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Ladakh, Jammu and the Kashmir Valley - When and where to visit
A stunning view over the city of Leh in Ladakh surrounded by winter snows © J&K Tourism
J&K has a varied climate due to the state’s size and its variation in altitude and topography. Jammu has a humid, subtropical climate with summer temperatures well into the 40s (°C); a substantial drop in winter sees lows just above freezing. The area receives monsoon rains between June and September, and annual rainfall averages 693mm for Srinagar, 102mm for Leh and 1,238mm for Jammu (which gets hit by the bulk of the Indian monsoon). Srinagar is also subtropical and humid, though due to its increased altitude (1,585m), temperatures are generally lower. Summer days touch a pleasant 30°C, but in winter there can be deep snow, and temperatures hover around freezing during January and February. There is less rainfall here than in Jammu, though the spring can still be wet, and we’ve been caught in storms and hail in September.
The climate up in Leh is dramatically different: it’s a desert. Winters are long and harsh with months of deep snowfall and the bitter temperatures can get as low as –28°C. There’s little rainfall here – just a few millimetres each month – and for much of the year the days are warm and bright, albeit cooler at night.
Over the last decade or so, however, Ladakh has experienced a marked shift in its weather, most likely due to climate change. Much less snow is falling, leading to concerns about the availability of water (though saying that, when we updated this edition of the book we experienced unseasonably heavy snowfall in mid-September). In the same timeframe, however, there have also been huge and unanticipated cloudbursts: in August 2010 four inches of rain fell in just 30 minutes. Floods washed away villages, as well as homes in Leh, and more than 250 people were killed. Further heavy floods (but without the loss of life) occurred in July and August 2015.
Visit in spring to see the tulip fields near Srinagar turn into a riot of colour © J&K Tourism
The state of J&K is a year-round destination: there are major attractions in every season, though if you want to visit a specific place or undertake a particular activity you will need to take the extremes of weather into consideration.
In winter Ladakh is only accessible by air, as the roads are closed by snow. Be warned: getting around at this time can be very difficult and most accommodation is closed. Nevertheless, this is the best time to spot snow leopards on one of the growing band of snow leopard safaris, as well as undertake the Chadar Winter Trek along the frozen Zanskar River, accompanying local teachers returning to Zanskar’s remote villages after their winter break. Ladakhi Losar, the New Year, is celebrated in late December or early January, (although the exact date is set by the lunar calendar), and the cold weather means that few other tourists will be around. The snow itself is an attraction at this time of year, as the wintry landscapes make for some dramatic scenery. Srinagar in the snow is a postcard-perfect scene. You can keep warm with a kanger (an earthen pot filled with hot embers, which is kept close to the body in order to keep warm in winter) beneath your phiren (a long cloak or robe worn in Kashmir), tucked up toasty warm on a houseboat, or use the city as a springboard for the ski resort at Gulmarg. The most developed resort in the Himalayas; ski passes, kit hire and lessons are exceptionally cheap and you can even try your hand at heli-skiing.
Spring is when the snows begin to melt and the alpine meadows erupt into rainbows of colour, with wild flowers everywhere you look. In Srinagar the magnificent tulip fields also come into bloom, and though the domestic tourists have begun to arrive, there are relatively few foreigners to be seen. Everything is lush, green and fresh, and the lower trekking routes start to beckon.
In the summer months, it’s time for trekking. The snow has retreated to the uppermost peaks, and the roads are clear enough to drive to Leh and even down to Zanskar. While Leh itself is busy, there are plenty of quiet retreats in the surrounding valleys where you can explore walking trails or biking and bridal routes (you can even ride a camel if you wish), and few things are more beautiful than sitting out around a campfire beneath the stars. Even the rivers and lakes look enticing in July and August. There are plenty of opportunities for kayaking and white-water rafting on the rivers of Ladakh, while to the west the lakes of Kashmir offer a variety of watersports, leisurely boat trips and trout fishing.
The greatest draw in autumn is the Ladakh Festival, which runs for two weeks at the start of September. It’s a wonderful celebration of Ladakhi culture and a prime opportunity to see traditional costumes and masked dance, archery competitions and polo. Come November the saffron fields of Kashmir are riotous purple; the crocuses are harvested and the saffron is dried.
