Spectacularly jagged, arid mountains enfold this magical Buddhist ex-kingdom. Picture-perfect gompas (Tibetan Buddhist monasteries) dramatically crown rocky outcrops next to fluttering prayer flags and whitewashed stupas, while prayer wheels spun clockwise release merit-making mantras. Gompa interiors are a riot of golden Buddhas and intricately colourful murals and home to red-robed monks. It's a little corner of Tibet marooned in the furthest reaches of India.
Though threatened by a rapidly increasing number of visitors, Ladakh has much to teach the West regarding ecological sustainability. Most Ladakhis are cash poor yet their traditional mud-brick homesteads are large and virtually self-sufficient in fuel and dairy products, and barley used to make tsampa (roast barley flour) and chhang (barley beer).
The walls of dramatic mountains that hem in Ladakh make for an unforgettable landscape, but be aware that road access requires crossing tortuous high passes, which close from around October to May.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Ladakh.
Bearing a passing similarity to the Potala Palace in Lhasa (Tibet), this nine-storey dun-coloured edifice is Leh's dominant structure and architectural icon. It took shape under 17th-century king Singge Namgyal but has been essentially unoccupied since the Ladakhi royals were stripped of power and shuffled off to Stok in 1846. Today the sturdy walls enclose some photo exhibition spaces and a small prayer room, but the most enjoyable part of a visit is venturing to the uppermost rooftops for the view.
Behind Leh’s central Jamia Masjid, winding alleys and stairways burrow between and beneath a series of old mud-brick Ladakhi houses and eroded chortens. The alleys themselves are a large part of the attraction, but some buildings have been particularly well restored, notably the pair of 17th-century mansions now housing the interesting LAMO arts centre.
Glorious Thiksey Gompa is one of Ladakh’s biggest and most recognisable monasteries, photogenically cascading down a raised rocky promontory. At its heart, the main dukhang (prayer hall) oozes atmosphere, and a Maitreya temple contains a giant future Buddha who wears an exquisitely ornate crown. More obviously ancient is the gonkhang and the tiny old library up on the rooftop (often closed).
Directly above Old Diskit, a 2km spaghetti of hairpins winds up to this photogenic monastery complex, much of which dates to between the 14th and 17th centuries. At the back far right-hand corner of the medieval gonkhang (guardian spirits' temple), a six-armed white Mahakala statue clasps a withered forearm and a human skull, supposedly body parts of a Mongol warrior.
Lamayuru's gompa is one of the most photogenic Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh. Behind glass within the gompa’s main prayer hall is a tiny cave-niche in which 11th-century mystic Naropa (AD 1016–1100) meditated.
The original murals and statues within these four outwardly modest 11th-century temples are considered the crowning glory of Ladakh’s Indo-Tibetan art. The complex was founded by ‘Great Translator’ Lotsava Ringchen Zangpo, whose rather reptilian portrait appears on the inside rear wall of the Lotsa Temple.
Founded in the late 14th century as See-Thub (Exemplary) Monastery, impressive Spituk Gompa surveys the Sengye Tsangpo (Indus) Valley, with surreal views of jets landing at Leh airport just below (it's a Buddhist plane-spotter's heaven!). It's worth climbing the exterior stairway to the three-tiered latho (spirit shrine) and gonkhang (protector chapel), which holds the monastery's guardian deities (women not allowed).
Dominating Leh from a high, rocky ridge, this gigantic white spired pudding of a stupa was built between 1983 and 1991 by Japanese monks to promote world peace. The views over Leh are superb.
Spectacularly viewed across barley fields and buckthorn bushes, Chemrey village is dominated by the beautifully proportioned Thekchhok Gompa covering a steep hillock with a maze of pathways and Tibetan buildings. It's one of Ladakh's most impressive sights.