5 reasons to visit Ladakh in winter

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.

Kids1

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.

winter

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.

Lamayuru1

Lamayuru2

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.

Spituk1

Spituk2

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.

Hockey
(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.

Landscape1

Landscape2

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.

TGDL
(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.

TGDL1

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?

6 reasons to love Ladakh

You cannot visit Ladakh just once – the pull is so strong that if you have been once, you will want to go again. And again. perhaps every year.

I have been to Ladakh twice, and every year in season, I think about going again.

Ladakh is remote, bleak, for sure – but there is also a stunning beauty, an otherworldliness about it.

There are a million reasons to love this land and people find their own – culture and festivals, gorgeous homestays and guesthouses, trekking and rafting, local food…

These are mine, presented as a photoessay, since images do speak better than words in case of Ladakh.

1. The landscapes

I don’t think I have seen any land with more diverse landscapes, with all the stunning colours and dramatic settings to go with it. Mountains are a constant presence, menacing and protective at the same time.

sangam

I call this image chocolate chip ice cream…

chocolate

green

2. The journey

Although I have heard that the drive from Manali to Leh is one one of the best road journeys in the world, I have never gone that route, flying into Leh both times.

It has its own charm, an unmatched view of these mountains from the top. Some times you see blue skies and pristine snow, and sometimes only swirling clouds and grey mountaintops…

snow

clouds

3. The people

Ladakhis are some of the most cheerful, friendliest people I have seen, always ready with a smile and a Juley! The children are especially a delight to photograph, as are sometimes the shy women who open up slowly to the camera.

mother

grandfather

shy

4. The lakes

Less famous than Pangong lake, but Tso Moriri is still a marvel, stretching on for ever and ever, in the deepest shades of blue known to mankind.

Moriri

What can I say about Pangong that has not already been said a thousand times – inviting; blue, bluer, bluest; 3 idiots; tents.

Pangong

And the road to Pangong, that passes through the high and mighty (in a good way) Khardungla pass…

Changla

5. The monasteries

After the friendliness of the people, it is the allure of these monasteries that makes Ladakh so special to me. Some of the more popular ones are easily accessible from Leh, while others are well hidden – and some like Lamayuru here are set in dramatic backdrops.

Lamayuru

These wall murals featuring Buddhist themes are a common feature of Ladakh monasteries – I usually have a local guide to explain these motifs, which seem so startling at first sight.

mural

A visit to any of these monasteries is always a soothing experience, especially during prayer time, like here in Thiksey – or when the monks are engaged in other spiritual activities, like the time we came across four of them silently making a mandala, working at it for hours without losing focus.

prayer

mandala

Above all, they are home to some of the most delightful little monks, who live up to the fact that they are in fact, onlylittle boys, despite the severity of their robes and surroundings.

monks

6. The art of zen

And not being the adventure seeking types, I am happy to just practise the art of chilling when I travel, and there is no better place for this than Ladakh. Walking up and the down the Leh market road, sitting for hours at German Bakery chatting with other travellers, people watching at the village squares…

market

Buddhist

Hotels I love: Chamba Camp TUTC

There are those who, when they go camping, want to leave it all behind. And then there are those who want to take it all with them. And want to have it all when they get there.

I belong to the latter group. Love and fresh air may be enough for some; I look for fast wi-fi and cappuccino on call.

Enter glamping.

Chamba Camp at Thiksey in Ladakh is the new kid on the glamping block. This flagship property of The Ultimate Travelling Camp (TUTC) has thrown open its gates to guests for the first time this season. Yet, there is not a single misstep in the two days I spend here.

tutc

When I arrive at Chamba Camp, a small welcome team is waiting outside the reception marquee. Warm smiles, introductions, cold towels and sweet herbal tea are passed around. And then someone casually asks if I would like the camp doctor to check my oxygen levels. They are very serious about the acclimatisation process here, advising guests to take it easy on their first day at this altitude.

flowers

Niki — who will be my Jeeves during my stay — walks me to my tent. It comes with a four-poster bed, antique tea chest and comfortable camp-style sofa chairs. And there is a remarkable feel of solidity about the tent; think Baroque chandelier above the bed and gleaming copper sink in the bathroom.

tent

But it is the view that is the showstopper. As soon as I settle down in my chair on the narrow deck outside the tent, I know that I will have no problem with the whole ‘go easy’ advice. Even if I have already spent a couple of days in Ladakh, and am breathing deep and steady by now. My tent faces the Stok range, with a direct view of the snowcapped Stok Kangri, which keeps playing hide and seek with the clouds.

stok

restaurant

If the allure of a hotel or resort partly lies in the location, then Chamba Camp comes up trumps. The campsite sits in the shadow of the picturesque Thiksey monastery, a mishmash of squat ascetic structures cascading down the hill.

