Are you heading to Ladakh but not sure where to start? Check out this 11 day itinerary that will give you a good taste of the beauty Ladakh has to offer!
Jules here, the local Goa expert finally taking a little trip outside of Goa and within the beautiful Mother India after what feels like over a year. India is full to the brim with culture, heritage, colours, sounds and absolute madness. There is so much to see and every state, village and corner seems to be different. After 5 years of wanting to make a trip to Ladakh, I finally did and wow!
When To Go?
The best time to visit Ladakh is between April and September. April to July being the warmer and busiest months and July to September cooling and slowing down. Once it gets to October, winter sets in and tourism is not so common as it can get to minus 10 degrees at night. I decided to go around the beginning of September and actually the weather was perfect. It was nice and hot in the day, sometimes even too hot and nice and chilly in the evenings. It also meant tourism was slowing down so it wasn’t as crowded as usual which is what you want when searching for tranquility!
I was able to take an 11 day trip to Ladakh which I feel was the perfect amount of time to do some exploring in a few different areas, have some time for relaxing and to incorporate the very necessary initial 2 days you need to take to acclimatise. Some people fly to Ladakh for the weekend but if you take into account the days you need to acclimatise this is not such a good idea. This is not a place that should be rushed and so if you have the capacity to stay a bit longer, then please do. Below are the full details on what I did, where I stayed and what I saw.
Where Is Ladakh?
Ladakh is up high in the Northern part of India, surrounded by the beautiful Himalayan mountain range. It is not the easiest place to get to and is still not considered the most safe due to its close proximity to China, Tibet and Jammu and Kashmir. However, I felt safe the whole time, the people are so friendly, everyone wants to help and the views will blow your mind. The only big reminder of potential trouble are the hundreds, probably thousands of army people you see everywhere. In all the remote mountain areas there are different army camps, with tanks and army trucks and all kinds of weapons. Fighter jets can sometimes be heard flying overhead and an important thing to remember is never take pictures of the army – this is not allowed and this will get you into trouble.
At the beginning of September, we flew into Leh from Delhi on a small Go Air plane for a very reasonable price. They have quite a lot of planes arriving and departing everyday as Leh has suddenly become the Goa of the mountains. The views from the plane are just the beginning of what you are about to experience. If you can pay for a window seat on the left side of the plane, it will be the best 300rs you spend. When we were flying over the snowy peaks, our pilot was giving us a talk through the different mountain ranges and which monastery was which. If it is a clear day you will see absolutely everything and your mind will be blown! Once you land at Leh airport, you get down on the runway and although you will probably want to take a selfie or picture, hold yourself back, as photography is prohibited at army airports.
Leh is 11,480 ft (3,500M) above sea level and the more exploring you do, the higher you can go. You will be able to feel this as you soon as you get off the plane. Usually if you take the road and drive from Manali to Leh, your body will acclimatise as you go, but flying on a plane means you don’t get that time for your body to get used to the change. It’s a very short 1 hour and 10 minute flight and in that time you will have climbed up a fair distance. What you will feel is a slight headache and very out of breath. You will need to collect your baggage and take it very slowly. I walked up 3 or 4 steps and was out of breath as if I had sprinted up 25.
What Do You Need?
There is a foreigner registration desk at Leh airport which you will need to sign in to if you are travelling on a foreign passport. They will give you a C Form and they will just check on your safety while you are visiting. When departing from Leh airport you will have to go to the same desk so they can essentially sign you out of Ladakh.
To enter Leh you will need a negative RT-PCR test or a certificate to show you are double vaccinated. They will check this on your exit at Leh airport. There may be a testing facility available at Leh airport but it is worth having all your documents ready beforehand.
You will need to get different permits to explore different areas of Ladakh. These permits will be checked at different check-points throughout your journey and have your full details on them. Again I feel they do this for your safety and it is a way to check everyone who entered Ladakh, also exits. You have to select the permits you require for the different areas, so the best is to ask your hotel to help with this or you can do it yourself and choose all areas. The permit I used for my trip was 900rs and I used the official website. Do note you can’t get permits for one person and they usually need to be done in pairs. I also would not recommend travelling around Ladakh alone, it is definitely more of a shared trip, not only for your safety but also to be able to share the beauty.
Three life hacks for Ladakh that you should definitely listen to before your trip. Download all the offline maps of Ladakh while in Delhi. And download all offline music and movies you will want before the trip. In the 11 days I was in Ladakh I had absolutely zero phone signal and the wifi is not the best. Get yourself an Airtel SIM card either before you get to Ladakh or if you are an Indian National you can use your passport to get a SIM when in Leh. If you are a foreigner you will need your passport to get a SIM card but it will probably take a bit longer.
