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Hidden Gems
Hidden Valleys and Monasteries of Ladakh 7

Hidden Valleys and Monasteries of Ladakh

Overview

Ladakh is an unmissable corner of the Indian Himalaya. Its stark, dramatic landscapes and ancient Tibetan culture are guaranteed to leave an indelible impression on all who have the fortune to visit. With its combination of breathtaking panoramas, ancient settlements and deep spirituality, the former kingdom offers superb trekking and cultural experiences.

Ladakh is a region administered by India as a union territory since 2019, constituting a part of the larger region of Kashmir. It extends from the Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram range to the north to the main Great Himalayas to the south.  Snowcapped peaks, high mountain passes and striking landscapes dotted with prayer flags and Buddhist monasteries await you in this remote and majestic Himalayan region.

On this 15-day journey, you’ll explore Ladakh’s wonderful mountainscapes, people and monasteries. From its capital, Leh, you’ll journey up and down the Indus Valley, trekking between awesomely bright-green oases set amidst bare and forbidding, but very colourful mountains, and visiting Alchi and Lamayuru Gompa, two icons of Ladakhi monastic life. You’ll cross two of the highest motorable passes in the world and visit the idyllic Nubra Valley. Three days will be spent at a community-based eco-lodge in the traditional village of Shyok, where you can see the real Ladakh. Take in Pangong Tso Lake, located right on the border with Tibet (China), the largest high-altitude salt lake on earth (4400 m); the Nubra and Indus valleys with their ancient monasteries and friendly people.

This is a privately guided moderate trek – you will be accompanied by a qualified bilingual guide and your luggage transferred by porters. Spend the overnights in charming, clean guesthouses and homestays in the high mountain (no tent camps!). In the homestays, you’ll be given your own room but sometimes you’ll have to share the bathroom facilities. Toilets are generally the Ladakhi-style, which means dry composting toilets. Please understand that water is scarce here.

The trekking part of the itinerary is locally known as the Sham Trek. By Ladakhi standards, this is an easy trek, as you’ll be barely reaching 3800 m. Most other treks in the area go much higher. But it is a surprisingly rewarding trek. You’ll walk from village to village, passing colourful mountain slopes and climb small passes with great vistas. And as there are only five trekking days, the itinerary is appropriate for families too as the children can be carried on horseback by the porters during the more demanding stretches. Your guide will show you the way while your luggage will be transported by horses.

Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive Leh

Fly from Delhi into Leh (you can book a return ticket through us and you can optionally book extra nights in Delhi before or after the holiday).

Although it takes only one hour, on a clear day the flight to Leh is by no doubt one of the most spectacular flights in Asia. After leaving the North-Indian plains you’ll cross a number of ranges, including the glacier-clad Pir Panjal Range, before flying over the actual Himalayan Range. Leh is situated at 3500 m above sea level. After stepping down from the aircraft you may feel the altitude, but even if you don’t, it is wise to take the rest of the day off. Stay at the hotel or at best walk around the Leh bazaar. Only if you wake up next morning without a headache you may consider yourself fit to go on not too strenuous excursions in the area.

Days 2 & 3: Leh

The next two days are for acclimatisation and Leh has a lot to offer.

Leh is a bustling little town. It’s small size and laid-back atmosphere belie a very prominent and historically important position. Before the closing of the border between India and China-held Tibet, Leh saw daily caravans going to and coming from Yarkand and Kashgar, Kashmir, Kullu, Baltistan and Lhasa. It was a hub where seven different important caravan routes converged. Yaks, donkeys and camels were parked outside the city waiting for new cargo and in the main bazaar, a multitude of languages could be heard, such as Turkmeni, Balti, Tibetan, Kashmiri and Chinese.

While in Leh, there are numerous things to do. Apart from short walks in and around town, you can browse the little streets and allow yourself to be lured into some of the many little shops, most of them run by Kashmiris and Tibetans, that sell beautiful Tibetan artefacts, carpets and jewellery. Leh abounds in restaurants that cater to all tastes, quite a number of them located on a rooftop or in a pleasant garden.

If you are interested in the work of the many NGO’s that try to make things better, the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG) and the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh are highly recommended. Both have won international acclaim for the promotion of sustainable development.

