Lakakhis are fond of comparing their cuisine with that of Tibet and they have a point. A huge range of soups, whose names change whether they have been made with barley and stock, plain stock, fortified with hand-made pasta or mince-filled dumplings; hardly any greens and just a few types of breads – it is a high-altitude desert diet. Ladakhis themselves do not seem to think that highly of their Spartan cuisine: scour the restaurants in capital Leh for a single restaurant selling only Ladakhi food, and you’ll come away disappointed. Instead, you’ll find German bakeries, Kashmiri wazwan restaurants, Israeli falafel joints and places selling that international staple: pizzas, but little in the way of Ladakhi food.
The market area in Leh is steep, and where you hang out is a function of where you stay. Changspa is the highest area (altitude-wise) and Skara the lowest. Fort Road is the very heart of Leh town: it’s the road that is dominated by the superb ruins of the Leh Palace and the even higher Tsemo Gompa that dominates the landscape for miles around. The restaurants on Fort Road all have the great advantage that from their terraces you can see the Leh Fort. If you position yourself correctly, you can see the dun-coloured mountains outside Leh and the flat valley floors below them.
My advice to would-be travelers to Leh is to make your first holiday as long as you can possibly afford. The sheer magic of the first time trip to Ladakh can never be repeated on subsequent trips, so try and string it out for as long as office leave and your finances permit. Spend at least one day if not two, walking around Leh. It may have become increasingly touristy in the last ten years, but it is still a place unlike any other. Sankar is a quiet suburb, where the sound of bees buzzing is the loudest noise you’ll hear throughout the day. It is the highest point of the town, plus there are fabulous views all around and a quaint monastery in the neighbourhood. A walk up the steep hillside to the Fort is practically required by law! The two best hotels in Leh are generally considered by international travelers to be Lha Ri Mo (great views, especially from the higher floors) and Shambha-La (the best Ladakhi food in Leh). Both hotels are open only to their own guests, which is a shame, because the food in Shambha-La is in another league altogether. The best breads, cheese and doughnuts are at the German Bakery roughly opposite the Vegetable Market (there are at least two German Bakeries, so beware) and all the Fort Road restaurants are roughly equal, quality-wise.
Two all-day or overnight trips by cab is a must-do. I visited Pangong Lake, on the border between Ladakh and China and Tso Moriri, and both mesmerized me. I went back ten years later and was hoping that the magic spell was not broken. I needn’t have feared. From the roads to the stupendous views to the frozen-in-time villages on the way to the eternal beauty of the lakes, now immortalized by Bollywood, it is all the same as it ever was. Thank goodness for that.