With snow-capped peaks as far as the eye can see, the flight from Delhi to Leh may just be one of the world’s most scenic sights. After flying over a segment of the great Himalayan range and Hemis National Park, which is famous for its snow leopards, the plane descended into the open Indus Valley. It wasn’t long before the Himalayas to the south and the Karakoram to the north towered above me. Before touching down in Leh, I understood how Ladakh, meaning “land of high passes”, got its name.
A follow-up reminder came in the form of my travel partner’s searing headache. Leh sits at an altitude of 3,500 m (11,500) ft. and it is common to feel the effects of altitude sickness upon arrival in Ladakh’s capital. After taking a taxi to our guest house, where I left my partner to rest, I set off to explore Leh on foot.
An Enclave of Tibetan Culture
Despite spending several months backpacking through India, Leh was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Contrary to colourful Jaipur or bustling Delhi, Leh is a labyrinth of white-washed buildings with wooden windows and flat roofs. Terraced barley fields make up the perimeter while pearly monasteries and gompas dot the shoulders of surrounding foothills. Each building is adorned with fluttering prayer flags, including Leh Palace, which rises above the old town like a fortress. Neither grand like the Taj Mahal nor ornate like the Hawa Mahal, Leh Palace blends in with the barren slope that it perches on.
Historically cut off from the rest of India by an impenetrable mountain range, Leh was an important stop on the ancient trade route between Kashmir to the west and Tibet and China to the east. With the trade of goods such as silk, salt, cashmere, wool, and indigo also came a cultural exchange that continues today.
Just 60 km from the Tibetan border, many Tibetans have sought refuge in Leh and it remains an enclave of Tibetan culture. While Buddhism is the largest religion in Leh, Hinduism and Islam are just as prevalent. The region has been co-inhabited since the Namgyal dynasty of the 8th century, with no records of conflict.
I spent the first day wandering through the Old Town and Central Bazaar, mainly in search of Diamox for my travel partner. He rejoined me the following day and we explored Leh on foot to acclimatize for our self-supported Markha Valley trek. After continual exploration, here are eight places I recommend everyone visit in Leh.
Leh Main Gate
The Main Gate is a natural starting point for discovering Leh. Painted in a traditional style with reds, greens, blues, and golds, the gate is also adjacent to a large prayer wheel and Kyigo Drak Gompa.
One of the liveliest parts of Leh is its Main Bazaar. It is a bustling marketplace selling food, produce, clothing, textiles, crafts, outdoor gear, and antiques. Visitors will also find food vendors, tea stalls, and restaurants serving various cuisines. Located in the heart of the city, it’s the best place to observe the locals, many still wearing traditional clothes, and watch daily life unfold.
Walk the historic Stalam path from the Main Bazaar to the royal palace, built by King Sengge Namgyal before his death in 1642. Standing nine storeys tall, the upper floors accommodated the royal family while the lower floors were used as stables and storerooms. When it was besieged by Kashmiri forces in the mid-19th century, the royal family relocated to Stok Palace.
Much of the palace is in need of restoration but it is currently home to the Palace Museum, which holds a rich collection of jewellery, ceremonial dresses, crowns, and Tibetan thangka (paintings) which are over 450 years old. The palace, which is currently being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India, is open to the public.
Don’t miss the rooftop, which provides panoramic views of Leh and the mountains beyond.
This Buddhist monastery was founded in 1430 by King Tashi Namgyal. Walking distance from Leh Palace and the Tsemo Castle (also known as the Leh Fort), it is home to a gold statue of Maitreya Buddha that stands three storeys tall. It offers sweeping views of Leh and the royal palace.
Perched on a hill within walking distance from the Old Town, this white-domed Buddhist stupa (or chorten) is impossible to miss. Constructed in 1991 by Gyomyo Nakamura as part of the Peace Pagoda mission, the Shanti Stupa holds relics of the Buddha at its base and enshrines the 14th Dalai Lama.
In addition to its religious significance, it draws visitors with its panoramic views of Leh and the surrounding landscape.
Central Asian Museum
The exhibits at the Central Asian Museum visually explains Leh’s history and role in the Silk Road trade. The building was designed to show a blend of traditional Ladakhi and Tibetan styles. For example, the ceiling of the ground floor is built in early Ladakhi and Baltistani style with a diamond ceiling at its centre, as found in many early Ladakhi temples, but there are also influences from the nearby Tsemo tower. The courtyard contains Leh’s oldest mosque as well as a traditional Ladakhi kitchen. It is adjacent to the 500-year old sacred tree known as Datun Sahib.
Jama Masjid Mosque
The largest and oldest mosque in Ladakh, Jama Masjid was constructed in 1667 after an agreement between Deldan Namgyal and the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. This brilliant work of Turkish-Iranian architecture was a tribute to Namgyal’s Muslim mother and contains a memorial to Muslim Sufi Saint Mir Syed Ali Hamdani. The original structure has been dismantled and rebuilt with modern techniques.
This Tibetan Buddhist monastery, also known as Sankar Gompa, rests among the trees above Leh, on the leeward slope of Khardung La, one of the world’s highest motor roads. It is home to a few dozen monks, and is open to visitors in the early morning and evening. It is a roughly 30-minute walk from the heart of Leh to Sankar Monastery.
The Heart of Ladakh
Leh is not only the capital but the beating heart of Ladakh. It enables visitors to experience Ladakhi culture in one place — from palaces and monasteries to local restaurants, businesses, and handcrafted goods. We didn’t spend enough time in Leh to try everything, but of the places we did try, our favourites included The Turnip, The Nook, Neha Snacks, the Tibetan Kitchen, and Coffee Culture Ladakh. We also found local souvenirs at Dzomsa Market.
Whether you fly directly to Leh or arrive by road via the iconic Manali-Leh highway, Leh is an excellent starting point for adventures throughout Ladakh. Tour agencies based in Leh, can assist with itineraries to surrounding attractions such as Spituk Monastery, Magnetic Hill, Thiksey Monastery, and the sand dunes of the Nubra Valley, and the Baltistani village of Turtuk. Leh is also a great base for adventure-seekers who wish to hike in places like Hemis National Park, the Markha Valley, and Zanskar or summit peaks like Stok Kangri (6,153 m).
If you seek to explore a remote destination with a unique combination of culture, history, and adventure, look no further than Leh!
Story by: Trixie Pacis
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