Forget all the azure shade pictures of Ladakh that keeps popping up across various sites and your social media feed. Welcome to the extreme offbeat season of Ladakh. It’s officially winter time and Ladakh is put to sleep with a blanket of white. There’s a quiet on the road, the lakes have frozen and are still, the brown slopes of the surrounding mountains are hardly visible and the tourists have vanished. It’s a completely different feeling and a new way to look at Ladakh – secluded and peaceful. This winter journey takes you across the Khardung La to Nubra and as far as the last village of India, Turtuk. You get to see the frozen Pangong Tso and the Ancient monasteries of Hemis and Thiksey. Come see Ladakh in monochrome.
Look out the window as you make your way into Kashmir. The views will keep you entertained till you land at the airport. Check in to your hotel and rest. Drink lots of water and in the afternoon head out for a small and relaxed tour of Leh.
Drive through Ladakh’s majestic mountains covered in white, down to Shanti Stupa. The epitome of peace and harmony, Shanti Stupa’s white dome stands tall on a raised pedestal against brilliant blue skies. At 3,609 metres above sea level, the stupa offers unparalleled panoramic views of Leh town. Usually a lovely green in summer, the trees here turn leafless and brown in winter.
Leh Palace and Market
Head back to the 17th century Leh Palace with the aura of erstwhile royalty that surrounds it. The Archaeological Survey of India is now slowly restoring this 9-storied palace, and work is still in progress today. Modelled on Potala Palace in Tibet’s Lhasa, Leh Palace offers unhindered views of the Indus river, Stok Kangri peak and the mighty Zanskar range beyond it. Move on to the bustling Leh market area, like most Tibetan markets across the country, but with clearly a lot more authenticity. Very few shops remain open in winters but it’s worth the visit.
Ensure you hit the sack early after dinner. These rugged barren mountains, at phenomenal heights, require enough time for you to get used to them before you begin exploring the next day.
Shey Palace and Monastery
Begin your day out in Leh with a quick breakfast before the 15-kilometre drive to Ladakh’s summer capital, Shey. Perched on a hillock, from afar, Shey Palace and the Shey Monastery, seem impervious to time that has passed since 1655. Once you get closer, however, the effects are clearly visible with the palace partly in ruins. The monastery is another story altogether, still maintained with the same vigour as it was before the Dogras invaded in 1842. With the second largest statute of Buddha in the Ladakh region, the monastery’s main attraction is this 12-metre tall statue of Shakyamuni Buddha that occupies three floors
Thiksey and Hemis Monastery
Drive on to Thiksey monastery, about 4 kilometres away. Now one of Leh’s largest monasteries, there is a separate residential building for females as well. With fascinating wall paintings throughout the 12-storey complex, stupas, thangka paintings, statues and numerous artefacts make for a very interesting visit.If you’re lucky enough to be visiting in October-November, the monastery turns vibrant with Cham dance performances where monks in masks depict incidents from Padmasambhava, the 9th century Nyingmapa teacher, and other saints.
The scenic last leg of the day’s visits takes you through the valley’s rugged terrain over 25 kilometres from Thiksey to Hemis. Hemis Monastery, unlike most of Ladakh’s other monasteries, isn't visible from afar. Built on a hill, hemmed between lofty mountains, Hemis is literally India’s Shangri-La. Although founded in 1672, Hemis monastery is said to have existed before the 11th century.
Sangam and Gurudwara Patthar Sahib
Clearly not as chaotic as Allahabad’s Prayag, the confluence of rivers here in Ladakh is a big draw for its serenity set in stunning landscape. A drive of nearly 48 kilometres from Leh town would take you to the point where the rivers Indus and Zanskar meet. Just before Sangam, get up close and personal with the super-charged famed magnetic hill. Watch your eyes deceive you as a car climbs up without any thrust on seemingly uphill tarmac. Muddy waters of the Zanskar merge with the turquoise blue of the Indus to flow westwards. The Indus’ turquoise shade disappears as it assumes the brown-tinged colour of the Zanskar here. Head back to Leh with a pit stop at the revered Gurudwara Patthar Sahib. The large boulder at one end of the gurudwara has a seemingly hollow impression of a person. Sikhs believe this to be Guru Nanak’s impression from when a demon who terrorized the area pushed a boulder onto him. This large stone then ended up with a dent while the Guru remained unscathed. Discovered in the 1970's while building a road, the boulder has now been placed in the Gurdwara maintained by the Indian Army.
