Ladakh is a high altitude desert (3,000 meters above the sea level) with towering mountains and green valleys. Being a Buddhist majority region you also get to experience an unique culture. This itinerary includes trips to monasteries, driving on the crazy winding roads (including the highest motorable road in the world), rafting and hiking in Markha valley going upto 5280 mts.
Ladakh is part of Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir more known for its territorial disputes and violence than beauty therefore it's very important to understand the regions that make up J&K and it's geography. J&K can be divided into 3 regions, Jammu in the south where it's been relatively peaceful over the past few decades, Kashmir valley to the west which is home to many protests (some get violent, follow advisories from local authorities when visiting) but still has a thriving tourism industry and lastly Ladakh to the east far removed from the territorial disputes. Leh, the biggest city is Ladakh is one of the safest cities in India. Due to it's proximity to the national border you will see a lot of military presence in J&K. That's normal!
How to get to Leh: Fly to Delhi, almost all domestic airlines operate a morning flight from Delhi to Leh. Last flight is around 11 am. It's a short but very scenic 1hr flight, highly recommend a window seat.
Leh is at 3500 mt (11500 ft) which means you are likely to experience mild altitude sickness. Best way to deal with it is to rest for the remainder of the day. You can start exploring the city and site seeing from the next day. It's recommended to stay and acclimatize in Leh for atleast 3 days before hiking or driving to Khardongla Pass (highest motorable road) to Nubra valley.
It's a reasonable priced hotel with a good restaurant. It's about 20 min walk from the city center.
There are many small local hotels in Leh, just don't expect to see any of the big international names.
Indus Valley to Hemis
This one-day tour follows the Indus river up to Hemis. There are many tour operates that rent a private vehicle with a driver. The hotel you maybe staying at can arrange for one. You will see Hemis Monastery, Thiksey Monastery, Shey Palace and Stok Palace. The tour generally starts at 9am and will bring you back to Leh by 3pm.
If time permits, you can also visit the Leh Palace and Shanti Stupa in Leh. You can get a bird's eye view of Leh from Shanti Stupa.
Same as day 1.
Opposite of Monastery Day
Rafting in Zanskar River
This is a good change of pace from visiting monasteries. Rafting in Zanskar river from Chilling to Nimmu (18 Kms) is fun with some class III rapids that take about 2hrs. You will also float pass the point where Zanskar joins Indus (Sindh River). This stretch of the river is very clam and allows you to take dip in the freezing waters! The view of the surrounding mountains is spectacular. Rafting here is easy enough for all skill levels. We went with Wet and Wild Explorations and were very happy with our guide and their equipment.
Same as day 1.
Markha Valley, Chilling to Skiu
Hike Day 1
Markha hike is the most popular hike in the region and for good reason. It's mostly a moderate hike, the difficult part is the altitude. You go up from 3500 mts to 5280 mts. There are multiple routes to do this hike, longest takes 14 days and the shortest takes 5. You can stay at homestays each night expect the last night at Nimaling where you can rent already stood up camping tents. July to September is the best time to do this hike when the day temperatures are about 30C and the nights are about 5-10C expect in Nimaling where it's freezing. Carry a lot of sunscreen.
You don't need a guide to do this hike as the route is well marked and quite obvious but if this is your first high altitude trek then I highly recommend a guide. We used Ladakhi Women Travel Company where the guides and the porters are local women. The tour includes transport to and from Leh, food and homestays during the hike.
We did the 5 day hike from Chilling to Shang Sumdo. Chilling is 1.5hr drive from Leh along the Indus and Zanskar river. The road is under construction at many points and can lead to some wait time. Even looking at the bulldozer paving a road at the edge of a cliff over Zanskar river is awe inspiring. At the end of the road you will have go across the river sitting in basket/trolly and someone from the other side will pull this manually operated pulley system. It's a unique and somewhat scary experience in itself. Once you are on the other side of the river you hike for about 3hrs to reach the first homestay in the tiny village of Skiu.
Homestay in Skiu
All the homestays have basic accommodation. A room with mattress and very thick blankets that will keep you very warm in the night. The menu for dinner is same across the valley with soup, vegetable curry (mostly carrot and cabbage), green lentils and rice. They have compost toilets and hot water for shower. Some homestays in every village in the valley are supported by the Department of Wildlife Protection and those are ones we stayed at.
Skiu to Markha
Its about a 6-7 hrs hike along the Markha river. The village of Sara is about half way on this route if you want to break up the hike to add an extra day or you can hike longer the next day to make up the distance. Markha is the biggest village in the valley with many homestays and picturesque mustard fields. It also has the only medical facility in the valley.
