was also no running water in my hotel, and electricity for four hours a night. It rained, and then it snowed. Think you want to be a travel writer? Think again.)
In other words, I can’t really recommend many restaurants or hotels, other than a couple I remember from two years ago. There are plenty of them, though, and by all accounts the food is good, ranging from Indian to Italian to Israeli to Korean. Check them out. Most of the good restaurants are clustered around Fort Road, to the south of the centre. For Tibetan, try The Wok Tibetan Kitchen. International options are as diverse as La Terrasse for Chinese/Indian/Continental, Dream-land for mixed cuisine and beer, Pumpernickel for Western food and German bakery type stuff, Little Italy for Italian.
WHERE TO STAY
Leh abounds with places to stay, with almost every second house being converted into a guesthouse. Kanglachen has nice, airy rooms (Rs 2,100-2,500; 01982-252523). Or try Hotel Dragon (Rs 1,550-1,875; 252139). The Welcom-Heritage affiliated Shambha La, set in an orchard just outside town, has doubles for Rs 2,500 (252607). For hotels away from the hustle and bustle of town, try the suburbs of Karzoo, Chubi and Changspa, just a few minutes walk from the centre.
By the second day you should have the energy to tackle the Royal Palace, the massive, slope walled monument built by King Sengge Namgyal when he shifted the capital to Leh in the 17th century. There’s not much to see inside — the palace is undergoing renovation and it’s completely empty. But it offers great views of Leh, and its rabbit warren interiors are atmospheric. Only one room features a couple of murals which, unforgivably, are covered in graffiti. (Amitabh Lone, whoever you are, you’re a cretin.) After this, take the path further up the mountain to Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, a monastery which consists of two buildings, the maroon Maitreya temple, which houses a large Buddha, and the white Gon-khang temple, with its ancient murals.
A couple of other places are worth a visit. The ecological centre is run by an organisation called Ladakh Ecological Development Group, established to foster sustainable development in Ladakh. They help establish alternative energy projects, encourage organic farming, and run income generation projects such as handicrafts. They show videos about Ladakh, and run a shop and well-stocked library from their centre on the west side of town.
The Sankar Gompa, two kilometres out of town, makes a pleasant walk through the fields. Climb upstairs to the shrine room to see the main deity, a thousand-armed Tara, and then up to the roof, for fine views of the valley.
That leaves one more evening for beer and pizza before heading out in search of the serious stuff. Be warned: there’s lot of Maggi noodles out there.
Jet Airways flies daily to Leh (except Saturdays) for Rs 6,885 (one-way). Leh can also be reached by two spectacular overland routes, one from Srinagar, the other from Manali (but these are only open in summer).
Things to Buy
Curio and carpet shops, handicraft emporia and bookstores can all be found in Leh’s atmospheric main bazaar, where once caravans from Central Asia used to flock. In season you’ll find a Tibetan Market off the Fort Road area. Bargain hard and watch out for fake antiques.
For local crafts to take back home check out the LEDEG handicrafts shop.
Pick me ups include objects as diverse as turquoise, coral and silver jewellery, woodwork including the low, intricately carved, brightly coloured tables used by monks to read sutras, embroidered T-shirts, snug down jackets, metalwork including copper tea urns and the telescopic long horns used in Buddhist ceremonies. Chinese crockery can be found in the shops along Old Road.
Rather popular seem to be the traditional Ladakhi dresses and the ubiquitous prayer wheels and singing bowls. Dried fruit, especially apricots, sun-dried tomatoes and yak cheese make good food-buys.