Monday, 3 May 2010

Planning a Trip to Ladakh


                                  Diskit, Ladakh - 16 May, 2009

With the tourist season upon us, I thought I'd post a little information about Ladakh for all of you wanting to visit, to help you plan your trip.

Outlay

Ladakh is situated in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and is India's largest and one of its least populated districts, bordering Pakistan and China. It is mostly barren, with beautiful mountains and a few rivers and lakes. Green fields, farms and pastures exist in patches, mostly around towns and villages, each of which is centered around a Buddhist monastery, which is usually on a hill.

It's cold and snowed in for most of the year, but comes alive in summer, when tourists go there. The capital of Ladakh is Leh, a town where most tourists and local tour/adventure agencies base themselves.

People

The people are friendly. Most live in towns and villages, the largest being Leh, and a few are nomads. Many town residents have tourism related occupations. Village life is centered around farming and rearing animals. There is very little crime.

Best time to visit

A few people visit Ladakh at the height of winter, braving the minus temperatures (-20 C) only to trek along a frozen river. If this is not your thing, then the best time of year to visit Ladakh is summer - June to September. July and August are the best/warmest months (10-30 C). It is very sunny and rain is extremely rare during this period.

I visited Ladakh in early May 2009. It was freezing (even in the afternoon) as winter was just coming to an end. I even caught a bit of snow. If you're not used to the cold, or don't like it, visit later, or go to Himachal or Kashmir. The only good thing about going to Ladakh that early is how few other tourists there are at that time, and how cheap accommodation is. However, roads to Ladakh might not always be open in May (see 'How to get there').

What to Wear

If travelling to Ladakh between June & September, a jacket & sweater will suffice. Other times require heavier clothing like thermals.

For the sunny climate, carry a hat and sunscreen. Also lip balm for chapped lips and sunglasses for the constant brightness, especially snow blindness. A polarising filter for your camera would help, and a torch if you plan to go wandering about/camping/trekking at night, or during power cuts.

In addition to the above, if travelling light or backpacking for two weeks or more, a couple of shirts and t-shirts will do, along with a pair of jeans and lighter trousers or shorts. Your shoes should be comfortable to walk in. Carry at least two pairs of socks and underwear. And carry sandals for warmer days.

How to get there

The only two ways to reach Ladakh are by road and air.

There are two roads that take you into Ladakh. The Srinagar-Leh highway and the Manali-Leh highway. These roads are closed for most of the year and only remain open for about 4-5 months. The Srinagar-Leh road usually opens at some point between late April and late May, and the Manali-Leh road at some point between May and June, usually later than the Srinagar one. Both roads close around October. There are no fixed yearly dates for the roads being declared open or closed, as the factors involved in road clearing (amount of ice, snow, mishaps, etc.) vary every year, so plan accordingly. The road status is updated on the official Government of Leh website.

You can travel by bike or car on these roads. However, it is better to do this from June onwards, when it isn't so cold, and when the snow and ice will have melted away. You can complete the entire Srinagar-Leh or Manali-Leh stretch in around 15-18 hours, but it is advisable to stop and rest for the night along the way to acclimatise to the altitude (see Acclimatisation).

Government tourist buses ply to Leh from both Srinagar and Manali when the highways are open. Buses from Srinagar (Rs. 710 in 2009) halt for the night at Kargil, and buses from Manali halt for the night at Keylong (tented accommodation). You might have to arrange and pay for accommodation yourself (I certainly did in Kargil).

You can arrange for travel in a private or shared taxi from Srinagar or Manali. These charge you around Rs.1200 (shared) for the one day drive to Leh. Shared taxis also take passengers halfway from Srinagar, Jammu, Gulmarg, etc to Kargil, from where you can make alternate arrangements.

You can fly into Leh year round. Flights leave from Delhi, Srinagar & Jammu. Book early for cheaper tickets.

