Leh is nested in a side valley just to the north of the Indus Valley. Until 1947 it had close trading relations with Central Asia yak trains would set off from the Leh Bazaar to complete the stages over the Kaakoam Pass to Yarkand and Kashgar.
As you approach LEH for the first time, via the sloping sweep of dust and pebbles that divide it from the floor of the Indus Valley, you’ll have little difficulty imagining how the old trains Himalayan traders must have felt as they plodded in on the caravan routes from Yarkhand and Tibet: a mixture of relief at having crossed the mountains in one piece, and anticipation of a relaxing spell in one of central Asia’s most scenic towns. Spiling out of a side-valley that tapers north towards eroded snow-capped peaks, the ladakhi capital sprawls from the foot of a ruined Tibetan-style place-a maze of mud brick and concrete flanked on one side by cream coloured desert, and on the other by a swathe of lush irrigated farmland.
Leh only became regional capital in the seventeenth century, when Sengee Namgyal shifted his court here from shey, 15km southeast, to be closer to the head of the Khardung La-Karakoram corridor in to China. The move paid off: within generation the town had blossomed into one of the busiest markets on the Silk Road. During the 1920s and 1930s, broad bazaar that still forms its heart received more than a dozen pony- and camel-trains each day. Leh’s prosperity, managed mainly by the Sunni Muslim merchants whose descendants live in its labyrinthine old quarters, came to an abrupt end the closure of the Chinese border in the 1950s. Only after the indo-pak wars of 1965 and 1971, when India rediscovered the hitherto forgotten capital’s strategic value, did its fortunes begin to look up. Today, khaki-clad jawans (soldiers) and their families from the nearby military and air force based are the mainstay of the local economy in winter, when foreign visitors are few and far between.
Leh has nonetheless retained a tranquil side, and is a pleasant place to unwind after a long bus journey. Attraction in and around the town itself include the former palace and Namgyal Tsemo gompa, perched amid strings of prayer flags above the narrow dusty streets of the old quarter. A short walk north across the fields, the small monastery at Sankar harbours accomplished modern Tantric murals and a thousand-headed Avalokitesvara deity. Leh is also good base for longer day-trip out into the Indus valley. Among the string of picturesque villages and gompas within reach by bus are shey, site of a derelict seventeenth-century palace, and the spectacular Tikse gompa. Until you have adjusted to the altitude, however, the only sightseeing you’ll probably feel up to will be from a guesthouse roof terrace or garden, from where the snowy summits of the majestic Stock-Kangri massif (6120m), magnified in the crystal-clear ladakhi sunshine, look close enough to touch.
With the mighty hulk of the palace looming to the north, it’s virtually impossible to lose your bearing in leh. The broad main bazaar runs north to south through the heart of town, dividing the labyrinthine old quarter and nearby polo ground from the greener and more spacious residential district of Karzoo and suku to the west. Fort Road, the other principal thoroughfare, turns west off the main street and then winds downhill past the taxi rank, theHotel Dreamland, and the arrival and departure point for Manali buses, towards the Indian Airlines office on the southern outskirts.
The bazaar and old town
After settling into a hotel or guesthouse, most visitors spend their first day in leh soaking up the atmosphere of the bazaar. Sixty or so years ago, this bustling three-lined boulevard was the busiest market between Yarkhand and Kashmir. Merchants from Srinagar and the Punjab would gather to barter for pashmina wool brought down by nomadic herdsmen from western Tibet, or for raw silk hauled across the Karakorams on Bactrian camels. These days, though the street is swash with kitsch curio shops and handicraft emporiums, it retains a distinctly central Asian feel. Even if you’re not shopping for trekking supplies, check out the provision stores along the street, where bright pink, turquoise, and wine-red silk cummerbunds hang in the windows.
When you’ve had enough of the bazaar, head past the new green-and-white-painted Jami Masjid at the top of the street, and follow one of the lanes that lead into the old town. Apart from the old electric cable, nothing much has changed here since the warren of flat- roofed house, crumbling chortens, many walls and narrow sandy streets was laid down late in the sixteenth century – least of all the plumbing. On palace definitely worth walking through the putrid-smelling puddles to visit, however, is the Chamba temple. It’s not easy to find on your own; ask at the second row of shop on the left after the big arch for the key-keeper (gonyer), who will show you the way. Hammed in by dilapidated medieval mansion, the one-roomed shrine houses a colossal image of Maitreya, the Buddha to come, and some wonderful old wall paintings
Lording it over the old town from the top of a craggy granite ridge is the derelict palace of the sixteenth-century ruler sengge namgyal. A scaled-down version of the potala in Lhasa, it is a textbook example of medieval Tibetan architecture, with gigantic sloping buttressed walls and projecting wooden balconies that tower nine stories above the surrounding houses. Since the ladakhi royal family left the palace in the 1940s, damage inflicted by ninteenth century Kashmiri cannons has caused large chunks of it to collapse. Take a torch and watch where you walk in spite of restoration work holes gape in the floors and dark staircases.
Southeast of Leh
Southeast of Leh, the Indus Valley broadens to form a fertile river basin. Among the spectacular Buddhist monuments lining the edges of the flat valley floor are Shey site of a ruined palace and giant brass Budda, and the stunning monastery of Tikse. Both overlook the main highway and are thus served by regular buses.
Matho Gompa is more famous for its winter oracle festival than its art treasures but is well worth a visit if only for the superb vies from its roof terrace. Further south still, either cross the Indus and rejoin the highway calling in at Stakna gompa en route or continue down the left band of Hemis Ladakh’s wealthiest monastery and the venue for one of the few religious festivals held in summer. To side sted your fellow tourists without spending a Night without spending a night away from Leh head up the austerely beautiful tributary valley opposite Hemis to the gompas of Chemrey and Thak Thok, the latter built arount a fabled meditation cave.