On a cold December morning in 2016, it was time for my second winter trip to Ladakh. We boarded an early morning flight from Delhi and arrived at Leh airport at around 9 am. Even though I highly advise taking it easy and acclimatising to the rarified, thin altitude air of Ladakh especially during the winters, it was inexplicable what happened next! With no inkling of how the day would pan out, we had somehow ended up (by evening) in a little hamlet by the name of Wanla to spend the first night after landing in Leh.
Excerpts from the diary from the Winter in Ladakh trip of 2016
Leh Airport to Khaltse
Arrive in Leh. Cold arrival. No snow. Wild, free feeling. Ice cold water at the airport. Slowly walked out of the terminal, still undecided whether to go to Leh or try and go towards a lower altitude area (My thoughts since I had been to Ladakh earlier in the winter of 2015). Walked out of Leh airport gate and stood on the road. Contemplated catching a bus to Lamayuru since it is around the same altitude as Leh. Still undecided and take a call that we will go in the direction wherever the first vehicle we spot is headed to.
No buses came for the 15-20 minutes that we were there. Shared taxi seemed to be our only option. Within no time a Kargil bound shared taxi appeared; there were only 2-3 people in the cab but the guy asked for 600 per person till Lamayuru. We settled it for 300 Rupees per person, which was a fair deal since the distance to cover was hardly 100-120 Kms. I wasn’t keen on going to Kargil at that time (in hindsight the world changes 360 degrees and I now wish I had gone!) because the cab guy was from Kargil and later said he would charge the same 300 Rupees per person even if we decided to go all the way to Kargil.
Beautiful, barren landscape. Nice filmy songs. The straight Basgo stretch is magical. Frozen stretches here and there on the drive. The ice hockey arena near the airport has started freezing at the edges. Lunch at Khaltse Dhaba (Also spelt Khalsi, Khaltsi). 70 Rupees per plate that includes rajmah rice, cauliflower and egg curry with chapati. Remember eating at the same place in January 2015. That time the prices were 40 or 50 Rupees per plate. Food was even tastier this time. Dry fruit local sellers in Khaltse, selling dried apricots, almonds, dried apples and more.
Khaltse to Lamayuru
Frozen waterfalls, very pretty that look like a weapon – daggers on the side of the road. I remember that the road has changed and does not pass through jalebi bends. Maybe the highway distance has been shortened because of that. Lamayuru comes to sight with the moonland craters and distinct landscape. Ask the taxi guy to drop us to the walking path near Yungdrung Gompa (commonly called Lamayuru Monastery). Amble to the monastery on the uphill path; difficult to walk with the backpack. Huffing and puffing and stopping every few minutes.
Reached Lamayuru Monastery located on a cliff. It was closed; so went around saying ‘Jullay, Jullay’ until a young and elderly monk came out from somewhere and asked what we wanted! We said we had some photographs of Lamayuru monks to give to them and please open the monastery for us! I had visited Yungdrung Gompa on my first visit to Ladakh more than 10 years ago and had no memory of the same. My friend from Jaipur, Jai Pandya had given printouts of photographs from across Ladakh from a previous trip and had asked us to give it to the relevant locals if we happened to reach a destination.
The monks were overjoyed on getting hold of the photographs; the older Lama ji posed outside the monastery and asked us to click his photographs too! It was the novice who had been assigned to show us the monastery from the inside. I clicked a few pictures of him with a surreal beam of light inside the semi-dark monastery. The day was cloudy and it was past 1 pm in the afternoon. After distributing the photographs, we wandered about in the monastery premises to find some hidden nooks and corners.
Two goats were roaming around on a rooftop and looked very cute. I had to go and click them. We saw the main monastery and a cave, Avalokiteśwara Temple. Among the corridors we came across a mysterious sight that was caused due to intermittent sunshine and tried to photograph it. Lamayuru had an eerie feel because there was nobody to be seen. We also came across Samyang Lhakhang temple on the downward path but were unable to see it because it was closed.