If you want a challenge to pit yourself against, look no further than the Chadar Winter Trek, a six-day hike in sub-zero temperatures along the frozen Zanskar River © Siriwatthana Chankawee, Shutterstock
It is often said that a place has something for everyone, but in the case of J&K that is actually true. Thousands of years of history sit side by side with vibrant modern communities; spectacular natural landscapes ripe for exploration are dotted with all manner of architectural curiosities. Whether your idea of heaven is heli-skiing in Gulmarg or joining the monks for their early morning meditation, trekking along the frozen Zanskar River, white-water rafting on the Indus or simply lazing on a houseboat with a good book, you won’t be disappointed.
Buddhas of Kargil
Far less famous but no less impressive than the ill-fated Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, is the 7m-tall rock-cut Buddha at Kartse Khar. Dating back to the 7th/8th centuries AD, this statue was carved by early missionaries and the depiction of the body, jewellery and hair are typical of the Kashmiri style. Four other Buddha carvings, including the standing Buddha at Mulbekh, are also found within the district.
The Mughal Road
When the Mughal emperors travelled to their Kashmiri paradise in the 1600s, the road they took was far west of the current National Highway. Their route has recently been paved, making it an epic and accessible drive through the spectacularly beautiful mountain scenery.
At first glance Jammu’s Mubarak Mandi is a crumbling wreck, a pitiful place of neglect. Look closer, however, and this 19th-century palace complex has remarkable, wedding-cake architecture and is overrun with monkeys.
Trekking in Zanskar
The vast majority of trekkers head to Ladakh as the routes are more easily accessible from Leh, but it’s well worth the effort of travelling further afield to Zanskar. The landscapes are more striking, there are fewer people on the trails and there are fantastic opportunities for spotting flora and fauna, including the elusive snow leopards. Even in winter you can join local teachers on the Chadar Winter Trek as they brave the snow and ice to return to their rural schools after the winter break.
Meditating at Thiksey Monastery
Joining the monks in their early morning prayers sends shivers down your spine. The room, dark save for candlelight, resonates with sonorous chanting and we sat completely spellbound. Though other monasteries such as Hemis are better advertised, we prefer the laid-back atmosphere of Thiksey where you feel more a part of the community than simply a spectator.
Described by the Mughal emperors as ‘Heaven on Earth’, the Shalimar Gardens, or the equally beautiful Chashma Shahi, are at their best early in the morning. At this time you’ll not only be able to explore these divine gardens before the crowds but also see the mist rising eerily off the lawns and water channels. Heavenly indeed.
Houseboats of Srinagar
If you take home one image of Srinagar, it’ll be of India’s floating palaces, the houseboats of Dal and Nagin lakes. Stay just one night floating on the water and you’ll see why the colonial British hired boats for months on end; ride a shikara (a type of wooden boat unique to the lakes and waterways around Srinagar) among the lotus gardens and you’ll probably never want to leave.
There’s a certain draw to visiting places with superlatives attached to them, and Khardung La, one of the highest motorable roads on earth, is no exception. Yes it’s touristy, yes it gets crowded, but without climbing Everest it’s probably the closest you’ll get to standing on the roof of the world, and that makes it worth the effort.
Top adrenaline hits
• Run the Ladakh Ultra Marathon and prove your endurance at altitude
• White-water raft through the rapids of the Indus River
• Fish for trout in high-altitude lakes around Srinagar
• Complete the Chadar Winter Trek across frozen rivers to Zanskar
• Ski off-piste at Gulmarg, India’s top winter sports resort
• Horse trek to the Thajiwas Glacier
• Try heli-skiing at a price you can afford
• Sneak up on an elusive snow leopard on a winter-only safari
Thiksey Monastery is one of the most architecturally impressive buildings in Ladakh © suchitra poungkoso, Shutterstock
Your itinerary is inevitably going to depend on a variety of factors: the time you have available, how far you want to travel, the time of year and, if time is short, whether you’re going to focus on Srinagar or Leh. We’ve therefore suggested a mixture of options in the hope that there’s something here for you, wherever and whenever you’re going.
