It's that time of the year when they say the road to heaven, the 474-km Manali-Leh highway, is thrown open to lesser mortals. Now, you'd have heard endlessly about those awe-inspiring barren mountains, the unforgettable bike trips from Manali, the lakes or those majestic monasteries from adventure seekers who've been there and done all this and much more.
But, Leh-Ladakh is also about its people, the warmth they offer, local football matches, ice hockey, local food and much, much more.
Here's our pick of must-have experiences no first-timer to Leh should miss when in the mountain desert:
1 Ride a scooty
Yes, you read it right. Royal Enfields or Avengers need not be the only bikes you can ride on in this cold desert. Try a scooty instead and see the difference it makes to what fun means to you! Some of the region's most popular places -- from the Shey, Thikse and Hemis monasteries, the Shanti Stupa, the Magnetic Hill, Gurdwara Pathar Sahib, Alchi village and others -- are not more 70 km away from Leh town and easily accessible on a scooty.
Believe us, riding one on the steep, narrow, zigzag roads of Leh is much more thrilling than hiring one in Goa or anywhere else. It's not too expensive either: You can rent a bike for a full-day for between Rs 800 and Rs 1,500 for a full day from any of the many rental outlets that dot the town. And, here's the more interesting bit: If you wish to ride to father places such as the Pangong Lake or the Nubra Valley, you can actually hire both a bike and a rider!
Mountain biking is another don't miss experience in Leh. It may sound a bit adventurous, but it is actually super fun: You can hire one for between Rs 500 and Rs 700 for a full day.
2 Local food
Cafes and hippy joints not high on your priority list when visiting a new place? Try local food instead. And in Leh, you'll never get tired of the fresh, healthy and delicious flavours the locals can offer you. Yak cheese interests you? You could try yak cheese pizzas and momos. Here's what you must definitely taste at least once before leaving Ladakh.
* Sku: Made from local wheat flour kneaded to make thumb-sized small pieces, it is cooked with water, and served with a vegetable broth. Similar to a vegetarian pasta stew, sku is helped by the incredibly sweet peas tomato and potato. It's healthy as all local vegetables harvested from the family's various fields are used in the preparation.
* Paba and zathuk: Once the staple food of Ladakh, paba is edible dough prepared with a mixture of roasted flours of barley, wheat, buck wheat, black Ladakhi beans and peas. It is served with Zathuk - a curry of wild plant called Zatsot, abundantly found in Ladakh's mountains.
* Chang: The local brew, Chang is made in a cylindrical porcelain pot by fermenting miller with yeast. Since one of the prime ingredients used by Ladakhis is barley, it is used in the form of roasted flour called tsampa, and in fermented form in the production of a homemade beer called chang. Tsampa provides energy that is especially beneficial in cold weather, and can be eaten individually, or dunked in noodle soup, yogurt and butter tea.
* Juices and jams: Fresh apricot juices and jams are also very popular in Ladakh. Fresh Seabuckthorn (berries) juice is also worth a try. Seabuckthorn is a deciduous shrub that grows in the wild, mainly along the Indus and Shayok Rivers in Ladakh.
3 Home stays
When in Ladakh, live like the Ladakhis. You could stay with a local family in one of the several villages near Leh town, and even at any of the more popular tourist destinations such as Nubra Valley, Pangong Lake among others. You can also experience homestays across several trekking routes in the district. You could get in touch with any of the many non-governmental organisations to help you find homestay options such as Snow Leopard Conservancy, Youth Association for Conservation and Development in Hemis National Park, Himalayan Homestays, among others.
How can a trip to Ladakh trip complete without white water river rafting in Indus? The season is between June and September when the water levels are high. You could experience the non-stop action of both Zanskar and Indus River in Leh with the exciting rapids. There are generally grade I and II rapids in the Indus. However, there are several route options. You can choose the one depending on your physical fitness and rafting experience. There are also options for week-long expeditions for adventure lovers. Going through the gorge, with high cliff walls towering above and sight of several monasteries on hilltops en route, is a unique and unforgettable experience. Rafting options can be explored through several tour operators in the Leh town.
5 Unexplored places
There's more to Leh than camping at Pangong Lake and double-humped camels in Nubra Valley. Here are some unexplored places you can visit during the journey:
* Alchi: If you don't want to travel a lot from Leh town, but still wish for some peace, then Alchi is the place to be. It is a village and monastery situated on the bank of Indus River 70 km downstream from Leh. The Alchi monastery is renowned as the oldest Buddhist learning centre in Ladakh. The village is different from other villages in Ladakh as it is lush green. The river flowing just at the base of these majestic mountains adds to the serene surrounding of the place.
* Turtuk: It is often called Ladakh's heaven on earth. Turtuk is about 205 km from Leh on the banks of Shyok River. It is about three-hour drive ahead of Hunder in Nubra Valley, where you will be greeted by Shyok, a turquoise river that snakes through the valley and crosses the Line of Control to enter Pakistan. At the end of this trail, towards the Indian side, is the tiny little hamlet of Turtuk. It was under Pakistan's Control till 1971. Predominantly a Muslim village, travellers can have glimpse of K2 mountain peak located across the border in Pakistan on clear days. It has unforgettable views across the patchwork of wheat and barley fields towards the serrated high peaks of Pakistan. Turtuk is a virgin destination for people who seek peace and an interaction with the tribal community of Ladakh.
* Dah and Hanu village: These villages are renowned as 'the Land of Aryans', and are settlements of Drokpa or Brokpa community in Ladakh. These villages are located about 163 km northwest of Leh at the confluence of rivers Shyok and Indus in Kargil region. As per the popular belief, the Brokpas were part of the army of Alexander the Great and came to the region over two thousand years ago. The Brokpas reside in five villages. However, tourists are allowed only in two villages - Dha and Hanu. Besides tourists, the villages also attract anthropologists. Inner Line Permit (ILP) from District Commissioner, Leh, is required for visiting these villages. These villages are also famous for scenic splendor. This side of Ladakh has more green cover. And the people here are racially and culturally distinct from the common Ladakhis. The community has a unique sense of dressing. Especially women make it a practice to wear flowers on their hats.
* Tsomorri and Tsokar lakes: These are the salt water lakes in the Changtang region, which is a high altitude plateau in western and northern Tibet extending into southeastern Ladakh. The place is a canvas colored with the blue-white skies, blue-green mountains with white tops, the calm blue water of the lake and lush green pastures. There are options for jeep safari as well, which will take you to remote villages around these lakes. There are several trekking options along the shores of Lake Tsomoriri and you can also opt for camping next to the nomads in their yak-hair tents on the banks of this incredibly scenic 26-kilometer lake, surrounded by snow-capped peaks. These areas are sparsely inhabited by semi-nomadic peoples. Tso-kar Lake is situated nearly 240 kilometers southeast of Leh. It is situated at an altitude of around 4,500 meters.
(All photos were sourced by Mamta Banga)