There is no nightlife in Ladakh, don’t go looking for a party and lots of alcohol. What you will find are peaceful starry nights and lots of opportunity for movie nights in your hotel room so make sure you are prepared!
We picked up a taxi at Leh airport and went directly to Stok which is even higher above sea level. If you don’t have your own working SIM then make sure you have the contact number of all hotels you are staying in as the locals in Ladakh will have SIM cards that do actually work – Airtel and even Postpaid JIO are the only ones that work apparently – and they will be able to call the hotel to check their location.
We stayed at Kaya Homestay, the perfect place to acclimatise and take it all in. Stok is a small village that doesn’t have as much going on as Leh and Kaya Homestay is in a small lane with it’s own home grown garden, panoramic bedroom windows, the BEST Vegan cafe and hot showers!
We stayed here for 3 nights. 2 of those days were spent doing pretty much nothing but taking it easy, watching movies, eating at the delicious cafe and staring at the beautiful mountain range out the windows. We went on very small walks in the day, nothing too major as you really do need to relax or you can get sick. Headaches came in the morning but were usually gone by the afternoon. Do not drink any alcohol or smoke for the first few days at least as this can really have adverse side effects and could ruin your trip and nobody wants that!
Whilst in Stok we took a trip to Leh to check it out. We hitched a ride with the owner of Kaya and went to visit the Central Asian Museum which has lots of history about Ladakh and also lots of stairs that you will spend a lot of time getting out of breath from. It’s only small and shouldn’t take any longer than 45 minutes to look around. There is also the Leh Palace which you can see up high but it wasn’t open when we visited. There are lots of shops in town where you can get the essentials you may need for your trip including medicines, toiletries, warm clothing and snacks for the the car journeys.
There is also a beautiful Pagoda, Shanti Stupa, in Leh but it was up hundreds of stairs that I didn’t feel my lungs were ready to climb yet. I went up a quarter of the way to sit on the stairs and admire the view. If your lungs are settled and you are already a few days in then it is definitely worth visiting the Shanti Stupa for the views over Leh and beyond.
I would recommend not spending too much time in Leh and only passing through for a day or half-day visit. It isn’t the prettiest town and although it is nice to see the way of life there and the different fruits and vegetables they sell – lots of delicious apricots and apples – there are a lot of other quieter villages and towns that have more beauty.
When you make it to Leh try Bon Appetit for yum food, The Tibetan Kitchen for the very delicious and traditional momos and The German Bakery for some bakery goodies. I also got some yum apricot jam and bottled Seabuckthorn juice which is the most delicious and apparently miracle liquid with all the vitamins you may need. Both are bright orange!
Back in Stok there is a huge golden Buddha a short walk away from Kaya. It is of course up a hill so again the walk needs to be taken slowly even after you have acclimatised. It’s a strange feeling of suddenly being very aware of your heart pumping away in your chest so take it slow at all times and listen to your body. This Buddha is sat up high with the most glorious view of the mountain range behind Leh. We ended up sitting here for at least 3 hours watching groups come and go and just enjoying the view from all corners. This was our first WOW moment and there were many more that came.
The Cafe at Kaya Homestay is now famous in Ladakh as they serve some of the most delicious and very instagrammable vegan food. Your mind will be blown and your taste buds will be alive. They have only recently opened up the Cafe to guests who aren’t staying so it does get busier now. There are also not many other or any other places to eat in Stok as it is not busy like Leh so when people make the trip to Stok they will also try the Cafe. My favorite was the Hummus Carrot sandwich which sounds very standard but the carrot was pulled out of the ground in front of us, the hummus was blitzed and the Ladakhi bread was freshly warmed. It was yum!
Our 3 Night Road Trip
We got our accommodation to help with a driver that he trusted to take us on what will forever be the most amazing road trip I have ever been on. If you are scared of heights, or have vertigo or find the idea of driving along cliff edges too stressful then these Ladakhi road trips may not be for you. But if you can find it within yourself to push through the fear you will be amazed!
We chose to do Stok – Nubra Valley – Pangong Lake – Leh.
The roads are literally built into the mountains and somehow seem to have enough room for 2 cars, the occasional overtaking and a lot of Army trucks that always seem to be in a very long convoy. Make sure you have your snacks packed, your music saved, your camera at the ready and literally just sit back and be ready to stare out the window for 6 hours at a time. The scenery just gets better and better and so you will end up having 20 pictures of the same mountain but from different angles!
