Leh is the enchanting, laid-back, hassle-free capital of Ladakh. A tiny dot on the valley floor of the vast highland desert, framed by the stark Karakoram mountains and the snow-capped Himalayan range.
Leh is startlingly beautiful and inhabited predominantly by Buddhists, whose extraordinary way of life can be witnessed in the many gompas (Buddhist monasteries) in and around Leh. The Old Town is a fascinating place; intricate and meandering alleys and stairways delve between old crumbling mudbrick Ladakhi houses, stupas are scattered throughout, and the bustling bazaar is alive with restaurants and souvenir shops. Traditional Ladakhi homes feature thick sturdy walls, with flat roofs and ornate wooden window frames, and some of the older buildings have been beautifully restored, particularly the LAMO arts centre, housed in a pair of 17th century mansions whose original features have been painstakingly preserved.
Atop a steep rocky ridge is the imposing Tibetan-style Leh palace, an architectural icon which overlooks the town below. The sturdy fortress was built in the 17th century under the rule of King Singge Namgyal but has been unoccupied since 1846, when the Ladakhi royal family were stripped of their power and relocated to Stok. Today it houses exhibition spaces, but it is worth venturing to the 9th floor rooftop for the breathtaking views.
Just a short drive from Leh is the charming village of Stok at the foot of Stok Kangri, which at 6,120 metres is not Ladakh’s highest mountain, but one of its most beautiful. The village is home to Ladakh’s royal family and their stately three-storey Tibetan-style palace. It was built in 1820 by King Tsepal Namgyal fourteen years before they were exiled from their main palace in Leh. Today it remains their summer home, as well as an exhibition space to display family treasures.
Drive a little further beyond Stok into the Leh district, and you will reach Nimoo, a large village just 36 kilometres west of Leh in the Indus valley. Here, gushing streams and narrow footpaths intertwine, and meet at the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers, and it is a great place for hiking trails and rafting. The village is characterised by impressive mountain scenery and is considered exceptionally fertile in Ladakhi terms – a lush green suburban patchwork of barley fields and apricot, apple and walnut orchards abound.
The very best time to visit Leh is during the summer months, but we also recommend any time in the first two weeks of September when the spectacular annual Ladakh Festival takes place: a vibrant display of dancing, sports, ceremonies and cultural exhibitions. Leh sits at a height of 3,500 metres, so we always advise a few days’ acclimatisation before one immerses in the area's adventure activities.
To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.
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