One Day in Leh
Just one brief syllable designed for the short-of-breath, Leh is the capital of Ladakh in India’s northern trans-Himalayan region. Its position is breathtaking – literally. The city sits in the valley of the Indus River, between the peaks of the Himalayas and the Karakorams, the two mightiest mountain ranges on the planet. These credentials make the city a popular base camp for whitewater rafting, extreme biking adventures on the world’s highest roads and some exceptional treks. Included on the list is the Chadar Trek, a mid-winter walk along the ice-covered Zanskar River, following the journey of villagers who load butter onto pack animals and set off through the sheer-sided gorge on a 10-day walk to Leh. In ethnicity and culture, Ladakh takes its cues from Tibet, and Leh is one of the best places to experience the magic and mysticism of an intact Tibetan Buddhist culture.
6:30 AM Also known as the mini Potala, Thikse is possibly the most spectacular of the Buddhist monasteries around Leh, a photogenic complex sited on the crest of a hill a few kilometres from the city. Visitors are welcome to attend the early morning prayer sessions and even to take photos when monks chant the Buddhist canon, to the sound of clashing cymbals and banging drums.
8:30AM Continue to Hemis Gompa, which lies about 20 kilometres east of Thikse on the opposite side of the Indus River. Hemis is the largest and richest of all the Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh. The magnificent main prayer hall has a gallery running around its upper storey and thankgas draped from the walls. The museum houses a notable collection of Buddhist artworks, many of them ancient. The temple is at its most spectacular for the Hemis Festival in June or July, when villagers and goat-herding nomads from far-flung regions congregate to see the lamas of Hemis perform masked dances in one of the dazzling highlights of the Buddhist calendar.
12:30PM Set on a big terrace above bustling Old Fort Road, Chopsticks has a menu strong on Asian favourites, Thai green curry to Tibetan momos. The noodle soups are excellent and alcoholic beverages are available from the bar next door.
1:30PM Time for some retail therapy. Leh has been a stronghold of Tibetan culture for centuries, and the city’s curio shops are swamped with Tibetan arts and artefacts.Pashmina is another specialty of Ladakh, made from the finest hair from goats herded by nomadic shepherds close to the Tibetan border. Thanks to the Kashmiri traders who make Leh their summer home, the city is well supplied with carpet shops. From coarse wool rugs woven by nomadic herders in traditional patterns to shimmering carpets made from blended silk and wool, the choice is dazzling, but be prepared to bargain hard over many hours before an expensive purchase.The outdoor gear shops in Main Bazaar Road can sell you most of what you need to tackle some of the wildest mountain terrain on the planet.
3:30PM Snack time, and while there are a couple of German Bakeries in Leh, the superior version is the Pumpernickel, near the corner of Old Fort Road and Main Bazaar Road. Fruity pies, apple strudel, apricot crumble almond cakes, fresh apricot nectar and Gulbadan Apple Juice are some of the staples.
4:30PM Built in the 17th century, Leh Palace is a seven-storey, mud-walled hilltop complex that overlooks the old town and invites comparisons with the Potala in Lhasa. The palace fell into disrepair after it was shorn of its royal function following the exile of the Namgyal dynasty in the 1800s, but it is now slowly being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. The rooftop offers lovely views over Leh and its surrounds to the snow-capped peaks of the Zanskar Range, at their best towards sunset.
7:30PM Bon Appetit is Leh’s supreme dining experience, a modernist restaurant with tables set across a stone-flagged patio as well as inside. Although the mutton burgers, roast vegetable sandwiches, pasta dishes and salads would not cause a stampede in too many other places, they fulfil the food fantasies of travellers who have spent days sucking thin air out in the wilderness. The cocktails are a cut above, and bring a torch if you go for dinner.
Get used to panting. Leh sits at 3500 metres, and this is a low point in the Ladakhi scheme of things. Even walking up a slight incline will have you puffing for breath. Take it easy, and drink plenty of fluids. Taxis are readily available for longer journeys.