“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” ~ Marcel Proust
I understood the true meaning of Marcel’s words when I saw Ladakh in a completely new light, in its harshest but truest form. This was when the roof of the world was cut off from the rest of the world and was wrapped in a blanket of snow, ice and hardship
A visit to Ladakh in winters is a digital detoxification trip where time and space bear no relevance. A million emotions erupted as I stood admiring the frozen Ladakh’s incredible beauty. Like hundreds, my initial plan was to do the glamorous Chadar Trek but the creator had a better plan in store for me. On reaching Leh airport, I got the news that Chadar Trek has been called off. I was heartbroken but instead of whining about it, I decided to do an alternate trek, Sham Valley. Though the trek was fairly easy and not as half renowned as Chadar , it bought me face to face with the real beauty of the land, which is hardly known or explored. Ladakh in winters is an intimidating yet overwhelming experience. Temperature in winters drop to -30 degree Celsius and the definition of basic amenities gets redefined.
Why did I plan my Ladakh trip in winters? Well I take pride in calling myself as a TRAVELLER and not a TOURIST. I chose to explore Ladakh in its harshest times because I wanted to connect with the soul of the place and wanted to explore what is usually not seen. And I must say the reward was beyond anything that I have seen.
Here are 10 reasons why you should plan a Ladakh trip in winters:
1. EXPERIENCE THE REAL HOSPITALITY OF LADAKH: Unlike west, Ladakh is not geared to have comfortable winters. But it is the time when you get to see the genuine beauty of the roof of the world. The only way to enjoy this beauty is to acclimatize to the local culture and habits as fast as you can. Most of the hotels in Leh are closed during winters and the only option available are the frugal Home stays – traditional Ladakhi houses. The Home Stays are basic. Most of the time, you would end up sleeping in a sleeping bag or a mattress on the floor. The water pipes freeze and water (hot and cold) is provided only by bucket, not running, like the hot water in movie Kahaani. Bathing is a luxury, which no one dares to dream. No flush toilets. Only ‘compost toilets’— usually a hole in the floor on one level, where ‘excreta’ drop to ground level below, after which a liberal sprinkling of soil is deposited on top of the growing pile. Food is cooked by the local family and is mostly traditional Ladakhi meal – butter tea, kahwa, thukpa, noodles and soup served in common dining room with Bukhari.
Travel tip: Stay in a kitchen instead of a room for a warm cosy night.
2. GET TRANSPORTED INTO THE ICE AGE SETUP: Walking in the Bong Bong La Snow Valley was a setting straight out of ice age or a science fiction movie. Everything was frozen – mountains, valleys, waterfalls, river shores, and vegetation. With temperature plummeting to less than -35 degree and wind chill adding another -10 degree Celsius, it was nothing less than a dream. If you are suitably covered with at least four layers of warm clothing then there is no better sight than being in Frozen Ladakh. The Khaltse to Lamayru way is incredulously beautiful where you’ll come across moon land, frozen waterfalls and frozen Indus Shores.
Travel tip: Explore this area in a small group with a good local guide.
3. DO SUMMERSAULT ON FROZEN PANGONG LAKE: In summers, Pangong Lake acts as a teaser of nature’s craftsmanship. The brackish water plays with sunlight to produce different shades of blue. In winters, almost all the water bodies freeze, yet the effect that Pangong Tso creates is unrivalled. The tranquil, azure blue waters of lake become a thick layer of ice sheet on which you can play cricket, drive your car or even do a summersault. The temperature is around -30 degrees Celsius even during the day and hence nobody spends more than half an hour there.
Travel tip: Start your day trip before 7 am and try to cross the Changla pass as soon as possible. Diesel freezes at that point, there is no network coverage and seeking help becomes a nightmare.
4. GET HIGH ON ADRENALINE RUSH: Ladkh tests your mental and physical toughness in winters. Besides doing the world famous Chadar Trek, one can also do other fairly lesser known but more challenging treks like Stok base camp trek, Markha Valley Trek, Sham valley trek at a very cheap price like 10K. They are not at all monotonous and everyday presents a different kind of an experience. When in Leh, don’t forget to watch the Leh Ice Skating rink. From December until March, Ladakh lives and breathes ice hockey.
