Ladakh offers one of India’s greatest adventures. The former Himalayan kingdom is one of Asia’s most spectacular places to explore, with high altitude arid valleys and snow-capped mountain ranges dotted with ancient Buddhist monasteries. Leh is the main town and transport hub for any Ladakh adventure. It’s not the easiest place to reach requiring some spectacularly long road trips through mountains and over high passes. I’ve put together this blog post on how to get to Leh to help with your trip planning for North India.
Whether you’re wondering how to reach Leh from Srinagar or Manali, this post will explain all the transport options for travellers with all different budgets.
Where is Leh, Ladakh?
Leh is the largest town and capital of the Ladakh territory in far north India. Ladakh and Leh are often referred to interchangeably, but Leh is generally the town where most people base their trip to the Ladakh region. Leh was the former capital of the Himalayan kingdom before Indian independence and it sits at an important crossroads of the former Silk Road trading route.
The Ladakh territory covers just over 59, 000 sq km in area and sits at a contentious part of Asia. It’s wedged between Tibet to the east, China to the north and Pakistan to the west, with the rest of India to the south. The nearby international borders are heavily contested and there is a significant military presence in the surrounding area.
Leh town is 1010km north of Delhi, the capital of India.
When is the best time to travel to Leh
Leh is in a part of the world that sees extremely harsh weather conditions. Sitting at 3500m in the Greater Himalayan Range, the town has very cold winters and heavy snow for much of the year. Its remote location means that travel in the region can be quite challenging at any time outside of summer.
Still, you can technically visit Leh all year round.
However, the summer months between June and August is the best time to visit Leh, Ladakh. This is also the high season for tourists with the most pleasant weather. It’s also the main part of the year that the roads are guaranteed to be open for travellers getting to Leh as well as exploring other parts of Ladakh.
These summer months are the busiest time in Leh and is when the town comes alive. Although it’s rarely crowded compared to other parts of India, prices are higher and there are plenty of tourists around to join in group tours and treks.
For a slightly more offbeat time, you can visit Leh in Autumn around September and October when the weather is usually still stable and the roads are clear.
Outside of these months, snow and ice can block the roads in and out of Leh and access to Ladakh can be limited to flying. In winter, you’re only hope of reaching Leh is to fly. Even many locals migrate away from Ladakh at this time.
How to get to Leh, Ladakh
Leh is not an easy place to reach. You generally have two options to get to Ladakh: by air or by road. Flying to Leh is the easiest option and there are generally flights at any time of the year, although in summer you’ll find more regular flights. If you have limited time and want to reach Leh from Delhi directly, then this is the best option.
Flights are generally operated in the morning hours with the mountain weather most clear and predictable at this time. The flight time is around 1.5 hours and can cost from 3000 rupees (AU$60) up to 6000 (AU$120) rupees depending on when you book. Air India, GoAir and Spice Jet all fly from Delhi to Leh.
However, many travellers prefer to reach Leh by road. This is one of the greatest road trips in the world (big call, I know) and is not for the faint-hearted. To reach Leh by road, you can come from two directions: from Srinagar or from Manali.
For most travellers, coming from Manali is most convenient and the more popular option, although the road is far more arduous. The Srinagar-Leh road is less travelled but is a great option if you plan to explore Kashmir or think you might have problems with sudden changes in altitude. The Srinagar-Leh route has a more gradual altitude change compared to Manali.
Here is how to get to Leh by road:
Via Srinagar and Kargil
Getting to Leh through Kashmir means taking the beautiful but long drive from Srinagar via Kargil to Ladakh. It’s one of the most incredible road trips in the country and one that takes you from the green, fertile lands of the Kashmir Valley to the high altitude desert of Ladakh.
The road between Srinagar and Leh is generally open from around April until October. You should always check the road status before planning your trip as it depends on the snowfall in the colder months and risk of landslides. This road is usually open longer than the Leh-Manali Road.
Srinagar is the summer capital of Kashmir on the edge of the beautiful Dal Lake. Although it’s perhaps more known for its political disturbances and the centre of India’s attempt to control the Muslim-majority Kashmir territory, it’s actually a city worth exploring.
