Information of Leh

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As you approach Leh for the first time, via the sloping sweep of dust and pebbles that divide it from the floor of the Indus Valley, you'll have little difficulty imagining how the old trans-Himalayan traders must have felt as they plodded in on the caravan routes from Yarkhand and Tibet: a mixture of relief at having crossed the mountains in one piece, and anticipation of a relaxing spell in one of central's Asia most scenic and atmospheric towns. Spilling out of a side valley that tapers north towards eroded snow-capped peaks, the Ladakhi capital sprawls from the foot of a ruined Tibetan-style palace - a maze of mud brick and concrete flanked on by cream coloured desert and on the other by a swathe of lush irrigated farmland.

Monestary of Leh

Leh only became regional capital in the 17th century, when Sengge Namgyal shifted his court here from Shey, 15km southeast, to be closer to the head of the Khardung La-Karakoram corridor into China. The move paid off: within a generation the town had blossomed into one of the busiest markets on the Silk road. During the 1920s and 1930s, the broad bazaar that still forms its heart received more than a dozen pony - and camel-trains each day. Leh's prosperity managed mainly by the Sunni Muslim merchants, whose descendants live in its labyrinthine old quarters, came to an abrupt end with the closure of the Chinese border in the 1950s. Only after the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971, when India rediscovered the hitherto forgotten capital's strategic value, did its fortunes begin to look up.

Undoubtedly the most radical shake-up, however ensued from the Indian government's decision in 1974 to foreign tourists. From the start, Leh bore the brunt of the annual invasion, as busloads of backpackers poured up the road from Srinagar. Twenty or so years on, though the main approach is now via Himachal Pradesh rather than Kashmir, the summer influx shows no sign of abating. Leh has doubled in size and is a far cry from the stroll shoulder to shoulder down its main street, most of whose old-style outfitters and provision stores have been squeezed out by Kashmiri handicraft shops, art emporiums and Tibetan restaurants. A rapid increase in the number of Kashmiri traders, who have little choice but to seek business outside Kashmir, has in recent years led to unrest in Leh's bazaar, the first communal violence ever seen in normally peaceful Ladakh.

What to see
The village of Spituk lies 10 kms short of Leh and is dominated by the hilltop Spituk Monastery. Rising up in tiers with steep staircases and courtyards, the monastery’s oldest structures date nearly a thousand years back while the major part was built in the 15th century. Of special interest are the ancient sculptures, and mini-chortens decorating the altar. The gompa has a collection of scary Jelbagh masks, coins and arms said to have come from Lhasa’s Potala Palace

The Main Bazaar Streetruns from north to south through the heart of the town. Once lined with shops trading in wool, tea, salt and semi-precious stones, it now has rows of Ladakhi women selling fruits and vegetables. Chatting and smoking, the women add colour to this street. Kashmiri shopkeepers sell their goods on the streets, to the northwest of the main road

The most prominent feature of Leh is the towering LehPalace, with a commanding view of the town and the landscape around. The nine-storeyed building with typical Tibetan architecture has sloping buttresses and projecting wooden balconies. In pitiful shambles today, the building is dark and has gaping holes in the floors. Be sure to carry a torch before venturing in. The palace has a small Museum spread over several rooms connected with narrow passages. A collection of old thangka paintings and royal arms are displayed here. The Dukhar temple on the fourth floor has the terrifying image of the 1000-armed goddess Tara, a collection of ancient masks, weapons and musical instruments. Go up to the terrace and you will be rewarded with a grand view of the surrounding landscape with houses in the old town, terraced fields and the magnificent snow peaks of the Stok Kangri (6,120 metres).

Going further up from the main palace is an older ruin of a palace and remnants of the Leh Gompa. It has a large statue of the Buddha, painted scrolls and old manuscripts. Behind the Leh Palace is the Namgyal Tsemo Gompa or Red Gompa built in the 15th century by Tashi Namgyal. The first building in the complex has a giant two-storey statue of Maitreya (the future Buddha) flanked by Bodhisattvas. A portrait of Tashi Namgyal is displayed at the entrance.

The gompa belongs to the predominant Gelugpa (Yellow hat) sect, whose founder is also represented in one of the paintings. In the old village is a relatively new monastery, the Soma Gompa, built in 1957 to commemorate the 2,500th birth anniversary of Buddha.