On Day 3, we advise taking a short tour in and around Leh. This could include a visit to Shanti Stupa, a large Chorten overseeing Leh and the Indus Valley built by a Japanese monk; visiting small but quaint Sankar Gompa set amidst a maze of small allies with traditional houses; and a walk up to Tsemo Gompa and the old palace, where you get even better views of Leh. Also, it is highly recommended to take a taxi and visit some of the delightful Buddhist monasteries in the Indus Valley to the southeast of Leh. Apart from the traditional trio of Shey, Thikse & Hemis, you may also consider visiting Matho and Stakna, maybe in combination with Stok Palace.

Day 4: Leh – Likir; Trek Likir (3650m) – Yangtjang (3630m)

After an early breakfast, your car will be ready to take you northwest, following the Indus River downstream for some distance along the old caravan road towards Kashmir, to Likir, the site of a beautiful Buddhist monastery perched on a hilltop (3650 m). The two-hour drive takes you through desert land high above the Indus River. Here you’ll really appreciate the ruggedness of Ladakh.

Likir Gompa was founded in the 15th century. It belongs to the so-called yellow-hat sect (Gelugpa) that originates in Tibet and is lead by the Dalai Lama. Many other gompas in Ladakh belong to one of the red-hat sects, which is an older form of Buddhism. A unique feature of this gompa is the colossal open-air statue of Buddha Maitreya. The 75 feet high future Buddha, seated on a painted pedestal was completed in 1999. This shows how Buddhism is still very much alive in Ladakh and not just a thing of the past.

After visiting the gompa you’ll head out on your trek. The trek will give you an appreciation of how the Ladakhis have managed to carve out a living in this desert area by putting in a lot of hard work to create oases based on irrigation.

The first day of a walking tour always seems a bit strenuous. And you may also still be adapting to Ladakh’s considerable altitude. From Likir the route heads west up to Phobe La (approx. 3650m) beyond which lies Sumdo village. The trail then again goes steadily upwards till you reach the Charatse La (approx. 3750m). Across the pass is the village of Yangthang (3630m) where you stay for the night.

  • Walking for the day: 3.5-4.5 hours
  • Accommodation: Homestay. Dinner, breakfast & lunch included.

Day 5: Trekking Yangthang – Ridzong – Yangthang

Today you’ll make a side tour to Ridzong Gompa. You’ll follow a small stream to the south through a gorge. After 1-1.5 hours you’ll reach a jeep track that leads to Ridzong Gompa.

  • Walking for the day: 4-5 hours
  • Accommodation: Homestay. Dinner, breakfast & lunch included.

Day 6: Trekking Yangthang – Hemis Shukpachan

Today is a short walk. The trail heads north, descending for a while and crossing a stream before climbing up west again to Sermanchan La (3750m). Descending again, you’ll reach Hemis Shukpachan. The village, named after a grove of junipers, is one of Ladakh’s prettiest. There are several sparkling streams surrounded by shady willows and large barley fields that provide a starkly contrasting touch of green to the otherwise desolate, rocky mountains.

  • Walking for the day: 2.5-3.5 hours
  • Accommodation: Homestay. Dinner, breakfast & lunch included.

Day 7: Trekking Hemis Shukpachan – Themisgang; Drive Themisgang – Lamayuru Monastery

After leaving this pretty village the trail goes upwards again, between two hills west of the village, until it veers south and climbs steeply up to the Meptek La (3750m) marked by prayer flags. From the pass, you head down the gorge to Ang, again a charming village with apricot orchards. From here, you continue down to Themisgang (also called Thingsmogang), a larger village at the beginning of a large oasis that stretches far to the north.

Themisgang is an important place from a historical point of view. It was here that the important peace treaty of Thingmosgang was signed in 1684. This marked the end of a protracted war between Tibet (supported by the Mongols) and Ladakh (supported by the Kashmiris). Although the Ladakhi’s and Kashmiri’s have won the war, it was a Pyrrhic victory, and the treaty also held concessions to Tibet. In the peace treaty, the border between Ladakh and Tibet once and for all was established. An interesting detail is that this is the only time in the history of the Mongol empire that the Mongols were defeated (on land).

