North India is home to perhaps some of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring landscapes known to man. It is something straight out of a traveller’s fairytale with high altitude barren deserts, snow capped mountain ranges, fluorescent blue lakes, ancient Buddhist monasteries, epic road trips, remote villages and friendly people. There’s nothing more you could possibly want for an adventure. It was a place that had been calling me for some time, but with roads only open for a short few months in Summer each year, I had to wait for the perfect time to go and I was glad that I did.
I spent nearly three months exploring Kashmir, Ladakh, Zanskar and Spiti and I based myself for around six weeks in Leh (capital of Ladakh region) alone. I’ll be forever dreaming of the mountain views there.
the Route I took
From Delhi, a lot of people head straight up to Manali and then onto Leh. However, the rapid change in altitude this way means a lot of people suffer from altitude sickness, as the Manali-Leh road goes over 5000m multiple times.
To acclimatise gradually I did a loop using public transport/bus first through Kashmir and then on to Ladakh before going to Spiti, which meant I faced no problems from the altitude at any stage of the trip.
Delhi – Amritsar – Dharamsala – Jammu – Srinagar – side trip to Aru Valley – Leh – side trips to Nubra Valley, Markha Valley and Zanskar – Keylong – Manali – Kaza (Spiti Valley) – Rekong Peo/Kalpa – Shimla – Rishikhesh – Delhi
Ladakh was part of the former Tibetan Kingdom and is still home to a predominantly Buddhist population today. This means that the culture, language, food, vibe and architecture are all completely different to what you might find elsewhere in India. People are surprised to find out that I spent six weeks in Ladakh, however, the region has plenty to see and do, especially if you enjoy hiking and nature.
Leh is the capital of Ladakh region, sitting at 3500m, and I based myself there for six weeks while I explored the area and took some time out to relax. It’s far different from other places in India and you can walk the streets without the chaos and intensity of other towns. The main bazaar and tourist area has everything you might need, from souvenir shops, trekking gear, travel agencies, cafes, supermarkets, banks and a government-run tourist information office (which may just be the most helpful in all of India).
You can’t miss taking the time to climb the stairs to the Shanti Stupa as well as the old palace and monastery on the hill above town. Both places offer a beautiful view at sunset and are worth the climb up, despite the altitude.
Where I stayed
There are a lot of guesthouses tucked away in small alleys and big hotels dominating the main streets. It took a bit of effort and asking around, but I settled on a small family run guesthouse called Atisha, that my Israeli friends had actually found first. It became like a second home and I would highly recommend it.
The family speak little English but they are so lovely and offered me tea regularly in their lounge room. They have a small terrace to sit and the rooms are basic but comfortable and clean. The location is perhaps the best part, as its five minutes away from the main bazaar but tucked in a small alleyway with only foot traffic.
Atisha Guesthouse – in the alleyway underneath Chopsticks restaurant, near Bon Appetit cafe. I paid 400 rupees (AUD$8) for a private room with bathroom, on the ground floor (the upper floors were 500-800 rupees).
Where I ate
I think I tried every cafe in Leh and spent days cafe hopping while I waited for transport and to catch up on photo editing and writing. My top picks are:
Bon Appetit Cafe and French Bakery – my go-to for breakfast as it was just 100m from where I was staying but the staff are super friendly and by the end of my time in Leh they knew my order before I’d even sat down. Large menu, offering Indian, South Indian, Israeli and Western food
Bodhi Greens – new in 2019, and linked to the cafe with the same name in Dharamsala, it’s an all vegan cafe and hugely popular with backpackers. Their main meals were a bit expensive and average on the whole, but their breakfast options and smoothies are amazing. It has an unbeatable view of the surrounding mountains and the best Wi-Fi I found in all of Leh
Brazil Cafe – a small cafe upstairs in the main bazaar, that offers just drinks and cake and some light meals, the staff are always smiling and happy and the view looking down on Old Leh is pretty nice
Chopsticks – the best restaurant I’d eaten at for a while and along with my Israeli friends, we ate there every night for a week. Everything was delicious and not too badly priced, highly recommend the Pad Thai. The waiters all knew us and our order by the end of our time in Leh as well! It’s very popular and everyone knows where it is
Coffee Cave – a really nice, small cafe in the main bazaar street. Comfortable seats and the best ginger, lemon and honey tea I’ve ever had. A popular place for people to take their laptops and sit for a while
Ladakhi Women’s Cafe – run as a sort-of not-for-profit by Thinlas Chorol, the woman who started the first all female trekking company in Ladakh. They have a set menu each day of the week, pasted outside and for 80 rupees per plate, it’s the best value I found, and you know that 50% of the money goes back to helping local women
How I got in
I came from Srinagar and was able to share the cost of hiring a whole jeep with a group of five other travellers. There are buses every couple of days but it’s infrequent and tickets are sold out quickly. We paid 2600 rupees each (AUD$52), which included the trip from Aru Valley to Srinagar as well as one night break in Srinagar before leaving for Leh. We left Srinagar at 5am and arrived in Leh at 6pm. We stopped briefly for chai and lunch but not for very long.