To get to Srinagar, you’ll most likely have to pass through Jammu, the other major city in Kashmir and easily reachable from towns in Himachal Pradesh. Getting to Srinagar from Jammu is usually straight forward with a number of buses and shared vehicles making the journey each day. However, the political situation in Kashmir can occasionally mean the closure of the highway to Srinagar for considerable lengths of time. Check the situation with locals before you begin your journey to Jammu.
Where to stay in Srinagar
Staying on a houseboat on Dal Lake is a must-do in Srinagar. However, there are so many to choose from that it can be overwhelming. There are also a number of good hostels and hotels in the city with affordable prices.
Hotel Fabulous Kashmir | I arrived in Srinagar at 4am from an overnight journey from Jammu and this was the first hotel that we stumbled upon. The family who runs the hotel are lovely and although we only stayed a night, I would go back for their hospitality. Private rooms start from 400 rupees (AU$8) per night, perfect for the budget traveller. Check availability here.
Zostel Srinagar | This is one of India’s biggest hostel chains and they are always of good quality with a certain standard expected across all their hostels. It’s a great place to stay for backpackers and solo travellers with a very social scene. Check availability here.
New Shanhshah Houseboat | I stayed at this homestay-style houseboat run by a great local guy called Altaf. It was a great experience and he’s a popular choice with other backpackers. The houseboat is nothing flash but the homely experience and delicious food cooked by Altaf’s wife makes it worthwhile. He can also be your guide around the city with his own autorickshaw and boat. His number is: +91 97970 55438. You can call him when you arrive in Srinagar and he can pick you up.
Discover more Srinagar accommodation options here.
Srinagar to Leh by bus
Once in Srinagar, you have a couple of options to reach Leh. The cheapest option is to take the local JKRTC bus service. This local government bus plies the route to Leh from Srinagar every couple of days. It usually halts overnight in Kargil where you have to find your own accommodation and then return to the bus the next morning. The journey is slow and can be around 10 hours of travel each day, with 7am starts. Check the latest schedule for the next bus at the TRC bus station on TRC Road in Srinagar. Book ahead of time, as the seats can fill days in advance. Prices start from around 1050 rupees (AU$21).
Where to stay in Kargil
Kargil is a dusty sprawl of a town that has a number of decent accommodation options. It’s best to stay relatively close to where your transport will drop and pick up, so you don’t necessarily need to book in advance. I waited until I arrived to find somewhere close to where the bus would depart from again the following morning.
Hotel International Residency | This is a great option with decent rooms and despite the fancy name, prices are reasonable with both dormitory-style rooms and private rooms available. It wasn’t too far from where the Zanskar bus departed from. Check availability here.
Hotel Rangyul | This is where I stayed as it was right where my bus dropped me and I bargained for a decent price for the night. They had Wi-Fi and an onsite restaurant.
Srinagar to Leh by shared jeep
The other option to get from Srinagar to Leh is by shared jeep. If you ask at the TRC bus station in Srinagar you’ll find taxis and jeeps waiting to fill up with passengers. They tend to make the entire journey in one day and are much quicker than the bus. If you have a group of travellers, it’s best to hire the whole jeep and then you can stop along the way whenever you please. Prices are usually around 2000 rupees per seat (AU$40) and the journey takes around 12 hours.
Via Manali and Keylong
The more popular route for travellers is to reach Leh from Manali via Keylong. This is an epic road that is well known by intrepid travellers and motorbike enthusiasts for its high passes and unpredictable conditions. It’s more arduous than the Srinagar-Leh road, but with Manali a more popular travel destination, this has become people’s preferred route.
This road winds for 480km through the Greater Himalayas with an average height of 4000m. There are three high passes over 5000m with the highest being Tanglang La at 5320m. This makes the road an extremely beautiful and yet challenging feat, with a high risk of altitude sickness and landslides causing havoc for many trips. Still, it’s a commonly used road with a constant stream of buses, trucks, jeeps and motorbikes in the summer months.
The road is usually open from around May or June until October every year. This depends on how harsh the winter is in the region and when the Border Road Organisation is able to clear the snow. You should check the current road status before planning your trip.
Similar to the Srinagar-Leh approach, you have two options to take this road: by local bus or shared jeep.
Where to stay in Manali
Manali is a major tourist destination in Himachal Pradesh with hundreds of accommodation options for every type of traveller. Old Manali is where you’ll find most of the backpacker and budget accommodation.