Our first trip was from Stok to Nubra Valley. This took about 7 hours with a few stops, mainly for pictures as well as one very terrible wee stop. Terrible due to the smell of the toilet and me having to hold my breath but also trying to avoid dying by holding my breath as we are still very high up. On this route is where the ascent begins and you will have your first experience of cliff edge driving. It is scary at first but if you have the right driver, they have driven these roads a hundred times over and know exactly what they are doing. Here you will go through Khardung La Pass which is now the second highest motorable pass in the world. It stands at 17,852 ft (5,400M) high and you shouldn’t actually be up there for more than 5 minutes or so as it is bad for you. It is genuinely freezing cold with lots of snow but you will want to get out and take a picture next to the famous sign to show you made it. This was the busiest spot of the trip that day as lots of people congregate to get the perfect Instagram picture.
Once you begin the descent after Khardung La the snow starts to melt and the amazing Nubra Valley range comes into view. It just seems to get better and better as you keep going and the colour of the mountains changes as you turn around the hairpin bends. We spent a lot of time in silence just looking out the window in awe. It really is mind blowing.
Make sure you have a read of the green and yellow highway signs that are dotted along all the roads you will drive along. They are written by BRO – Border Road Organisation and some of them will keep you smiling. A lot of them promote safe driving and keeping Ladakh clean and green. A few of my favorites were – ‘Accident Brings Tears, Safety Brings Cheers.’ ‘If you really think the economy is more important than the environment, then try holding your breath while counting your money.’ ‘BRO Be Careful on My Curves.’
We stayed 2 nights at Nubra Valley Eco Lodge. This was a really beautiful spot with another big homegrown vegetable garden, the most amazing view of the mountains from the eating area and from our valley facing room. The food could be ordered during the usual breakfast, lunch and dinner hours and was nice North Indian food mainly. We didn’t book onto the all meals included option as we went out for day trips and had lunch elsewhere. However, there are no other restaurants nearby so you will be likely to end up eating dinner at wherever you choose to stay.
There was also a really cool door that lead out to the valley in front of our room and gave you a 360 degree view of the beauties. There was also a very random area with sand dunes and a bench, all natural and not man-made. This area through this secret door was my favorite spot in Nubra as you can find your own part away from anyone else and really take it all in. The weather seemed to change from 1 minute to the next and if it was suddenly super cloudy you wouldn’t even know the valley was there. We were lucky and had a lot of clear blue sky moments in the day and then an amazing clear starry sky in the evenings. Turn off the lights, sit on your room’s front balcony, crick you neck and watch the shooting stars fly past!
The slightly sad thing about Eco Lodge is that the homegrown vegetable garden seemed to be only thing Eco about it. They kept giving out plastic water bottles and not offering the filter water they had, as well as using lots of single use plastic items for the tea, coffee, bathroom toiletries etc. Plastic is a big thing in Ladakh as they don’t have any recycling plants so all plastic that is used is just buried or burnt. They ask you to bring as little plastic as possible and to take any excess plastic home. The least you can do is carry your own re-usable water bottle as this really makes a difference to your plastic consumption!
While staying at Nubra Valley, we hung out at the lodge but also took a little day trip over to Diskit and Hunder. This was a shorter journey of about 1.5 hours each way and took us to a very cool monastery that on a clear day gives you a great view over the valley.
Ladakh is mainly home to monasteries as Buddhism is the more prominent religion. These monasteries are usually built high up in the actual mountain faces. They have lots of prayer wheels that should always be spun clockwise for good luck whilst chanting Om Mani Padme Hum.
Next to the Diskit Monastery is another huge Buddha Statue, Maitreya, surrounded by prayer wheels. We got a really gloomy day so the view wasn’t as amazing as it could have been but these huge Buddha statues really are something else!
Next we went to Hunder which is another natural sand dune area which is like a desert in the middle of the valley. They have a huge number of Bactrian Camels which can be ridden on the dunes for a fee. These are rare camels with 2 humps and a lot of fluffy fur. I decided not to ride them just because I am scared of camels and I try to avoid riding animals for tourist purposes. But I have to say they did look very well treated and pretty happy. The camel ride was not a long one and we watched a few people go on theirs. Behind the group of camels is part of the valley that is beautiful to walk through with lots of sheep, goats and dogs. Here you feel as though you could be in Scotland, Austria or Norway but are somehow in India!