At Themisgang the car will pick you up again. You’ll return to the Srinagar-Leh highway and follow the Indus river past Khaltse. After crossing the Indus the road emerges in a broad valley with remarkable creamy-yellow coloured silt deposits – the “moonland” of Lamayuru. Soon you’ll see the monastery of Lamayuru looming above you. Your hotel is not far from the gompa and has nice views of it.

Time permitting you can visit the gompa today or you can do this tomorrow before you return to Leh. Lamayuru Gompa, although not the oldest, is certainly one of the finest and most revered situated gompas of Ladakh. It belongs – just as the gompa in Wanla – to the Digungpa sect, one of the many older Buddhist sects that are summarized under the collective name ‘red-hats order.’ Although the current buildings ‘only’ date from the 16th century, older fundaments can be found that are over 1,000 years old. The foundation of the original gompa is attributed to Rinchen Zangpo, an apostle of Buddhism who was commissioned by the Ladakhi kings to construct 108 temples and monasteries in Ladakh and Spiti.

  • Walking for the day: 3-4 hours
  • Car transfer: 1 hour, 25 km
  • Accommodation: Grand Moonland Hotel (private en-suite rooms). Dinner and breakfast included.

Day 8: Lamayuru – Alchi – Leh

Today you’ll return along the Indus river eastwards to Leh. At the start, be sure to ask your driver to follow the “old road” down to the Indus. This climbs up a little above the gompa, crosses a pass and then descends in a series of spectacular switchbacks down to the valley floor of the Yapola River, just before it meets the Indus. The views from the road on this part are very good.

After crossing a bridge over the river you’ll follow a small road to the hidden village of Alchi. It is thanks to this hideaway location that the millennium-old temples of Alchi have survived invasions from looting Muslim kings from nearby Baltistan. Your main objective here, obviously, is to visit Alchi Gompa. This is the oldest more or less intact Buddhist temple in Ladakh. It is said to have been constructed between 996 and 999 and has miraculously survived non only the assaults of passing Muslim armies, but also rains, earthquakes and simple decay.

After visiting Alchi, and most likely having lunch in a secluded garden restaurant here, it is only a short drive to Leh, so there is still time to stop on the way and visit monasteries and temples, such as the temple of Basgo, and just before you reach Leh, Phyang and Spituk Gompa.

Day 9: Leh – Shyok

After breakfast, an almost 5-hour drive will take you to Shyok River Lodge. En route, you’ll cross the 5360 m high Chang La pass, one of the highest motorable passes in the world. This is the old caravan road to Tibet.

During the climb to the Chang La you get magnificent views of the oasis of Sakti-Takthok and the Zanskar Range on the other side of the Indus Valley. Here, you’ll also find two of Ladakh’s lesser-known gompas that are definitely worth a visit. The first one is Chemre Gompa, perched on a hill in front of impressive mountains. Takthok (meaning rock roof) started as a cave used for meditation by hermits, including the famous apostle of Buddhism, Padmasambhava (or Guru Rimpoche) who is credited with the foundation of many gompas all over the Himalayas.

Shortly after the oases of Durbuk and Tangtse come into view your driver will veer off the road and enter a seldom-travelled canyon that gives access to Shyok on the wide and wild Shyok River. The village of Shyok, though accessible by road, sees little traffic movement. Here, amidst the waving, green barley fields and looking out on the easternmost part of the Karakoram Range, Shyok River Lodge will be your comfortable abode for the next three days.

Shyok River Lodge is a community-based accommodation. The lodge is part of a traditional Ladakhi house and can not be distinguished from the neighbours on the outside. The family lives downstairs under the same conditions as most Ladakhis. Your own residence, however, is on the first floor, clean, with luxury mattresses and a private bathroom.

  • Car transfer: 125 km, 4-5 hours
  • Accommodation: Shyok River Lodge (room with a private bathroom). Lunch, dinner and breakfast included.

Day 10: Shyok

After an extensive breakfast (and sleep as much as you like!) one of our local guides will take you through the fields and to the small village gompa. On the way, the guide will tell you about the Ladakhi way of living. They grow barley and vegetables, which is a particular challenge in this desert-like environment. This is only possible thanks to sophisticated irrigation systems and social organisation.

The gompa houses the Buddha Maitreya (Buddha of the future), Padmasambhava (Guru Rimpoche) and many bodhisattvas. When you arrive at the gompa, the monks, if present, will be happy to provide you with tea and tell you about their way of life. The monks are not always there, but the monastery can always be visited.

