PLANNING YOUR TRIP TO LADAKH
Be aware that all foreign mobile phones will have no reception in Ladakh and that, of the Indian networks, Airtel, Jio and BSNL are the only three that are compatible at the time of writing. Of those networks, only postpaid sims work - prepaid sim cards of these providers do not work.
Ladakh is known for being a peaceful place with an interfaith society that lives and works together in harmony.
In urban areas you must be wary of dogs at night. They are extremely territorial and form gangs to survive the hard winters.
The greatest concern that you must consider is altitude. Flying to Leh from sea level means a sudden transition from 0 to 3,400 metres above sea level and your body needs to cope with that.
At 3,400 metres above sea level, Leh is as high as many peaks across the world. If you are staying at The Indus River Camp or anywhere else in the Indus valley then you will be 200 metres lower which will help with acclimatisation and the greenery in the valley provides more oxygen to the air.
Flying in from sea level to that altitude is a shock on the body and it needs time to adjust to the new environment. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) does not discriminate by age or health. The most frequently affected are healthy, young men who believe that their time in the gym means that they are able to be more active.
In order to enjoy your holiday then altitude must not be taken lightly and you must plan a sensible itinerary that allows for acclimatisation. Typically, when flying in from sea level, the body takes two to three days to acclimatise to a level where you can be active but certain precautions are necessary to avoid AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness):
The first day must be reserved for relaxing and acclimatising with minimum physical exertion
Sleeping during the day is not recommended as our bodies don't adjust to the altitude as well within sleep
Alcohol should be avoided, particularly in the first two days
Stay properly hydrated - fluid loss is a consequence of acclimatisation
Eat a high-calorie diet while at altitude
Diamox is an effective medicine for treating acclimatisation. It should be taken one or two days before arriving to Ladakh and continued for two or three days. Be sure to check with a doctor or pharmacist about side effects and usage.
If you are arriving by road via Manali or Srinagar then you will have acclimatised to a certain degree during the journey but the same precautions are necessary.
Over 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) 75% of people will suffer from mild symptoms of AMS. The severity of symptoms will depend upon the elevation, rate of ascent and individual susceptibility.
Symptoms of mild AMS include:
Nausea & Dizziness
Loss of appetite
Shortness of breath
These symptoms are perfectly normal but if you find that these symptoms are getting worse or that you are also experiencing a diminished sense of coordination, vomiting, a persistent headache that is not relieved by medication, then you are most likely experiencing Moderate AMS which needs to be dealt with medically or by descending to a lower altitude as soon as possible.
If you are experiencing symptoms of Mild AMS then you must not engage in any physical activity or ascend to higher altitudes even if you have already paid for a rafting trip or a drive over Khardung La pass. The cost of neglecting the altitude is far greater than the money you will lose.
The weather of Ladakh is volatile yet relatively predictable with the Leh temperature following a schedule.
In winter Ladakh is at its coldest. December through to February, the mercury will regularly drop to -20 degrees at night and can even reach -30. Ladakh is a desert and a powerful sun makes winter days tolerable, hovering at about 1 degree.
Through March and April the temperature transitions into summer. Night temperatures in early March can be as cold as -10 degrees but by the end of April, nights will be just above freezing.
In May the temperature starts to rise and you can expect days of 15 degrees that feel hotter due to the power of the sun. Nights will be chilly but manageable and crips at around 5 degrees.
Through June, July and August Ladakh is much warmer with 20-30 degrees during the day and 10-15 degrees at night.
Ladakh was open to the public in the early 1970s and enjoyed keen and sparse tourism, mostly from abroad. In 2009 the success of Bollywood film 3 Idiots, its spectacular ending shot on Pangong Lake, introduced a domestic audience to the gem on its doorstep. The film coincided with a burgeoning Indian middle class that had an increased capacity to travel and increased awareness of travel locations through social media.
The population of Ladakh is small and the sudden footfall put a strain on the region's infrastructure. Tourism has become the dominant industry and environmentally the region was unprepared. There is no recycling in Ladakh and water is scarce. Ladakhis have lived with this awareness but the tourist industry brings new demands. Plastic is commonplace and tourism is depleting water reserves in an arid desert region.
At the same time, the volatile effects of climate change are upsetting the balance of Ladakh's ecosystem. Ladakh depends on snowfall in the winter - it bolsters the glaciers which melt into streams that give life to farms and villages. Too much snowfall and the rivers will overflow in the summers (as seen in 2017) and not enough snowfall and the farmers will be unable to feed their crops.
In a region where recycling is not possible, the only option to dispose of rubbish is to dig or burn. Plastic, no matter how convenient, needs to be limited. If you are travelling to Ladakh then we would encourage you to bring a flask that you can carry around with you. At camp and through Ladakh there is plentiful access to Himalayan spring water that is far fresher than anything contained in a plastic bottle and considerably less damaging to the local environment.
The native language to Ladakh is Ladakhi, a Tibetan language spoken only in Ladakh, though it is not mutually intelligible with Tibetan.
Many Ladakhis speak Hindi and most educated Ladakhis and those working in tourism will speak English.
Here are some useful words in Ladakhi. The first is the most ubiquitous, be sure to remember it.
- Julley (Crucial to learn! Means Hello, Goodbye, Thank you - Pronounced Joo-Lay!)
- Khamsang-Ley (Said as a question it means 'How are you?' and as an answer 'I am fine!')