Anyway, the absence of acclimatisation meant I was already struggling to breathe with my heavy backpack and ample layers of winter clothing. The weather wasn’t really cold as compared to the plummeting temperatures of January 2015 but it was still freezing and all the above conditions conspired to start a minor headache for me. After an eternity, we finally found a human being while descending to Lamayuru town from the monastery. His words didn’t inspire any confidence at all and he quoted us a price of Rs. 2000 for a homestay.
All the guesthouses, hotels and Homestays in Lamayuru seemed shut and the town had a ghost feel about it. We gave up the idea of staying in Lamayuru and came back to the main road. It was already past 2 pm and winters in Ladakh mean the daylight is gone by 5-530 pm. We were in a fix now; when we were boarding the shared taxi from Leh airport for Lamayuru it was with the assumption that we would end up staying in this sizeable town of Lamayuru with complete tourist facilities even during the winter. Now it meant thinking out of the box and figuring out the next plan of action. Thats exactly where the fun lies; after all we don’t want to know every step in life and are happy to leave some things to providence.
I remembered seeing the cut off for Yapola Valley hardly 7 kms from Lamayuru. My past memories told me that Wanla was a hamlet in Yapola Valley with an old Fort and Palace and a monastery which meant that there may be some homestays there. There was no transport to be coming from anywhere. We were in a dilemma whether to wait in Lamayuru or start walking to reach the cut-off point to Wanla. After some time, good luck came our way and courtesy of a short ride were dropped at the diversion to Wanla. There was a wall on the side of the road where we kept our bags and waited… and waited.
The distance from Lamayuru to Khaltse was only 20 odd kilometres and thats how we made going to Khaltse our worst case scenario. After all there was a high possibility that a ride to Wanla would never arrive and we might have nowhere to go for the night. We felt like characters in an action movie, more so because frozen waterfalls were dime-a-dozen on the way from Lamayuru to Khaltse. The sun had disappeared behind the mountains and the shade amplified the cold several notches. A saving grace at our waiting point was that we had plenty of water and the company of PWD workers from (Bihar) who were digging for repairing something (can’t remember).
We asked them whether they knew if a homestay existed in Wanla but they had no idea even about the village. In our minds, we had kept a deadline that if a vehicle bound for Wanla doesn’t come by 3:30, then we would reconsider our plans and try and reach Khaltse. It was automatically assumed that since Khaltse was a bigger town there were bound to be homestays or guesthouses that were open in the winter too, for us to stay. No vehicle has come. It is past 3:30 now. We are worried about darkness descending fast. Even the PWD workers have said that they will be picked up in a truck by 4:00 pm. I can spot a newly built monastery / chorten from the diversion point of Wanla but there doesnt appear to be anyone who lives there.
So now the plan was to head to Khaltse even though we were not keen on going there at all. Luckily no vehicle came even for Khaltse and as we were getting restless, finally a jeep appeared from the left and swerved towards the right. We were anyway on the road and were trying to halt it as we didn’t care where it was headed to. Our worst case scenario timing had come true and it was imperative for us to get somewhere soon. A silver lining was that despite this being the first day, the effects of non-acclimatisation were not being felt and at best I had only minor discomfort in breathing.
The jeep was being driven by 2 brothers who were working for the Government; they were going to Wanla and happily dropped us in the centre of Wanla. A Fort stood on a razor’s edge high above Wanla and the sounds of bells from a prayer wheel rang in our ears. An old woman went past taking her herd of tiny goats and sheep. It was a classic sight; tiny kids laughed at our ordeal of getting stuck among goats!
Thankfully it was still daylight, the clock showed around 4 pm and we had ample time to find a homestay. The stark colours of nature were visible in their full glory. There were shades of yellow, red and brown in the landscape. The first person that we spoke to in Wanla told us that he owned a homestay – Lonpo Guest House. He quoted a price of Rs. 2000 for the room and we didn’t even bother to check the room. The house was on the road itself but the nonchalant way in which the man reacted didn’t bode well for us.