Near Tsemo La Hotel is a unique local self-help group running the Ecological Centre. Set up in 1984 by the Ladakh Ecological Development Group or LEDeG, the centre runs a craft shop besides organising workshops and teaching sessions for awareness about environmental issues in Ladakh. The centre displays various environment friendly techniques including solar powered gadgets and has a library on Ladakhi culture and Buddhism.

The Leh Mosque, within the Main Bazaar, is a Sunni prayer house built in the 1660s. It is believed that King Deldan Namgyal, whose grandmother was a Muslim, donated the land for the mosque. 3 kms west of the main bazaar and up from Changspa village sits the Shanti Stupa or Peace Pagoda. Perched on a hillock, this milk white stupa was built by the Peace Sect of Japan in the 80s. You can either go up the flight of 500 steps or reach the top by jeep. The sides of the stupa are decorated with panels depicting stories from the life of the Buddha. Strings of prayer flags flutter around the temple, and you get a good panoramic view of Leh while sipping a hot cup in the tearoom on top.

The Sankar Gompa of the Gelugpa sect dates to the 17th – 18th centuries. To reach it, take a car or walk about 3 kms past the Himalayan Hotel through lovely agricultural fields. Home to twenty lamas, the monastery is surrounded by a high mud wall and several chortens (memorials). A central courtyard is surrounded by monks’ quarters and at the top of the main building is the house of the Kushak. The residence is marked out by a golden spire and the dharma chakra with two deer flanking it. The main prayer hall or Du-khang is reached by a flight of steps. A large 11-headed, 1000-armed statue of Avalokitesvara dominates, while there are more gold statues, wall paintings and sculptures in the hall.

Characteristic landmarks of Leh as well as other places in Ladakh are the mani walls. These are long stone walls with prayers engraved on them, a form of Buddhist ritual worship. In Leh, a 500 metre mani wall running from the radio station dates to 1635 and was built as a memorial by King Dalden Namgyal for his mother. Another smaller wall was laid in 1785 by King Tsetan Namgyal for his father.

Travelling south and east from Leh towards the borders ofTibet and Himachal Pradesh in India, you pass through lush green valleys of the Indus River bound by ragged, stark mountainsides. Here lie some of the most important monasteries of Ladakh, the old palaces and forts of the rulers, and the two most fascinating salt-water lakes in this region. Permits are needed to go to certain areas in Ladakh. Please check travel documents section in Leh for relevant information. The best way to get around the area if you want to explore, is to hire a taxi or Tata Sumo (MUV) jeep. If venturing out for more then a day trip, carry tents, sleeping bags, food and water as there is very little available by way of food or accommodation in these remote areas. Chang-Chu River in Ladakh

Going past the Tibetan Refugee Camp at Choglamsar, 10 kms south of Leh you cross the Indus River to reach the StokPalace. This four-storied palace built in the 1840s continues to be home to descendants of Ladakh’s Namgyal dynasty. The present Queen or Gyalmo lives in the palace in summers. Of the 80 odd rooms in the palace, most lie unused. Part of it has been converted into a Museum. The collection includes royal heirlooms like 16th century thangkas, ceremonial objects, crown jewels, ancient coins, dresses and peraks (women’s ceremonial head dress) worn by the queens. Still worn on special occasions, they are encrusted with large turquoise, corals, lapis lazuli and gold inlay.

A short distance away is the Stok Gompa, with a collection of striking dance masks and murals. An archery contest is held in July at the Palace, while the Tsechu festival of the Gompa takes place in February. Walking up the valley, you can get a good view of the surrounding mountain peaks, with the imposing Stok-KangriPeak dominating at 6,121 metres. Stok is a 40-minute ride from Leh that can be covered in a day trip. For overnight halt a hotel, some guesthouses and tented accommodation is available.

Shey Monastery: 15 kms southeast of Leh is the old capital of Ladakh at Shey. Occupied by the Namgyals till the 16th century, it is now almost totally deserted. Not much except ruins of the palace and gompa remain. The Palace sits on a ridge below the fort. A victory stupa crowned with a gold spire is a significant feature. The gompa houses a 15-metre high blue-haired Buddha. The shrine is maintained and attended by monks from the Hemis Monastery. The copper and brass status is richly decorated with precious stones. Paintings of bodhisattvas and protector deities surround the statue.

