The town of Leh is often treated as a point of transience for tourists moving through Ladakh in search of the best trek, the highest lake, or the most authentic homestay. While the surrounding attractions justify traveling far and wide, Leh itself should not be overlooked. There’s a reason why Indians come all the way from Mumbai, Goa and Kolkata, and why locals stick it out through the brutal winter months: Leh is amazing. The water is clean, the skies are clear, and the summer weather is comfortable. Leh has become my and Taylor’s home for three weeks, and it will remain so until we embark into the rest of India, all insanity included. The lucky thing about imagining that you’re in Leh for 36 hours is that you don’t have to acclimatize to the high altitude—for the rest of your visit here, you’re invincible*.
- Explore Leh Old Town | 3 p.m.
Leh is modernizing at a rate similarly found in the rest of India: rapidly, beyond its infrastructural ability to keep up. Most streets weren’t designed to accommodate two lanes of traffic and still have room for the preexisting stream of cows and pedestrians. The one place in the entire city where this can be avoided is in Old Town, where stone footpaths are a welcome escape to the hectic streets of the city.
Rather than being confronted by salespeople who are trying to sell you yak-wool scarves and knockoff North Face backpacks, you wander through tunnels, past a row of traditional Ladakhi bakeries until you finally make your way to The Sheep, who hangs out in the same place every day with his Lady Friend, who feeds him food scraps. Signs declaring, “Don’t Urine Here,” are exclusively posted around Leh Old Town, which makes me wonder if I have a carte blanche for peeing in the rest of Leh. Will report back with more information.
- Rest at Nati’s Café | 5 p.m.
Nati’s café is a great example of traditional Ladakhi building style and interior design—the ceilings and all of the furniture are very close to the ground, which makes you feel around six inches more intimidating than you actually are. It’s run by an NGO that promotes local artists and women’s handicrafts, and operated by a nice Ladakhi woman whose adorable five-year-old daughter will serve you a slice of chocolate cake if you’re lucky. Ginger-lemon-honey tea is the perfect thing to drink in this cozy room or on the rooftop terrace, which is usually occupied by Ladakhi teenagers.
- Sundown at the Shanti Stupa | 7 p.m.
The Shanti Stupa is a Buddhist religious monument at the top of 554 steps with an incredible view of the Leh valley and Khardung-La in the distance, a pass over which the “highest motorable road in the world” traverses. A deeply spiritual place, the Stupa has signs directing visitors to walk counterclockwise and to take their shoes off if they decide to walk on the upper level of the structure (pictured below).
However, we tend to feel the most spiritual while eating ice cream (the available flavors are pink, yellow, and brown) from the Shanti Stupa Cafe while overlooking the beautiful scenery. The café also specializes in looseleaf tea and reading material on the status of Tibetan human rights in China, and on the Tibetan refugee presence in India.
- 9pm- Dinner: Penguin Garden
Penguin Garden is a great example of one of Leh’s many restaurants that attempts to simultaneously appeal to the tastes of tourists of every single nationality. Their menu is moderately stressful, with hundreds of options ranging from Tibetan to Italian to Mexican. The stress of the menu is balanced by the tranquility of their outdoor eating area, where ABBA is sometimes playing continuously. Our favorite dish is the beetroot carrot mint salad.
- Breakfast at OpenHand Café | 9 a.m.
OpenHand Café is a staple of Leh. They boast espresso-based coffee, fresh salads, and a beautiful breakfast spread that usually includes baked beans and fresh fruit. OpenHand is a South African-owned Indian chain, which actually adds to the appeal of the café. They employ about 100 textile manufacturers, many of whom have been rejected by their families due to severe accidents, leprosy, or sexually transmitted diseases. The company offers their employees fair wages, training programs, and the opportunity to have their wares sold in coffee shops all over India. OpenHand is our most common work location; sometimes we write here all day.
- Refill at Dzomsa (The Good for All Shop) | 10:45 a.m.
Leh doesn’t have any formal waste management or recycling system, so it’s important to be conscious of the waste that you produce during your stay. One way to minimize this impact is by refilling your reusable water bottle at Dzomsa, the good for all shop. In addition to UV-treated water, they offer dried fruit, jam, used books, and eco-laundry services. Stanzin, a five-foot tall sweetheart, runs the place. One time Stanzin said the word “friend” and hugged me, and it was the best day of my entire life.
- Hike up to Leh Palace and Tsemo Fort | 11 a.m.