Travel tip: Don’t take trekking in Ladakh casually, train hard, acclimatize well and stay away from heated rooms.
5. BECOME FRIENDS WITH LOCALS WHO HAVE FREE TIME ONLY IN WINTERS: Ladakh has very short but busy summers when most locals earn their yearly living from tourism. During summers, they are extremely busy making money out of tourists (not from travelers). Nobody has time to have laid back conversations. Winter is a time when they are looking for company to talk. Soft spoken and polite, a smile is there to greet you no matter which part of Ladakh you travel. Kids have school holidays therefore are always on the lookout of playmates. Also, you get to meet very interesting and diverse variety of like-minded fellow travellers (not tourists) from across the world that inspire you in more ways than you can ever imagine.
Travel tip: Say Julley and strike a conversation with friendly strangers to peak into their local culture and make friends for life.
6. EXPERIENCE LADAKHI FESTIVALS & KNOW THE COOL QUOTIENT OF LAMAS: Winter is a celebration time in Ladakh. Locals have very little to do during winter months, so free time is turned into celebration time. Tourists and wannabe photographers usually dominate summer festivals. Winter festivals are of different league. Ladakhi Losar, Spituk Gustor, Thiksay Gustor, Stok Monastery Festival, Matho Monastery festival, Dosmoche all fall in winters. Many senior lamas visit key monasteries during winters. Locals come from far away lands to have heart-to-heart conversations with their spiritual gurus.
Travel tip: Have a meal with the lamas in a monastery. You’ll be blown away not just by the simplicity of the tasty food but also how tech savvy and worldly aware those monks are.
7. PHOTOGRAPHERS HEAVEN: Winters is a great time for photography in Ladakh. With barren land completely covered with white sheet, frozen rivers, frozen waterfalls, frozen shores, wilted tress, blue skies, no tourists interfering in pictures, lots of local festivals, Ladakh is a heaven for photographers in winters. If you can brave cold at night then you can have star trail time-lapse videos that will make your peers go gaga over your photography skills.
Travel tip: With frequent power cuts and temperature getting below -20 degree c, batteries drain out too quickly therefore carry lot of spare batteries, 10000mAh power bank and keep them in your jackets or sleeping bags.
8. BEST TIME FOR RARE LADAKHI WILDLIFE SIGHTINGS: As the harsh winters set in, most Himalayan animals tend to come down to lower altitudes, making it easier to spot them. Winters is the best time to spot the elusive “Ghost of the Mountains”, the Snow Leopard. While spotting a snow leopard is not easy, you will definitely spot lot of mountain fauna like Ibex, Blue sheep, mountain wolf, wild hares, magpies etc.
Travel Tip: Look out for the flora fauna map in outskirts
9. WALK AND SKATE ON THE FROZEN ZANSKAR – THE CHADAR TREK: Though it was my bad that because a natural calamity, Chadar Trek was called off but it is a great experience that one should have before it becomes a distant memory. Once the road from chilling to Padum gets constructed, there are chances that Chadar might not form and hence Chadar Trek won’t happen. Hence, do it before it’s too late. I am going to attempt it next year again. Will you?
Travel tip: Go via a local trek agent. Travel agents from plains have shallow knowledge and might dupe you.
10. REKINDLE ROMANCE IN GOD’S DEN: There is nothing like romancing in the coldest region of India. A kiss under a sky full of billion stars or a hug at 18,000 ft above sea level or making love in bone-chilling cold is something that you will not forget till the last breath of your life. You won’t need a chapstick or multiple layers of clothes when you have your special one around. If you don’t have one, then you will surely make one. So make the most of it. Go ahead and rekindle your romance.
Travel tip: Before expressing your love, make sure you are wrapped up in multiple layers otherwise be prepared to get a severe cold and cough.
Visiting Frozen Ladakh is like freezing time or existence itself. I discovered the undying spirit of Ladakh. I had relished every bit of the indescribable beauty of the coldest desert. No words or pictures can do justice to what I saw and experienced.
Still thinking to visit Ladakh in winters or sticking to a comfortable summer trip?
All I can say is – let go of the fear of cold and immerse in the insurmountable beauty of God’s favorite masterpiece.