Acclimatisation 

Most of Ladakh is situated at an altitude of over 3,000 metres. Leh is at 3,500 metres. Places this far up have reduced oxygen levels. Now, what normally happens when you travel to places this high too quickly, or exert yourself at these altitudes, is that you begin to experience fatigue, shortness of breath, disorientation, nausea, dizziness, headaches, loss of appetite, etc. This is called Acute Mountain sickness (AMS).

People tend to get AMS while doing a quick road trip, or while crossing high road passes, or soon after they fly to, or over exert themselves in Ladakh after only just arriving there. AMS is a silent enemy; it may not strike at once but settle in during your first night or second day in Ladakh. Different people are affected to different degrees.

To acclimatise or get used to the low oxygen Ladakhi atmosphere, you need to:

1. Take your time getting there, giving your body more time to adjust. Travelling by road is better than flying in, and a two-day road trip is better than a one-day trip.
2. Take it easy during your first few days in Ladakh. No exercise, just rest.
3. Drink lots of water. Hydration helps counter AMS, so sip on water continually, even if you don't have an appetite for food.
4. No alcohol.

To counter AMS while crossing a high pass on the Srinagar-Leh or Manali-Leh highway, cross it as quickly a possible. These high mountain passes offer stunning scenery but their heights and the quick time it takes you to reach them ensures that AMS hits you immediately, so it is advised not to stop there for more than 5 minutes for photography or other purposes and get to a lower altitude quickly, especially if you are travelling by yourself or operating your own vehicle.

Accommodation

Most homestays and guesthouses on the outskirts of Leh start at Rs. 200. Those in the centre of Leh charge more, around Rs. 400. Hotels are the most expensive, with prices starting at around Rs. 1000 in season.

I vouch for the homestays and guesthouses. They have more personality, and you get to interact with locals and foreigners alike, whereas hotels tend to accomodate package tour groups from India.

If you decide to stay on the outskirts of town, you will save money on cheaper accommodation, but will end up spending a lot of time and energy walking into town every so often, which isn't very advisable if you're trying to acclimatise to the high altitude. My advice is rent a bike if you have the cash.

Money

Speaking of cash, carry some of your own. There are only three ATMs in Ladakh, all are in Leh, and they tend to malfunction or get crowded. Visit them during early morning or late evening to avoid the long lines.

If using an international credit card for ATM withdrawals, remember that you incur a charge for each transaction, no matter how small, so make it a large one.

Banks will exchange travellers cheques and foreign currency and arrange transfers.

Ladakh is relatively cheap overall. I was able to get by on Rs. 700 a day as a solo backpacker, spending Rs. 300 a day on accommodation, another Rs. 300 on meals, and the rest on travel. Staying at a fancier place, renting your own bike or vehicle, shopping and drinking alcohol would of course require a budget of over Rs. 1000 a day.

Food

Leh has numerous restaurants catering to foreign tourists. Pizzas, pasta, Israeli, British & Italian food are common. Also expect a lot of Kashmiri, Tibetan and North Indian/Punjabi food in both Leh and other Ladakhi towns. I didn't come across South/West/East Indian food on my trip there. Veg food is as common as non-veg here. You will have to travel south to Himachal for fish.

Most restaurant meals are priced at just under Rs. 100. Veg dishes are slightly cheaper at around Rs. 70. Non veg. tandoori, sizzlers, and other fancier dishes start at around Rs. 120.

Getting Around

Local buses from the bus station at Leh are cost-effective for short trips from Leh to nearby towns. Tickets to places half an hour away like Thiksey and Shey cost around Rs. 10. Buses to towns an hour or more away aren't very frequent, so plan accordingly.

Taxis are available from the taxi stand near Leh market, but charge a lot - a few hundred rupees for just a few kilometres.

You can rent a bike at around Rs. 500/day.

You can join a shared vehicle tour to a specific location. Tour agencies around Leh advertise vacancies on their various car trips by putting up signs in their office windows lining the main streets around Leh. It's a great way to save costs and meet other people.