Hidden beneath centuries of soot from prayer lamps, the paintings in gold and bright colours are amongst the finest in this region. Shey was once considered an auspicious place for cremations. Vast grounds to the east of the gompa are scattered with numerous chortens (conical memorials), which contain ashes of prominent monks, members of the royal family and others. A short distance away is a newer gompa with another large Buddha figure. On the mountainside next to the highway are some interesting rock carvings. They depict five incarnations of the Buddha, possibly dating back to the 18th century. Shey lies on the route from Leh to Thikse Monastery and is well connected by a bus service. You could also walk down from Thikse on a four-kilometre trek across fields strewn with chortens. A small hotel with reasonably clean rooms and a restaurant is available for staying at Shey.
Thikse Monastery: 19 kms southeast of Leh on the eastern bank of the Indus River lies the Thikse Monastery. One of the most impressive and significant monasteries of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect, its imposing 12-storey structure was built in the 15th century. Rising in layers with tapering walls painted dark red, white and ochre, the monastery consists of ten temples and a nunnery. Inside are several stupas, ancient thangkas, statues and a pillar engraved with the Buddha’s teachings. The dark gloomy Du-Khang or prayer hall at the far end of the enclosure has ancient murals with savage deities and old manuscripts stacked in racks on the walls.
A new temple within the complex was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1980. A gigantic 15-metre gold Buddha sits in the lotus posture near the entrance. Brightly painted murals decorate the walls of the temple. A must-see for visitors to Thikse is the grand view from the terrace of the monastery. All around is an expanse of neatly cut out agricultural fields rimmed by high mountains and traditional village homes. In the distance you can view Shey and Stok to one side, Matho on the other and the Stakhna Monastery to the south. Reach early or stay overnight at the hotel run by the monastery to witness morning prayers that begin at 06:30. Monks conduct deep-throated recitations of holy texts to the accompaniment of drumbeats and playing of the long horns on the terrace. Thikse has a regular bus service to and from Leh.

The Stakhna Gompa, on a hilltop across the valley, is the earliest Drukpa monastery in the area. Built before the Hemis Gompa, this monastery is also known as "Tiger Nose" on the shape of the hill on which it is perched. Decorations in the temple, including a silver gilded chorten, are later additions. The gompa has excellent views of the Indus valley and the Zanskar range. Another small obscure monastery, the Matho Gompa, lies in a valley into the Stok-Kangri massif. Situated well off the main highway, the monastery gets very few visitors. It is best known for the oracle festival held here around February – March. Two rongzam or oracles chosen from the 60 odd lamas perform fasts and meditation before the festival. During the celebrations when spirits possesses them, the rongzam perform unbelievable feats like jumping blindfold on the gompa’s parapets and slashing themselves with sharp blades. The lamas’ performance is followed by the chaam mask dance and a question – answer session with the spirit. Lamayuru Gompa in Ladakh

Hemis Gompa: 45 kms southeast of Leh on a green hillside sits the Hemis Gompa, the largest and richest monastery of Ladakh. Popular for its Hemis Tsechu festival held in mid-July, the monastery comes alive at this time for the two-day celebrations. The 17th century Drukpa monastery of Kagypa (Red Hats) sect is entered through the eastern gate, leading into a large courtyard. Here, during the Tsechu festival monks perform the chaam dance wearing colourful masks. The main theme of the dances is the victory of good over evil and they commemorate the birth of Padmasambhava or Guru Rimpoche. Up on the terrace are smaller shrines and a bust of the founder of Hemis. The monastery is well connected from Leh, with buses making a 3-hour tour and then returning back. It is also possible to stay in tented accommodation or a simple guesthouse to attend the early morning prayers.

About 220 kms southeast of Leh in the remote Rupshu regions is the TsoMoririLake. 27 kms long, the lake is surrounded by stark mountains and very little habitation. Tibetan nomads of Changpas roam its edges, while it is the natural habitat for the Tibetan wild ass or kiang. Going via Chumathang with its hot sulphur springs, past the Tsokar basin you reach campsites at Thukje village. The motorable road leads further on to Puga, with more sulphur springs and the village of Karzog at 4,500 metres. The village has a small monastery with a nunnery and some very helpful inhabitants. Tso Moriri is the only nesting sight for the rare bar-headed geese, besides the Brahminy duck and black necked cranes. Though it was closed to outsiders till very recently, an increasing influx of tourists has had its toll on the fragile ecology of the lake. Visitors are advised to bring in their supplies and carry waste out of the area. Jeep safaris connect Tso Moriri to Leh. Around the lake good trek routes are available, including a 40 km. circle of the lake.