Moustache Hostel | This is one of the Indian chain hostels and it was one of the cheapest options that I found in Manali. It’s great value and I enjoyed my stay. It was clean with all the amenities you can expel ct from a good hostel. It’s situated right at the beginning of Old Manali. Check availability here.
Discover more accommodation in Manali here.
Manali to Leh by bus
From Manali’s ISBT and main bus station, you’ll find all the ticket counters and parking bays for the buses. You have a couple of options for the bus to Leh. The HPTDC offer a semi-deluxe tourist bus from Manali to Leh with an overnight stop in Keylong and a few stops along the way for photographs. Prices for this option are around 2900 rupees (AU$58), which includes accommodation in Keylong and two meals. You can pre-book this bus at the station or online here.
A more budget-friendly option is the local HRTC bus that runs daily to Leh. You can take the 4am departure from Manali that travels directly to Leh on the same day and arrives at around 9pm. This costs around 900 rupees per seat (AU$18).
The other option is to take a local HRTC bus to Keylong, stay the night there and then take another bus the following day to Leh. This option is far better if you have the time. A bus from Manali to Keylong is 200 rupees (AU$4) per seat and there are regular departures from around 5am to 1pm. The journey takes around 6 hours.
The bus from Keylong to Leh leaves at 5am (there’s only one) and costs around 550 rupees per seat (AU$11). It’s best to be at the station early to get your ticket as this can be a popular bus in high season. The journey takes around 14 hours.
Where to stay in Keylong
The HPTDC bus has their own hotel that they take you to, however, if you opt to spend the night in Keylong on the HRTC bus, then you’ll have to find your own accommodation. Keylong is a small town and there are a few options around the bus station. Prices can be exuberant because the hotel managers know that you need to spend the night there. Ask around and take a look at the rooms to compare.
Khandroling Guesthouse | This hotel is right on the edge of 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 per room. It was basic and average but for just one night’s sleep, it did the job. They have Wi-Fi and a restaurant too.
Manali to Leh by shared jeep
There are some shared jeeps and taxis which make the drive from Manali to Leh. The Manali taxi stand is right next to the bus station and you’ll find plenty of people there to ask. The drivers tend to begin the journey at around 1am direct to Leh. You’ll usually reach Leh around 5pm. A seat in a shared taxi can cost around 2500-3000 rupees (AU$50-60). You should enquire at least the day before to confirm the time and seat.
If you can find other travellers to join, it can be beneficial to hire a whole vehicle and split the costs as you might have a more comfortable trip.
Leh is a great mountain town and the main transport hub for exploring Ladakh. There are plenty of things to do in Leh and you’ll find that you can easily spend a few days in and around the town.
If you want to read more: Travel Guide for exploring Ladakh and Spiti
Where to stay in Leh
There are accommodation options for everyone in Leh. For budget travellers, the best accommodation in Leh is the small family-run guesthouses that you can find around the bazaar and Fort Rd. It’s a very walkable town and you could easily find somewhere to stay upon arriving, however here are my top picks:
Odbar Guesthouse | This is one of the most popular budget options in town. They have dorms and private rooms, starting from 400 rupees (AU$8) per night. It’s within walking distance to the main bazaar and the owners are lovely. Check availability here.
Atisha Guesthouse | This family-run guest-house is one of my favourite places to stay. It’s tucked down a walking-only alley near Bon Appetit Cafe and is a real hidden gem for budget travellers. The owners are lovely despite little English spoken and the rooms are comfortable and affordable.
Discover more accommodation options in Leh here.
Leaving Leh, you have the same options that I outlined above. You can go down to Manali by shared jeep or local bus or head in the other direction to Srinagar by shared jeep or local bus.
The main bus stand in Leh is 1.5km from the main bazaar area and is where you’ll find the latest bus schedule and office to pre-book tickets. You can also find some shared taxis and jeeps here, although some also congregate around the Old Bus Station which is further up the road, closer to the main bazaar.
You can book the HPTDC semi-deluxe tourist bus down to Manali from their office on Fort Rd, just down from the Tourist Information Centre in Leh. Otherwise, the local JKSRTC bus schedule is as above.