Offbeat Explorations in Leh

After detailed visits to the popular and worthy sites of Thiksey Monastery, Shey Palace, Leh Palace, Stok Palace, Namgyal Tsemo etc etc, I had an urge to know more about Leh. After all, a place on the old caravan route to Central Asia had to have more to it. In summer there were so many tourists that I felt lost, thus came visits to Ladakh in different seasons.

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Do not miss this when you are in Leh : The locally made Seabuckthorn juice or ‘tsetsalulu’, shibshululu or Tsermand. It is made of berries that are full of antioxidants.

Winter in Leh was different, the loner in me felt like I belonged here. There was hardly anyone around except a few dogs. Alas, some historical sights were closed during the cold for lack of visitors. This post is an attempt to pen down a few interesting places to visit in Leh for the offbeat traveller.

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A beautiful looking door in Old Leh. A signboard outside this door suggests that it was built by Kashmiri craftsmen in the mid 19th Century, and belonged to the Residential Quarters of a Tehsildar.

On my latest trip to Ladakh in July 2017, since I had flown in, this was the perfect opportunity to find some offbeat sights in Leh on the pretext of acclimatising. It was a pathbreaking trip for the #HighestBloggerMeet at Khardung La with the #aageseright guys at ScoutMyTrip and OYO & the announcement of #OYOnauts initiative.

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A self confessed hat fan, I had great fun posing for a photograph with this quirky cool-looking headgear.

A List of Offbeat Sights in Leh :

Central Asian Museum

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The cultural and religious diversity of Leh in one photograph. A Gurudwara, mosque, chorten and Leh Palace as clicked from the top floor verandah of the Central Asian Museum.

Accessed through the winding streets of Leh, the Central Asian Museum has a glorious collection depicting the rich cultural heritage of Ladakh. I was distraught to learn that photography inside the museum was not allowed. It is a four storey building with winding stairs containing ancient photographs from the trade route, artefacts from the times of the caravan trade, unique rugs, traditional utensils used in Ladakh, age old manuscripts and basically an entire repertoire of Ladakh’s history.

Check : Into Unknown Ladakh – Turtuk

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Even the signboard is outstandingly pretty. If culture and heritage and history fascinate you – then the Central Asian Museum in Leh is a must go.

Entry : 50 Rupees

Donkey Sanctuary

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The signboard that had first piqued my curiosity : I’m sure this is one of the quirkiest among the offbeat places to visit in Leh.

In the cold winter of January 2015, I had starting walking to the Donkey Sanctuary but the locals had promptly told me that it would definitely be closed. It is a shelter for homeless donkeys; this quirky Donkey Sanctuary is a safe haven for donkeys that have been abandoned. Visitors are urged to visit the donkey sanctuary, and bring carrots for the donkeys to feed them. It lies ahead on the same road of the Women’s Alliance on Chubi Road.

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Cute donkeys come rushing in anticipation of carrots at the Donkey Sanctuary. The walk to this place passes pretty barley fields on the left side. Spot the Shanti stupa?

Entry : Free

Rock Museum 

To be honest, I didn’t even know about this one until I reached Sankar Gompa. 2-3 buildings away, a big poster hung outside an unpretentious white-washed building. I read ‘Ladakh Rocks And Minerals Preservation Study and Museum, Leh’ and was instantly intrigued. A local man’s initiative (forgot his name) has resulted in a fascinating collection of various rocks in Ladakh. It is a geologist’s dream place to be among rare rocks, minerals, and some even semi-precious stones. Thank you Johann for telling me about this place and the super company. 🙂

Check : Beatles Ashram in Rishikesh – What to expect

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It is possible to club a visit to the Rock Museum with Sankar Monastery. Also notice Kushok Bakula Rinpoche’s house opposite Sankar Gompa.

Entry : 50 Rupees

Zorawar Singh Fort

Fort Road is the lane where I’ve stayed most times when in Leh and it was a welcome revelation when a chance conversation on a hitched ride enlightened me about this place. This was the fort of the famous Commander-in-Chief of the Dogra Rajas, Zorawar Singh. In 1834, he defeated the Ladakhi forces and established Dogra rule in Ladakh. It is located at the end of the Fort Road near Skara in Leh. Zorawar Singh Fort has massive mud walls from the 19th Century Fort and is now used as a garrison of the Indian Army. There is a mosque and a temple inside the Fort. A trench filled with water used to signal entrance to the inside of the fort but these days is dry.

