Photographs: VASANTH GOPALAKRISHNAN
Visiting Ladakh in the winter is like being served an exotic dish at an affordable price. If you can plan in advance, and I mean well in advance, you could practically have this mystical heaven on Earth almost to yourself.
My wife and I fulfilled our dream of visiting Ladakh last year in December, known to be the peak winter month there. When we landed in Leh, the pilot announced that the outside temp was -17° C. We were momentarily stunned, but, putting our faith in the multiple layers of woollens we were wearing, we braved the weather. We realized that sub-zero temperatures were par for the course of life in Leh. In fact, Drass, a place that holds the record for being the second-coldest inhabited place on Earth, is located just 277km from Leh. Still, once you overcome your anxieties about the weather, you stand to experience a region dotted with barren mountains, towering Buddha statues, centuries-old monasteries and tonnes of snow; landscapes sprinkled with snow like powdered sugar on a scrumptious brownie. And, because people less doughty than you stay away because of the cold, Leh is almost empty, yours to enjoy in peace and tranquillity. In fact, many locals move to warmer regions like Srinagar, but the roads in and around Leh remain open. As we scaled higher altitudes towards Khardung-La, however, we saw a lot of snow on the road. At 18,379 feet above sea level, Khardung-La is considered the world’s highest motorable road. At the peak of winter, the wind speed is so powerful that you could literally be swept off your feet.
My wife and I also experienced many new things in Ladakh – diesel freezing in one of the tourist cabs due to the cold, our own cab driver lighting a stove underneath his car to warm the fuel pipe. We had our share of adventure on our way to Nubra Valley; the road just after Khardung-La was hit by a snowslide and we were stuck for nearly three hours in the open while the temperature dipped down to -27° C. We just about survived, but the locals cheerfully got around to clearing the snow from the road; they all had shovels in their cars.
The grand finale came in Leh where, suddenly, people from all around thronged for Losar. Ladakhis defer the new year celebrations by a day and have these festivities around January 2 and 3. On the night of January 2, we were speechless as we watched locals marching through the market skillfully swinging huge balls of fire. The next morning, dressed in beautiful Ladakhi attire, they performed a ritualistic dance. We consider ourselves privileged to have witnessed this celebration.