Before I visited Ladakh in January 2016, I had a million questions about going there in winter. Now that I have been to Ladakh in winter it is time to write about my experiences. So here are the visiting Ladakh in winter FAQs answered. If I have missed out on something do ask in the comments section.
Q. What is the temperature like in Ladakh in Winters?
A. It is cold, it is very very cold. It feels very cold. It is cold in every way imaginable? I hope I have made my point very clear that it is cold. How cold exactly you ask?
When I landed at Leh it was -3 Degree Celsius. I visited Ldakh from January 6 to January 10 2016. Most of the time the weather apps showed a temperature in minus. I did see 5 degrees once but with wind even that felt cold. To sum it up winters in Ladakh are bitingly cold, there is no other way to describe it. It is cold, cold damn cold. The coldest that I saw with my own eyes was -15.
The various weather apps in your phone or a simple search on the web will give you a more accurate answer. I am just corroborating it as a human being! The apps are not lying.
Q. So why should I go to Ladakh in Winter?
A. That is an excellent question. You ought to get your head examined if you wish to go Ladakh in winter, but then you already knew this. You came Googling your way to this post! So even though it is bitingly cold you somehow want to go to Ladakh in winter. Welcome to the club!
I first went to Ladakh in 2005. I call it the ‘pre 3 Idiots era’. There were people but it was not maddening. You could have gone to Ladakh in summer then. But I am told that summer in Ladakh is now a show! Anyone and everyone wants to be there. To me it sounded like a small kumbh mela!
Ladakh in winter is quiet. The landscapes are surreal, the festivals are attended by locals, you will have to search for tourists hard. And you can have the whole place to yourself! I went to Ladakh now after 10 odd years and people tell me I should thank god that it was winter!
Q. OK so I am worried about cold, should I be worried about the altitude too?
A. Ladakh is at the height of 11,500 feet which is quite high for us, mere mortals, who live at the sea level. At that height there is less oxygen in the air. You need to be aware of High Altitude Sickness. I have talked about it before but then I am no authority. I acclimatize without Diamox but everyone is different. Your doctor is an authority. Consult your doctor if you have any doubts. Consult your doctor anyway if it is your first time at a high altitude.
Read about high altitude and how it affects human body. It will help you in dealing with your experiences at high altitude. Also, this applies to anyone who is going to Ladakh in summer as well.
The one advice that everyone will give you about traveling to high altitudes, be it Ladakh or anywhere else, is to take it slow for the first few days. I add my insignificant weight to that advice, do take it slow on the first few days.
Q. How do I reach Ladakh in Winter?
A. The Manali-Leh road route closes out around October. The Srinagar- Leh route closed in early January this year, I was told. Flights are the easiest way to reach Leh, in winter.
I have done the Leh Manali route in 2005. I have been to Spiti by road three times. I flew into Leh this winter and it was a first. I still acclimatized well after taking the flight! I would say with the flight, I was not so tired as well as I am with the road journeys.
If you ask me, catching a flight is your best bet to reach Ladakh in winters. I took a Go Air flight. Air India flights were also available.
Q. What kind of clothes do I carry to fight off the cold?
A. You carry heavy woolens to Ladakh and hope and pray that they would be enough. I hate wearing caps but I would not dream of visiting Ladakh without them. I hate gloves, but I wear them religiously in Ladakh. I avoid my trekking shoes like plague when I am not trekking, but I took them to Ladakh in winter even though I was not trekking. They were the only shoes I carried.
I had the good fortune of visiting Finland in 2014. It was an event organized by Nokia. The good hosts gave us gear to wear in that Arctic temperatures. It was -22 in Lapland when we landed at Kittila. I used the thermals and the ski gear they gave me in Finald to fight off the cold in Ladakh and I did fine.
So get out your warmest gear, buy some new ones if you don’t have much. Wearing layers helps in combating cold. Start with cotton so that the body is comfortable. Wear thermals, wear thick woolen socks. And then wear more layers, topping it off with your heaviest down jackets. And then pray that it should not be windy. Wind chill is the worst thing, be aware and be prepared.
Also when you are visiting monasteries you would be removing your shoes. Remember to wear thick woolen socks or the cold will make you dance when you keep your feet on the floor!
Q. Where to Stay in Ladakh in Winter?
A. I stayed at the Grand Dragon Ladakh but my trip was sponsored by the hotel. The hotel is centrally heated, it has 24 hour hot water. It helps a lot for the cold winters.
But then I am sure a good homestay will keep you warm too though not in the style of a star hotel.