The monastery is a constant presence around the campsite, visible from various spots. One set of tents — including the presidential suites meant for families — opens out to this dramatic view. And if that is not enough, there are the dozens of chortens lining the property, towards the direction of the monastery. Chortens are powerful structures in Tibetan Buddhism, often containing sacred relics and artefacts. The ones near the campsite are old and crumbling, but I think they radiate a sense of peace, especially in the muted moonlight.

Thiksey

However, Chamba Camp is not just about the location and the views; this is a property with a purpose. I am curious about how the influential Thiksey monastery has allowed a camp to be set up on its land. Our photographer Sridhar, a Ladakh veteran, wonders if the chortens have been moved — just a little distance — to keep the campsite clean and pretty. Salil Pradhan, who oversees the tours organised by the camp, is shocked at the very idea; after all, they are the interlopers here on the monastery’s territory. Native alfalfa grass is allowed to sprout in profusion inside the campsite and locals are welcome to let their cattle graze on it.

While the monastery did lay down some conditions, Salil says that the TUTC promoters — a few from the armed forces — were always intent on giving back to the local community. The drivers, guides and the security staff here are all Ladakhi. The women tending to the flowers outside my tent are from the neighbouring village and always have a cheery “Juley” ready.

smiles

The monastery, in turn, has given the camp its blessings, with the Rinpoche taking a keen personal interest in the project. And although they don’t advertise this fact, a few senior monks drop in occasionally to consecrate the central prayer flag and have tea with guests.

Salil and his team keep coming up with suggestions on where to go and what to do. Me, I am happy to just read my trashy thriller (turns out the butler didn’t do it) and smile vacantly into the distance. They finally manage to drag me out for a village walk in the evening. And we head with our guide Dorje to his family home for a taste of Ladakhi hospitality marked by salty butter tea and juicy apricots.

It is only later that I learn that for guests like me — who like the active taken out of activity — the campsite itself provides enough distractions. There is a small archery zone, where I see chef Simarpal Virdi in active contest with the valets. Guests are welcome to join in or to head out to watch a vigorous polo match in the vast open space below Stakna monastery. There is enough adventure on offer — rafting, mountain biking, trekking — to suit all levels of fitness and interest. No? Then, perhaps an hour with the spirits at a séance with the village oracle. Or a cultural tour of old Leh, taking in the ruins of the once magnificent palace.

There is something I don’t want to miss. So we head out at daybreak, shivering slightly in the crisp mountain air, to Thiksey for the morning prayer. This is one of my favourite Ladakh experiences: the sonorous chants of the senior monks offset by the giggles of young monks (I call them ‘monklets’) bustling around with kettles filled with butter tea.

monks

prayer

pavbhajiBreakfast is a picnic by the Indus, a picture postcard pretty location chosen by Chamba Camp for birding. We begin with the usual suspects like fresh fruit, cold cuts and baked goodies. Just when I expect this to be followed by eggs, they offer pav bhaji. Even at that early hour, buttery pav bhaji on the banks of a gurgling river is a sublime experience. And I say this as a connoisseur of Mumbai’s roadside pav bhaji, plenty of heat and dust included.

breakfast

Chamba Camp is a far cry from the spate of new guest houses and hotels that dot Leh, with their golden dragon wall motifs and multi-cuisine restaurants. This is understated, tasteful luxury at its best. Sure, the meals are multi-cuisine but it is because chef Simarpal chats with guests to know what they want to eat next. From asparagus risotto topped with intense blue cheese to pan-seared duck breast served with pineapple pilaf, a surprise is whipped up each time. Just ask.

The wi-fi is a bit slow but then we are at an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet. And there is always cappuccino, served with jeera cookies and a smile (oh, the smiles everywhere).

The Ultimate Travelling Camp at Ladakh is open only for a few months during summer, after which the marquees are dismantled and sent to storage in Delhi. The action then shifts to Kohima in Nagaland, in time for the Hornbill Festival. Also in the pipeline are Kotwara near Lucknow, and Dudhwa along the Nepal border.

I like the thought that come winter, when Chamba Camp stays shut, the Thiksey monastery will still keep a benevolent eye over the empty campsite.

THE INFORMATION

Getting there

There are several daily flights from Delhi to Leh (from Rs 8,000 return); from the airport, Chamba Camp is a 30-minute drive.

Tariff

Packages from Rs 1,47,213 for 3 nights/4 days per person on twin sharing basis in a luxury tent (includes transfers from and to Leh airport, all meals and specific guided excursions).

***
The Ultimate Travelling Camp at Thiksey is open only for a few months a year – from June 15 – September 30 this year. Head there for a super luxury experience right in the shadow of the Thiksey monastery.

I had reviewed Chamba Camp at Thiksey for Outlook Traveller Luxe – click here for the published review.

Photographs on this blog were taken by me.

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