Leh: One would imagine that Leh, the hottest holiday destination of the country this season, would be teeming with excited tourists. You would have to get past a lot of pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of the `must-sees` of the place, and the shop owners of the trinkets` stores would be screaming at passers-by for attention.
Strangely, Leh in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir reveals a very different picture; the picturesque little town, cocooned amid the hills, is drowned in calmness. You can savour every little moment and enjoy your holiday in the true sense of the word. Leh, you realize, is not just a destination; it`s an experience.
Leh, at an altitude of more than 11,000 feet, is blessed with nature`s bounty. Simple things like waking up to an azure blue sky and the sight of snow-capped mountains, or star-gazing at night (you would have hardly seen so many stars in the night sky!) and wishing upon the scores of shooting stars leaves you with happy memories.
Although it has an airport with direct flights from Delhi, Jammu, and Srinagar, most people prefer taking a road trip to Leh. One, because the journey through the changing landscape, whether you go via Manali or through Srinagar, is in itself a lifetime experience. Plus, you get to drive past the `magnetic hill` (from Kargil to Leh) when your car defies gravity to move a short distance of slight road elevation on its own! And second, as most travel experts would say, a road trip prepares you better in the acclimatization process.
Having said that, while it is only natural for your body to take some time to get used to the low pressure and thin oxygen levels, help is always at hand in case of medical need. The Indian Army base hospital in Leh gets a lot of tourists who take tips on how best to fight altitude sickness. There is also an army medical unit in the snow-laden Chang La Pass - at 17,586 feet, the third highest pass in the world - as well as an army tea stall serving complimentary hot tea!
From Leh, one has to cross the Chang La Pass to reach the breathtakingly beautiful Pangong lake, made more famous by the movie "3 Idiots". The lake, 60 percent of which lies in Tibet, is striking amid the surrounding barren hills. One can count at least seven shades of blue in the water!
The Nubra valley, at a distance of 150 km from Leh, is again a must-visit. Famous for being a cold desert, when there, a ride on the double humped camel, also called the Bactrian camel, is worth experiencing.
Driving on the world`s second highest motorable road at Khardung La, at an altitude of more than 18,000 feet, is again a must-do. It`s especially popular among bikers who make sure to get embroidered T-shirts back in Leh declaring their feat - a souvenir worth wearing back home.
Another popular souvenir is a string of multi-coloured prayer flags, also available in small size.
All said, Leh in itself has a lot for visitors to see. There is the magnificent Shanti Stupa, the 400-year-old Jama Masjid, and the ancient Leh Palace which, unlike the bedecked royal palaces you see elsewhere like Rajasthan, is a humble multi-storeyed structure from whose balconies you get a bird`s eye view of the entire town.
For those looking for adventure, there is much to do - river rafting, kayaking, trekking, and hiking - at close distance. For others looking for a quiet, relaxed time, Leh is best explored on foot.
Shopping wise, a word of caution: be ready to loosen your purse strings because things are generally priced high. Shops are laden with exquisite artefacts, woollen shawls and jackets, carpets, and jewellery in silver with different gemstones.
Tenzin Wangchuk, one of the shopowners, tries to justify the high prices, saying: "The tourist season (between May-June and October) is the only time we can sell our wares. When winter sets in, it snows and we get cut off from the rest of the world. This is the only time to earn some money."
Many of its escalating number of tourists (nearly 180,000 in 2012) are foreigners and Leh is therefore flooded with restaurants and small cafes serving all kinds of cuisine - German, Italian, et al. However, tucking into some momos, thentuk (noodles) and thukpa is highly recommended to complete the Leh experience.
How to get there:
* By air: There are direct flights from Delhi, Srinagar and Jammu.
* By road: Approximate distance from Chandigarh to Leh via Manali is 800 km.
Approximate distance from Srinagar to Leh is 440 km. State transport buses also ply on the Srinagar-Leh route.
Leh, being a popular holiday destination, has innumerable hotels, guest houses, and even youth hostels. In the peak tourist season, you can expect the hotel room tariff to start anywhere from Rs.1,500.
Altitude sickness is a reality; so be prepared. You can consult a doctor beforehand about any medication to be carried. But even if you don`t, do not fret. It takes a day or two for your body to acclimatize. Drink plenty of fluids, and don`t forget to carry a good sunscreen!