The Good Life With IQ

Eight things we learned in Ladakh, the highest desert in the world

It was 2008, and we were hankering for the mountains again. We had always wanted to visit Ladakh, in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, and decided this was the time.

Luckily, through family connections, we managed to get ourselves invited to stay with the Indian army in Leh (pronounced ‘Lay’), the largest town in Ladakh. During our week-long holiday, we used Leh as a base to explore the dry but fascinating otherworldly landscape of what is said to be the world’s highest desert, and learned some interesting stuff along the way.

1. It can be both blisteringly hot and blisteringly cold—at the same time

They say one can get both sunstroke and frostbite at the same time in Ladakh, and we found out that that might just be true. While the icy wind can rip through the warmest of clothes, the thin air does nothing to shield you from the harsh sun.

Leh - View from guesthouse
The view from our guesthouse

2. The local stray dogs look like bear cubs

We encountered a sweet little pup during our visit to Chang La pass, and with his fluffy brown coat, we could easily have mistaken him for a bear cub from a distance.

Leh - Chang La doggie
Almost-bear cub pup

3. The mountains aren’t as close as they look

It took us city slickers by surprise: the way the mountains can warp one’s perception of distance. The sheer size of the mountains made them look so much closer than they really were, and made long distances seem much shorter.

Leh - Road to Zoji La 1
Mountains flank the Leh-Srinagar highway near Zoji La
Leh - Roadside mountains
So close, you can almost touch them
Leh - Storm capped mountains 2
Storm-capped mountains beyond Leh

4. Most of Ladakh’s Pangong Tso lake actually lies in China

We knew the approximately 140 kilometre-long saltwater Pangong Tso lake was one of the more popular sights in Ladakh, with its deep blue water mirroring the deep blue sky (only when it’s sunny, of course). What we didn’t realize was that it stretches across the border into China, with only about 30 kilometres or so in India.

Leh - First view of Pangong Tso
Our first glimpse of the lake
Leh - Pangong Tso view into China
Looking into China
Leh - Pangong Tso 2
The way back home

5. The mountain passes must be crossed before 3 o’clock in the afternoon

During our jaunt over Chang La pass to Pangong Tso, and again on our visit to Khardung La (claimed to be the highest motorable pass in the world), we were expressly told that we needed to get off the pass before 3:00 pm. We soon saw why: the torrents of afternoon snowmelt running across the roads make them extremely dangerous.

Leh - Snow en route to Khardung La
Above the snowline
Leh - Icicles
Icicles from snowmelt along the road

6. The valley stretch of the Leh-Srinagar highway is a biker’s dream

One of the days we were there, we hired ourselves a cranky old Royal Enfield Bullet Electra and rode along the Leh-Srinagar highway for a few hours. The road quality was great, we were almost completely alone, and we had some of the most awe-inspiring landscape on earth unfolding around us.

Leh - tanking up
Tanking up to a view
Leh - Road to nowhere
The road to everywhere
Leh - Road trip 5
An invitation to keep going
Leh - Road trip 4
“Look how far we’ve come!”
Leh - Road trip 3
Infinite possibilities
Leh - Road trip 2
On top of the world

7. After a while, your eyes ache for the colour green

The landscape and mountains were a fascinating array of patterns and shapes, but they were all in shades of brown and yellow—with a bit of snow-white thrown in here and there—and all under a roof of glowing blue or grey. After a while, the need for the colour green became almost a physical ache! The little patches of green clustered around the rare springs and rivulets—or even painted on a wall—always came as an intense relief.

Leh - Blue green and brown
A welcome sight!
Leh - Spider on mess wall
Spider on a water-stained wall
Leh - Hill monastery 1
An inviting-looking hilltop monastery

8. The Himalayas are just as majestic when seen from above

The mid-morning flight back from Leh to Delhi allowed us to see the mountains from above in bright sunlight, and they were just as magnificent as when seen up close!

Leh - Himalayas from plane 2
Goodbye, old friends!
Leh - Glacier from plane
Frozen rivers
Leh - Himalayas from plane
Powder sugar and cotton balls

Top tips when visiting Ladakh

  • Take warm clothes, but also sunglasses and sunscreen. You’ll need both. At the same time.
  • Plan a day or two of zero activity to help you acclimatize. Altitude sickness—with its headaches, nosebleeds, nausea and dizziness—is real.
  • After a long, cold day, nothing is more satisfying than a steaming bowl of thukpa—a hearty soup with noodles, meat and/or veggies, similar to the Vietnamese pho, but more solid.
  • A bike ride along the valley road will give you an unparalleled sense of freedom.
  • When driving through Ladakh, prepare for long travel times and bumpy rides. The winding mountain roads are shattered by the snow and ice each winter.
Leh - War memorial
At the Kargil war memorial in Dras
Leh - Mulbek moonrise 1
Moonrise over Mulbek
Leh - Confluence
The Indus and Zangskar rivers migle, while army trucks look on
Leh - Mountain Ganesha
An elephant-headed guardian seems to emerge
Leh - Snow bike at Chang La
Frozen Bullet at Chang-La

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