Leh and Norther India
I arrive in Leh, the capital city of the province of Ladakh, from Delhi, eager to experience a side of India that I hope is quieter, less hectic and more scenic. Delhi was a culture shock to say the least. To be fair, I only spent two days there, not nearly enough to get to know a place, especially one as complex and historic as Delhi, and it did grow a little on me by the end, but regardless, I came to India to experience the nature and the vibes, not the big cities. I had big expectations of Leh, few of which were let down, although some were fulfilled in the other, even quieter, more peaceful areas of Ladakh.
Arriving In Leh
Even the flight was incredible. Seeing the Himalayas for the first time, so up close that I thought they might scratch the bottom of the Boeing, was amazing. They truly were majestic and I have to think what one would be missing out on if they were flying on a cloudy day. Despite how barren they appeared, rivers and sporadic patches of green vegetation were visible throughout the flight, usually accompanied by small villages that I cannot comprehend how they came to settle there, so isolated from anything else.
Despite my expectations of a considerably colder climate, I flew and arrived in a t-shirt, but it proved to be enough for my late morning landing. Little did I know what rude awakening I was in for once the sun went down. The barren landscape I passed over is characteristic of a desert climate, where temperatures drop suddenly once night falls. The altitude was another shock. After having taxied through the surprisingly busy streets of Leh, ascending to my hotel on a thankfully less busy street, the two flights of stairs up to my room really winded me. Then again, it might have just been the scenery that took my breath away. The hotel staff said that they recommend for everyone to take a day rest before going on any treks or seeing any of the sights, which usually also involve a good amount of stairs up the mountainous terrain. Not a problem for me, I had plenty of work to do!
I rented a motorbike and drove around town looking for a good cafe to settle in for the day. I stumbled upon Gesmo, a quaint german bakery, with large windows overlooking the surrounding mountains. It was still breakfast so I got my first taste of paratha, a type of layered flatbread stuffed with various ingredients, in this case potatoes (making it aloo paratha). It was so good that from that point forward, few breakfasts in Leh didn’t consist of some sort of paratha. The view was beautiful, my breath returned, and the code flowed. The wifi however, as was the case in the rest of the city, was shotty at best, and I often found myself prioritizing what I would look up and request, and tasks that I would perform multiple times in a day, such as a code check in, I saved for a single time at the end.
Still a little jetlagged the next day, I woke up at 5 am, but it was not for naught. Before the sun was even up, chants from the local mosques were already echoing throughout the city and I opened my windows to let them in.
Despite the early wake up, I felt refreshed and started checking out the local sights during my work breaks. As I was heading out, I passed a Buddhist stupa in the middle of a traffic circle. It’s a nice sight to see, and something you go by several times a day in Leh as it’s on the main road and close to the petrol station. The traffic around it though is not at all indicative of the relaxed Buddhist ideologies.
I started my day with breakfast at the Leh market, layered with local restaurants and Tibetan shops, it’s definitely something to experience. Step inside for a taste of momos, a sort of Tibetan dumplings, or browse around the various treasures they have to offer. There are also two mosques at both ends of the walking only road.
There’s lots to see in Leh but three obvious sights stand out, visible from anywhere in the city as they are perched high on the surrounding mountains:
The highest notable landmark in Leh is this two story Buddhist monastery, perched on top of a pointy hill overlooking the city below. I opted to start here, at the highest place, but in retrospect, a walking path is available from the Leh palace to here, so starting from the bottom and working your way up to see them both at once is probably a better option. It was built in the 1400s after a victory against a surrounding army that was threatening the city.
The shrine inside is nice to look at and, if you’re into it, a nice place to meditate, something I always find more enticing when resting at the top of a hill. In this particular case, it’s further enhanced by the quiet you get from being away from the traffic of Leh and a nice place to relax.
The Leh Palace
Probably the most obvious sight in Leh is this towering, 9 story palace overlooking the city. It’s one of those places that screams “come see me” as soon as you land. A walk to it from the city center is not out of the question but there is also a road that takes you up. Having not ridden a motorbike in several months and still riding that first wave, I opted for the latter option.
The palace itself is quite a sight to behold, but the inside of it is rather underwhelming. The rooms are all empty, dusty, and dark, but a climb to the top is definitely worth it for the view below. I had arrived there as the sun was setting, curving around the side of the palace and sweeping shadows along the mud brick houses in the village below. Sunrise, if you can make it through the streets at dawn, or sunset is definitely the time to go!
Alas, the most visually pleasing sight visible from Leh’s city center, I didn’t get a chance to see. I only had three days in Leh, only one of which was full, and had a lot of work to catch up on. It is a shame though because it is the newest monastery, built in the 90’s, and therefore likely the most preserved and able to give the best snapshot of modern Buddhist culture. Seeing it from the city is still a treat though, a colourful temple among the brown landscape and mud houses.
Trekking around Leh
Leh itself is a historically significant city, having served as the capital of Ladakh when it was just a Himalayan kingdom, well before India came to be. That being said, it is still a city and that comes with the dust and traffic that is often found in India, even one as far removed as this. When looking for something more relaxed and withdrawn, the best option is to explore the areas in Ladakh around it. Having realized that come my second day, I booked a trip that would take me north to Hunder and Turtuk, only a few kilometers south of the northern Indian border, the furthest north foreigners are allowed to go, and headed out early on day 3. Make sure you’re up for the drive though, the streets in and out of Leh are narrow, steep, and often unpaved. A good driver is a must.