Ladakh: high altitude, mountain passes and genuine hospitality

Altitude – that’s the first word that crosses my mind when I land at Leh’s Kushok Bakula Rimpochhe Airport. At 10,682 ft. it is one of the highest altitude commercial airports in the world.

Leh – through the clouds

“Juley! Welcome to Ladakh.” The greeting from my Ladakhi guide is warm and genuine. The next word that crosses my mind is hospitality.

The Indian province of Jammu & Kashmir comprises of 3 regions, with distinct ethnicities:

  • Jammu – essentially the Hindu Dogra Rajputs,
  • Kashmir valley – majority Muslim and
  • Ladakh – majority Buddhist.

Ladakh is to the east of the Kashmir valley and borders China. In the 1962 war, Ladakh lost a chunk of its territory to China, now called Aksai Chin. So, being a border region, the Indian army presence is distinctly visible. Leh and Kargil are the two big towns in Ladakh. Kargil was the site of 1999 war with Pakistan – so Ladakh has paid its price for being a border town.

Leh is essentially a monastery town – it’s dotted with stupas, ancient palaces and monasteries. You can feel an air of spirituality in the air. So I start my day with a trip to the Shey Palace/Monastery.

Nestled on a hilltop overlooking the snow-capped Zanskar range of mountains, the Shey Palace/Monastery is in the midst of some lush green scenery, dotted with lakes and desert sand. Before I step into the monastery, I take time to absorb this surreal scenery.

Shey Palace is a 16th century palace. It houses the 3 storey copper gilded statue of the Buddha – 39 ft high

On the upper floor of monastery, a number of beautiful wall paintings are displayed. The lower floor has a library with a large number of neatly preserved manuscripts and is decorated with murals of Buddha in various poses

Shey Palace was built in 1665 by the King of Ladakh as his summer retreat house.

On the eastern perimeter of the palace, a series of gilded chortens add to the elegance of the palace and serve as a landmark for that area.

The Stok Palace Museum provides a peek into the heritage and history of the Ladakhi royal family before Ladakh was conquered by Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s General Zorawar Singh. This large palace museum has only a small part open for visitors. Precious artefacts and relics related to Ladakh’s old monarchy are well-preserved in this museum – ancient coins, royal seals, regal costumes, precious jewelry and photographs. The warfare equipment is displayed in a separate room and includes an impressive assortment of swords, shields, bows, arrows, quivers and guns. The simplicity of design and size is striking, in comparison to the opulence of Mughal India. Overall, this seems to be the best historic museum in Ladakh, but in need of better maintenance and upkeep.

Leh – Stok Palace

My last stop of the day is the Shanti Stupa – a white-domed stupa (chorten) on a hilltop in Chanspa, Leh. It was built in 1991 by Japanese Buddhist Bhikshu, Gyomyo Nakamura. The project was built with the help of Ladakhi Buddhists, who offered voluntary labour, and Japanese Buddhists, who consider India as the “sacred” birthplace of the Buddha. The Shanti Stupa holds the relics of the Buddha at its base, enshrined by the Dalai Lama. Once again, the surrounding landscape is a treat to the eyes.

The Shanti Stupa was built to promote world peace and prosperity and to commemorate 2500 years of Buddhism. It is considered a symbol of the ties between the people of Japan and Ladakh.

The next day, I am leaving for my high altitude drive through the 3rd highest motorable road in the world – Pangong Tso, through the Chang La Pass, at 17, 350 ft (5,360 meters) above sea level. The hospitality team at the hotel is up early to ensure I am fed well – “Sahib, we can’t let you drive to Pangong Tso on an empty stomach.”

The high altitude mountain passes make Ladakh a complete attraction for road trips. Snow-capped peaks amidst the barren landscape and stunning views of the valley are the added treats on the road trip. One must cross Changla Pass to reach the Pangong Tso Lake, one of the largest high altitude lakes in India. To get to the Changla Pass, you have to pass through a military check point – make sure you have your travel documents on you, to get past this checkpoint.

It’s freezing when I reach the top – the Changla Pass – the scenery is draped in a blanket of snow and a sign from Indian Army welcomes me and acknowledges that I am at an altitude of 17,586 ft (5380 m). A hot cup of tea is complimentary, but I am more interested in exploring the surroundings. The Changla Pass is open only between the months of May and October.

From Changla Pass, we move onward and downward through the winding roads along the Himalayas till we reach the Pangong Tso lake, at an altitude of 14,270 ft. (4,350 m). As we drive closer to the lake, my vision is frozen for a few seconds – it appears like a huge mirror reflecting the sky – yes, it is deep blue and calm. This would be an ideal spot for meditation – the scenery (a huge stretch of deep blue, dotted by snow-capped mountains) and the sound are hypnotic – I could go into a trance anytime. See video-Pangong Tso Lake and video-Pangong Tso lake-scenery

Pangong Tso lake is 134 km (83 mi) long and extends from India into Tibet (China). Approximately 60% of the length of the lake lies in Tibet. The lake is essentially saline and as a result does not support vegetation or aquatic life except for some small crustaceans.


As we drive back through the winding passes, the image and sounds of the lake stay etched in my mind. At the end of the day, I move it to the folder – “Nature’s Divine Spots”

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