Ladakh Stories and Tips

An Introduction to Ladakh - Part Three

Flying Into Leh Airport Photo, Ladakh, India

~How do I get there?~

Getting to Ladakh is part of the adventure. Most people will start by flying into Delhi. There is plenty of competition for flights on the London to Delhi route and this keeps the prices fair. Since the main season for Ladakh is not a popular time for tourists to go to Delhi or any other part of India for that matter (it's far too hot and there's the monsoon to contend with) you should be able to pick up a good deal. We flew with Virgin using Flying Club 'miles' but flights were available with good European airlines for around £500 including taxes.

From Delhi your options will depend on how much time you have and how much money you have.

By Air:
We flew - thank goodness - into the main Ladakhi city of Leh. The flight takes around an hour with Jet Airways from Delhi airport's domestic terminal. I believe that other airlines are also available - but not many. You can also fly in from Srinagar in Kashmir but as tourists, you are unlikely to be in Srinagar unless you have a death wish - or relatives. The Delhi-Leh flight has spectacular views over the mountains so beg and plead with the check in staff and get yourself a window seat. There's no advantage to being on one side of the plane rather than the other - the mountains are so big that you really aren't at any risk of missing them and you should get an eyeful wherever you sit. I'm not a nervous flyer but even I was overwhelmed by quite how close we were to the mountains on the way in. On the way back to Delhi the plane flies too high over the mountains to get much of a view so it doesn't matter where you sit.

The flights from Delhi are expensive and I'm told they can get very busy in the peak season. The price marked on our tickets was around $360 which is very expensive for a one hour flight. Planes from Delhi only go early in the morning - it's something to do with the air over the mountains being more 'stable' and less turbulent first thing in the day before the mountains start to heat up. If there are any climatic issues at all the flights won't go because the airlines just won't risk it. For this reason, you shouldn't plan on flying straight back to Delhi and out again the same day as the chance of flights being interrupted is quite high.

By Road:
The route into Leh from the south is along the Manali-Leh highway but this road is only open from July through to the end of September. I can't tell you how long it will take to get from Delhi up to Leh but apparently just the Manali-Leh section can take around two days. During those two days you will experience all manner of scary driving nightmares. Indian drivers are awful - no apologies, I can't dress it up nicely, they are really poor. And if your driver is one of the good ones, it won't make a lot of difference, because all the others are still useless.

Throughout India it's clearly considered manly to drive with your knees whilst holding two different mobile phones to your ears and gibbering. When you add in mountain roads with hairpin bends this becomes impressive but not amusing. People who have taken buses have suggested that whilst the first couple of hours on the mountain roads will fill them with awe and inspiration but after 20 hours or so they have lost the will to live and are riding with their eyes firmly closed.

There are a couple of advantages to driving. Firstly it's cheap and secondly you should be less overwhelmed by the altitude change when you arrive than if you fly in. Personally, I wouldn't risk it.

~What else do I need to know?~

** Food and drink
Once you get to Ladakh, nothing is very expensive. You can have a good lunch for just a pound or two. Dinner for £2-5. Beer is priced at only slightly less than UK levels and there is a fierce local brew called Godfather that could leave you waking up with a horse's head in your bed. The label states the alcohol content to be 'between 5% and 8.5%' but it tastes like it's on the high side. In Leh you can find any kind of cuisine you want - including Israeli but you won't find too many non-Israelis lining up for that. Out on trek you'll find a high-carb diet is typical. You may get a tiny bit of meat at the beginning of your trek but all supplies are bought before you leave the city and have to be chosen for how well they will last. I don't eat meat and I didn't feel I missed out on more than two or three dishes during the 6 days that we camped.

Check with your doctor about what innoculations you will need and take advice on malaria tablets. Even though you may not need some jabs for Ladakh, you should bear in mind the advice for Delhi as well if you will be there before and after your visit. Drink bottled or boiled water and follow the normal common sense about not eating salads that might have been washed in unclean water. Watch out for the sun - the air is so thin that its affects can be fierce

Altitude sickness is a serious issue for even hardened and experience walkers. On arrival in Ladakh take a few days to acclimatise - drink lots of water (more than you can imagine you need) take everything very very slowly and lay off the booze.It's a good idea to carry a bottle of antibacterial gel for hand washing after using local toilets or before eating anything.

** Temples
Dress respectfully - no bare shoulders, no shorts, no excessive flesh exposure. Some of the temples are quite cold so it's a good idea to wear socks as you have to remove your shoes or sandles. Don't touch anything inside the temple and try not to disturb the monks. If they want to tell you very long dull stories in English that’s so broken that you don't understand it, be patient, nod and smile and put up with it. They are trying their best.

You cannot use flash photography inside any of the temples. This is to protect the paintings and out of respect for religious sites. You should also not smoke inside the temple grounds.
Always walk round stupas (religious monuments) or mani-walls (long low walls covered in carved mantra plaques) in a clockwise manner - if you can do so without danger or excessive inconvenience. If you want to take photos of the monks, ask them politely - try not to be intrusive.

If you are an Italian tour group apparently you can do anything you like!

** And finally - shopping!
What can you buy in Ladakh? Admit it some of you are wondering what goodies you can pick up. Most of the shops in Leh are run by Kashmiri shopkeepers - some of the most shrewd and professional businessmen in India. Many have shops down in Goa for the winter and then head to Ladakh for the summer when Goa is too hot. Most of the market stalls are run by Tibetan émigrés. Almost all prices for curios, jewellery, clothes and rugs are negotiable and you can be pretty tough.

There are relatively few true Ladakhi items for sale - since the advent of tourism, many locals are making enough money to not have the same urge to sit and weave rugs in the winter months. A lot of what you see is brought in from Tibet, Kashmir or lowland India. Buddhist Thankas (wall hangings) are quite popular as are small prayer wheels and other religious items. The local clothing is quite interesting if you like to stock your 'dressing up box' but I doubt you'll find much to wear back home.

Jewellery is great value - usually silver based with semi-precious stones. I picked up a lot of pendants in various stones as well as rough cut ruby beads (a string for about £12). A day spent in the shops and markets of Leh should be plenty to give you a taste for what's on offer.

So there you are - a little taste of Ladakh. We enjoyed ourselves enormously and intend to go back again though maybe after seeing a few other parts of the Himalay first.

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