With just two days based in Srinagar, book yourself on to Chicago Houseboat to see what it’s like to live aboard. On the first day take a ride on the new gondola to the shrine of Makhdoom Sahib, then continue up the hill to Hari Parbat Fort and have a picnic in the surrounding eco-reserve, looking out across the city. After lunch pay a visit to the Hazratbal Shrine with its sacred hair of the Prophet, then return to Dal Lake via the Jamia Masjid, making sure you’re back on the boat in time to watch the sunset across the water.
On day two, rise at dawn and take a shikara ride to the floating vegetable market, admiring the patchwork of floating islands as you go. Buy some honey macaroons to keep hunger pangs at bay, and then return to land for a tour of the Mughal Gardens. Chashma Shahi and the Shalimar Gardens are a must, as are the tulip gardens if you’re visiting in April. Finish up your day with a drink at the Vivanta Dal View hotel, the entirety of Srinagar laid out at your feet.
If your two days are in Leh, prepare yourself for immersion in Ladakh’s Buddhist culture. Start your visit with a walk in the Old Town, climbing up the narrow streets from Main Bazaar to the LAMO centre for an introduction to Leh’s history, before continuing up to Leh Palace and then Tsemo Fort. If you’re feeling less than fit, or haven’t yet acclimatised to the altitude, you might need to take a taxi between the two.
On day two, go to the Shanti Stupa before breakfast so you can explore it before the crowds arrive. Drive back into town via the far older Tisseru Stupa, and have a bite to eat at one of the many cafés in Changspa. If you’re an adrenaline junkie you now have time to do the descent from Khardung La by mountain bike, or spend a more leisurely few hours exploring some of the nearby villages by hired taxi.
With a week in Ladakh, use Leh as your hub for exploring the district. Travel first to the south of Ladakh, visiting the monasteries of Thiksey and Hemis en route to Tsomoriri and the Tso Kar lakes. Stay in a tented camp, admire the reflections of the sky and mountains in the ice-blue waters, and take the opportunity to do some walking in the surrounding hills.
Pass through Leh again as you drive back north, continuing on to visit Phyang and Likir monasteries, where you can spend the night with the boy monks at their school and admire the impressive, gilded Maitreya Buddha. There are finely preserved wall paintings at Alchi and, if you have time, the lunar landscapes just before Lamayuru are a fascinating geological feature. If time allows, scoot down along the Nubra Valley, checking out oases villages, sand dunes and ice-coated mountain vistas as you go.
In a week you also have time to drive the length of the Vale of Kashmir from Srinagar to Jammu. Having explored Srinagar itself, travel to the relaxing hill resort of Pahalgam via the saffron fields at Pamore and the two remarkable temples at Avantipore. If it’s winter and Pahalgam is inaccessible, go to Gulmarg instead for a rewarding (and affordable) day on the slopes at the Himalayas’ premier ski resort.
The drive southwards through the valley is spectacular: the hairpin bends clinging to the mountainside are an attraction in their own right, if a little hair-raising. Take time to visit the stunning Sun Temple at Martand and, if you’ve not yet had your fill of horticulture, the Mughal Garden at Verinag. Approaching Jammu, the Hindu shrine at Katra is an important pilgrimage site, and quite a contrast from the Muslim pilgrimage places further north. End your trip staying at Hari Niwas, the former palace of Maharaja Hari Singh, sipping gin and tonics on the lawn overlooking the Tawi River.
Two or more weeks
A fortnight or longer is sufficient to travel across larger parts of the state and/or to do an extended trek. If your interest is primarily in Ladakh, start in Leh exploring the town and the monasteries between Leh and Lamayuru. Take the short (two day) trek from Lamayuru through the mountains to Rangdum and then allow yourself seven to ten days in Zanskar. Don’t miss Karsha Gompa or the 12th-century rock-cut monastery at Phuktal, the latter of which is accessible only on foot. In Padum there are superb Buddha carvings down by the river, which are unfortunately often overlooked. On your return, be sure to drive through the Suru Valley to see the Buddha at Kartse Khar.
The trekking opportunities in Kashmir are also under-appreciated, and two weeks is ample time to get up into the mountains and away from other foreigners. From Pahalgam to Sonamarg it’s a four-day trek via the Amarnath Cave, and your companions will be Hindu devotees visiting the cave’s Shiva ice lingam. For a quieter, tougher and majestically scenic hike, you could lace up your boots and do the week-long Great Lakes Trek. It’s one of the best treks in the Himalayas and yet surprisingly it is often neglected.