Nubra Valley, Turtuk and Pangong Lake
The most popular excursion and side trip that most people take from Leh is north to the fabled Nubra Valley. It’s the most recently opened area of the region and was once an important valley through which the Silk Road passed. It stretches from the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan to the west to the border of Tibet in the east.
Its main town, Diskit, has a beautiful monastery and plenty of hotels and restaurants servicing all the bikers and tours en route. On the outskirts of town you’ll find a stretch of sand dunes, which offer a bizarre contrast to the snow capped mountains surrounding them. Double humped camels roam around the dunes, and there are plenty of people offering camel trips through the valley. Or you can just spend time patting them, which is what we did!
Further west is the village of Turtuk, the northernmost, accessible village in India. Technically a part of Baltistan, which is mostly now part of Pakistan, the village is home to ethnic Balti people. It’s a picturesque village on the banks of the Shyok River and if you climb up to the small temple on the side of the slope above, you can even get a glimpse of the peak of K2 across the border.
Pangong Lake, is one of the highest saltwater lakes in the world and sits at 4250m. It’s perhaps one of Ladakh’s biggest drawcards as its fluorescent blue colour amongst the arid slopes of the mountains is a truly spectacular sight. It’s considered sacred for Buddhists and almost 2/3 of it actually lies across the border in Tibet.
The roads around Nubra and Pangong are actually in really good condition and well paved. It’s a heavily militarised area and much of the infrastructure is maintained by the army. However, it does require crossing multiple high passes, so it’s best to only make the trip of you’ve well acclimatised in Leh. The most famous is Khardung La pass, once considered to be the highest road pass in the world, at 5360m, which connects Leh with Diskit in Nubra Valley. It’s considered mandatory to get out and take a photo at the sign at the top, although be prepared for a lot of crowds and traffic. It can be a little treacherous after heavy snow, and it’s often closed due to bad weather conditions.
Most people take a jeep tour, which is what I did, with a group of other travellers. The typical tour is three nights, four days, with the first night spent in Turtuk, the second in Diskit and the third on the shores of Pangong.
A permit is required to complete the tour as Nubra and Pangong are technically part of the sensitive border regions. Our agency, who organised the jeep, took care of this for us. The permit cost 600 rupees (AUD$12).
The jeep cost around 4000 rupees (AUD$80) each person for the entire four days, for six people. The government has set prices for these kinds of tours in Ladakh, and the agencies all work off an offical price list. We walked around to a few agencies but they all quoted us the same price. It just depends on which agency has a group going on which day to suit your own timing. We went with Great Himalaya Adventure on Changspa Road, which is a very popular agency for backpackers.
Where I stayed
Accommodation during the tour was up to us. We informed the driver that we needed ‘cheap’ and so he was patient as we often made him drive to multiple places before we settled on one.
Turtuk village: We stayed at Khan Homestay and shared three rooms between the six of us for 500 rupees (AUD$10) per person, including dinner and breakfast. He even had Wi-Fi, which actually worked pretty well believe it or not.
Diskit: We stayed at Ama Guesthouse, a new place opened by an extremely friendly family, who were so thrilled when we found their place tucked down a side road. He offered us one large room that slept six people for 350 rupees (AUD$7) per person, including meals.
Pangong Lake: Most people stay at a place called Spangmik, where there are plenty of accommodation choices. However, we asked our driver to continue to the last village, called Man, which only had a small number of places. It’s mostly glamping-style tents and at first places were quoting us 2000 rupees until we found a family who had four basic tents and we paid 600 rupees (AUD$12) per person including meals.
There are numerous treks in Ladakh, however, the most popular one for independent hikers is Markha Valley. It’s easily accessible from Leh and can be organised completely on your own because there’s a good network of homestays, the trail is very clear and local taxis can drop and pick up from the trailheads.
I wrote a whole post on my time trekking in the Markha Valley and you can read about it here.
