Prayer flags above the city of Leh, Kashmir, India by PavelSvoboda, ShutterstockPrayer flags flutter in the breeze above the city of Leh © PavelSvoboda, Shutterstock

Life in Ladakh centres on the mountain town of Leh, spilling out into the surrounding villages as Leh continues to expand. Most visitors to Ladakh start or finish their journey here, and the seasonal influx of both foreign and domestic tourists gives the area a cosmopolitan air.

Ladakh’s capital is a bustling hub with the rare combination of reasonably developed tourism infrastructure and a number of well-preserved tourist sites. If you arrive by air you’ll need a few days to acclimatise to the altitude, but it’s an easy place to spend time, especially during the summer months, and there are plenty of options for accommodation, food and entertainment.

The best way to get a feel for the city is to start out in the bustling bazaar and then climb the spaghetti-like tangle of streets between the bazaar and Leh Palace. The streets are far too narrow for a car to get through, so you have a glimpse into times gone by: men struggling uphill with handcarts laden high with vegetables; women baking flatbreads in ovens open to the street; and crowds of schoolchildren racing and shrieking along, excitable but good-natured street dogs in pursuit.

Most visitors to Ladakh start or finish their journey here, and the seasonal influx of both foreign and domestic tourists gives the area a cosmopolitan air.

Leh was historically a small trading post on the southern spur of the Silk Road that linked Tibet and Ladakh with central Asia, and more southerly parts of the Indian subcontinent with China. Part of Greater Ladakh, it was an independent territory but a regular battlefield for Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan forces from the 8th century onwards.

Leh was a relatively small and politically insignificant settlement when compared with neighbouring Shey, but the relocation of the Ladakhi royal residences here in the 16th century, first to the Tsemo Fort and then Leh Palace, put it on the map. The town’s growing prestige was demonstrated in its new architecture, and particularly in the gompas and mosques. Large houses were built for officials and the aristocracy at the foot of the palace, and these structures, many of which date from the 17th century, are the heart of the Old Town today.

The first European to visit Leh was the Englishman William Moorcroft in the 1820s, who came here en route to Bukhara, now in Uzbekistan. Moorcroft signed commercial treaties with the local government, opening Ladakh up to British trade, and ultimately published an account of his travels under the wordy title Travels in the Himalayan Provinces of Hindustan and the Punjab, in Ladakh and Kashmir, in Peshawur, Kabul, Kunduz and Bokhara, from 1819 to 1825.

After independence, foreigners were banned from travelling to Ladakh and the restrictions were not lifted until 1974. Leh began to expand at great speed, with both the military and tourist sectors investing in infrastructure development. Growth accelerated in the 1990s as tourists unable to travel in Kashmir headed for Ladakh instead, and many of Srinagar’s hoteliers, souvenir sellers and restaurateurs relocated their businesses to Leh.

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