My blogging journey started in 2005 with a trip to Leh. Leh thus has an immense sentimental value for me! I re-visited Leh in January 2016! The winter flight to Leh was operated by GoAir. The trip in 2005 was a road trip. So this was my first chance to click the glorious mountains while landing at Leh! Like any good traveler I did my research. I was told that on a Delhi-Leh flight I should choose the A side window seat and the reverse while coming back!
I opened the GoAir website punctually 24 hours before my flight so that I could choose a window seat at the web check-in. To my surprise even at that early hour all but one window seats were gone! But I got 30A the last available window seat, it would have to do!
As I was flying in January, the airport was on high alert. Till the Republic Day is over security at the Indian Airports remains high. I am only stating this as a fact, I would rather deal with high security than with a breach of security! We were traveling in a big group, we were on invitation from the Hotel Grand Dragon. It took us ages to clear the security!
Eventually I found my window seat in the plane. The plane was full of Ladakhi people going back home. There were only a few tourists going there in the bitterly cold weather. I initially thought the people sitting next to me were locals but I eventually realized that they were from Japan! I had a good flight, there was no turbulence. I bought a cup of tea in-flight and enjoyed it.
The plane soon started its descent to Leh. I was now glued to the window! It was a mesmerizing panorama unfolding below me! As there was no luggage space left on, the rack I had kept my camera bag in front of the seat! Everyone had heavy woolens in their hand luggage hence the overhead compartments became full! I put the opportunity to good use, I took out my DSLR to click the pictures at the landing! The Japanese couple sitting next to me passed their camera as well. I was happy to click for them, they like the pictures!
As we got out of the plane, a gust of icy wind greeted us. The temperature was -3 degree Celsius. I had a down jacket and an overcoat in my hand luggage. I was doing fine.
Even though Leh has become popular with the tourist, the airport is still basic. Even the doors were covered just with blankets! There was no real door. I wonder where all the tourism money is going!
On my return flight, the hotel did the check-in and I got a middle seat! I sulk like crazy when I don’t get a window seat but with some good pictures on the landing, I decided to be more gracious about the middle seat, I only sulked a little!
I try to finish all my posts from a particular trip before I head on to another one. But try as I might, one or two posts manage to slip through, like the Monasteries of Ladakh! Every village in Ladakh and Spiti have their own monastery and more than religion it is their location that attracts me.
I visited Ladakh in January 2016 and boy it was cold. While we were roaming around, the temperature usually was in the minus. I visited Spituk, Lamayuru, Alchi, Thiksey and Chemdey Monasteries. I take you through them in that order!
The Spituk Monastery is about 8 Kilometers away from Leh. It is said to be built in 11 century CE. I explored a bit of the monastery but I was lucky to see the winter festival called Spituk Gustor. If you ever head to Ladakh in Januray do make sure that you do not miss out on the festival.
The distance between Leh and Lamayuru is about 125 kilometers, it took us about 4 hours to reach there because we would stop at so many places on the way to click pictures! The day was overcast though. On the way we approached a geographical formation called the ‘moonscapes.’ It is a must stop.
Lamayuru Monastery is also from the 11th century, it was founded by Mahasiddhacharya Naropa. In January we were the only visitors to the monastery!
Alchi Monastery is unlike anything I have seen before. The only comparison that comes to mind is Tabo in Spiti. Both have wall to wall paintings within the monasteries. Both are a complex of temples rather than one large building. Alchi is said to be build either in 10th or 11th century.
We visited Lamayuru and Alchi on the same day. We had lunch at Alchi before visiting the monastery. It was a very cold day. The caretaker opened the monastery only for us, imagine that! Photography is prohibited inside the Alchi Monastery (Tabo too) because it damages the old paintings.
Before you think I clicked the picture inside, this is an outdoor gate at the Alchi Monastery. It is painted in the same style as the walls inside the monastery. This is one place where you are allowed to click a picture of the paintings.
Thiksey is about 11.00 km away from Leh. The monastery was built in 1430. It is a grand place.
We attended the morning prayers at the Thiksey Monastery. In the monasteries anyone is welcome for the prayers. It is also not considered rude if you get up before the entire ceremony is over!
The Maitreya Buddha Statue is one of the most recognized pictures from the monasteries of Ladakh. It is grand, almost two stories tall and utterly mesmerizing.
The Chemdey (also written as Chemrey Monastery) was the last monastery I visited. It is not far from Thiksey and I visited both on the same morning.
I loved the monasteries in Ladakh for their stunning locations too. They are often perched up on the highest slopes and the view around them is mesmerizing.
There is something so awe inspiring about the monasteries of Ladakh. I wonder how were they built in that ancient a time. How did they manage to survive for so long? But what I like most is their location, always majestic, always dramatic, always stunning!