Permits

Most places in Ladakh don't require permits. But places close to the borders do, like Pangong Tso and the Nubra valley. You can arrange permits yourself for Rs.20 at the permit office in Leh, or Rs.100 through an agent. They are valid for a week.

How much time you need

I recommend at least two weeks.

If you're working, and can only get a week's leave, then, combined with weekends at either end, you'll only have 9 days in total for your trip, so you'd be better off flying to Leh. This might cost more, but leave more time for resting & sightseeing, as the road option would have you spending 2-4 days in travelling to & from Leh, leaving you with just 7-5 days for sightseeing. Also, to utilise your time better, travel around by bike or car when you get there.

If you take two weeks off from work, you're going to have 16 days in total for your trip. With all this time at your disposal, you don't have to take a flight to Leh, and should be able to see and do a lot more.

What to do

This depends on how much time you have and the kind of activities you enjoy. I have, however, included some basic information below, allowing you to pick and choose what you would like to do.

Quarter day to half day sightseeing trips from Leh:

Leh market
Hall of Fame museum
Shanti Stupa
Spituk monastery & town
Leh palace
Namgyal Tsemo gompa & castle
Thiksey monastery
Shey monastery
Hemis monastery & museum
Stok palace & museum

You can drop by the Hall of Fame museum on your way to or back from Spituk, as it's along the way, and cover both in one half day.

You can visit Thiksey and Shey in one half day, and Hemis and Stok in another, or see all four in one day, if you take a prepaid taxi from Leh. You can spend the night in these monasteries for a small cost, or for free if they let you be a volunteer teacher.

One day or longer sightseeing trips from Leh:

Pangong Tso
Nubra valley (Sumur, Diskit, Hunder, Panamik)
Western Ladakh (Likir monastery, Alchi gompas, Basgo monastery & ruins, Lamayuru monastery, Pattharsahib Gurudwara & magnetic hill, Mulbekh)
Chemrey valley
Tso-Moriri
Tso-Kar

If travelling from Srinagar to Leh on your own, you'd be passing through Western Ladakh, so it would make sense that you break here or spend a night at Alchi, before proceeding to Leh. For those of you exiting Ladakh via Srinagar, it makes sense to take in all these places on your way out.

Other activities:

One day rafting and kayaking trips are available from July onwards, once the rivers swell.
You can go trekking through the Markha valley.
Also, peaks like Stok Kangri & Stok-La are open to amateur mountain climbers.

Local agencies organise everything. Budget at least 8-10 days for these trips and around Rs.700 a day for treks.

Feel free to add to the information posted here. You may contact me with any queries at dmello dot daniel at gmail dot com.


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29 comments:

Lazy Pineapple said...

wow...such a descriptive post. Loved it....
I liked the way you have given lots of pointers about, travel, food and accommodation.

Hobo ........ ........ ........ said...

Very very good information shared.
Thanks buddy. I am planning but not this year because this year maybe I am driving solo unless until a friend is ready to join.

Daniel D'Mello said...

@Lazy Pineapple: Thanks, most of this information is from experience.

Daniel D'Mello said...

@Hobo: Thanks, my trip to Ladakh was a solo one as I also couldn't get anyone to join me, but it was still fun.

Saurabh said...

Nice informative post. Thanks!
Liked your blog as a whole :)

I want to travel (ride) to Leh this year,but can't find any one to join me. I haven't been able to summon the courage to go solo as yet :(

Lets see how it goes.

Daniel D'Mello said...

Thanks Saurabh.

Yes, it's normal to feel nervous when thinking about travelling alone, if you haven't done it before. But I guess it all comes down to how badly you want to travel. If it's something you feel you absolutely must do, then I suppose the lack of company isn't really going to stop you.

I highly recommend solo travel, at least once, just for the feeling of being independent. Plus, if riding to Leh, you're bound to meet other people to travel with along the way, and even after you get there, so I wouldn't worry about complete lack of company.

