Leh's wide street bazaar runs east-west. Together with the labyrinth of adjoining side streets and alleys, the bazaar is the center of business and shopping -- particularly for visitors who find the plethora of antiques shops irresistible. Locals tend to visit the alternative market nearer the Leh polo ground, east of the center. For a truly exotic and atmospheric experience, visit the Old Village, a disorganized cluster of cobblestone streets, ancient homes, and low-vaulted tunnels. It's well worth an exploratory jaunt, during which you should sample the freshly baked breads sold by local bakers. Walking northwest of the city (beyond the Women's Alliance of Ladakh headquarters, where you can shop for traditional Ladakhi handicrafts), you will quickly discover a rural farm community. Gone are the shops and eager sellers -- here you'll find only fields of green sprinkled with bright yellow blossoms, gentle streams trickling past squat stone walls, and small Ladakhi houses with little vegetable gardens; these days, there are also an ever-increasing number of guesthouses and hotels, though. To the west are the cobbled streets of the popular Changspa neighborhood, characterized by the number of guesthouses, restaurants, and laid-back marijuana-smoking travelers who seem to come here to hang out with each other. To the west of Changspa lies Shanti Stupa, a Buddhist monument most easily reached by motorable road. Inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in the 1980s, the large white stupa (commemorative cairn) was conceived as part of a Japanese-inspired peace movement to spread Buddhism throughout the world. From the vast courtyard at the base of the stupa you can enjoy matchless panoramic views of Leh and the rugged beauty of the surrounding mountains, which seem to stretch on forever. Looming over Leh from the side of Tsemo Hill is the nine-storey Leh Palace (Rs 100; sunrise-sunset), reached by following any number of pathways through the old quarter that stretches out behind the Jama Masjid in the northeastern corner of the main bazaar area. Built mainly of stone and wood with mud bricks and mud mortar, construction began in 1553 under Tsewang Namgyal, the founder of the Hyamgal Dynasty; it's designed as a miniature version of Llasa's Potala Palace, but has long languished in a state of disrepair, but reconstruction and restoration are well under way and will no doubt continue for some years. There's still quite a bit to investigate, including an atmospheric temple inside the palace, and the views from its balconies and windows are magnificent. A stiff climb farther up the hill will bring you to the Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, where the dangerous-looking ramparts invite cautious exploration; there's a small temple hidden away right at the top and at some point a young monk might just jump out of nowhere asking you to buy a Rs 20 ticket. Again, the views are simply awesome -- take your time and mind your step.
Back in the main part of town, make a point of finding the fruit and vegetable market, entered via an unmarked entrance opposite the Hotel Ga-Ldan Continental on Zangsti
The Great Ladakhi Gatherings -- If you're hoping to coincide your visit to Ladakh with a special event, there's always the increasingly commercial 2-day Hemis Tsechu, a colorful festival with chaam dances, temple music, and a number of sacred rituals seemingly put on for the enjoyment of the heaving crowd. Sadly, the authenticity of the festival has been seriously compromised as this region grows in popularity and Hemis is mobbed by tourists and stall-keepers out to make a quick buck. An exciting new, nonreligious alternative festival is the Ladakh Confluence (http://theconfluence.in), which premiered in 2009, and is set to become a highlight on India's event circuit. Held for 4 days in July or August (check the website for this year's exact dates), the festival is a celebration of music, art, nature and culture that promises some outstanding performances, as well as many workshops showcasing everything from Ladakhi dance and drumming to meditation and storytelling; there's a film lounge, outdoor cafe, nomadic camping site where traditional crafts are demonstrated, food stalls, and a number of chill-out spaces. While Hemis is a religious festival blown out of proportion, the Confluence aims to get people thinking about the environment and rethinking their relationship with cultural tradition. Even so, the lineup of events includes a momo-eating competition and plenty of pure entertainment. It's held on the banks of the Indus River just outside Choglomsar, some 8km (5 miles) from Leh; in 2009, entry cost Rs 5,000 for a 4-day adult pass, or Rs 1,500 for a day ticket. For a more authentic and spiritually meaningful festival experience, make a date for the annual Lamayuru festival held between late June and early July. Tourists are few, but villagers from miles around don their best traditional finery and make the pilgrimage on foot to join in some of the most enchanting Buddhist celebrations still happening today.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.