With its predominantly black and white landscape, snow-capped mountains, frozen lakes, rivers and tree skeletons alongside winding roads, Ladakh in winter becomes a photographer’s canvas. Fuelled by the mind-numbing cold, the experience is nothing short of spiritual, and to me it was the perfect time to capture the transient nature of the mountains.
The scenes that Ladakh offers during summers and winters are at two ends of the spectrum, and they simply cannot be compared. The mud-brown mountains, blue lakes, rivers and the colourful vegetation that one might savour during summer are buried beneath a thick white blanket of snow during winter. All activities reduce to a bare minimum at this time of the year and a strange sense of solitude and silence takes over the entire region, as people spend most of their time indoors to keep warm from the vicious cold outside. During winter, all roads that connect Ladakh to the rest of the country are blocked due to heavy snowfall. While the most common route used is via Rohtang Pass from Manali, the only way to reach Ladakh in winter is by air. One can either fly into Leh town from Delhi or Jammu.
Leh is the largest and most developed settlement in Ladakh with the only army airport in the region that allows commercial airliners to operate. Due to availability of basic supplies, Leh is the most favourable place to set up your base, as from here you can travel to Nubra valley, Tso Moriri Lake and other accessible places by road.
And, as you travel from Leh to Nubra, the landscape transforms mysteriously before your eyes. From snow-capped mountains of Leh valley, you suddenly find yourself surrounded by barren mountains and rich brown valleys that mimic the perfect Afghan terrain. The magical co-existence of sand dunes and sand storms with the frozen Nubra River adds to the mystique of Nubra Valley. In summer, Bactrian camels are a common sight here. The drive to Tso Moriri from Leh is a lovely lonesome journey along the frozen Indus River. Unfortunately, I got stuck in a snow storm 15km ahead of Tso Moriri and had to turn around.
But getting stuck in the storm is probably one of the best things that happened on the journey because I ended up spending the night in a small town filled with Tibetan refugees called Sumudu.
Five of us got a room for the night with a bukhari (heater) and food (noodles and mutton thukpa). This unexpected stay at Sumudu gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of villagers and document their lives and stories. Capturing the life of Himalayan people during harsh winters provides a surprising and fresh perspective to the now-popular tourist destination.
Because of the neighbouring Sino-Indian border, there is a very strong Army presence in the region and most of the tourist sites come under army restricted areas. One has to get a clearance letter from the army office in Leh town before venturing out. You can save a lot of time and trouble by approaching a tourist guide to help you with your travelling. The local people hold army personnel in high regard for the work they do in protecting them, and for building and maintaining roads to remote towns located in the different valleys of Ladakh. We were told that especially during winter, the sparse and scattered settlements in the valleys depended entirely on the army to keep the roads operational for them to receive food supplies.
Despite the harsh conditions, the local market is fully operational and bustling with activity. However, most of the guesthouses and lodges shut down during winters, while a few hotels stay open at higher rates. For someone looking for a rustic experience, you could always stay with a local family as a paying guest. Many of the local Buddhist families have two or three rooms attached to their houses that are let out to tourists from time to time.
Hot homemade food and the warmth with which the local folks accept you are humbling experiences; and also provide the much-needed relief from the relentless winter cold. When on the move, don’t expect to indulge in a four-course meal. Due to shortage of fresh food, most places serve Maggi noodles for vegetarians and mutton thukpa for non-vegetarians.
A few tourists can be seen around the town and most of them find their way to Ladakh looking for extreme adventures like the snow leopard safari and the 105 km-long Chadar trek over the frozen Zangskar River. The weather is unpredictable, and you never know how many detours may come your way. So Ladakh during winter is best suitable for those who are not sticklers for on-the-dot plans and immovable itineraries.
And remember, a trip to Ladakh in winter warrants a certain amount of caution. Always travel in a group of three to four people and never venture out without a local guide and driver, because the locals know the terrain and are more mentally and physically capable of handling unexpected situations.
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