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History comes calling at the Zorawar Fort, dedicated to one of the most enterprising Commander-in-Chiefs : Zorawar Singh almost annexed Tibet after conquering Ladakh.

Entry : Free

Ladakh Book Shop 

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I always try and spend some time at a book store at a destination. Literature definitely enhances one’s knowledge about the place.

Located on the first floor close to State Bank of India on the cobblestone main market in Leh, Ladakh Book Shop has a distinguishable collection of books about Ladakh. There are rare books, trekking maps, books on spirituality, local guidebooks and other good books on Indian literature. It is located opposite the Chokhang Vihara in the main market, Leh.

Exploring Heritage on a walk in Old Leh

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Stumble upon hidden delights such as these in the forgotten old part of Leh.

Also check : A lost treasure – The biggest home in Kumaon

Just a left turn from Jama Masjid in Leh, is the fascinating old town of Leh. It is a maze of narrow alleys with chortens and mane walls, interspersed with ancient houses constructed of sun-baked bricks. This area gives a great insight into the architectural heritage and history of Ladakh and really makes it feel like a 16th Century Kingdom. Some of the buildings in the old town were damaged during the Leh flash floods of 2010 and a few of the crumbling ones are making way for new constructions. It is definitely worthwhile to stroll in these lanes with stunning views as the Leh Palace looms large to your left.

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Like some famous poet wrote : ‘What is this life if full of care, you have no time to stand and stare.’ Pretty windows and prettier flowers against the azure blue skies on the heritage walk in Leh.

Local Ladakhi /Tibetan Food in Leh 

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Timokh being made at a homestay in Rumbak in Markha Valley, Ladakh.

While there are cafés dime a dozen in Leh, it makes sense to ditch the popular ones on Changspa Road and head to either a local eatery or try local food at your homestay. Remember Ladakhi food is not only about Momos, Thukpa and Butter tea. Some of the names of Ladakhi dishes to be tried are Kothay, Aloo Phing, Khambir, Thuksing soup, Tsampa, Chaang, Gyathuk, Tenthuk, Shaptak, Sha Bhalay, Timokh, Skiu, Paba Thukpa, Chutagi. Good luck 🙂

More details here : Top Cafés and Restaurants in Leh

Women’s Alliance

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If you are lucky, then a fine pashmina shawl can be yours for as little as 4000 Rupees, at the Women’s Alliance in Leh.

Pashmina wool or pashm has been Ladakh’s greatest asset for centuries and also the cause of its downfall. The 1834 attack by Zorawar Singh was to secure the entire Pashmina wool trade that was making its way to Kashmir for further processing. Almost 100 percent of the wool gathered in Ladakh lands up in Kashmir for weaving the famous pashmina shawl. The Women’s Alliance (Also called Old Women’s Alliance) is a Ladakhi co-operative that is producing pashmina shawls in Ladakh itself. Apart from this, the Women’s Alliance is also involved in a lot of cultural activities, medical camps, volunteering and handicraft skill activities. Their main office is on Chubi Road – on the way to Sankar Monastery.

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Divine evening light as seen through the poplar trees somewhere between Women’s Alliance and Donkey Sanctuary.

Sankar Monastery (Also called Samkar Gompa)

While the tourist itineraries will urge you to race between the Buddhist sites and see as many monasteries as you can, taking it slow is exactly what I like to do. The little known Sankar Monastery gives one ample time in taking time to chat with the monks, or even share a cup of butter tea with them. Away from the crowds, the path to Sankar Monastery passes through green fields and small lanes. It is a Gelugpa monastery with beautiful bright red doors and it is quite possible that you are the only visitors at a given point of time.

Check : Leh-Ladakh : Amalgamation of Cultures

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Brilliant red doors at Sankar Monastery. Tagging the #DoorsofIndia project, that I’m involved in.

Entry : 30 Rupees

Dry Fruit Sellers near the Main Market

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Colourful dried apricots and other dry fruits for sale in Leh.

Although with the increasing footfall of tourists, things in Leh are not as they used to be – still, one of the most charming and offbeat things to do in Leh is to sit by one of these dry fruit sellers and watch the world go by. On sale are almonds, dried apples, dried apricots, apricot kernels (that are known to have cancer-fighting properties), local apricot oil, walnut oil and hordes of other products. Most of these old men and women are from around the valleys near Khaltse and will love sharing a good laugh over random conversations. After all, the magic of journeys lies in slow travelling to the soul of a place and feeling one with the locals.