The drive from Nubra Valley to Pangong Lake is another 6 hour journey full of beauty. We passed through more mountainous valleys as well as roads surrounded by green grassy spots with wild horses and winding streams. Then pops up snowy mountain tops that tower over everything else and again your car journey will probably be filled with silence and awe. We stopped for lunch on the way at a small roadside place where you can eat traditional Tibetan food like Momos, Thukpa and Noodles.
When you arrive at Pangong Lake you will be blinded by the beauty. It does not look real. It’s hard for your mind to comprehend how blue the lake is. I actually spent the evening before watching ‘3 Idiots’ which is a must-see movie whether you are going to Ladakh or not. The ending scene of this film is at Pangong Lake and is now the main reason why the lake has been added to everyone’s Ladakh schedule. The lake is located at just under 14,000 ft (4,250M) which makes it very cold and the weather very temperamental. Most people actually just drive to Pangong to have a look and then carry on back to Leh but we decided to stay overnight and I would recommend this.
Don’t expect luxury or big hotels by the lake. What you will find are tents, homestays and small rooms. For 1 night this is perfect and we stayed at a very cute homestay called Pangong House which was a concrete home with food cooked by the family. The room window looked out onto the very blue lake and the duvet was nice and thick. The issue with the tents is that although they sound cool and adventurous, they are actually pretty cold at night and I am not one for the freezing cold. Staying overnight at the lake also means you get the chance to see the lake in all its glorious blue beauty. The lake looks different from the morning to the evening and if there are any clouds above the blue can be hidden. We were lucky to have a completely clear evening with the most amazing stars (which I could only stare at for 5 minutes before retreating from the cold) followed by a very clear morning which gave me the chance to take the images you see below.
Do note, Pangong Lake is not for swimming, it is deep and actually very choppy and more importantly, freezing. I went in to my ankles and that was more than enough for me. What is very interesting is the lake is actually 134km long and goes from india all the way to China!
Chuchot – Indus River Camp
Our final part of the road trip was from Pangong Lake back to Leh. This was the final 7 hour trip and this was probably the bumpiest part. The roads were not as good and the several ‘Avalanche Prone Zone’ signs were a bit scary but the views were as beautiful as ever. We crossed lots of snow topped mountains and saw lots of Yaks and even a little blue lake with a pedalo that I wish we had stopped at to ride.
I saved Indus River Camp until the end as I knew from the reviews that it was going to be exactly what we needed after our little road trip adventure. And really it was all it was hyped up to be and more. They have 8 cottages set on a huge 40 acre property with the most beautiful and comfortable rooms looking onto yet another glorious mountain range. The Indus River flows by and the peace and quiet was perfect. We stayed here for 4 nights which allowed me to unpack, settle in and completely feel like I was at home.
They have a communal eating space where you can also sit and play games and make use of the wi-fi. The meals are the best we had in Ladakh, with three-course meals served at dinner and delicious lunch and breakfasts offered. All meals are additional and you need to let them know in advance if you want to be included. We were in for breakfast and dinner everyday. Everything is freshly made and the starter was always the yummiest soup, followed by a curry, vegetable side, chutneys, papads and a dessert you may not be able to finish but will always try to.
They also have the option of a bonfire in the evenings, morning yoga by the Indus River, a telescope to see the stars and planets on a clear night as well as bikes for hire and a walk to see the special sunset views. Nico and Mary, the managers, will do all they can to make sure your stay is as perfect as possible and ours really was.
I did not want to leave but after an amazing and unforgettable 11 days, it was time to leave our Ladakhi adventure behind and fly back to the madness of Delhi. I hope the pictures in this blog have done some justice to what we saw but really you need to see it with your own eyes. I have done a lot of travelling in my time and these places above showed me the most natural beauty I have ever seen. You will leave feeling closer to Mother Nature and more at one with the mountains!
Day 1 – Flew Delhi to Leh. Stayed in Stok – Kaya Homestay
Day 2 – Stayed in Stok – Kaya Homestay
Day 3 – Stayed in Stok – Kaya Homestay
Day 4 – Road Trip Day 1 – Leh to Nubra Valley – Nubra Eco Lodge
Day 5 – Road Trip Day 2 – Visit Diskit and Hunder – Nubra Eco Lodge
Day 6 – Road Trip Day 3 – Nubra Valley to Pangong Lake – Pangong House
Day 7 – Road Trip Day 4 – Pangong Lake to Leh – Indus River Camp
Day 8 – Stayed in Chuchot – Indus River Camp
Day 9 – Stayed in Chuchot – Indus River Camp
Day 10 – Stayed in Chuchot – Indus River Camp
Day 11 – Flew Leh to Delhi
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