Just across the road we spotted another homestay named ‘Wamda Homestay’ and opened the door and entered the compound when no-one answered. The owner of the house seemed to be a carpenter as a lot of semi-made furniture was strewn around the open-air courtyard. A lady appeared from one of the rooms after repeated rounds of Jullay Jullay and asked us what were we looking for. She showed us one of the unkempt rooms and demanded 800 Rupees per person. Her demeanour wasn’t exactly friendly and we didn’t feel welcome at all.
Thats the thing about stubborn people. Even when we had (seemingly) no choice, it was funny that we acted this way and chose to not stay even at Wamda Homestay.
I walked around and saw two-three men chatting and asked them if there was a homestay in Wanla village. They nodded in the affirmative and showed me the directions for ‘Rongstak Homestay’. As luck would have it, Rongstak Homestay was closed as the entire family had gone to Leh for some work and would not return for 2 more days. We were almost distraught; it was almost dark by now and we surely had nowhere to go. When nothing else works, you have to make your mind on a course of action.
There was a tiny house nearby. We knocked. An old lady and her cute 3 year old grandson came out and invited us in for butter tea. We slurped the tasty buttery tea and asked her if we could stay the night because Rongstak Homestay was closed. Her husband was also around and he asked us to go upstairs and check if we would be able to manage. It was a fairly basic room with the family’s stuff scattered around but there were mattresses and quilts kept on a side and we immediately liked the simplicity of this household and immediately yelled ‘yes, yes – we are going to stay here!’
It was dark and cold now as we took our bags inside the house to carry it to our sleeping room. Uncle and aunty were worried their meagre facilities would not be enough for us to survive but we assured them and confirmed we will be very comfortable in the warm quilts. I wanted to tell them, ‘It is never about a small house. It is always about an overflowing heart.’
We immediately took a liking to the cute grandson and started chatting with him and the grandma. This house had a homely feel and we instantly felt comfortable drinking numerous cups of namkeen chai that made us feel instantly warm. It was an old mud house with the local compost Ladakhi toilet outside the home but we had no complaints! We had not come for winter in Ladakh to experience comforts; at least not on the first day.
The old couple never asked us about money. We told them we will pay them either Rupees 600 or 800 for both of us (can’t remember now). Grandma refused to accept any money but we told her we will eat dinner and have tea and she said ‘We will see tomorrow.’ For a moment grandma became apprehensive when we said we will eat dinner. It was a tiny kitchen and sitting room with a small bukhari tandoor with barely enough room for the entire family to sit. We convinced her to cook anything local and vegetarian that they would eat if we were not there.
She announced that ‘Skiu’ was going to be cooked. We rubbed our hands in glee. Grandma narrated stories from the past year when a flood had caused widespread damage and her fields were flooded resulting in a failure of crops. Her grandson’s parents had gone to Leh for some work and thats why they were able to have room for us that day. She was still considerate enough to make an endless supply of dried apricots for us to enjoy along with the gur gur chai.
In the meantime, we went upstairs to organise the mattress so that we wouldn’t be caught unaware in case the electricity decided to say goodbye for the night! I asked grandma if chaang or arak was made in-house and she was happy to share their liquor with us. Chaang is a way of life for the Ladakhis (and also the Spitians, Lahaulas, Zanskaris) and even the small kid was enjoying his barley with chaang!
The skiu was incredibly tasty. The potatoes and carrots were so sweet and in the vegetable soup tasted even better. It was fresh and yummy; the carrots were huge and we couldn’t believe they tasted sweet. It was hands down the best skiu I had eaten in years. We kept thanking and complimenting grandma for making us eat this wonderful dinner. Grandpa had gone out to drink arak with his friends. It was frightfully cold outside when we went out to pee.
It must have been only 9 in the night when we said our good nights and went upstairs. Wanla’s 14th Century Fortness and Monastery shined bright with flickering lights installed on the ridge, we could see it from the window. The moon was visible in the far distance. The stars twinkled as if they were happy that night.
It suddenly appeared to me that the poor grandma’s abode in Wanla could be home!
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