Ladakh in January was the first trip of 2016 and was really special to me. I went on a FAM trip with the Grand Dragon Ladakh. I have been on a few trips since. And it is usually the most recent trip that dominates the mind space!
So I am going down the memory lane to see what comes out from the top of the head when I think of Ladakh in Winter.
My nostrils would hurt from the effort to breathe at the high altitude.
The first few nights I would wake up every few hours. It was only the last night that I slept through without waking up.
I was so scared of cold before going on the trip but I managed fine!
To me it felt insane to sit out for bonfire when the temperatures were in minus. But with fire and heaters I actually enjoyed it.
I was scared that I would find it unbearably cold to sit and watch Spituk Gustor Festival. It was a sunny day and I did just fine!
I loved the feeling of having Ladakh to myself. At Lamayuru, they opened the monastery just for us, there was otherwise not a single tourist around!
I warmly remember the hospitality of Danish and his team. The home cooked dishes and Chang (and that is not the beer but the local brew) were just awesome!
I saw a frozen waterfall for the second time in my life!
I wore a Ladakhi dress for a photo opportunity!
I loved the fact that the vehicles had heaters!
I think I can do an high altitude winter trip again!
I loved the fact that the room I stayed in was heated.
I have to close my eyes and I can see those majestic mountains again!
I wonder if it is only me, or it happens to others too that only fragments of a trip remain, unless I go back and read my posts or watch the video!
One of the highlights of my winter trip to Ladakh was the opportunity to attend the Gustor Festival at the Spituk Monastery in Ladakh. This year it was held on 7th and 8th January. As it falls in winter it is attended by the locals in large numbers, tourists were in minority!
It is said that Buddhism was introduced in Ladakh in 200 BC during the reign of King Ashoka. The census of 2011 puts 66% of the population in Leh as Buddhist. Monasteries are important religious and cultural centers.
The winters are harsh in Ladakh. In January the maximum temperature would often be in single digit and minimum in double digit minus! A festival in such a weather is just what is need to cheer up.
Gustor is a religious festival where lamas perform cham or mask dances. Cham is a choreographed dance performed only by lamas. The dances symbolize the destruction of evil spirits. The festival ends by burning an effigy which is a symbol of destruction of evil. Some of the dances are performed in pairs where the deity appears with a consort. Some dances are performed in a group.
The masks can represent fiery, benign and pleasant spirits. Animal masks are also used. The masks are made of clay and paper. They are painted with natural colors and polished with gold and silver. The dress is usually silk and brocade. It is said that the masked dances have existed since 8th century AD in Ladakh. The dances are performed by monks to the tunes of long horns, cymbals, conch shells, bells and many other instruments.
Our soft spoken guide Tashi told us to go early to the Spituk Monastery as it would get crowded during the day. And he was absolutely right. At the monastery there is a statue of Goddess Kali which is open to public only on the Gustor Festival days. When I went in it was not crowded. But while we were walking out in the afternoon for lunch, the queue was spilling down to the middle stairs.
The good folks had cordoned off a small seating area all for us marked as media. We had the balcony seats. The Grand Dragon Hotel (my sponsor for the trip) had sent in kahwa too. We were all set to enjoy the festival.
As the day progressed the place got more and more crowded. I had a gala time watching the cham dances and crowd watching.
At Gustor Spituk the tourists were in minority. This couple from Japan was sitting next to me on the Delhi-Leh flight. I had the window seat. I offered to click pictures for them too. They were very happy with the results. However, they spoke very little English so we couldn’t talk. I was happy to spot them at the festival too and on our return flight as well!
It was a feast to watch the dances and be amidst the incredible energy that the crowd and the music was generating. It was a jolly crowd.
Around 1.00 pm it was time for lunch. Our lunch was at the hotel! It was time to get out of the courtyard. Our original plan was to come back in the second half again.
By now even the windows were taken. It was a task to get out! We really has to squeeze our way through the crowd. It was an extremely well behaved crowd, there was simply no space to march out! I was so happy after I managed to get out in the open. I also have a very practical point to make. Regulate your water intake or taking a loo break is also going to be tough. Looking at the crowd we didn’t go back in the second half!
Gustor Festival at Spituk is the first monastery festival I have watched. I wish I get to see many more!
PS. I was invited to Ladakh in winter by the Grand Dragon, Ladakh.
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!