Zanskar is seldom visited by tourists who travel to Ladakh. It’s remote, has only basic services and infrastructure and is a challenging place to get to. Most people who do reach there are usually on some sort of package tour or with an organised driver and guide, however, it is possible (with some patience) to do it alone/independently.
I wrote a post about my time there, including the long two day journey to reach Padum by bus, exploring the ancient monasteries and trekking to Phuktal. You can read it here.
To explore the monasteries around Leh, the easiest way is to hire a taxi for the day and you can cover most of the main ones close to Leh like Shey, Thiksey, Stok, Stakna and Hemis. We decided to take the local buses that shuttle up and down the road from Leh to Choglamsar instead. They leave frequently from the main gate in Leh, five minutes from the main bazaar. From Choglamsar, there are buses going on to Shey and Thiksey or you can also take a taxi from there to Stok, or walk if you have plenty of time.
To get back, you have to flag the buses down on the main road or hitch a ride with someone driving past, which is what we did.
Thiksey and Hemis are perhaps the most impressive monasteries and in my opinion, must sees. I also wrote an article on 7 Monasteries to Check Out in Ladakh for Matador Network, if you want to know more.
How I got out
After exploring Ladakh and Zanskar, I continued down to Manali. The Jammu and Kashmir State Road and Transport Corporation (or JKSRTC for short!) station in Leh, just 10-15 minutes from the main bazaar by foot has buses to most destinations in Ladakh but sometimes only weekly. Each year the days tend to change from what I understand, but the 2019 timetable is as above.
From Ladakh to manali
The epic road from Leh to Manali is well known by many intrepid travellers and motorbike enthusiasts. It’s a famous mountain road that winds its way across the Greater Himalayas for 480km and includes multiple high altitude passes. The landscape and climate means that the road is only open for around four months each year and it’s a huge operation each season to clear the snow and continuously attend to landslides that occur frequently.
The average height of the traverse is 4000m and there are three passes over 5000m, with the highest being Tanglang La at 5320m. Despite all the challenges, government-run buses ply up and down the highway during the season and the journey takes two days with a night’s stop in Keylong.
In fact, when I went to the bus station in Leh I had to purchase a ticket to Keylong first, as they had stopped selling thru tickets to Manali. I went the day before to purchase my ticket but otherwise it’s possible to get on the day as well. The bus to Keylong left at 3.30am and cost 550 rupees (AUD$11). It took 14 hours with a few breaks for chai, breakfast and lunch. It truly was a spectacular road and the high passes were completed in the morning, closer to Leh. After that, the road passed through rocky valleys and over rivers, which often meant passing trucks, military vehicles and other buses on a skinny, bumpy road.
In Keylong, I stayed at Khandroling Guesthouse right in the bus station. After asking a few places, it was by far the cheapest and they charged 400 rupees (AUD$8) for single occupancy or 500 rupees (AUD$10) for two people. It was basic and average but for just one night’s sleep it did the job. They have Wi-Fi and a decent restaurant too.
The next morning I was at the bus station at 4.00am, for the bus onwards to Manali which departed at 4.30am. However, it was already full of people by the time I got there. I was told that there were other buses to Manali later in the morning at 7am and 9am, so I went back to sleep and then returned again at 9am.
From Keylong to Manali the trip took 6 hours and cost 200 rupees (AUD$4).
In Manali, I stayed at Moustache Hostel, one of the Indian chain hostels. It was one of the cheapest in town and exceptional value. I only stayed two nights, but it was very clean and comfortable, with all the amenities a good hostel should have.
From Manali, there’s a daily bus to Kaza in Spiti Valley, that actually originates in Kullu and comes through Manali just before 6am. I was at the station at 5.30am, just to be sure, however, you can’t purchase tickets in advance and have to wait until it arrives. Because of this, getting a seat is not guaranteed, however, I was lucky enough to get a window seat at the front which was somehow still vacant. It cost 250 rupees (AUD$5) and the journey took 13 tortuous hours.
The road is, as all roads seem to be in this part of the world, incredibly beautiful. However, it was extraordinarily bumpy and a hell of a trip. The road is in terrible condition, even bikers struggle with it, but still it’s the only option.
Kaza is a small town and the main hub of Spiti Valley. It sits exceptionally high at 3800m and the snow capped mountains of the valley stretch in both directions. There isn’t a lot of action going on in the town but you can get most things in the small market.
There is no phone reception in town other than BSNL network and although a couple of places advertise Wi-Fi, it rarely works and is hardly strong enough to do very much other than send a message.
