A winter vacation in Ladakh is not for the faint-hearted, but the rewards for answering the siren call of the extreme landscape are many. By Gustasp and Jeroo Irani
There was a time when winter in Ladakh meant that the snow-bound, northern-most Union Territory of India would be virtually cut off from the rest of the country, from October to April. In that hushed high-altitude desert, seemingly plucked out of the Ice Age, the land would then breathe a sigh of relief. Ladakhis would reclaim their own starkly beautiful world from zooming bikers and throngs of wayfarers who descended in summer, in search of the country’s once-hidden Shangri-La.
No longer! Ladakh in winter is the new entry on the bucket list of fit and feisty travellers, and thrill junkies looking for adventures of the gutsy kind. Winter tourism has come of age in Ladakh, with the young and the restless heading there to track the elusive snow leopard, watch ice hockey tournaments, study calligraphy at a monastery, visit serene gompas, trek on frozen rivers, or just kick back at a centrally-heated hotel in Leh while gazing at the snow-caked Himalayas. If you can handle temperatures as low as -30°C and heights of over 3,000 metres, Ladakh in winter could be a revelation.
TRACK THE GREY GHOST
Our SUV bumped across spaghetti-thin, ravine-hugging roads, above which the craggy peaks of the Trans Himalayas reared like the jagged teeth of a dragon. Whitewashed monasteries teetered on mountain ledges, secret and shuttered against the harsh winds of winter. We had left behind the centrally-heated, luxurious confines of our hotel, The Grand Dragon Ladakh, located in the main town of Leh, and were now driving on ice-slicked roads to the Ulley Chhu valley, west of Leh. This valley is one of the top spots for tracking the snow leopard, or the ‘grey ghost’ as it is dubbed in these parts.
The Ulley Chhu valley is said to house around 12 snow leopards that co-exist with the ibex, urial (the smallest wild sheep in the world), and bearded vultures. Once reviled by local villagers for taking off with their livestock, the snow leopard today is revered as it draws tourists who come from distant lands for a glimpse of the elusive big cat, despite the region’s punishing winters. When we arrived at the Snow Leopard Lodge in Ulley, draped in the isolation that comes from being a hamlet of just six households, we felt like we had strayed onto another planet. Yes, Ulley is just a two-hour drive from Leh, and is a scattering of mud-brick houses bedecked with prayer flags and roofs stacked with hay. However, it exudes an undeniable charm. Ensconced in an arid hollow at a dizzying height of 3,810 metres (12,500 feet), the lodge offered basic comforts like gas and kerosene bukharis (heaters), and mountains of quilts to snuggle into at night.
Yet, we often felt pulverised by the icy winds of winter, and the rarefied air sometimes left us breathless. But the grey ghost beckoned, and our days passed scanning the horizon for the handsome feline. Often, we joined the trackers, led by Tchewang Norbu, head tracker and local legend, who positioned themselves on a ridge above the lodge with their telescopes. Norbu and his team would wake up at the crack of dawn, to scan virtually trackless snow for leopard scat, pug marks, and other tell-tale signs that the big cat had been loping around, looking for prey the night before.
Then, they got word that a bloody kill lay on a ridge, and the snow leopard would stroll up soon to claim it. Our hearts beat rapidly, as our car crunched over hard icy roads to the spot where the trackers had figured the feline would make an appearance. Way below, the Indus, frozen in parts, flowed like a jade-green ribbon through a deep brown gorge that seemed scarred and raked by a giant’s finger nails. And then there he was, on a high ridge, strutting like a prima donna, dragging his long furry tail like a bridal trail. The snow leopard seemed unaware of our presence, our awe, and our clicking cameras. As we gazed up at him through the telescopes set up for the purpose, he yawned, exposing his fearsome fangs ready to tear into the remains of his kill, which he had relished for over a week. We watched from a distance, and shivered as much from the -20° C temperature, as from the sheer wonder that such a fearsome creature was so close at hand.
As dusk mantled the ridge like a curtain does a stage, the snow leopard melted away and seemed to become a fleeting mirage. We continued our vigil for the next few days, sitting on trestle chairs facing snow-stunned ridges above our lodge. Proud ibexes strolled by sporting magnificent horns, a golden eagle swooped up in the blue sky, while urials high stepped across the white canvas, fearless yet vulnerable. On our last day, we drove farther afield and had lunch set up in the icy wilderness. As we took in the surreal setting, we realised why the majestic beast made this icy wilderness its home.
That winter in Ladakh, all we wanted to do was snuggle in bed and gaze at the sun-kissed Stok Kangri range that unfolded like a giant scroll outside the large windows of our room at The Grand Dragon Ladakh. But the thought of attending an early morning prayer service at Thiksay Monastery, located 19 kilometres east of Leh, was compelling. On arrival, we were greeted by the glorious sight of a whitewashed monastery that seemed to tumble down the mountainside like a river frozen mid-flow. We puffed up steep steps to a terrace, where two red-robed monks stood holding long curved metal trumpets. Around us was an icy unforgiving world, but there was sublime spirituality too. The monks blew the trumpets and then ornate conch shells, to signal the dawn of life and the beginning of time. Later, there was chanting in a red-pillared prayer hall, where a large statue of the Buddha seemed to bless the congregation.
