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Ladakh: White winter hymnal

  • Winter in Ladakh offers a freezing, snow-bound and tourist-free experience
  • Explore the Indus valley, negotiate the cold in style and enjoy amazing wildlife in Ladakh’s winter wonderland

The snow lies thick on the ground in Hemis. The snowfields stretch down the valley, past groves of skeletal willows, down towards the Indus. The sky is overcast and a bitterly cold wind blows down from the craggy ridges of the Zanskar range behind me. Beyond the river, to the north, the high mountains of the Ladakh range catch a bit of sun and the sloping valley of distant Chemrey lights up.

“Isn’t it quiet?" says Nawang, a monk at the Hemis monastery, almost to himself. It is, I say—and freezing. January in Ladakh is cold, the kind that hits you like a body blow. And when the wind blows from the summits of the two ranges that sandwich the Indus valley, no matter how many layers you’re wearing, it still chills you to the bone.

Nawang, who is in his mid-30s, is wrapped up in his red monk’s robes, as well as a thick sweater and a woollen hat of the same colour. We stand on a walkway below a huge golden statue of the Buddha Sakyamuni, on a hillock overlooking the Hemis monastery. Apart from a few large, furry dogs gambolling in the snow below, and many chukars (a kind of partridge endemic to Ladakh), Hemis wears a desolate look. The village houses are shuttered and the monastery, though open, is largely deserted. This is a far cry from when I was last there, in 2016, for the annual Hemis Festival. Then, summer greenery was everywhere, as was a sea of humanity, which had come from all over Ladakh, as well as the world, to watch the masked dances the festival is famous for.

Truth be told, I preferred this quietness.

Ladakh in winter is a world apart. In Leh, all the tourist shops are shut, just local markets are open. You hardly see any tourists as you walk around town, and sometimes it feels like you have stepped back to a past before Ladakh was opened to tourism in the 1970s. The faces are of Tibetan or Central Asian origin, and though hardly anyone wears traditional clothes any more, there’s a degree of authenticity to the Ladakh experience that’s wholly missing during the peak summer months.

That’s not to say that there are no tourists to be seen at all. I was in Leh as a guest of The Grand Dragon Ladakh, a lavish hotel of some opulence. During my week-long stay there, there were groups of trekkers from around the country for the famous Chadar trek on the frozen Zanskar river. There were also mixed national and international teams of players for an ice- hockey tournament held every January, organized by the Canadian embassy in Delhi. And then there were some visitors who had come for the snow. But this was still probably only 5% of the tourists who come every summer. Indeed, almost all the other hotels and guest houses that dot the old city are shut through winter, which officially lasts as late as May-June. Danish Din, co-director, The Grand Dragon Ladakh, says the number of winter tourists has been rising steadily. “But it’s better that people coming here are prepared for the cold and the altitude," he says.

The hotel provides a great base to explore wintry Ladakh. Its rooms and suites are the perfect mix of luxury and elegance, and it’s a joy to be snug as a bug in your heated room, and watch the dawn break over a white Indus valley. Acclimatizing to Leh’s 3,500m is a delicate business even in summer, and that much more difficult in sub-zero weather. To this end, the hotel insists on a blood oxygen count by a doctor on the first day, followed by a course of Diamox (a medication that helps acclimatize to altitude) or some time with bottled oxygen, depending on the results. I must say I have never acclimatized in such style, or eaten as much. Although you get pretty much all kinds of cuisine at the hotel, do try the traditional Ladakhi spread and the choicest Kashmiri wazwan dishes. The hotel can also do a Ladakhi tasting menu on request.

But the resting period is just for the first 24 hours. If you lay off alcohol, drink enough fluids, and get some adequate rest, by the next day you should be fine to head out and explore. And there’s much to see and do up and down the Indus valley during winter. The roads in the valley are all open, so mobility isn’t a problem. But cross high motorable passes like Khardung La or Chang La to head to Nubra or Pangong Tso only on the basis of weather reports. It’s always a risky business, as there is a serious danger of avalanches.

Starting with Leh, I was treated to an exhilarating day of watching ice-hockeymatches of the annual Indo-Canadian Friendship Cup at the open-air rink in old Leh. The game has become immensely popular with Ladakhis. It’s a treat to watch the teams battle it out in a blur of superfast movement as large crowds of onlookers cheer the teams over cups of steaming tea and old Hindi film songs blare out during breaks.

I decided to acclimatize further by climbing up to the Leh Palace and the even higher Namgyal Tsemo monastery for a bird’s-eye view of the city. The lung-blasting climb is worth it for the spectacular views of the Indus Valley and the Stok Range beyond. Over the next few days, I was treated to wintry Ladakh’s charms, which seemed all the more intimate because I wasn’t sharing them with thousands of other tourists. Take, for example, a morning prayer service at the spectacular Thikse monastery, 19km from Leh. The cavernous prayer hall of this 17th century monastery hummed with the rising and falling cadences of monks old and young reciting the scriptures, punctuated by blasts of the long trumpet-like dungchen and gyalings (which look like clarinets) and the clashing of bujkal cymbals. The morning prayer is also when the monks break fast with bowls of tsampa (a barley-based porridge and a Tibetan staple) and rounds of hot butter tea.

Winter is a great time to visit Ladakh for snow leopard tourism. These elusive and rarely seen big cats, called shan in Ladakhi, come down to lower altitudes following their prey species, the bharal (Himalayan blue sheep), the ibex and the urial.

Their mating season begins in February, and this is as good a time as any to try and catch a glimpse of this almost mythical beast. I headed to the Snow Leopard Lodge, a community home-stay in the remote village of Ulley at over 4,000m to spend a few days spotting wildlife. The lodge, with its cosy and well-appointed rooms, complete with electric heaters and fleece and wool blankets, lies in the middle of a snowy wonderland. The lodge arranged for daily wildlife trips across three adjacent high valleys, and I was fortunate enough to spot a snow leopard, which had been assiduously tracked by the lodge’s excellent team of Ladakhi spotters.

These day-long excursions came with camp-style lunches and tea breaks in snowy orchards, under willow trees, with magpies for company. There’s much scope for other wildlife sightings as well, as Ulley and its surroundings teem with ibex, urial, snow hares and red foxes, to name just a few.

The confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers is always a draw, and in winter, with both rivers frozen, it’s even more spectacular. I drove down to the village of Chilling, on the frozen Zanskar, which is the starting point of the famed Chadar trek. It’s almost surreal to come across frozen waterfalls, their flow turned into a block of ice, or the blue waters of the central channel of Zanskar, which doesn’t freeze but carries plate-sized blocks of translucent ice dotted with frozen air bubbles. On the drive back from Ulley, I visited Ladakh’s oldest monastery, Alchi. Built over the 12th-13th centuries, Alchi is famed for its wooden carvings, gigantic clay statues of the various Bodhisattvas, and gorgeous murals done in the Kashmiri style, depicting Buddhas, ornate mandalas and everyday scenes from early medieval Kashmir. You can also visit the nearby Buddhist caves at Saspol, with their 15th century murals, and the ruined fortifications at Basgo, once the capital of central Ladakh.

The writer was in Ladakh at the invitation of The Grand Dragon Ladakh.

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