The last trip we took as a family in India was to Ladakh in late August. Before we moved to India, I didn’t really know anything about Ladakh. I had heard about Jammu and Kashmir, India’s northernmost state, because it’s often in the news but somehow never about Ladakh, even though it’s part of Jammu and Kashmir. Once we got to India, Ladakh was often recommended as a cool travel destination. It’s up in the Himalayas just south of Tibet. Most of the people who live there are Ladakhi and are ethnically, culturally, and linguistically related to the people of Tibet.
You could drive from Delhi to Ladakh between June and September but it would
be crazy take forever because of the rugged mountain terrain. The rest of the year, the passes into Ladakh are snowbound, so driving is out of the question. We went there in the summer but we didn’t have a lot of time, so we flew into Ladakh’s main city, Leh.
The Ladakh region is the only part of Jammu and Kashmir state, where we were allowed to go due to security concerns. Even in Ladakh, you need special permission from the Indian Government to go anywhere outside of Leh because Ladakh borders on both China and Pakistan and India has border disputes with both countries, so there is a heavy military presence in the area. If you are thinking about going there, your travel agent will help you get the required permissions.
The distance between Delhi and Leh is about 620 miles (1,000 km) and the flight takes a little over an hour, so it is very convenient and you fly over the Himalayas, which is pretty darn amazing. It looks like this:
Everyone knows the Himalayas are huge but it takes seeing them from above to actually grasp their enormity and to understand why the monsoon never makes it all the way to Ladakh and Tibet. We flew there during the monsoon season and could actually see the wet and rainy plains turn into wet and rainy mountains but the further north we flew, the drier the mountains got until we reached Ladakh, which is basically a high desert (you can also kinda see that on the second map above). The Himalayas are so freaking tall that they block the advance of the monsoon rains to the north.
Leh is at 11,500 ft (3,500 m) above sea level and that’s no joke if you’re new to high altitude. We were told that we should acclimate for a couple of days in Leh before going any higher. The problem was we we had 4 days total and our plan was to go up to Pangong lake on the Chinese border at 14,000 ft (4,300 m), so we got about a day of acclimation, which was not enough but more on that later.
In Leh we stayed at the Grand Himalaya hotel, which was OK. Friends had recommended the Grand Dragon but it was full. The Grand Himalaya is not bad but our understanding is that the Grand Dragon is nicer. Both hotels are built in the Ladakhi architectural style with beautiful woodwork but the the Grand Himalaya had some strange “features” - misaligned marble slabs in the bathroom, windows and doors didn’t quite close, and occasional gasoline smell from the generator. The food was mostly Ladakhi, which is similar to Tibetan/Chinese with momos (fried or steamed dumplings with various fillings) figuring prominently. Our room was spacious and comfortable, the location was good (right below Leh Palace and a short walk from downtown) and the staff was friendly and helpful, so we couldn’t really complain. Here are a couple of pictures (the one to the left is from the hotel’s website):
We took it easy the first day because we needed to acclimate to the high altitude. We lounged about in the hotel before noon and then took a nap. In the afternoon, we had our driver take us to Leh Palace, which was perched on a hill above our hotel. The palace is an interesting multi-story structure (see picture below) but there is very little left inside – just a temple, empty rooms and terraces.
The views from the palace however are really cool – you see the whole city, spread beneath you in an emerald-green river-fed valley surrounded by austere-looking treeless mountains.
After Leh palace, we went to Shanti (peace) Stupa, a Buddhist monument built by the Japanese on another hill at the outskirts of Leh for more breathtaking views of the valley, the surrounding mountains and the stupa itself.
Unfortunately, there was some beautification project going on when we were there, so the downtown area looked like a war zone but you could see that it would be nice when finished because the streets were lined with shops and interesting old buildings. There was a lot of activity going on despite the construction and the mini dust storm, which came out of nowhere while we were walking around.
By the time we got back to the hotel we were so tired we were ready to pass out, so we just ordered room service and went to bed. We were starting to feel the effects of the high altitude – we were all short of breath and some of us had headaches. We had a long trip ahead of us the next day and we were going higher, so we bought a bottle of oxygen, just in case.
Even though I was exhausted, I had a hard time falling asleep that night. Breathing was a struggle and I just couldn’t relax enough to fall asleep. I kept an eye on the kids, who were also having breathing difficulties. I was worried about the next day knowing we were going higher. I was starting to think that perhaps going to Ladakh with the kids, was not such a good idea after all but everything was already paid for. Plus, we still wanted to see Pangong Lake. They say high altitude makes you stupid because the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen and I have to say, I felt rather dumb and panicky that night (though not as dumb and panicky as I felt the following night).
Coming up: Ladakh Part 2 – Pangong Lake.