Just beyond the hill-stations of Himachal and Srinagar and just before the inhabitable upper Himalayas lies the sparsely populated region of Ladakh, the ‘Land of the High Passes’. A pocket of Tibetan culture carved into Indian borders, Ladakh is an oasis of valleys thriving amongst a harsh Himalayan ranges that slice through the land. Excursions from Leh, the sleepy, monastery-filled capital, are recommended to the Nubra Valley, a major stop in the ancient Silk Road, and Pangong Lake, a massive clear-blue lake that straddles India and China.
Start the morning drive early and rise out of Leh through one of the highest mountain passes in the world, the Khardung-La Pass, which peaks at a staggering 5602 meters (18,379 feet). There’s a cheeky chai station at the top reminding you that you’re on top of the world.
After conquering Khardung-La, your view opens to the sanctuary that is the Nubra Valley. A small pocket of monasteries, homes, and camel farms remain of what once used to be a large trading post between China and India on the Silk Road. In the distance, the Siachen Glacier can be glimpsed where both India and Pakistan maintain forward army posts at inhumane elevations.
Backtrack to Leh and cross the mighty Chang-La pass and be greeted by the colossal, shimmering-blue Lake Pangong: a saline lake that sits at 4350 meters (14,270 ft), covers 604 square kilometers, and is 134km (83 miles) long.
The barren, immense moonscapes of Ladakh have an incredible way of making you feel small.
When to Visit Ladakh:
The tourist season is short, from June to September with peak tourism combining with flower blooms in the valleys in late-July, early-August—a truly remarkable sight. We went in late April and combatted avalanches, blizzards, and sub-zero evening temperatures, which surely instructs you to the power of the region but is not recommended.
What to Wear/What to Bring to Ladakh:
Layers are a must. After a hike to a monastery you want to rip every off, but after sitting in the car passing over 18,000 feet you’re reaching for the earmuffs. We would sleep in multiple sweaters and hibernate in winter coats. Great boots are essential. Gloves, a camera, and a penchant for adventure are all else that you need.
How to get around Ladakh:
Purists would advocate renting a motorcycle and driving the entire long, unpredictable route on Royal Enfield like a Bollywood movie star. However, it’s safer and faster to fly from Delhi to Leh and hire a local driver who will skillfully transport you around the region. Of note, all foreign nationals are required to purchase the Protected Area Permit (600 INR) to enter the Nubra Valley and the Pangong Lake regions. Each town outside of Leh sports a few comfortable and affordable accommodations for you to rest after conquering each successful mountain pass.
What not to miss in Ladakh:
Do not forget to give yourself time to acclimatize! The day we arrived we felt as if someone had wrung us through a clothes-dryer; we spent a full day lying in bed trying not to move a muscle. Drink water aggressively and use Diamox if you have a history of altitude sickness—acute cerebral or pulmonary edema is serious. In lighter advise, ask your driver to take you to the roads overlooking the Indus River as it runs through Ladakh. It’s a humbling experience to see the pure water make it’s way towards the coast and contemplate its role in the creation of a civilization.