From Martian landscapes, endless roads, and deep blue lakes to extreme temperatures, deceptive distances and strict schedules, we experienced some interesting things in Ladakh!

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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 fascinating otherworldly landscape of what they say is 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 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
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 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
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 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
Mountains flank the Leh-Srinagar highway near Zoji La
Leh - Roadside mountains - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
So close, you can almost touch them
Leh - Storm capped mountains 2 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
Storm-capped mountains beyond Leh

Also read: 5 awesome mountain holiday destinations in India

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

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 Tibet (the Tibet Autonomous Region, as China calls it), with only about 30 kilometres or so in India.

Leh - First view of Pangong Tso - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
Our first glimpse of the lake
Leh - Pangong Tso view into China - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
Looking into Tibet
Leh - Pangong Tso 2 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
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 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
Above the snowline
Leh - Icicles - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
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 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
Tanking up to a view
Leh - Road to everywhere - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
The road to everywhere
Leh - Road trip 5 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
An invitation to keep going
Leh - Road trip 4 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
“Look how far we’ve come!”
Leh - Road trip 3 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
Infinite possibilities
Leh - Road trip 2 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
On top of the world

Also read: What you experience on a 7-day, 2000-kilometer motorcycle ride along India’s east coast

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 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
A welcome sight!
Leh - Spider on mess wall - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
Spider on a water-stained wall
Leh - Hill monastery 1 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
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 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
Goodbye, old friends!
Leh - Glacier from plane - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
Frozen rivers
Leh - Himalayas from plane - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
Powder sugar and cotton balls

Also read: Six great experiences to have when you’re in Kalimpong

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 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
At the Kargil war memorial in Dras
Leh - Mulbek moonrise 1 - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
Moonrise over Mulbek
Leh - Confluence - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
The Indus and Zangskar rivers migle, while army trucks look on
Leh - Mountain Ganesha - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
An elephant-headed guardian emerges from the mountain
Leh - Snow bike at Chang La - Eight things we learned in Ladakh
Frozen Bullet at Chang-La

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