Do research your stay options wisely and please prepare accordingly.
Q. Will the taxi be heated?
A. Most of the taxis in Leh would be heated. If in doubt do ask and insist on one that is heated.
Q. I do not want to trek, is there anything else I could do in winter in Ladakh?
A. There is plenty to do in Ladakh even if you do not wish to trek. We attended the Gustor Festival at the Spituk Monastery. We visited Chilling, Alci, Lamayuru, Thiksey and Chemdey. All the roads were open. We could not go to Chilling all the way as BRO was blasting on the road. But other than that we had no problem.
Q. Where do I get Food?
A. As most of the hotels and restaurants shut down during winter in Leh, your hotel/guesthouse/homestay is your best bet for food in winter.
Q. Should I Really Go?
A. Go watch the video and tell me that you can resist!
I am no expert on high altitude and high altitude sickness. It is commonly known as AMS or acute mountain sickness. But I am someone who loves going to the mountains. For me views are more important than gaining height. But as it is easy to gain height on treks these days, I have been up to Kala Pathar (Everest Base Camp Trek, Nepal) which is 5,643 meters or just a little above 18,000 feet. I am someone who tries to trek at least once a year. Recently I came across a program where I felt they were treating Diamox as a substitute for acclimatization. I feel very strongly that Diamox is not a substitute for acclimatization.
It is said that the risk of altitude sickness may start from 2,400 meters or 8,000 feet. By 10,000 feet almost everyone will end up paying attention. Anyone can reach 10,000 feet easily in India if you visit Leh or Kaza.
As there is less oxygen on the higher altitude, it affects the body adversely. The body needs time to adjust to the less oxygen. Some of the very common symptoms of AMS are headache, nausea, feeling breathless etc. There is a vast literature on the internet that documents all things related to altitude sickness.
One of the most common advice (for me the soundest advice too) to deal with altitude sickness is to take it slow. One should not be in a hurry to gain height. It helps to gain height gradually, whether you are walking or moving in a vehicle. For example, when I was trekking up to the Everest Base Camp, there were two days, one at Namche and another at Dingboche, where we stayed for one extra night at the same place. They were heaven sent to me, it helped in soothing my aching limbs and giving me a better shot at acclimatizing to the height. I would not dream of chopping it off from my itinerary. The other advice is drink plenty of fluids (not alcohol though) to keep the body hydrated.
A very common medicine mentioned to deal with the problems of high altitude is Diamox. All my guides carry it. But all of them are stellar people, they plan the trek so well, that I never had any need to take Diamox. But then that is just me. It is entirely your and your doctor’s call whether you need Diamox or not. If there is a need for Diamox, along with acclimatization, it should be done properly.
However, I came across a trekking program recently which was planned such that there were no rests. And it was mandatory for everyone to take Diamox before the trek! The height gained was not more than 3600 meters! It took me completely by surprise, and then it left me seething.
The group was starting by train from a state in South India. They were proceeding to Uttarkashi the same night they arrived after their 42 hour train journey. And after reaching Uttarkashi they would start trekking the very next day. If I would have joined that group (and I would have been paid for it too) I would at least start from Delhi. And yet the road journey was done in such a haste that it made me hesitate. I went on a conference call with the stakeholders. And that is when I learned that it was compulsory to take Diamox if you wanted to join the trek!
I was so angry, I could not think straight. I mean you rush people like a piece of luggage from one part of the country to another and then insist that everyone treks after taking Diamox! Now what kind of planning is that? I dropped out of that trip without any hesitation.
And then I hit the search button on the internet. I found that the company was not alone. Some were more sophisticated in their approach but the essence was same, we have limited holidays, let us go as high we want on Diamox!
And it is not that I never used to work! In fact all my major treks were done while I was working full time. I never came across a guide who even tried to suggest Diamox as compulsion!
I will repeat once again that I am no expert on high altitude but even in my limited experience I firmly believe that Diamox is not a substitute for proper acclimatization.
Last year in 2014 I went to Chandratal (4,300 meters) after staying in Manali for two nights. Then we stayed at Batal for a night. I was perfectly fine at Chandratal. This year in 2015 I stayed one night in Manali and then headed straight for Chandratal without a stop at Batal. On the first evening I had a headache and I was not feeling happy in general. I took it easy at night and then the next day we headed down to Tabo and I did fine after that. So, it is not that if I have been to a place before I can rush to it the second time!
Maybe it is me who is out of touch with the world but for me Diamox will never be the only acclimatization plan for my trip in high mountains!
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