Leh, Ladakh's capital city, is little touched by rain, but the extreme cold during the long winter season means that this remote region remains isolated for much of the year. Come June, however, when the tourists begin to trickle into Leh, the sober, somber slumber of this remote high-altitude town lifts along with the temperatures. And Leh becomes a friendly, hassle-free place that’s easy to fall in love with. Situated in a fertile valley at the foot of Namgyal Tsemo peak, 8km (5 miles) northeast of the Indus River, Leh is surrounded by barren mountains and distant snowcapped peaks that form the perfect natural backdrop for the green fields and avenues of trees that cluster around the whitewashed, flat-roofed buildings. Leh was an important stop on the Silk route for caravan routes to Yarkand and Kashgar. The Silk Road brought Buddhist travelers, and today the population remains predominantly Buddhist. You can spend up to a week exploring the town and the numerous Buddhist monuments within a 2- or 3-hour drive of Leh.
The charming village of Stok (3650m/11972ft) lies at the foot of Stok Kangri which at 6120m (20,073ft) is not Ladakh’s highest mountain, but one of its most beautiful. The village is home to Ladakh’s royal family and their Tibetan style palace watches over the village’s unspoilt vernacular architecture, apricot orchards and barley fields.
Until 1994, the Nubra Valley was off-limits to travellers. Today, one of the ancient Silk Routes can be rediscovered by traversing the 18,000-feet high Khardung La Pass, the most elevated motorable road in the world. The surreal Nubra Valley offers jaw-dropping landscapes with green-oasis villages surrounded by stark arid mountains and boulder filled slopes. But this is also the valley of plenty – orchards laden with ripe apricots and apples, fields of golden barley, and hedges strung with the red berries of the sea buckthorn. While here, visit the sleepy village of Sumur, located close to the Siachen Glacier and the Indo-Chinese border. Also explore Old Diskit, the largest settlement in the valley, and tiny little Hundur, with its Bactrian camels and stunning sand-dunes (straight out of a grey-tinted Rajasthan!)
Built around 600 years ago, Thiksey monastery is one of the finest examples of Ladakhi religious architecture. The monastery consists of twelve levels ascending the hillside crowned by the current lama’s private residence. Below the monastery proper are chapels and houses stretching down the hillside where one hundred monks of the Yellow Hat Buddhist sect reside.
Not to be missed is the 17th century Hemis Gompa, located in a craggy red-rock canyon and hidden in green foliage. Here is Ladakh’s largest monastery and an intriguing and impressive experience. This is the spiritual centre of the Drukpa Buddhists (Red Hats) and is also a magnet for Jesus conspiracists, who believe that the monastery contains documents proving that he visited and lived in Kashmir. If you are lucky enough to be here during the annual festival (in June or July each year) you will experience dancing, a colourful pageant and an annual bazaar where people come from all over Ladakh to buy and sell wares.
Shey Gompa is the site of the former summer palace of the Kings of Ladakh. There is a beautiful Shakyamuni Buddha statue 12m high, making it the largest of its kind in Ladakh. Hundreds of chortens (memorials) are scattered in the fields below the gompa. About 1km outside the gompa, there is an ancient carving of the five Buddhas of meditation dating back to the 8th century.
Pangong Tsu is one of the largest saltwater lakes in Asia, 130km at its longest, and also among its highest. Along with other similar lakes in the Tibetan Plateau, they form the remnants of the ancient inland Tethys Sea. The lake’s surreal hues of vivid blue continuously change with sunlight and is framed by a backdrop of the glacier-filled Pangong Range of the Eastern Karakoram. Spangmik is a tiny hamlet on the lakeside with pretty gold-green barley fields and friendly people.