  • Accommodation: Shyok River Lodge (room with a private bathroom). Lunch, dinner and breakfast included.

Day 11: Excursion to Pangong Tso Lake

If you thought Tsokar was a huge lake, you’ll be surprised today. Pangong Tso, located right on the border with Tibet (China) is the largest high-altitude salt lake on earth (4400 m). It is not only a spectacular lake, but the route to it is beautiful, in itself more than enough reason for the trip. It is only a 2-hour drive from the lodge and there is plenty of time to stop along the way for photos and the like. You can enjoy a picnic at this beautiful lake. If you are tired of all the travelling you are most welcome to take it easy today, with a book in the garden, and skip the excursion.

  • Car transfer: 2+2 hours
  • Accommodation: Shyok River Lodge (room with a private bathroom). Lunch, dinner and breakfast included.

Day 12: Shyok – Nubra Valley (Sumur)

After breakfast, you’ll embark on a thrilling 125 km jeep drive following the untamed Shyok, stream-upwards. Thanks to a new rough road, which has been opened up a few years ago, there is no need to travel all the way back to Leh in order to reach Nubra from Shyok. Instead, we follow the wide valley of the Shyok, passing small hamlets of Ladakhi farms, crossing small rivers and sand dunes that are reminiscent of the Taklamakan Desert that lies on the other side of the Karakoram. We’ll make a short stop for a picnic lunch.

Note: There is a chance that part of the road gets blocked due to flooding by the Shyok River. In that case, the journey becomes longer (8 hours drive). First, you’ll cross back over Chang La and immediately after descending you climb back in the northeastern direction towards the Wuri La (5250 m) before descending to the Shyok River.

  • Car transfer: 4-5 hours, 125 km
  • Accommodation: Lharimo North (cottage with a private bathroom). Dinner and breakfast included.

Day 13: Exploring the Nubra Valley

Due to the lower altitude (approx. 3000 m) Nubra enjoys a relatively mild climate as compared with Ladakh proper (the Indus Valley). As a result, the growing season is longer than in Leh and Shyok and most villages are surrounded by lush green groves of willows, apricot trees, almond and even chestnut trees.

There are many things to see in Nubra. Among the most noteworthy gompas are Samsthanling Gompa in Sumur (not far form your lodge) and Deskit Gompa in the small town of Deskit, the ‘capital’ of Nubra.

Inside Sumur village there is an ‘Old House’, an erstwhile family house of a well-to-do family that has been well preserved and is now open to the public for seeing the old Ladakhi way of life.

Near Hundar, west of Deskit, you can do a camel ride through the sand dunes (optional, book and pay on-site). The camels are Bactrians, two-humped camels that directly descend from animals that worked the caravan trails to Yarkand and Kashgar till 1962 when the border was closed. Though right on the banks of the river, the landscape is a true desert here and riding the camels you may easily forget that you’re actually in between the Himalayas and the Karakoram! After that, you can visit two Deskit Gompa and the little ‘main street’ of Deskit with its many stupas.

Alternatively, you can follow a small mountain trail that climbs high above the Nubra river to a remote little gompa. This is a walk of about 5 hours.

  • Walking for the day: 5 hours (optional)
  • Accommodation: Lharimo North (cottage with a private bathroom). Dinner and breakfast included.

Day 14: Nubra (Sumur) – Leh

After breakfast, your car will take you to Leh, crossing the famous Khardong La (5450 m). This pass is supposed to be the highest motorable road in the world. The drive is spectacular, and especially the dramatic views over the oasis of Leh while descending from the pass won’t be forgotten easily.

Day 15: Departure

Note that most flights from Ladakh depart in the early morning because of the high altitude. The thin air makes it especially difficult, and later in the day, it becomes even more difficult due to turbulence. You can optionally book flights and extra nights in Delhi through us. The flight takes about 1 hour but is spectacular. First, you’ll fly over the barren but colourful mountains of Ladakh and Zanskar, then the heavily glaciated Himalayan Range, the deeply forested mountains of Himachal Pradesh (Pir Panjal) and lastly the shimmering North Indian plains.