Homestay at Markha
Lot to choose from but they all have the same basic facilities.
Markha to Hankar
This is another 5-6 hrs hike. Enroute you have to cross a freezing river on foot. It takes about 30 secs but that's more than enough in freezing waters. Towards the end of the hike you start to feel the altitude and each steps becomes that much harder. Hankar is at 4000 mts. You will also see ruins of a castle in Hankar.
Homestay at Hankar
Along with all the basic facilities you get the view of the glacier from this homestay. The night sky is beautiful, we even saw a shooting star.
Hankar to Nimaling
This was the hardest day of the hike for us. We had to take many breaks due to altitude sickness and take Daimox (altitude sickness medicine) to manage our symptoms. Our guides were amazing in recognizing our symptoms and helping us with them. It took us 8 hrs to gain 700 mts to get to Nimaling at 4700 mts. Nimaling is a surprising green plateau among desert like mountains and glaciers. Locals from the villages in the valley bring horses, cows and yaks to gaze here.
Headache and shortness of breath are common in high altitude. Acclimatizing and good nights sleep work wonders. If the symptoms persist you can always go back and lose altitude. Having a guide in situations like this is very helpful.
Camping at Nimaling
This is camping made easy. Tents are already stood up, food is served just like any other homestay. Tents are provided with thick blankets which you will need along your sleeping bag since the temperature drops to freezing in the night.
Nimaling to Shang Sumdo
Day 5 - last day
Nimaling to the top (5280 mts) is a short 2 hrs hike. The view from the top on both sides in breathtaking. You can see the glaciers, Stok ranger and Zanskar range. From here on you only have to descend which adds to your happiness.
As you start to hike down you realize its not easy to lose all the altitude you gained in 5 days. It's a very steep way down. A vehicle picks you up in the town of Shang Sumdo to take you to Leh.
This was the homestay affiliated with the touring company. It's a nice place and walkable to city center.
Drive to Hunder
Drive to Hunder in Nubra valley goes through Khardong La pass at 5380 mts making it the highest motorable road in the world. The road hugs along the cliff for a grueling 5 hrs drive. This is a road where only the locals are accustomed to drive on. There are many car rentals (with drivers) travel agencies in Leh to choose from, we again went with Ladakhi Women Travel Company. The price includes car, driver, guide, homestay in Hunder and food. You certainly don't need a guide on this tour but it's a nice to have.
Due to Nubra valley's proximity to India Pakistan border all visitors need Inner Line Permit issued by the local authorities. The permit needs to be issued a day prior to the day of travel and all travel agencies offer to get the permits on your behalf. Indian nationals need any government issued Id and foreign nationals need a passport. Foreign national cannot apply for a permit alone, they have to apply in a group (more than 1) of other foreign nationals or non-resident Indians.
On the way to Hunder you see Diskit monastery. There are some sand dunes in Hunder where you can go on a camel ride. These are double hump camels brought from Mongolia.
Homestay at Hunder
Many notches above Markha homestays with real brick/cement wall, a real bathroom and lot more variety in food. Almost all hometays and houses in Ladakh have a farm where most of the ingredients of your meal are grown. Can't find a better example of farm to table food. Again the night sky is spectacular. You can see our spiral galaxy!
Panamik and Sumur
This drive takes you across the Shayok river to Panamik hot springs where you can take a dip in hot pools and to Sumur holy lake. it's a very scenic drive with millions of purple wild flowers on both side of the road.
Optional Extra days
From Panamik you drive back to Leh and can choose to continue to Pangong Tso Lake the next day, another popular drive in the region. It's a high altitude saline lake on the border of Indian and China. The lake is known for its changing colors as the day goes by.
Visiting Pangong Tso also requires Inner Line Permit. You can get a multiday permit for Nubra valley and Pangsong Tso together. You just have to give your documents to the travel agency and they will take care of the rest.
The most common route to Pangong Tso is via Leh, a 5-6 hrs drive. You will have to spend the night in a town close by to the lake and drive back to Leh next day via Chang La pass. There are couple of other roads from Nubra to Pangong without coming all the way to Leh but those roads are mostly closed due to landslides or in very bad conditions, they are less travelled and not recommended. Some tour companies also offer a day trip to Pangong Tso lake from Leh but it will be a very long day and most of it in the car.
Same as day 8.
Fly to Delhi
Take the morning flight back to Delhi.