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A dry fruit seller with distinctly Central Asian features. He’s very affable and likes chatting up!

 

Ice Hockey in Upper Karzoo – if winter

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Prepare to get the chills while you watch India’s best players of ice hockey perform in Leh in the winter months.

This may not be relevant for summer, but if you are in Ladakh in the cold winters then head to the Ice Hockey Stadium on Upper Karzoo road after the usual acclimatisation time of 36 to 48 hours. A tournament is also held and teams from countries like Canada and USA are also there to take part in the competition. Make a whole lot of local friends in Ladakh while you are one of the very few outsiders to see this! The Ladakhis take their ice hockey quite seriously and one can see kids playing it at most frozen water bodies around Leh and even in some remote parts of Ladakh.

Check : Practical tips for winter travel in Ladakh

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Wouldn’t that be a style statement for the ladies? The finest in Ladakhi fashion for hardly 1500 Rupees. A sharp eye is bound to find offbeat stuff like this even in the crowded Leh market.

Chai Lane near Polo Ground

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This chai lane is on the way to the DC office near the Polo Ground. So whenever you are going to get your permits sorted, spend some time here for the uncluttered local feel.

Kashmiri Nun Chai, Kahwa, Tibetan Butter Tea, Milk tea, black tea and perhaps other kinds of tea too with a variety of locally baked breads is on offer in this tiny lane. Prepared to sit on crowded wooden tables, with some of Leh’s oldies and get regaled listening to lost stories of nostalgia. It doesn’t get any more rustic than this.

Fond of chai? : Hello from the Coolest Chai Café in India

Datun Sahib Tree

The legend about this place is ‘A man once offered a branch to the Guru for brushing his teeth. The Guruji used one part for brushing and set the other part into the ground. This grew into a huge tree in an area which had no trees hitherto.’ The Sikhs consider it very sacred as they see it as a manifestation of Guru Nanak Ji.

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Winding alleys in old part of Leh. Datun Sahib Gurudwara’s tree can be seen right outside the exit of Central Asian Museum.

This tree was the base for the establishment of the Gurudwara – Guru Nanak Datun Sahib. He is believed to have visited this place in the year 1517. Datun Sahib tree is highly respected by all religions in Ladakh, including Buddhists and Muslims for its sacredness & also because Guru Nanak spread the message of truth, peace and love. The Buddhists believe that the tree grew magically from the stick of Staksang Raspa (who was a guru of Ladakh’s king Sengge Namgyal).

Hitchhiking in a truck : Stories from Nakee La

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Just after your are done seeing Gurudwara Datun Sahib, as you walk ahead both sides of the road are lined with small shops of Kashmiri bakers. Try the sweet bread with some butter and Kashmiri nun chai.

Munshi Mansion & Gyaoo House 

In the maze of tunnels after crossing the Lala Art Café on the left, one can continue to make the uphill climb to the Leh Palace. There are a few signboards with LAMO written on them. The path to the Palace leads one to the reconstructed 300 year old home by the name of Munshi Mansion. Earlier, it was the residence of the Ladakhi royal secretary, but fell into disuse after the King Tsepal Namgyal was sent away to Stok in 1834. It has been converted into a museum with a gallery of photographs in various rooms. An old room inside the Munshi Mansion now houses the office of Lamo Arts Centre. Views from the windows show an expansive landscape of Leh to the visitor. It is a place worthy of a visit to see an original Ladakhi house from a bygone era. Both LOTI (Ladakh Old Town Initiative) and Lamo are striking to do excellent work in Leh with regards to conservation and restoration of old architecture.

Entry : 100 Rupees

Check : Top Ten Spiti Experiences

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Scene from the courtyard of Munshi Mansion. It sits directly beneath the Leh Palace and has been painstakingly restored by Lamo.

Most of these places are convenient to explore on a walk if one is staying in a central area of Leh. I stayed at the OYO Rooms Leh and had a fabulous time walking around exploring these gems in the high altitude capital.

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Another one added to the list of ‘gorgeous places I’ve worked from’! View from the OYO Rooms property where I stayed in Leh.

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