If you think Ladakh, you think snow-capped mountains and cerulean lakes and picture postcard scenes. But then, you also think summer months, the peak season between May and October when the world descends upon this region. Have you ever considered a trip to Ladakh in winter? Just before you begin to freeze at the thought, let me give you some reasons why you should plan that trip right now – sure, it is not a holiday to plan at the last minute since you need to be physically and mentally prepared for it. But I was in Ladakh last week and I am saying from experience that given the right kind of clothes and accessories and the right place to stay, Ladakh in winter can be a pleasant dream.
The delight begins right from the time you land; since road travel from Manali or Srinagar is not possible, the only way is to fly in to Leh. And when you do, for more than half the way, you are greeted by sights such as this. There are no crowds jostling for space as you walk on Leh market road, no photo bombing when you try to take a pic near the Chang-La or Khardung-La boards (if they are open) and no dozens of curious monastery hoppers who zip in and out of the big monasteries on a tight schedule.
Here are my top five reasons you should consider a trip to Ladakh in winter:
1. Have it all to yourself
As I said earlier, this is the only time of the year you will have Ladakh almost to yourself, sharing space only with locals and a few other intrepid souls such as yourself. Imagine this, if you make a day trip to Pangong lake, you can be an Idiot all by yourself there (since it shot to fame as the 3 Idiots Lake). You can actually hear the monks’ prayer when you visit Thiksey early in the morning, and at Lamayuru, you get to see the moonscapes around the monastery in awed silence.
2. Soak in some culture
Although monastery festivals happen through the year, this season is when you will find almost only locals making up the crowd, which means significantly lesser crowd. I was at the Spituk gustor, the festival at Spituk monastery, which is observed with masked dances, and it was a wonderful experience. The crowds were waiting in excited anticipation when we went in and took our seats to watch the dances. It was interesting to see the kind of devotion the locals showed towards the monastery and the lamas who took part in these dances. Then there is also the festival of the oracles at Matho every February / March, when specially chosen oracles (through a lottery system) get into a trance and perform some breath-taking activities, like running along the ramparts of the monastery (blindfolded, it is said) – although I have never seen this festival myself, it is one of the not to be missed Ladakh experiences.
3. Try your hand at ice hockey – or watch a match
In the summer months, outdoor activities like polo and rafting are very popular in Ladakh – but come winter, when everything freezes over, ice hockey takes the place of all other sports. Rinks are created at every available place and local teams take part in these games with gusto – and several outside teams too land up to compete with the locals. Even if you don’t know how to handle a hockey stick, watch a match for a novel sporting experience.
(image courtesy: indianholiday.com)
4. Go in search of the elusive snow leopard
Now this can be a challenge, even for hardy outdoorsy types and dedicated wildlife enthusiasts – because the endangered snow leopard is one shy, elusive creature, and sightings are extremely rare. Looking for it means camping out in the open and sometimes walking for hours tracking its movements in the Rumbak Valley or Hemis National Park. But people who have done it claim that the snow leopard is one of the most beautiful creatures they have seen, worth every moment of the tough sighting process.
5. Walk on water (ice actually) on the Zanskar
When the Zanskar freezes completely, it is time for the popular chadar trek, which attracts seasoned trekkers from all over the world. The trek begins at Chilling and takes place over 8-9 days. The Chadar is counted as among the most challenging and difficult treks in the world, with places where the river is only 5 metres wide. I would never dare try such a trek, but for city slickers like me, there is stunning scenery everywhere, to make for stunning photo-ops.
And finally, a bonus reason:
6. Luxuriate at The Grand Dragon, Ladakh
Seriously, central heating and running hot water are luxuries in Ladakh at any time, especially so in winter. At TGDL, you get these and more, in the form of warm hospitality and large rooms overlooking the Stok Kangri. I had a variety of food experiences here, from barbecues at minus 15 degrees (think vodka and hot chocolate, jacket potatoes and tasted marshmallows, grilled sausages and mushrooms), to home-cooked Ladakhi food straight from the owners’ kitchens.
(image courtesy: The Grand Dragon Ladakh)
I loved the little thoughtful touches in my room, such as a lip-balm (a must, must for this dry season), apricot scrub and cream, plates of dry fruits to keep up the energy levels, and parkas for sitting out in the open and for long car journeys. When you are not in the mood for an outing, stay back at the hotel for a steam and sauna session, or get them to arrange for a session with an oracle, where you can ask questions about your future.
In short, the perfect place to base yourself during your winter sojourn to Ladakh, a warm place to come back to at the end of cold, tiring days.
Have you been to Ladakh in winter? If so, what has your experience been? Or would you plan to now, in the future?