There are only two options for travel into Ladakh. Air or road. If time is of no importance, a person could bicycle or even trek over the extremely high passes if (a big “if”) you have the ability and stamina.
Air: It can be difficult to get seats on the few airlines that fly to Ladakh from Delhi (the usual gateway), Srinagar and Jammu. Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines both have good safety records and usually leave on time. The hard part is buying an economy seat during peak season since both airlines have only one or two flights daily. Avoid Air India like the plague with its abominable safety record. Whichever airline you choose, try for a window seat. The mountain views are beyond spectacular on a clear day.
Public Bus/Jeeps/Private Car (Taxi): We considered making the hair raising two-day journey from Manali to Leh but the road is only open from July to mid-October due to severe weather conditions and this particular Ladakh trip began in June. This road crosses a number of the highest passes in the world and was once used by traders for access between Central Asia and India.
Manali is a fun and beautiful hill station in the Himachal Pradesh situated in the foothills of the Himalayas; a good place to begin the exciting bus journey to Ladakh. The bus crosses four high passes and changes from alpine scenery to the high altitude desert that makes up the Tibetan plateau. It is always a two-day drive (minimum) with overnights in either a tented camp at Sarchu or Keylong depending which bus you take. Carry sufficient amounts of food and drinking water in case of avalanche or road problems.. This is not a joke. Twelve vehicles were caught by an avalanche in 2010 with two tourists killed on a different route within Ladakh.
A French couple staying at the Deskit Villa, Leh with us had the “good fortune” (sarcasm) of spending seven days stuck along this road when a bridge washed out. That’s how long it took before the Indian Army rebuilt the crossing. This road trip is not easy but guaranteed to be an experience you will never forget. A taxi will charge approximately 21,000 Rupees (over $400 U.S.) for the one way trip between Leh and Manali. Expensive when you consider a round-trip ticket on Jet or Kingfisher is under $200 U.S.
Tour Operators in Ladakh: There is no shortage of tour operators and companies that will arrange a Ladakh vacation to your specifications. Make arrangements in advance or just show up in Leh and choose an operator from the many up and down the streets of Leh. We used Sky Walker Travel in Leh to handle arrangements based on past experience. Sky Walker has always been responsive to changes necessitated by Steve’s altitude sickness and has great personnel. Sky Walker Travel can arrange jeeping, treks, bicycling and motor bike tours. What are you waiting for?
- Visitors in Leh will see signs posted throughout town listing treks and trips looking for other like-minded travelers to join in. A great way to share costs.
A “Mish-Mosh” of Information:
- Take enough batteries for cameras, mobile phones, etc. and charge before leaving on a tour. Leh has an electricity problem; power cuts take place throughout the day. You may not get electricity in remote places and the high-altitude cold will wear out batteries faster. I charged the two camcorder batteries and used sparingly. Power was out both times we drove through Padum. Our guides used solar powered chargers for cell phones in Phuktal.
- Don’t count on Internet either. Connections can be out for days in Leh and elsewhere.
- If you fly to Leh, plan on relaxing for the first two or three days. Build this into your itinerary, drink plenty of fluids and avoid alcohol to minimize altitude sickness.
- Ladakh, population 260,000, is home to a large Buddhist population. This is reflected in architecture that contains Tibetan and Indian influences.
- The main source of water remains the winter snowfall. Ladakh was once covered by an extensive lake system and some vestiges still exist in drainage basins like Tso-moriri, visited last year. Downtown Leh was devastated by flash floods triggered by torrential rains in 2010. I had read about it but had no idea what destruction had been left behind until we drove out of Leh.
Prepare to see sheer walls of rock, narrow strips of greenery along the rivers that drain down from mountain glaciers, a brilliant blue sky and, if you’re lucky, the Ladakhi people dressed in all their finery for ceremonial occasions.