Since the passes leading to Ladakh are closed in the winter, the only way to reach is by air over the lofty Himalayas. The surest way to spoil your epic adventure before it even starts is to be unprepared before reaching Leh. I spent considerable time in Ladakh in January this year and realised that it isn’t child’s play. I assisted in admitting three unknown travellers to the centrally heated SNM Hospital.
It turned out to be the most epic adventure of my life. From getting stuck in a snowstorm at Khardung La to finding a homestay where none existed in Biamah past the green waters of the Indus; enjoying masked dances at the Spituk Gustor to walking on a frozen Pangong Tso, narrowly missing spotting the snow leopard deep into Markha Valley – all alone and for very cheap.
I want you to travel to Ladakh, in the summers first and then prepare yourself mentally for the adventurous extravaganza in the cold winters where the temperature sometimes plummets to -30 degrees Celsius. Trust me, It will be the craziest holiday you ever have. It is a common misconception that the roads in Ladakh are closed in the winters. Truth is, since Ladakh is a cold desert it snows little by way of precipitation. Khardung La and Chang La, both the high passes are kept open by the army and can be crossed in a SUV.
I list down the experiences that proved instrumental in making my sojourn a success.
Arriving alive : The PA on the flight will go like ‘Welcome to Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, the outside temperature is -10 degrees Celsius.’ What they don’t tell you is the sudden rush of the cold, icy wind coupled with rarified air at 3300m. The distance after alighting from the flight to the warm confines of the airport will be the longest you will ever cover.
Don’t get excited, its a military airport. The army in all likelihood will stop you from clicking pictures. Calmly drink some water, cover your ears and walk slowly to collect your bags. You have already won half the battle.
I covered myself in six layers from head to toe at the Delhi Airport itself, while random co-travellers were amused. Two of them had to be admitted to the hospital within hours of reaching Leh.
Homestay : While I did countless hours of research on the internet looking for medium priced ‘centrally heated’ hotels in Leh, a famous doctor from Pune I met at the airport recommended staying at one of the few running homestays. He did not trust the electric heaters, a veteran of more than fifteen winter Ladakh trips.
Snow Leopard Conservancy has an office at Upper Tukcha Road and can organise homestays for 500-700 rupees per day. I stayed at Jamspal Homestay, a random find and was lucky to see life in Ladakhi winters firsthand. The hosts, Tsering and his wife go about their tasks with zen-like calm; muttering om mane padme hum under their breaths. Their kids study in Bangalore and Delhi. Breakfasts consisted of butter tea and home made apricot jam listening to Buddhist chants on the USB speaker.
The beds were comfortable and the quilts heavy, and warm. The lady spun wool under the sun, the dog barked merrily while Tsering and me broke ice to put in the solar heater and derive water from it. He was happy to keep my baggage while I went for short 2-3 day trips to various corners of Ladakh, taking his advice each time I went. Dinner was charged at 100 rupees a plate and included lip-smacking rajma, vegetables, chapati and rice.
Take it easy : While it is important to make the most of your holiday and see as much as you can, it is in the rarified air of Ladakh that even the most well laid out plans can go for a toss. I met a family of five from Jaipur who had only six days to spare. They wanted to see everything in that limited time. We headed to Pangong Tso on the next day of arrival in Leh, having fun while marvelling at the unbelievable colourfully frozen streams in the wide plains. A herd of Yak had wandered on the road, kiangs ran after each other and we reached the small village of Spangmik on the banks of Pangong Tso.
Families live round the year at Spangmik, we found a comfortable homestay charging us 250 Rupees per person including food. The Jaipur family chose to directly go to the lake and exert themselves clicking pictures, instead of letting the body acclimatise at the great altitude of 4300m. Within hours, three of the family had started showing symptoms of AMS. I sat in the warm kitchen, drank numerous cups of tea and ate what the family ate and then went for a walk on the frozen lake accompanied with the locals.
We danced and drank chaang and were called by other families to play with their kids and have butter tea in their homes. It was exhausting but the one hour spent acclimatising rather than rushing to the lake was the key in me enjoying the surreal cloudy evening. On our way back next morning, the oxygen readings were checked in the white landscape at the 5300m high Chang La. One of them read an abysmal 58 and the army people asked us to descend as quickly as possible. Others read 68 and 72. Mine was a comfortable 89.
The rest of the family holiday was spent in Sonam Norboo Memorial Hospital in Leh.
Precautions : It might sound childish but sometimes we commit basic errors that result in hara-kiri. Do not venture into the open immediately after the warmth of a room. Make sure every part of your body is dry before the chill in the air hits you. One drop of cold water was all it took to freeze on my finger and give me a blue dot. I had one hot water bath and the homestay family told me to stay in the room for more than an hour to get used to the cold again.
Stay hydrated by drinking tea and water at regular intervals. It isn’t heroic to say you are ok when you are not doing well. Keep a moisturiser ready and the skin hydrated. Eat dark chocolate and nuts for energy. Seek help in case of breathlessness. Himalayas are great friends but become dangerous when the weather turns bad. The biggest test will be to keep your fingers guarded while you click pictures on your phone or camera.
Ask the locals : We have all known the locals of Ladakh to be most helpful, a major part of the reason we keep coming back again and again. Buses to various parts of Ladakh leave from near the taxi stand. I went to the rumoured Aryan land, Dah-Hanu in a bus and explored the villages of Biamah, Garkhon & Darchik walking on frozen roads along the Indus with helpful locals guiding me on every step. So much so that an army brigadier himself gave me a ride near Biamah check post one day when he was on his morning walk.
You can find information about homestays and even get invited to someone’s home if you get lucky. Shared taxis leave for various places near the Polo Ground, the locals travel by the same mode. I went to Nubra Valley in a shared taxi for four hundred rupees till Diskit. Stroll the markets and buy fine winter wear, effective socks and colourful traditional Ladakhi dresses. Follow the crowds and have a taste of real Tibetan cuisine in the few authentic places that are open.
I was given a ride in the snowstorm near Khardung La and was invited for delicious food at an unknown place in Leh Market.
Since there are very few tourists in the winters, I was happy to receive so much attention on the street courtesy of my quirky cap. A smiling face always helps and I made friends with a lovely French couple who taught at Alliance Française. It is a wonderful idea to get together with fellow travellers for photography walks in the bazaar or try your hand at night photography.
It was strange to see water thrown out of the tap at Delhi Airport when Jet Airways had abruptly ended my dream by breaking open a bottle of Seabuckthorn Jam in my bag.
I wore seven layers of clothing, hoping I had carried Ladakh with me.
Ladakh was in my heart.