By Air -- If you'd rather save time and get to Leh without the arduous cliff-hanging road journey, both Kingfisher and Jet Airways (Dreamland Complex, Main Bazaar; tel. 01982/25-0444; Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 10am-3pm) offer daily flights between New Delhi and Leh's Bakula Rinpoche Airport in the summer; you'll be touching down at Asia's highest commercial airport (3,600m/11,808 ft.). The disadvantage of flying in is that you may need to spend up to 48 hours acclimatizing anyway, whereas the road journey gently puts you through your paces. Flying out of Leh is definitely a good idea; reserve a window seat. Indian Airlines also flies to Leh, but these flights are often booked up by military personnel.
By Road -- Typically, you require two rather tiring days in a Jeep (or bus) to get from Manali to Leh. But for those seeking an adventurous road trip coupled with exquisite, endlessly changing scenery, the journey -- by off-road vehicle or bus -- is highly recommended.
The Ride of your Life: Negotiating the Manali-Leh Highway -- Nearly 475km (295 miles) of tricky roads, mountain passes, and exceptional roller-coaster scenery separates Leh from Manali. For most of the year, this spectacular stretch of road is closed to traffic, covered by thick snow. Even when the road is officially open in late June and early July, the danger of unexpected snowfall looms, bringing with it various risks associated with getting stuck in the middle of vast unpopulated areas with only freezing cold nights for company. Once summer has set in, a variety of makeshift dhabas and chai stalls are gathered in minicolonies along the way. You'll need your passport for a string of checkpoints, the first of which is just beyond the Rohtang Pass at the head of the Kullu Valley. Beyond this, you enter Lahaul, a vast Trans-Himalayan landscape dotted with flat-roofed, whitewashed houses built from sun-dried bricks. Sarchu, a motley collection of tented camps, is where you'll probably bed down for the night; you'll be too cold to complain about the limited facilities. You reach the world's second-highest motorable road at the summit of the Tanglang-La Pass (5,241m/17,190 ft.); here you will find a small multifaith shrine adorned by images of gurus, deities, and religious icons. Beyond the pass, exquisite mountains in a host of unbelievable colors compete with charming villages for your attention.
Your cheapest viable option is an ostensibly "luxury" bus operated by HPTDC (tel. 0177/265-2651; www.hptdc.nic.in; July-Sept 15). For Rs 1,600 you get an ass-numbing 2-day trip (starting at a civilized 11am) with spartan tented accommodations and dinner en route at Keylong; you arrive in Leh at 7pm the following evening. Occasional stops for chai and photographs are obligatory, but bring plenty of refreshments. Bottled water is particularly important because dehydration is one of the symptoms of altitude sickness. Garlic in any form also apparently helps. Jeeps and minivan taxis are pricier but represent relative luxury and the opportunity to explore villages and off-road sites along the way. Hiring your own vehicle and driver is an even better way to go -- it costs Rs 12,000 for the whole vehicle divided by the number of passengers. If you've hired your own vehicle, overnight at Hotel Ibex in Jispa, beyond Keylong (tel. 01900/23-3203; www.hotelibexjispa.com; Rs 2,400 double with dinner and breakfast). Don't even consider the 1-day minibus trips that leave Manali at 2am in the morning and arrive in Leh around 9pm; not only will your nerves, gut, and body be frazzled by the end of it, but you'll miss out on the awesome scenery at the start and end of the trip. Very popular these days are motorbike safaris that make the journey from Manali to Leh; an experienced operator is Capt. Raaj Kumar of Shepherds Realms, Camps & Adventures, who also offers 14- to 21-day tailor-made safaris (tel. 98-1871-2970; www.asiasafari.com; email@example.com) that take in wider explorations of Ladakh once you're there.
Leh has a Tourist Information Center, but you are advised not to waste your time there. Speak to your hotel manager or any of the many tour operators who offer various services throughout Ladakh. You could also check out www.leh.nic.in. If you're interested in learning more about Ladakhi culture and Buddhism, you can contact Open Ladakh (www.openladakh.com), which offers basic courses in Buddhist philosophy, not to mention "alternative" cultural and adventure tours through the region.
Altitude Sickness -- Arriving by air into Leh makes most people feel slightly knocked out, with headaches, loss of appetite, drowsiness, and disturbed sleep -- all early signs of altitude sickness. It's necessary to stay put and drink lots of fluids for 48 hours to acclimatize before venturing higher into the mountains. Monitor your body and health, and don't ignore worsening symptoms, which could lead to a pulmonary or cerebral edema. In Leh you can get 24-hour medical help for altitude sickness at Sonam Norbu Memorial (SNM) Hospital (tel. 01982/25-2012).
By Car -- Thanks to a strong military presence in the region, Ladakh's roads are excellent and the network of accessible destinations extensive. Although Leh has but one auto-rickshaw, it has as many as 1,500 taxis, with fixed rates to practically any place in the state, or beyond. For taxi rates and bookings, call the Leh Taxi Stand (tel. 01982/25-2723). If you want to explore extensively, your best bet is to share a jeep (booked only through a travel agency) with fellow travelers interested in visiting similar destinations; most agencies will even advertise shared jeeps on your behalf. Mr. Tundup Dorje, a prolific writer, is the owner of Overland Escape (Raku Complex, Fort Rd., Leh; tel. 01982/25-0858; www.overlandescape.com), the agent used by most hotels, and considered the most reliable in town; try him first. Note: You cannot rent a vehicle outside Leh if you want to tour within Ladakh.
Guided Tours & Adventure & Trekking Companies -- It's easy to plan your own outings and give the instructions to your jeep or taxi driver. If you want to deal with an outfitter, refer to the "Staying Active" section earlier in this chapter. If you are very keen on receiving expert information as you explore monasteries and other sights, then a licensed operator may be useful; use one of our recommendations, or ask your hotel to put you in touch with the right people.
Overland Escape should be your first stop for all kinds of adventure activities or tours through Ladakh. Also recommended is Yama Adventures (tel. 01982/25-0833 or 94-1917-8763; www.yamatreks.com), a small Ladakhi-owned company with a good track record; owner Rinchen Namgial (tel. 99-0698-7782) has previously worked with teams from the Smithsonian Institute and National Geographic, and puts together jeep safaris, relatively easy treks (such as the 8- to 10-day Markha Valley hike), and also more thrill-oriented experiences such as climbing the Stok glacier. Banjara Camps, although based in Delhi, is also highly recommended, and is the only outfit to use the services of a qualified geologist (Delhi office: tel. 011/2686-1397, 011/2685-5153, or 98-1064-5455; www.banjaracamps.com). For more leisure-oriented travelers, Banjara also conducts jeep safaris of Ladakh. In Leh itself, Rimo Expeditions (Hotel Kanglhachen Complex, opposite the Police Station; tel. 01982/25-3257 or -3348; www.rimoexpeditions.com) is a reliable outfit that undertakes a multitude of adventure-oriented multiday excursions. The company also arranges less hectic trekking expeditions, as well as jeep and yak safaris, and skiing, mountain biking, and challenging mountaineering packages for serious climbers. English-speaking mountain guides are provided, as well as all equipment, porters, cooks, and other staff.