As you approach LEH for the first time, via the sloping sweep of dust and pebbles that divide it from the floor of the Indus Valley, you'll have little difficulty imagining how the old trans-Himalayan traders must have felt as they plodded in on the caravan routes from Yarkhand and Tibet: a mixture of relief at having crossed the mountains in one piece, and anticipation of a relaxing spell in one of central Asia's most scenic towns.
Spilling out of a side valley that tapers north towards eroded snow-capped peaks, the Ladakhi capital sprawls from the foot of a ruined Tibetan-style palace – a maze of mud brick and concrete flanked on one side by cream-coloured desert and on the other by a swathe of lush, irrigated farmland.
Ladakh was opened to foreign tourists in 1974. From the start, Leh bore the brunt, as busloads of backpackers poured up the road from Srinagar. More than doubled in size, Leh today is a far cry from the sleepy Himalayan town of the early 1970s. The provision stores and old-style outfitters on the main street have been squeezed out by Kashmiri handicraft shops, Internet cafés, art emporiums and Tibetan restaurants.
The abiding impression of Leh, however, remains that of a lively yet laid-back place to unwind after a long bus journey. Attractions in and around the town itself include the former palace and Namgyal Tsemo gompa, perched amid strings of prayer flags above the narrow dusty streets of the old quarter. A short walk away north across the fields, the small monastery at Sankar harbours accomplished modern Tantric murals and a thousand-headed Avalokitesvara deity. Leh is also a good base for longer day-trips out into the Indus Valley. Among the string of picturesque villages and gompas within reach by bus are Shey, site of a derelict seventeenth-century palace, and the spectacular Tikse gompa.