Hotelier Rigzin Namgyal fondly remembers a time when only the truly curious and adventurous made their way to Ladakh. When this region in north India opened to tourists in the mid-1970s, just a few backpackers each year undertook the long and arduous journey by road, over dangerous mountain passes from Manali in the neighboring state of Himachal Pradesh.
“They were invested in learning about our history and culture, our flora and fauna,” says Namgyal. “They were ready to get out of their comfort zone, and stay in local homes for that experience.”
But after a 2009 Bollywood blockbuster shone a spotlight on this region’s stunning landscapes—and several airlines launched short haul from New Delhi, Ladakh has been overrun by tourists. Almost overnight, guesthouses and tour operators sprung up haphazardly, without proper planning or regulation, taking a toll on the fragile high-altitude desert ecosystem.
Cradled by the Karakoram and Himalaya mountain ranges, this once remote Shangri-la—with its high mountain passes, turquoise lakes, and Mahayana Buddhist monasteries—has become an Instagram-able weekend getaway.
“Now we have more tourists, but they are not interested in what Ladakh has to offer in terms of culture or adventure. They just want to take photos at Pangong Lake or ride a camel at Nubra Valley, and go home without really seeing anything,” says Rigzin Kalon, who has built a boutique hotel on his ancestral land in Nubra.
Snow leopard conservationist Behzad Larry says that Ladakh has gone from being a land with subsistence farming, zero plastic, and dry compost toilets, to being an ecological nightmare. With noxious fumes from clogged landfills, depleted groundwater levels, and unprecedented flash floods, the damage to local ecosystems far outweighs any economic benefit to local communities.
But even in the midst of the building frenzy that is producing newer and larger hotels every season, there is hope in the form of ecolodges and boutique hotels, set up and run by people committed to conservation and community. This has meant a return to traditional architecture built using the rammed earth technique, and with locally available stone, and wood known to keep homes insulated in winter, unlike the modern cement and concrete structures.
These activists aim to preserve a dying way of life and direct tourist attention away from the obvious “attractions,” freeing them up from congestion. There is also a focus on imparting livelihood skills to young people, to halt the migration from small villages to already overcrowded cities like Leh or Delhi.
Kalon says that the training programs are often tailored for women, since “compared to other parts of India, Ladakhi women have more say within the family, and are the primary decision makers. So, if I can help the women, then the money [they earn] is going in the right direction, towards education and development.”
Where to stay
Stok Palace: The royal Namgyal family is still in residence within their 200-year-old palace, with a part of it converted into a boutique hotel with just a few rooms. With its carefully preserved wall murals and thoughtfully curated family heirlooms, Stok Palace is an excellent specimen of vernacular architecture, built entirely by local craftsmen. Apart from sponsoring the education of village kids, the family also supports and showcases traditional craft and culture in the form of art, music and dance, and weaving.
Lchang Nang: Translated as “house of trees,” this almost entirely solar-powered homestay is set inside an orchard in a small village in Nubra Valley. Owner Rigzin Kalon says their aim is to provide a complete ecotourism experience, and a glimpse into local cuisine, culture, and crafts. Apart from nature activities like stargazing and mountain biking, guests get a chance to visit local homes, have barley tea in their kitchens, and learn the nuances of Ladakhi cooking.
Lungmar Remote Camp: This wildlife camp is owned and operated by conservationists and expert trackers Dorjay Stanzin and Abdul Rashid. Behzad Larry, who handles their sales, says, “Responsible tourism reduces human-nature conflict and protects not just the snow leopards but their entire ecosystems as well.” With a conscious decision to lighten the load on the land, the owners have opened another camp in a neighboring village, instead of adding more rooms to the existing camp.
Ladakh Sarai: Tara Mountain Sarai, located in the wild and remote Zanskar Valley, is the latest boutique property from Ladakh Sarai. Building on the idea of “fewer rooms and a better experience,” owner Rigzin Namgyal has spread his camps across Ladakh, from mud chalets just outside Leh to luxury tents on the banks of Pangong Lake and within Nubra Valley. Namgyal affirms his commitment to water management, and is working towards zero use of fossil fuels across his properties.
Himalayan Farmstays: To experience authentic Ladakhi life, choose one of these homestays set up by the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL). You get to sample uniquely Ladakhi dishes like crusty khambir wheat bread and chu-tagir (noodle soup with meat and vegetables), while dining along with the family in the kitchen. Visitors can also help out with the farming on the small piece of land attached to the home. The network now covers two villages: Phyang, close to Leh; and Tarchit, a couple of hours’ drive away.
What to know
Spend a couple of easy days in Leh first, to acclimatize to the altitude.
Make bookings only through responsible travel operators like Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company, Roots Ladakh, or Frozen Himalayas, which work with local drivers, guides, hotels, and homestay owners.