Ladakh – The land of High Passes – is stunningly beautiful. Having completed the Stok Kangri Base Camp trek in Summer of 2016, we had set our minds on the Chadar Trek on the frozen Zanskar river. Nonetheless, the weather Gods played spoilsport and the trek got cancelled at the last minute. This, nonetheless, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as we got to experience the magic of Leh in winter.
Being marooned in a cold place
Leh, at the altitude of 11500 ft. is the gateway to Ladakh. With the roads closed in winter, the only way to enter Ladakh is by Air. On landing in Leh at 11 in the morning, the temperature as mentioned by the pilot was a “pleasant -8⁰C”. That day was one of the few days when the skies were clear and the planes actually landed in Leh. For the next 3 days, it snowed heavily in the region and all flights were cancelled. It was this weather and a few other extraneous circumstances that got the Chadar trek suspended for a week by the Government officials.
The extreme temperatures and the stark white landscape was what we had come to Ladakh for in the winters. We were happy to have received just that. Our delight though wasn’t shared by a majority of tourists in Leh. Most people who we met had either completed the trek and were stranded in Leh with no flights taking off, or were in a plight similar to us as their trek got cancelled. The result was a sombre mood amongst our fellow travellers. In stark contrast, the locals enjoyed the snow, fooling around and having snow fights with their loved ones. Farmers were happy, as heavy snow helps in keeping the soil fertile for the sowing season. A good winter also helps in improving the water table.
Exploring Leh in winter
Before arriving in Leh, we had read how Leh is completely closed in winter. We found that to be far from the truth. Yes, a lot of hotels are closed in winter especially those that do not have heating in their rooms. Yet, sufficient hotels and guesthouses with heating are open to cater to all budget and needs. Moreover, the Main Bazaar in Leh has the majority of the grocery stores open in winter. Even the restaurants – Neha snacks and Red sauce – along with other joints serving local Tibetan food are open all year round. We believe the recent exodus of tourists in winter for the Chadar trek might be the reason for so many establishments remaining open for business. It was a pleasant surprise for us.
Even while sight-seeing in and around Ladakh, the taxi rates are not substantially lower due to winter being an off-season. There are some discounts to be had but considering the exorbitant rates charged by taxis ( for eg. 18000/- for an overnight night trip to Pangong Lake and Nubra Valley ), the discounts seem minuscule in proportion. On the positive side, the local transportation i.e. the fleet of share taxis to ferry the locals in and around Ladakh also works during winter, and it is substantially cheaper to travel in them than in private taxis.
With the trek cancelled, we had 9 full days in Ladakh to ourselves. For the first couple of days, we stayed in the guesthouse to acclimatise properly to the cold and altitude. That, however, didn’t stop us from making day trips to the Main Bazaar. We got to see few ice-hockey matches, as there was a local ice-hockey tournament in preparation for the Guinness World record match in 2018 to be played at the highest altitude in the world.
Leh Palace and War memorial
Once we were properly acclimatised, we climbed up the Leh Palace and from there hiked up to the Tsemo castle. Even though the castle was closed, the views of Leh from up there were mind-blowing. We could no longer spot the Stok-Kangri as the mountains were shrouded in the veil of clouds. With hardly anyone around we had the entire place to ourselves as we soaked in the silence that was interrupted intermittently by beautiful Azan calls – The Islamic call for prayers. On our way down we visited the Leh palace, which too was empty. It was fun poking around in places that were so full of tourists in Summer.
The next day we found ourselves walking and exploring the parts of Leh that are completely closed down in winter. We took the Upper Tukcha road and followed it all the way until Shanti Stupa. Along the way are scores and scores of hotels with newspapers plastered on their windows, cars that were stuck in snow and dogs with their wise eyes lazing around on the walls. The roads were empty with not a sole in sight. It was as if we were walking through a ghost town. On reaching Shanti stupa we continued down on the road to the War memorial. Watching the Indian flag fluttering in front of the Himalayas covered in snow was a moment of national pride. At the war memorial, reading the stories of bravery and valour of the Indian Army one cannot help but be filled by a patriotic fervour.
It’s here, surrounded by the Himalayas, that we realise just how insignificantly small we are in the grand scheme of things. That, however, did not stop us from venturing further inside Ladakh in this inclement weather. Read about our adventures as we cross the Khardungla pass to reach the Nubra Valley as well as we explore the other monasteries around Leh in the next post.