PS. My trip to Ladakh was sponsored 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!
When the Go Air flight started to taxi at the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport at Leh, they announced that the outside temperature was -3 degree Celsius. I am no stranger to temperatures in minus but I never get used to them. I was happy that I was staying at the Grand Dragon Ladakh in winter because it is centrally heated.
On our arrival to the Grand Dragon Hotel, Leh, we were offered the Khata (the white scarf) as a welcome. The lobby was warm, I knew I would survive the cold. However, Leh is 11,500 meters above sea level and I was wondering how the altitude would treat me this time. It was my first experience of flying into such a high altitude. I felt fine at arrival. I didn’t take Diamox before, during or after the trip.
A Late Breakfast
As soon as we arrived we were invited to a late breakfast. Out flight landed at 10.35 am and food was what I was looking for! We were offered garlic soup as it is said to help in acclimatizing. It tasted good as well! The breakfast at the Grand Dragon is an elaborate affair. They have Indian, continental and some local jams and butter as well. I would start with fruits, go on to porridge and finish it off with their South Indian spread!
Tea, coffee and juice was also there. I enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate too. It tastes so good in cold weather. I tired the apricot apple jam and quite liked it as it was without any artificial sweeteners.
The Room with a View
After breakfast I headed to my room which was on the second floor (207). I immediately fell in love with the view of the Stok Range from my room.
After the view I searched for tea. I had Twinnings tea bags, creamer and a kettle for hot water. There were, cookies, dry fruits and fruits in my room. I was all set to enjoy my stay.
There was a comfortable double bed in my room. The room was heated. The windows would open, so I could take pictures of the Stok Range at will.
The bathroom didn’t have a bathtub. But then wasting water in Leh anyway is a bigger crime. So I was happy not to have the temptation. There was hot water and I was happy with it. The floor of the bathroom is heated for the guest’s comfort. Now that was luxury!
On the first day I was the only person to go down for lunch after that late breakfast. I had a soup and noodles, both were good. All the other meals I had at ‘Zasgyath’ were well done. The high tea was served at Tusrabs. Kahwa was my hot favorite.
Meeting the Doctor
On the first evening a lady doctor visited us. She told me that my oxygen level was 93, and I had already acclimatized. I was happy to hear that. My BP was also normal. However, that said, I still had mild headache by the night. The first night I woke up many times. The second night was more peaceful. By the third night I could happily sleep through the night.
I have a mild nose bleed from the trip but I am sure it will go away in a few days. I also realized that it is better to take the Diamox if the doctor prescribes it! I am happy that I didn’t need it as usual!
Bonfire Dinners in the Chilling Cold Weather
We had two bonfire dinners out at the terrace of the hotel! It was a barbecue. The hot rum and the fire helped a lot.
I was wrapped from head to toe. But it is doable, to sit out in -15 degrees around fire and enjoy food and drinks!
The owner of the hotel Mr Ghulam Mohiuddin sat with us had a long conversation about his family’s journey into hospitality. He said Ladakh was opened to foreigners in 1974 and 60 ‘hippies’ visited Leh that year! I wonder who they were and if they can be traced! In 1976 the family took the first foreigners in their home! The first guests were 3 foreigners who stayed with the family. They extended the home to 30 rooms eventually which was the old Dragon Hotel. Even now the family lives next to the new Grand Dragon Hotel.
We saw the paintings done by his elder brother, Gulam Mustafa. Many film crew stay in the hotel when they shoot in Ladakh. A big star wanted to buy a painting but Mr Mustafa refused as he does not sell his art!
I also enjoyed talking to the hotel staff. They were from Nepal, Solan, West Bengal, Srinagar among other places. I could see the staff quarters behind the hotel. When I asked Gaggan about heating in his room, he told me they too have heaters and cold was not a problem. The young drivers on payroll too.
I quite liked the food at the hotel. They did the dishes mildly for me. As I do not like too many spices, the food was perfect for me. I particularly enjoyed marshmallows by the bonfire as it was a first for me. The jacket potatoes were done to perfection. Desserts were awesome too!
Sauna and Steam
I enjoyed the steam and sauna for one evening. They go well the cold weather. They are located next to the gym. There are separate areas for men and women.
I saw the gym and I happily gave it a miss. My head anyway was protesting against the altitude. But if you need it, there it is.
You can book your excursions with the hotel. We did two long trips, one to Alchi and Lamayuru and the other to Thiksey and Chemdey. The hotel uses heated Innovas and their drivers are courteous.
Overall, I had a great time at the Grand Dragon, Leh, Ladakh. The central heating helped a lot to deal with the severely cold weather.
PS. I was invited by the Grand Dragon Hotel on this trip.