- Don-ley (Means 'Eat' or 'Take' - if you experience Ladakhi hospitality then you will hear this consistently)
- Man-Ley (No, thanks)
- O-Ley (Yes, thanks)
All tourists, Indian and foreign, require Inner Line Permits to visit remote parts of Ladakh. These can be arranged through any travel agent for a charge of approximately 800 rupees for a week-long permit which they will source from the Deputy Commissioner's office. These permits will grant you access to Tsomiriri, Pangong, Nubra Valley, Dha/Hanu amongst others.
Hanle, home to the Indian Astronomical Observatory, is restricted to foreigners.
Ladakh can only be accessed only by road or by plane. One road comes from Manali and another from Srinagar, each a lengthy trip through high altitude roads that close for much of the year. From November until April/May you can only reach Leh by flight as the roads are blocked with heavy snow.
All routes are unforgettable. Flying in gives you a birds-eye view of the Himalayas. The roads are tricky and time consuming but are a tourist attraction in themselves. The transition of scenery from the lakes and greenery of Kashmir or the green hills of Manali into the arid expanse of the Ladakhi Himalayas is unique.
Once you are in Ladakh you can travel via taxi, a car in your own name (no rental cars), a motorbike rented within Ladakh or, for the most adventurous, bicycle. The prices of all these modes of transport are dictated by the taxi and travel agency union.
Unions are commonplace in Ladakh. There are unions from everything from taxis to vegetable vendors and bakery shops.
This presents advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that you will not get ripped off, and the level of professionalism is very high throughout each industry. The disadvantage is that tourist expenses end up pricier than they are elsewhere in India.
Do not haggle with the union prices. If a taxi driver or travel agent agrees to a lesser fee then they are undermining the union and face disciplinary action. Ladakh is a remote location that depends on tourism during a season of only a few months. The prices set by the relevant unions are very reasonable when you take this into consideration.
A full list of Taxi Union prices is available on the taxi union website here.
The union rate list is exceedingly long covering every eventuality within Ladakh. Here is a shortlist of some of the most frequent journeys from camp or from Leh itself in an Innova or Aria which we recommend for the tricky terrain. All prices are in Indian Rupees and are from the 2019-2020 list. Prices change annually.
- Shey, Thiksey, Hemis, Stok Return 3,040
- Alchi, Likir, Rizong Return 4,411
- Pangong Lake Return in 1 Day 8,653
- Pangong Lake Return in 2 days 10,301
- Tsomiriri Tso Kar Return via Taglang La in 2 days 14,283
- Nubra Valley in 2 days (Diskit/Hundar) 9,758
- Nubra Valley and Turtuk in 3 days 15,935
- Leh to Manali One Way 21,588
- Srinagar to Leh in two days 18,400
MOTORBIKE RENTAL PRICES
At the time of writing daily motorbike rental prices are as follows:
- Royal Enfield Himalaya (411cc) - 2,000
- Royal Enfield Classic (500cc) - 1,800
- Royal Enfield Standard (500cc) - 1,600
- Royal Enfield Classic/Thunderbird (350cc) - 1,400
- Royal Enfield Electra (350cc) - 1,200
- Royal Enfield Standard (350cc) -1,100
- Bajaj Avenger (220cc) -1.000
- Scooty - 800
WHAT TO PACK
Here's a brief list of a few essentials to pack when you come to Ladakh.
- Sun shielding hat (the sun is deceptively powerful in Ladakh - the cold temperatures can mean you sometimes don't notice)
- Warm clothes/Thermals/Inner Socks/Jackets (check out the weather section above for an idea of the temperatures)
- Diamox tablets (available in a pharmacy and can be very helpful for acclimatisation)
- Campha (a natural alternative to Diamox that many swear by)
- Lip balm
- Medical Kits
- Dry fruits (particularly helpful for acclimatisation)
If you will be trekking then make sure to bring appropriate trekking shoes, a windbreaker and a sleeping bag if necessary.
The isolation of Ladakh and the extreme cold of the winter limits the availability of ingredients and types of cuisine. However, in summer many vegetables and fruits grow abundantly and those that don't are brought in from Kashmir.
Ladakhi food has its own charm but is unlike most Indian food. A Ladakhi chef and entrepreneur started the restaurant Alchi Kitchen in Alchi which now has a branch in Leh that serves innovative Ladakhi food using fresh ingredients. Thukpa is the mainstay of Ladakhi food - a hearty noodle soup with vegetables and spice. Momos are also commonplace and delicious. At Alchi Kitchen, you will be able to try some of the lesser-known but no less delicious Ladakhi specialities such as Thenthuk, Skyu or Khambir.
Within Leh, all cuisines are represented. For Tibetan food check out Tibetan Kitchen, for cheap Ladakhi fare try Tashi's Restaurant by the SBI ATM in the main bazaar. Bon Appetit offers spectacular views, a homely feel, a selection of wine and European food.
Meat - mutton and chicken are the only meats widely available and on holy days and every fortnight, there are dry days where meat or alcohol must not be consumed. Fish is available in limited restaurants but eating fish is frowned upon by local Buddhist society.
In winter, vegetables and fruits are extremely limited as the roads close with heavy snow and the conditions are not suitable for growing in Ladakh. There will be potatoes, onions and perhaps carrots through these months.
When trekking or in remote areas expect lots of Maggi noodles.
Can small kids go to Ladakh?
We advise that children unable to communicate yet do not come to Ladakh. They may feel discomfort from the altitude if they cannot express this then this could present some difficulty.
Otherwise, it should be fine, granted that you take the necessary measures mentioned above. Children's lungs often cope better with acclimatisation however they are harder to keep still and so more likely to have a problem if they are active.