Other such treasures of Ladakh are within easy reach in Leh. We checked out the iconic Leh Palace and Shanti Stupa (built in 1991). The nine-storey Leh Palace faintly resembles Lhasa’s Potala Palace and has been deserted since 1846, when the royals were dethroned in a coup and moved to Stok Palace. A dusty path from the palace leads to the 15th century Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, overlooking the old quarter of Leh. The next morning, we were on our way to the monasteries of Likhir and Alchi, two hours’ drive from Leh, past pot-bellied mountains canopied by blue skies. Likhir Monastery was deserted, but its scenic setting and a soaring gilded statue of the Buddha, rising above the white-washed monastery was an unforgettable sight. We, then, headed for Alchi, driving along narrow roads, bordered with mountains that seemed to press down on us. We soon discovered that the region’s oldest monastery is located in the midst of charming village homes shaded by apricot trees. Once inside the 10th-century complex, we were riveted by the sight of some of the richest and finest collections of paintings and giant Buddha statues in the threestorey-high Sumstek Temple and two other temples. Hemis, Ladakh’s most famous and largest monastic complex, is located 45 kilometres from Leh and flares with colours during the post-winter Hemis Festival. But in winter, it wears a forlorn look, snuggling in a hidden valley of poplars. In that bone-chilling season, its magnificent central courtyard and
buildings were devoid of life, but for the sight of a solitary red-robed figure walking wearily across ankle-deep snow. He told us that many of his spiritual soulmates were meditating in caves in the mountains. We mentally applauded the fortitude of those monks.
Named after the famous monastery of Ladakh, Hemis Gompa, Hemis National Park is home to almost 11 species of fauna, and turns surreal in winters. Spot snow leopards, bharals, Eurasian brown bear, Tibetan wolf, red fox, and great Tibetan sheep on a trip too this high-altitude national park.
One snowy evening, we met a resident monk from Stok Monastery, located on the outskirts of Leh. Our meeting happened in the warmth of our hotel. He told us that he was the second son of his parents and was, according to tradition, given to the monastery to acquire an education. In earlier times, when there were few, if any, schools in the region, the second-born son was the chosen one— the one member of the family who would get a proper education.
The hotel had invited the monk to share with guests his knowledge of the Tibetan script, in which the sacred Buddhist scriptures are preserved. He told us how, in the days of yore, the Tibetan language did not have a script and the scriptures had to be committed to memory. It was in the seventh century, that a wise Tibetan monk selected three of his wards and bade them to travel to India and return with an alphabet system. Two of the monks could not endure the heat of the plains and returned to Tibet. The third, Thonmi Sambhota, was more resilient; he stayed on and created the Tibetan alphabet. The gentle monk got down to sharing it with us. He was all smiles as we picked up old-fashioned fountain pens and scribbled our names in Tibetan on art paper.
WATCH A GAME OF ICE HOCKEY
In winter, frozen lakes and ponds become natural skating and ice hockey rinks. We watched as locals brandished hockey sticks and skimmed the smooth icy surface with the grace of ballerinas. Karzoo Zing is the most popular ice-hockey rink in Leh, and the dramatic setting makes watching a game, a tournament, a friendly match, or just skaters tracing lazy patterns on ice, a delight. The rinks are enfolded in the embrace of snow-crusted mountains and spindly poplar trees, allowing spectators and players to revel in nature’s bounty.
ATTEMPT THE CHADAR TREK
The demanding 105-kilometre Chadar Trek along the River Zanskar gorge is a popular winter trekking trail for thrill seekers who walk 16 kilometres per day to cover it. One has to be super fit and very well clad to do the 14-day trek. One may also opt for a shorter eight-day, 60-kilometre version of the trek, which is by no means less demanding.
TUCK INTO A LADAKHI FEAST
One of the pleasures of winter in Ladakh is slurping steaming hot thukpa, or noodle soup that comes in vegetarian and non-vegetarian variants. We savoured it at Zasgyath, the restaurant at The Grand Dragon Hotel, which serves Ladakhi fare with the most stupendous views of the mountains. Try skew or sku—wheat dough dumplings that swim in a vegetable or meat-based broth. Feeling peckish? Try the steamed mutton momos with butter tea, or gur gur as it is called in the region. Concocted with tea leaf extracts, yak butter, and a dash of salt, the tea has a soupy quality. As we sipped the piping hot brew, we heaved a sigh of gratification, of having crossed every item on this intrepid winter itinerary.
The extreme cold of winter in Ladakh, plus the very high altitudes can be punitive for a not so-fit person. Two days of acclimatisation to the rarefied air are absolutely necessary. Relax in the warmth of your centrally-heated hotel. Carry warm clothes like thermals, jackets, gloves, woollen socks, snowshoes, sunscreen, and sunglasses. Drink lots of water, sip on garlic soup, and slurp thukpa to stay hydrated.
Leh, Ladakh is connected by road and air. However, the region is snow-bound in winter, and air travel is the only option. The most convenient connections are early morning flights from Delhi, Jammu, and Srinagar.
The centrally air-conditioned The Grand Dragon Ladakh is the top of the heap and the most practical option for a winter holiday in Ladakh (starts from INR 8,399/USD 118). Hotel The Zen Ladakh also has central heating (starts from INR 5,000/USD 70). Most of the guest houses and homestays are closed in winter. The Snow Leopard Lodge in Ullay is also a good option (starts from 40,408/USD 567).
October to March is the best time to experience winter in Ladakh.
Adventure enthusiasts, wildlife lovers, photographers.
Try fairly lesser-known but challenging treks like Stok Kangri Trek, Markha Valley Trek, and Sham Valley Trek. Stop by one of the many winter festivals such as Ladakhi Losar, Spituk Gustor, Thiksay Gustor, Matho Nagrang, and Dosmoche.