How I got Leh'd

Saturday, August 09, 2014

That's how we say "Hello" in Ladakhi :)
So we were finally at the heart of Ladakh - LEH!! Dead tired and yet excited after a superb roadtrip through Srinagar-Leh Highway, it was time to acclimatize to the 11500 feet of Leh. 

Day 4, 2nd July 2014, Wednesday : After half a day of acclimatization, we decided to walk out of Hotel Panorama (where we had checked in the previous night) and walk to Leh market. We got hold of a travel agent on the way to get Jeremy - our French friend's inner line permits for Pangong, Nubra Valley and Tso Moriri. Thanks to this post on, we knew Indians don't need permit for these restricted areas effective from May 2014. We do need to carry a valid photo ID nationality proof though.

Leh is small enough to walk most places. But our hotel was at Upper Changspa road and the market was quite a walk from there, but since it was downhill we didn't face much of a problem. The main bazaar was bustling with activities and there were more than the usual number of tourists around, considering Kalachakra was happening at Choglamsar from 3-14th of July and it was being presided by His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama.

We headed to Gesmo on Old Fort road for lunch (Highly recommended!). While heading out from there, we spotted the Leh Palace in the distance, nestled on a hill. 

While 3 of us headed back to the hotel, myself and the other two - Jeremy and Akarshan, decided to attempt a climb. This is highly NOT recommended before acclimatizing! 

We had to ask the locals to find a way to this former Palace of the King of Ladakh. We walked through the narrow alleys behind the mosque in the market. This was the old part of the town. We passed compact mud brick houses, built congestedly next to each other and probably forgotten by time long back. It was easy to find the way as there were signboards put up after every few steps. After a much zigzaging route, we reached a flight of stairs that led us directly to the palace.

We entered the ruined palace after paying an entrance fee of Rs. 100 (and begging for water there). The nine storeyed palace was built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 17th century. Most of the corridors were dark and spooky, but we somehow found our way to the roof. The views from there were spectacular.

Leh Palace

That's when we spotted Castle Tsemo and Namgyal Gompa at a further height. It was the highest point of Leh. We wanted to attempt the climb but it was our first day at Leh. But then again we were crazy people!

We descended till the start of the trail for Castle Tsemo and started walking up. We understood we have underestimated the climb after few steps. The climb was steep!

As we were finally near the castle, we spotted a narrow cliff protruding towards the right. We walked cautiously on the ridge till we were at its farthest tip. The view from there was breathtaking. We got a 360 degree view of the surrounding - Stok Kangi peak in the distance, the entire of Leh old city, Old fort road, Main bazaar, Castle Tsemo on higher grounds, the Shanti Stupa and even a distant mountain desert. There were thousands of prayer flags on that cliff, fluttering in the breeze and sending prayers to the heaven perhaps.

We then made our way to Castle Tsemo, also called the victory castle, as it was built to celebrate the victory of Ladakh over the Balti Kashmir armies in the early 16th century. Above the castle, is the Namgyal Gompa. The red temple at the lower level houses a goddess and the white temple above houses a huge Maitreya Buddha. The more we went up the views became more rewarding. Now we could even see the entire Changspa region to the northwest - the new part of the Leh town where many guesthouses have come up in recent times  for backpackers.

Reaching the summit can be quite strenuous. We walked through the steep steps of the Namgyal Gompa. After one point there were no steps, we either used ladders or just scrambled our way up. And finally when we were standing at the top point of the Namgyal Gompa, the feel was unbeatable. The 'Top of Leh' was conquered!!!  

Throughout the climb, we never encountered another Indian. There were few foreigners we met on the way up and rest were monks. We descended through a different route at the back of the Gompa, that lead us to a road behind the mosque. We soon found our way through the narrow alleys and came out near the mosque. We passed the Soma Gompa, as we made our way to the Main Bazar. The place was crowded with Kalachakra registrations going on. 

The Main Bazaar has numerous shops selling souvenirs like Tibetan prayer wheels, prayer flags, customized Leh-Ladakh t-shirts, woolens and what not. We were tired and worn out, so we walked to Changspa road in search of a restaurant called Bon Appetit. I had read about in on Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet and Outlook Traveller. I normally don't review restaurants but this one deserves it as we like it so much that it eventually became our regular joint for the rest of the days or nights we spent as Leh between our travels to places like Nubra Valley or Pangong Tso.

Done in Ladakhi minimalist architecture, Bon Appetit is probably the best restaurant in Leh, offering a panoramic view of the mountains. In fact, this place can give even a roof top restaurant of any metro city a run for their money. Here is an excerpt from Outlook Traveller about Bon Appetit - 
"This is as fine as dining gets in Leh. And before you think that’s a backhanded compliment, let me hasten to add that were we to transplant this sprawling wood and glass dining room with an equally generous patio for candlelit dinners to Delhi or Mumbai, with or without the barley fields and the craggy edges of the mountains in the distance, several high priests of haute cuisine would run for cover."
The catch is how to find this place. It is not to be confused with the Bon Appetit on Old Fort road, that is beside Dolphin Bakery. This one is hidden inside a lane on Changspa road, opposite Moravian Mission School.  

We reached Bon Appetit around 6 p.m. and sat outside relishing Kashmiri Kahwas. After an amazing sunset and the growing cold, we moved indoors - inside the glass - and ordered their thin crust pizza, the honey mustard chicken and penne with lemon butter and tuna. The food was delectable and so was their Jungle tea, prepared with cinnamon, cardamom, honey and rum.

We walked back to our hotel basking in the glory of climbing the top point of Leh and finding a place like Bon Appetit. The next day was a big day - we would be driving to Nubra Valley, via Khardung La - the world's highest motorable road!


This is the 2nd in a series of 7 posts documenting 14 days of our travel to Ladakh. You can also read:

Day 1 to Day 3: NH 1D - From Srinagar to Leh
Day 5 & 6: On the Silk Route to Heaven - To Nubra Valley, via Khardung La - a part of the ancient Silk Route.
Day 7 & 8: Speechless at Pangong
Day 9: 3 Reasons You Should Skip Hemis Festival 
Day 10: 
'Dolce Far Niente'... A Buffer day spent in Leh.

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