Spreading over a 130 kms stretch is Pangong Tso, the largest salt-water lake in Asia. Most of the lake lies in Tibet, with only a quarter inside Ladakh. At a height of 4,250 metres, this lake is fringed by the Pangong range to the south and the Changchenmo range to the north. When the blue-green waters are still, these massive mountains are reflected in all their glory in the lake. In the distance you catch a glimpse of Tibet. Crossing the Chang La pass at 5,475 metres, the road to Pangong Tso on the Leh-Manali highway can be traversed only on jeeps. It takes two to three days from Leh, into Tangste village. Camps are set up at Lukung, 15 kms short of the lake. Many rare birds, including the Himalayan chakor and quail come to nest in the lake.

Dining Out
The Kumarakom Lake Resort has a selection of restaurants, serving mouthwatering Indian, Continental, Chinese, Mughalai and traditional Kerala cuisine delicacies. The Ettukett is our multi-cuisine specialty restaurant with a well-stocked bar. The Vembanad Seafood Bar serves a good selection of wines along with nutritious fresh seafood dishes. The Lake Resort has a 24-hr coffee shop and also offers excellent services for outdoor barbecue.
There are multi cuisine restaurants standing on the stilts over the lakes that offer unique dining experiences amidst the serene backwater environs in Kumarakom. The specialty is freshwater fish and tapioca. 'Karimeen' (Pearl Spot) is a common freshwater fish in Kumarakom areaShopping
There is a wide range of shops selling good quality souvenirs. Most of the beach front shops are the general Kashmiri stores you see everywhere. Beware of hawkers though. Once you show interest in a certain product, they will pursue you everywhere until you buy it. Try some of the shops behind the beach front stores. You'll get a better price plus some hidden gems.

Dining Out
Though most hotels have restaurants, there are enough places to eat out in town. The dominant food is Tibetan dishes, most commonly momos with meat or vegetable stuffings, thukpa, made from fresh pasta strips and shredded meat and vegetables, besides others. There are also several cake and pastry shops selling fresh breads. There are a few bars along the fort road, besides where you can get a bottle of beer or two.

The main bazaar gets full with souvenir shops and boutiques during peak tourist season. Though mostly selling Ladakhi and Tibetan handicrafts, the shops are largely owned by Kashmiri traders. There is also a cluster of shops selling carpets, handicrafts and curios from the Kashmir valley. Most shops are highly priced and a lot of bargaining is called for. The local Ladakhi traders ask more reasonable prices. Souvenirs on sale include local household items like the tea and chang vessels, cups, butter churns, knitted carpets with Tibetan design, jewellery, semi-precious stones like turquoise, coral, prayer flags, musical instruments, and dance masks. You can also buy Ladakhi traditional dresses, including the exquisite and expensive pirakh (women’s headdress) in addition to Kashmiri shawls.

The best time to visit Leh is from middle of May till end of September. However the remote trek routes open up only by June. Winters are incredibly cold and you could get completely cut off.

Tourist Offices
Dy. Director Tourism, Leh -(Ladakh) 194101
Tel: 01982-252297, 252095

How to get there

Leh is connected by an Indian Airlines service that comes in to the airport 5kms from town on the Srinagar highway. Foreigners have to pay a US $10 entry fee. From the airport there are shuttle bus services and shared jeep-taxis to town. Weather conditions can be erratic in Leh and flights get cancelled at short notice. Check before travelling and book well in advance, since flights are usually full.

The nearest railhead is Jammu (690 km), which is linked to the rest of the country by express trains.

Leh is connected by two major highway routes, one from Manali and the other coming up from Srinagar. Both traverse treacherous mountain routes and high passes, many times getting blocked due to landslides. The Leh-Srinagar road runs close to the border with Pakistan and is often blocked by the army. The road connection to Leh is open only in the summer months from mid-June till end of September. You can do the route either by private cars and jeeps or by the tourist buses that run from Manali. Buses come in to the town bus stand, close to the main bazaar and most of the hotels.