For just 100 Rs (1.6USD), you can buy admission into the Leh Palace, which is where the nobility of the Leh Kingdom lived until the 1840’s when they were usurped and exiled to the nearby Stok palace. The building is ancient and very few rooms have restricted access, so you can truly get lost in the dark hallways and musty rooms. There are doorways that open to a sheer cliff, with only a two-foot high barrier protecting you from falling down hundreds of feet. As long as your inner two-year old is under control, this shouldn’t be a problem. Next, you can continue up dusty switchbacks to the Tsemo Fort, which was the watchtower for the palace during its heyday.
- Lunch at “The Hole in the Wall” | 1 p.m.
While you’re in Leh, you should experience the range of restaurants that the city has to offer. At one end of the spectrum is “The Hole in the Wall”, for which there are many options. The name of the hole in the wall isn’t as important as the fact that it’s a hole in the wall. This place in Old Town serves Thali, which is a generic term for a dish with many little things.
They don’t have a menu, and you get an unlimited amount of whatever they happen to be making. No one pays attention to you except for a guy that sprints back and forth between the kitchen and the tables carrying bread refills in his bare hands and rice refills in a metal scoop. I could identify exactly half of what I was eating, which cost just over $1. Good luck finding it.
- Central Asian Museum | 3 p.m.
The Central Asian Museum is a must-see in Leh. When we visited, the building was under construction, but it promised to be a gorgeous synthesis of old and new architecture, somewhat reminiscent of the Leh palace. Winding staircases climb through the three story, narrow building, while carved wooden windows let delicate patterns of light shine on the interior stone walls. The exhibits are focused on Central Asian trading caravans, Ladakhi craftspeople, and fabrics (one strand of which hangs through all three floors of the building).
- Meditation at Mahabodhi | 6:15 p.m.
The Mahabodhi International Meditation center offers various yoga and meditation classes throughout the day, with a few gems that are especially noteworthy. One of these is the free 45-minute guided meditation session that happens every evening at 6:15 pm. It’s a great way to center your mind after a hectic day in Leh, and the perfect opportunity to begin visualizing the great food you’re about to eat for dinner.
- Dinner: The High Class | 8 p.m.
At the other end of the restaurant spectrum is Bon Appetite, which would qualify as fancy by Western standards. A plate that would cost $20 in the US costs $4 here, and you don’t even have to (literally) drink your drink under the table. A few items on the menu are Indian-fusion, but most of the dishes are European or American. The restaurant is accessible by one of the many footpaths that weave between the main roads of Leh, and you might even see some baby donkeys on your way through.
- Join a pack of wild dogs | 10 p.m.—3 a.m.
After a strenuous day of napping, Leh’s stray dogs bravely band together each night to serenade the city to sleep. Hopefully by now you’ve studied their behavior closely enough to seamlessly blend into the pack, and if you haven’t, you’re really fucking up your trip to Leh. Get your shit together and join a pack of wild dogs.
Brunch at Yama Café | 11am
If you’re only in Leh for 36 hours, you’re probably not yet craving American food, but by now, we are. Yama Café has GRILLED CHEESE, which is a comfort that truly changes the way I currently experience the world. Besides grilled cheese (but really, do you need anything else?), they have great coffee, cakes, teas, and a selection of books. As long as you’re not bothered by the diesel generator that’s constantly running outside, it’s a great time.
Lodging | The Gangba Guesthouse
Gangba is about a twenty-minute walk from central Leh, and well away from the noisy honking found in town. The lovely Ladakhi couple Stanzin (a very common, gender-neutral name here) and Yungshen run the guesthouse with their 15-year old daughter, who is always glad to watch cartoons with you. Stanzin and Yungshen farm a couple of acres their property, and its fun to see their seedlings turn into crops throughout the summer season. Stanzin’s mother also lives at Gangba, and although she doesn’t speak a word of English, she loves laughing with/at(?) foreigners and holding their palms to her cheek as a gesture of endearment. It’s a little bit pricy by traveller standards (~12 USD per day including breakfast), but totally worth it.
Our first 36 hours in Leh actually went like this:
Arrive and eat a salty omelet at guesthouse | 8 a.m.
Sleep | 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Eat dinner at guesthouse | 7:30 p.m.
Sleep | 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.
Wander around like scared babies | 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Nap | 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Give ourselves haircuts | 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Wander around like scared babies some more | 6 p.m. to 8.p.m
Get winded from walking to the bathroom, give up, and go to sleep | 8:30 p.m. to 5 a.m