Alchi and Likir
Drive down to the floodplains of Alchi which most probably will be covered in with a blanket of snow. Although relatively smaller than other monasteries, Alchi monastery is said to be one of the oldest in the region (founded in the late 10th century AD). Kashmiri influences are clearly visible in the main halls and the walls that include paintings of Hindu kings from those times. Prayers are no longer performed here, and the monastery is governed by the Likir monastery.
Spituk and Hall of Fame
Moving on, on the highway back to Leh, is the earthy Spituk Gompa Monastery. This lovely 11th century monastery overlooks Leh airport’s airstrip on one side and the gorgeous Indus on the other. Home to about 100 monks, ancient masks, beautiful thangka paintings, miniature chortens and idols adorn the halls here. A little higher up is the Mahakal Temple with its veiled Vajrabhairava deity; witness its unveiling if you do visit in January for the festival here.
End this fascinating day with an inspirational visit to the Hall of Fame. Constructed in memory of Indian soldiers who have lost their lives in India-Pakistan wars, the memorial has information on the wars fought, the soldiers and their sacrifices, and some artillery used in the Kargil war.
Nubra Valley – Diskit Monastery
A quick morning breakfast later, begin the scenic drive to Nubra valley via Khardung La to the sand dunes of Hunder. Narrowly missing being the world’s highest motorable pass, by a couple of hundred feet, Khardung-La at 5300 metres above msl (modern data puts it at 5359) is one of Ladakh’s best known secrets. A couple of lovely photographs later, descend to Nubra Valley. The drive does get relatively more comfortable after North Pullu with better roads as the valley opens up.
Make your way towards the spectacular Diskit Monastery, crossing the quaint Khardung village. Precariously perched higher up, this 14th century monastery is home to over 100 Yellow Hat, Gelupa monks. Past stones engraved with Buddhist prayers and white chortens towards the monastery school run with aid from NGOs. Step out for stunning views of the Shyok river the floodplains below with the sand dunes of Hunder beyond.
Hunder Sand Dunes
Move on about 7 kilometres to the sand dunes of Hunder. The interesting two-humped Bactrian camels here are ready for rides across the sand dunes. Impressive views of grey dunes, the glacial river and rugged snow-capped mountain peaks set Hunder in a league of its own here in Ladakh. Hunder, apart from housing the mandatory gompa with ruins of a once majestic King's ‘elephant’ palace, is a charming little village with several shrines higher up.
With a long day of travelling ahead, begin with a hearty breakfast before heading on the 80-odd kilometres deeper into the Shyok valley. Stunning views of the river running parallel along the roadside with towering mountains ahead and rare patches of green fields make superb photographs. India’s last major settlement, Turtuk, is predominantly Muslim-dominated but does have a couple of gompas overlooking the Shyok as well. Listen close as locals here speak the interesting Balti language that uses old Tibetan sounds no longer used in modern Tibetan.
Stop for an authentic local lunch at this little hamlet and spend some time here before the journey back to Hunder.
Another long day of travel today. A relatively smooth ride, set off after breakfast for a journey that could take over 7 hours, depending on how often you stop for photographs. Pass through quaint hamlets and vast open stretches before the ascent to Chang La pass. At 5360 metres, expect a fairly steep approach to this high altitude pass. Marmots here are incredibly used to humans and although they come close, as tempted as you are, do not feed them in accordance with forest department laws. In winters though they might not come out of their burrows. Reach Pangong Tso and experience the frozen lake. Only unfrozen in small parts, we would not encourage a walk on it owing to environmental concerns.
This unbelievably lovely 604 sq km lake is partly in India and China as well.
Drive to Leh after spending some time here.
A winter in Ladakh is sure to stir your soul and will want the same Ladakh in the summers as well – quaint and in all its glory. You’d say goodbye to a Ladakh, much different from what you have heard or seen. It is not as seen on TV.