Spiti Valley claims a lot of world records and you’ll likely see ‘the highest this’ and ‘the highest that’ sign posted everywhere. Kaza is home to the highest retail petrol pump in the world. Nearby Komik, is the world’s highest village accessible by a motorable road, at 4500m. A short drive from there is Hikkim, where you’ll find the world’s highest post office. It’s considered essential to send a postcard from there with the help of the friendly office attendant.
In one long day trip by taxi or hired motorbike or scooter, it’s possible to explore the surrounding villages on the mountain above Kaza. Komik, Hikkim and Langza are not too far apart from each other and the roads are pretty easy to navigate. Then you can continue back towards Manali for just 12km on the same side of the valley as Kaza and you can explore Key and Kibber. Key is home to the picturesque Key Monastery which is the ‘postcard shot’ you see of Spiti Valley. It’s buildings are layered down a small hill and the friendly monks will happily let you inside the main prayer rooms. Just further up the road, Kibber has a few homestays and good restaurants to break up the day.
If you have another day up your sleeve, you can spend time in Pin Valley over the mountains in front of Kaza. The main town of Mud, has homestay options available.
Where I stayed
I stayed at Moustache Hostel Kaza and paid 500 rupees (AUD$10) for a dorm bed, the cheapest option in town that I could find. It’s relatively new and is about 1km from Kaza town, in the same building as the official Royal Enfield workshop.
Where I ate
The hostel offered breakfast and dinner, however, for lunch it was best to visit one of the cafes in Kaza. There are a few good restaurants there, boasting vegan options, Israeli food and even gluten free buckwheat pancakes at one place. The most well known cafe is The Himalayan Cafe, which is where you’ll find most backpackers and bikers hanging out. The menu is pretty good with creative non-Indian meals as well as a large drinks menu, bit on the pricey side though.
Cafe Zomsa, near the main market, is good for vegan and gluten free options.
From Spiti to Shimla
From Kaza, you can either return to Manali the same way or take the road that skirts the Tibet border and requires a permit to get to Rekong Peo. It’s a stunning road and is more convenient if you want to get to Shimla or explore the Kinnaur Valley.
The bus leaves Kaza every day at 7.30am, but get to the station at 7am to buy the ticket as there is no reservations the day before. The bus took 9 hours to get to Rekong Peo, with three checkpoints along the way for passport and permit. It cost 300 rupees (AUD$6).
Rekong Peo road permit
To avoid going back to Manali, I wanted to take the road around to Rekong Peo via the Tibet border. It passes the more remote villages of Tabo and Nako, which both have homestays for people who want to explore Spiti even more. Entering into this part of Himachal Pradesh requires a permit for foreigners and I got mine in Kaza.
It was a typical Indian bureaucratic affair. The permits are issued at the Deputy Commissioner Office which is in a building near the Kaza Hospital and Police Station. The signs are only in Hindi but once you enter the building there is a room on the right which is for permits. When I arrived the office was empty and no one appeared to be working at all. After asking a few people and being told to wait while they call someone, nearly an hour went by. A few other people arrived also looking for permits and together we were able to track down the man responsible for giving them. He then asked if we had the forms to fill out, which apparently we had to buy ourselves from a small photocopy shop across the road. We also needed copies of our passport and visa and a couple of passport photos.
By the time I had all the necessary documents, the officer told us he was going for his lunch break! However, he kindly processed my permit first as I’d been waiting the longest. It cost 200 rupees (AUD$4).
Once in Rekong Peo, I took another shuttle bus up to Kalpa for 30 minutes which leave just outside the bus station. Kalpa is a much nicer, smaller village to stay in than Rekong, and offers beautiful views of the snow capped mountains around.
In Kalpa, I stayed at Blue Lotus Hotel, recommended in Lonely Planet and it really is the best budget option in the village. The view from the balcony is exceptional and it has a tasty restaurant on site too. I paid 600 rupees (AUD$12) for a nice room with a bathroom. Prices are negotiable.
From Kalpa/Rekong Peo, I took a bus to Shimla, which leave frequently from the station and takes around 10 hours. It cost 450 rupees (AUD$9). In Shimla, I stayed at the only hostel in the city, called Thira Shimla, it’s an old building but the inside is nice and cozy and it’s walking distance to the central mall.
Shimla, capital of Himachal Pradesh, is well connected to other cities in India. Buses leave frequently for Delhi, but I took a bus to Dehradun where I got a connecting bus to Rishikesh in the same day.