Hotels

Accommodation is in a boutique guesthouse in Leh, the 3-star Grand Moonlight Hotel, the charming Shyok River Lodge (all with private en-suite rooms), Lharimo North (cottage with attached private bathroom) and homestays in the high mountains (private rooms but sometimes with shared facilites). All places have been carefully hand-picked by us, and their quality is regularly monitored. We have tried to choose accommodations that offer friendly service, clean and comfortable rooms and local flavour.

Meals

All meals while trekking in the mountains, as well as all breakfasts in Leh and all breakfasts and dinners in Nubra and Lamayuru, are included. In Leh, there is a great choice of restaurants and inns.

Travel

Delhi is the most convenient international airport. Return flights can be booked independently or we can do this for you.

Baggage Transfers

Luggage transfers are included as per itinerary, and we will arrange them from your current hotel to your next hotel (or homestay). Porters (sometimes horse porters) will transport your luggage in the mountains, so please limit your main luggage to 15 kg per person and put it in a soft duffel bag.

Country Info

India is an extraordinary country, and after visiting Ladakh you will surely come back with unique
travel experiences. Up-to-date travel advice on India is available here. Detailed travel information and hints will be provided in your holiday information pack.

Trip Info

Difficulty Grade: Moderate

There are no long steep ascents, no scrambling involved and no exposed paths and the walks are fairly short, but this holiday is graded moderate due to walking at high altitude. You should be in a good physical condition and have some experience of multi-day trekking before undertaking this trek. The effect of altitude should not be underestimated (read more about difficulty grades).

Acute mountain sickness (AMS) is a significant concern when trekking above 3500m and although the treks do not go above 3800m and the itinerary is designed to minimise the chances of you suffering from AMS by providing enough acclimatisation days before the actual trek and ensuring a gradual increase in altitude, each individual is affected differently by height. If you have any pre-existing health conditions that you think may make you more susceptible to AMS, we recommend that you consult your doctor before booking this trip.

Private Guides

Qualified guides make the difference between a regular trip and an unforgettable experience. Our English-speaking guides are qualified and trained. All have many years of experience of guiding trekkers in the area. They will bring a wealth of knowledge to your journey, opening your eyes to the legends, culture, food, flora and fauna of the region.

Route Navigation

We strongly advise you to follow only marked trails and never try to shorten the path through the unknown and unmarked terrain. Your private guide is highly experienced, and you should always follow their advice.

When to Go

This trip is available between July and October. The flexibility of the privately guided holidays means that there are no fixed dates and you can start your holiday on any date in the season. During the summer and early autumn, the days are generally dry and bright. Summer is the monsoon period for most of India, and therefore unsuitable for trekking. Ladakh is an exception – so it makes the perfect trekking destination for those limited to holidays during the summer. The winter in Ladakh is exceptionally cold, and so we don’t organise any of our tours for this time of year as mountain passes are closed and rivers freeze over.

What to Bring

While trekking you will only have to carry a day bag with water, snacks, spare clothes and your camera. Your main bag will be moved by a porter. We will provide a detailed equipment list as part of your pre-departure information pack. You will need normal walking and travelling gear as well as a sleeping bag and warm clothes.

Included

  • Qualified English-speaking guide and porters in the mountains and experienced local guide/driver during the transfers/in the lowlands
  • 14 overnight stays in private rooms and homestays as listed in the itinerary (3-star hotels where available, best hotels/guesthouses in towns)
  • 14 breakfasts
  • 7 lunches
  • 10 dinners
  • All car transfers as listed in the itinerary
  • Inner Line Permits for visiting the areas bordering China/Tibet
  • Luggage transfers (by car and porters)
  • Pre-departure travel and tour documents
  • 24/7 phone assistance by our local office/representative in Ladakh

Options and Extras

  • Single room supplement for group members (single tent use in the high mountains)
  • This holiday is NOT available for solo travellers
  • Optional extra nights in Leh or Delhi are bookable on request
  • Return flights Delhi-Leh

Excluded

  • International flights
  • Visa fees
  • Travel insurance
  • Sleeping bag for camping during the trek
  • Personal expenses such as drinks, snacks, phone calls, extra transfers, tips, etc.
  • Tips for the guides and porters
  • Any items not specifically mentioned as ‘included’ in the programme

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