Roshmi Sinha said...

Nice info and lucky you...

talkreviews said...

Been waiting for this post.. .excellent information there dude :D

Daniel D'Mello said...

@Roshmi: Thanks.

Daniel D'Mello said...

@Nishant: Thanks, I hope this information proves useful to you.

marta miquel said...

I´m planing to go Ladakh 15 days in August alone, and for long ways, Padong, or tso- moriri, 3 days in nubra valley, i would like to know if is posible rent a car driving on my own, and if you know if this is a reasonable price, i´ve never driven a bike.
Do you know how much cost the permits you need?
Thanks for your advises, are vey claer and helps a lot for a new travelers
Marta

Daniel D'Mello said...

Hi Marta,

You can rent a car through a local tour agency, where you're generally charged a standard fee based on a minimum number of usage hours (Ex: Rs 150-300 per hour for a minimum of 10-12 hrs), and anything in excess of that is charged on a per kilometer basis (Rs.10-14 per km).

Please note that this also includes the services of a driver, whose food and accommodation you will have to take care of. If you don't want a driver, you will probably have to make separate financial arrangements that would cost you more in terms of a security deposit or collateral.

Hope this helps.

amar patel said...

Lovely details :)
i've explored ladakh last year.
somehow even this year i'm looking frwd for same. its Haven on earth for the people who love nature of god. :)

Thanks for sharing.

Regards.

Daniel D'Mello said...

Thanks Amar. I like your pics.

ਹੈਰੀ ਗਿੱਲ said...

m planning for leh n ladakh by 3rd june with my BULLET n few frenz.
can leave me a mail on
harjeetsenator@gmail.com

Bharat said...

Hey Daniel...
Thanks for posting a nice / informative post.
I am planning a trip with two close friends in the first week of July. Your experience will be really very helpful to us in planning our trip more efficiently.
Request if you can share your email/contact no. also.

Diane said...

Thanks for your info Daniel!
I'm in india for 5 weeks in aug/sep and really would like to go to Leh for about 10 days.

So if you could help me with my iten, that would be great!!

Let me know if you can!!

Thanks

Diane

Daniel D'Mello said...

@Bharat:

You're welcome. Let me know how I can help. My email is dmello.daniel@gmail.com

Daniel D'Mello said...

@Diane:

Glad that it's helpful. Could you please email me? I'll do my best to help.

Anonymous said...

fyi...now thr r 3 atms in d main market in leh d new 1 wic is gemerally less crowded is near jammu n kashmir bank...

Daniel D'Mello said...

Thanks for letting us know.

Vivacious said...

hey..it was really informative and liked your style of adding the v needed details.
thanks Daniel, it was indeed v helpful.

shoeb said...

thanks man it ws awesome, will add ur page to favourites

Daniel D'Mello said...

Thanks guys.

Sandeep said...

Hi Daniel, ur blog is so impressive and loaded with all relevant information about leh and ladakh. Many thanks for that. Also i am going to communicate with you via email about travelling there all alone on a bike and expenses involved with the trip.

M@X said...

Really informative stuff. I am planning a trip there in March 2012. What do you suggest? Would it be too cold? Should I shift to mid-May?
Thanks for all the information though.

-Ninad(ninad.kuchekar@gmail.com)

whiteswrites said...

That was very helpful, thank you. One question, can AMS cause you panic attack in some way? What is your suggestion? Oni- (oniolivya@gmail.com)

Vinay Chittora said...

Thanks a lot for such a informative blogpost. I am going there day after tomorrow, alone. It just build my confidence a bit higher after reading your post. :)

Keep wandering. Cheers !

Anonymous said...

great...really informative post...
m planning to got to ladakh on a solo trip....but my problem is that i know driving but don have a car and i don know bike at all...never rode a bike...could you please tell me if it is a good idea to go on a solo trip...kind of hiking in ladakh u know...if so then can u please give a roundabout the cost and time...

thanks alot...

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