City In the Sky

In the Himalayan town of Leh, extreme elevation keeps visitors’ heads in the clouds By: Deborah Dimond
Leh Palace was modeled after the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. // © 2012 Deborah Dimond
Leh Palace was modeled after the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. // © 2012 Deborah Dimond

Destination Resources

Getting There:
Air India offers flights from New Delhi, Srinagar and Jammu. Jet Airways offers flights from Chandigarh and New Delhi, and Go Air also offers flights from Jammu.

Be sure to book your clients a window seat: Flying over the Himalayas is truly an awesome sight to behold.

Getting Around:
While most hotels are near the market and city center, the attractions can be found on the outskirts of the city. Foreigners are not allowed to drive in Leh so hiring a taxi or driver is essential. City cabs are abundant in the market, and clients are encouraged to bargain.

When to Go:
Starting in June, the summer months are the optimal time to visit Leh. July and August are the busiest months as the snow melts and the Manali-Leh and Srinagar-Leh Highways become drivable. The shops and hotels begin closing down for the winter months during the last week of September.

Where to Stay:
The Grand Dragon is one of the only hotels in Leh with 24-hour electricity and hot running water. www.thegranddragonladakh.com

The sightseeing starts on the plane ride. Passengers gasp in awe as they peer out of their windows to look down at the tops of the Himalayas below. In the distance, they can see the curvature of the earth and a sky that is the bluest I have ever seen. Landing at the airport, you might not feel as if you have reached the ground. The city of Leh-Ladakh, India, sits at an altitude of 11,562 feet above sea level, which is more than double the height of the “Mile High City” of Denver — it is not for the faint of heart or those with high blood pressure. A visit to the city is best left to healthy travelers whose bodies can weather the effects of the extremely high altitude.

Plans for the first few days in this destination should be easy and relaxed to avoid getting altitude sickness.

Leh is an outdoor-lover’s paradise with options for hiking, river rafting and even a yak safari. For the first couple of days, travelers can take short car rides to see the historic sites around the city. Leh is also rich in Buddhist treasures, including the 15th-century Thiksay Monastery. Resembling a fortress, the working monastery is a maze of brightly painted murals and a treasure trove of religious art and monuments such as stupas (mound-like structures usually containing Buddhist relics or the ashes of the deceased), statues, thangkas (embroidered silk paintings) and an impressive two-story golden Buddha. When visitors arrive at the morning meditation room they will know that they have made it to the heart of the complex. The tall, dark wooden chamber is filled with large imposing idols and offerings to the gods. Other notable sites include the surreal stupa fields near the Shey Place, where 700 stupas dot the hillside, many of which date back to the 11th century, and the once grand nine-story Leh Palace that has fallen into ruins in the center of the town.

For those who want to climb the Himalayas but lack the stamina of Sir Edmund Hillary, a drive up the Khardung Pass, the highest drivable highway in the world, will do. Travelers can hire guides to drive up the winding and extremely bumpy mountain road. Along the way, passengers can spot marmots burrowing in the undergrowth and majestic expanses of snow and rock. At the top, visitors will find a modest tea stand, a gift shop and a sign marking the remarkable 18,380-foot elevation.

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