Straggly is the flavor of Leh.
Leh isn’t dirty, but somehow, it looks it.
It’s got a bit of a Wild Wild West presence about it. A scruffy town with a dusty main street, some souvenir shops, tourist agencies and straggled alleyway mazes leading to stone and mud houses. To see the town after having experienced such a powerful first impression of Ladakh felt a bit disappointing. But…
Leh isn’t just any town. Paint on buildings are faded, faces and wool clothes are sun-beaten and weather-worn. Leh is a small town in one of the highest altitudes. It’s in a desert area that’s sparse of vegetation, where the temperature is dry and the air is cold. Residential houses tucked into the recesses are dilapidated mud and stone houses. The town suffers water shortage problems.
It has a character about it, which is different from any other region in India. You won’t feel like you’re in India.
Mapping out Old Leh Town
Leh looks small when you first see it.
Old Leh appears to be one long, main dirt road runs through the town, lined with shops, ranging from standard commerce of pharmacies, hardware shops, cellphone stores, banks, a bookstore, etc… The Indian Army patrols the area, local farmers sell produce and grain on the sidewalk and the popular ATM on Main Bazaar Road always has a long queue.
Local shops , restaurants, chai shacks, co-op shops and markets, lightly and randomly dust in the backstreet folds, opening the veins of the town.
I circled around and around, taking turns down streets, up alleys, weaving through the streets of homes. Within a day, I felt like I knew what was going on at its heart. But just when I think you know a place, you find another street, a tucked away market, a live poultry shop, which makes you think I don’t.
The one word to know in Ladakh
“Jullay” is the universal greeting you’ll hear throughout Ladakh. It means hello, good-bye, please, thank you, good morning, good night.
If you only learn one word, this is it! Despite the economic depression in the city, the Tibetan culture still holds much pomp and circumstance.
Ladakhi culture in Leh
“A place isn’t about appearances; it’s about its residents. You have to give every place a bit of time. “
What actually gives the city its mystical and curious quality are its people.
People here look a little wily and rough around the edges; but they’re simple and quiet folk and that’s their charm. Older men in aged Tibetan robes, cowboy hats, swinging prayer wheels. The youth there must be on some teen gangsta trip. School girls with their school caps turned backwards made good tomboys, even the young monks looked as if they had spent their time sneaking in rap music between chants.
But mixed with traditional Tibetan garb, there’s a soft-spoken, but statuesque demeanor to their cultural beauty. I was there during Buddha’s Birthday (I think..) and got to take in a couple of town parades. Men, women and children lined the streets, bowing their heads with devotion as as a procession of holy books are passed over them.
Surviving long-term travel feels like it’s more about necessity and less about comfort
I checked into a guesthouse recommended to me by another backpacker in my yoga program. Oriental Guesthouse was a 10-15 minute walk to the town center and held enough rooms making it both, a hotel and guesthouse depending on your budget.
The lovely sun-tanned Ladakhi receptionist was warm. She was young and fit and her ethnicity was hard to decode. Undoubtedly, Tibetan Chinese mixed with a mystery of other races.
She had the house’s assistant take me to my room. But when we got there, the room key didn’t fit. So she took out a pouch and emptied the key contents on the floor. It had every key in the house! I was too stunned to laugh. It felt like a comedy mixed with a hint of impending doom. After about eight minutes of trying every key, she found the correct one and the door to my room swung open.
I won’t lie, my room wasn’t the perkiest. It felt like an aged icebox. I had a nice view and gargantuan room, large enough to play halfsies tennis in, but it was old and filled with all-natural Ladakhi air-conditioning set on high. A hint of luxury mixed with …not. For me, it only meant one thing… when taking a shower or going to the john, the cold air will be brutal on exposed skin!
Had I not cheaped on the room and just paid the extra dollars for an upgraded room, I could’ve gotten a room with better heating and insulation, but when you’re traveling for months, you look for ways to stretch your dollar so you can travel longer.
That’s the backpacker survival mentality. A few extra bucks here, can mean a “day” or extra comfort somewhere else. I considered taking a room upgrade, but the price would definitely jump.
Then I thought of it from a local perspective… this is India and it’s probably a palace to Ladakhi families who couldn’t afford a stay. If so, this would do and I’d make it work.
I’d spent most of my red-eye morning camping out at the domestic Delhi airport and droopiness was starting to wear in. I dropped my bags, took out my sleeping bag, threw on some extra socks, shirt layers and a scarf and dove into my nylon warmth, falling immediately into a deep sleep.
How to Get to the Leh Bus Station
There is a taxi lot in the middle of town (hidden off the main drag), but the main bus station is located at the end of the main road, beyond the golden gate. Follow the road down and it is at the base of the hill. And open dirt lot. A popular and easy bus trip to take is to Thiksey Monastery.
Tip: Get a map of the town from your guesthouse or in your guidebook.
Tips on tours, day trips and hiring drivers from Leh
The launch point for trekking adventures, Leh is refreshing compared to other well-touristed cities. There are many travel agencies and over 23 hotels in town, but it still maintains it’s local dressing, rather than transform itself into yet another backpacker’s la-la land.
The tourist boom occurs during busy season, which is 3-6 months out of the year. After season, the seasonal work help retreats back to their country or region, guesthouses close up and the town must survive on local incomes.
While I could easily get to Thiksey monastery on my own, my time was short and there was much I ideally, wanted to cover much in a day. Day trips… For that, I needed others and a shared car.
I asked my guesthouse to let me know if anyone was interested in doing a two or three day tour to Nubra Valley. A paper went up on the office door window: “Two days in Nubra Valley for tomorrow, needs one or two more people”. That’s how they do it in Leh and this makes it easy for solo travelers.
Travelers looking for treks or tours should look for tour agency sign up boards, which advertise how many more people are needed for a shared tour. If they need more people to split costs with, they wait until the needed amount of travelers signs. Nubra Valley was one of those trips that also needed some advance time. Passports needed to be sent in for permits. (Post to come soon)
How to Get to Leh
There are two ways to get to Ladakh~ by bus/road or by air. What form of transportation you take is largely dependent on season. The roads are usually open during the summer months (May/June to September/October); it’s closed otherwise. Many travelers wanting to save money take the Leh-Manali bus. The roads were closed when I went, so I had no choice but go by air.
You can fly into Leh Airport and hire a taxi to take you into town, which is roughly a 8 minute drive. Indian Airlines has regular flights via Delhi, Jammu, and Srinagar. Jet Airways flies regularly via Delhi.