Asia luxury travel expert Lisa Sun charts a traveler’s guide to Ladakh, the Land of High Passes. Photography by Austin Mann
My journey to Little Tibet was a revelation of high-altitude desert drama, fortress-like monasteries towering atop hills resembling stone sentinels guarding the villages below. Located in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh is draped in a surreal landscape made up of steep mountains, craggy canyons, blue glacial lakes and green raging rivers. In this photographer’s paradise, the intense sunlight at this height produces amazing colors, particularly at sunrise and sunset. The people of this former Buddhist kingdom are determined to thrive against the harsh elements of Mother Nature.
Things to Do
At 17,850 feet, the Khardung la Pass is one of the highest motorable roads in the world and was once part of a major caravan route between Leh and Kashgar. Be prepared: reaching this high mountain pass involves a long, winding drive with dizzying switchbacks up and down the mountains. It's best to visit after a few days of acclimatizing in the Himalayan high-desert town of Leh. Hemis and Thikse are popular monastery stops, but I prefer the quieter monasteries of Chemdey and Likir, where monks shed their outer robes after prayers. The left-behind clothes, resembling coiled up pyramids, make for quite the odd sight on their own.
I took in a dynamic polo match, the most popular form of entertainment for Ladakhis, which can be arranged exclusively for Ker & Downey clients. It’s exciting to join the locals in cheering on the colorfully-clad players. I also highly recommend a visit to a local family’s home. Ladakhis traditionally lead a nomadic life, are dependent on agriculture, and are known to be self-sufficient and ecologically conscious. I found it fascinating to learn about the ancient Tibetan Buddhist culture, carried over for centuries from one generation to the next.
When to Visit
Despite its extremely short travel season — from June to September — visitors to Ladakh reach record-breaking numbers year after year, with no sign of a slowdown anytime soon. The majority of visitors are families on school break, and I suggest visiting in September once crowds head back to school.
Where to Stay
The Ultimate Travelling Camp operates two luxurious tented camps in Ladakh, with the main Chamba Camp located in Thiksey near Leh. Here guests can watch a polo game, take a raft ride down the Indus River and visit Thikse monastery during morning prayers. The other Chamba camp is located in Diskit in Nubra Valley, where visitors can ride a two-hump Bactrian camel, as well as visit a sacred lake and Diskit monastery. The camps make for a luxe glamping experience, outfitted with en suite bathrooms, personal butlers and private decks to enjoy the surrounding mountain and monastery views. Both camps are unique in scenery and activities, and they really are best done together.
For those looking for more casual environment, I suggest the cozy cottages of Saboo Resort in a quiet village outside of Leh. You'll find simple surrounds enhanced by a friendly staff and local character.
Purchase a waterproof phone case to keep your phone dry from the rain and clean from dust from the long drives on dirt roads. - Lisa Sun, Luxury Travel Expert