The first question everyone will ask you and there cardinality and persistence will force you at some stage to question yourself, why going to Leh in winters? Why December, January, February etc.? Why not the regular summer months? I will try to answer the question from 2 different aspects.
KNOW LEH & LADAKH
Ladakh, is a Persian transliteration of the Tibetan word, La-dvags meaning, land of high passes. And you wonder, passes to where and why? History says that only about 70 years ago, Ladakh was strategically located at the crossroads of important trade routes but with rising tensions over Aksai Chin, China has closed the Tibetan borders. Now these passes are good for reaching out to the remote destinations of Ladakh, tourism and military movements.
Even today, it is connected through Punjab, Lahaul and Spiti via Rohtang Pass, It is also connected directly to Kashmir valley and Indus valley through Zoji La pass, It has direct road links to Baltistan, Skardu, Yarkand [via karakoram pass], Xaidulla and even to Lhasa.
Leh is the largest town of Ladakh and used to be its capital. Interestingly it is a Tibetan alphabet, ‘གླེ’. Another place near Leh, Shey which is now on the outskirts of Leh [nearly 15 Kms] was the capital of the Ladakh royal family. Leh’s population comprises mainly of Buddhists and Muslims with around 12% of Hindus.
FIRST, WHY NOT TO VISIT LEH IN SUMMERS?
Ask yourself, why you would NOT visit Manali, Shimla or Nainital in summers? Coz of maddening crowd, snarling traffic, honking, jostling, and so much of hubbub that you forget the beauty of the place and instead worry about straining out of the swarm of humans and vehicles. Why expect Leh to be different? Leh is a small valley that has seen a sudden spurt of vehicle registrations in last 5 years. Add to it the unplanned construction work to meet the tourist influx without forgetting that the place is a desert. This means that every SUV and vehicle that zooms in Leh adds to the increase in pollution [SP count].
With Leh becoming easily accessible by road and otherwise, the locals may be enjoying the increase in their business but the eco system of the place is in disarray. In summers, you may experience the heights, the scenes, the cold but you will miss the innocence, the serenity, the divinity and the soul. So why be a part of crowd, do something different.
SECOND, WHY VISIT LEH IN WINTERS?
Visit If you want to be different and you want to feel the connect with the valley. You wish to experience Leh not as any other getaway destination but as a unique terrain with its inimitable eco system, divinity and distinctiveness. Yes! It is freezing cold, around 15 degree below 0 but remember, life never freezes at Leh. Some of the families do migrate to warmer pastures but most of the locals remain. The local markets are bustling though half of the plush Leh main market is shut.
C’mon, where else in India you will find the maximum temperature of the day in negative. Even when you go for excursions to far off and even colder places around Leh, you are surprised with the resilience of Ladakhi natives as they dot the landscape.
Tourism has increased manifold at Leh. Winters are no longer synonym of Chaddar Trek. The connecting roads from Manali and Srinagar are closed and that means no zipping mad max bikers, no 4 X 4 SUVs with deepest of bass one can imagine, no beer spilling young crowd and no frenzy. You can only reach Leh through flight which is regular and many. As you alight at Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, you will immediately feel the calm of silence. The roads from Leh to Nubra Valley, Pangong lake and nearby are always open even in extreme winters thanks to Indian Army and BRO.
Lastly, remember, Leh is a desert. It never rains or snows at Leh [in valley]. Although in last few years the valley has experienced some erratic rain and snowfall thanks to global warming but even that is short and infrequent. So in winters, even when the temperature is in negative you can still enjoy the sun throughout the day.
Avoid winters of Leh if you are physically unfit, asthmatic or have a tendency to catch cold easily. You can take your family too but not infants and old peoples. If you are fit plan your trip in winters for an experience of lifetime but remember, you have to be disciplined. Your first day should be reserved for acclimatization. You will experience deep breathing but that is natural as your body is getting used to rare air. Keep your ears, head, hands and feet covered always. Also, be prepared for days without a bath .
PLAN FOR LEH IN WINTERS
Weather: Check out the weather of the days of your trip at www.accuweather.com . Forget the temperatures as it will range between -5 and -22 degrees and concentrate on the sunshine. Plan you itinerary in such a way that all the days of your trip have clear sky and plenty of sunshine.
Stay: Before booking a hotel read its reviews, enquire for the room warming facilities, water provisions, electric blankets and payment mode. Some prefer booking directly rather than through Make My Trip etc. My advice, go for home stays. I had a good experience at Ladakh View Home stay. This way you will always get warm water for daily chores, good number of quilts and blankets, room heaters and even electric blanket. Always ask for their advice and heed to it. In my case the lady checked our oxygen level on our first evening of stay.
Food: Avoid eating heavy in first leg of your trip to avoid risk of indigestion. We had poha, bread toasts etc for breakfasts and roti and chapattis for lunch and dinner. In the last few days we enjoyed non veg, ladakhi bread [fermented roti], and kashmiri cuisine [at Wazwan Planet in Leh market].
Water: Drink lots of water to keep yourself hydrated and to maintain normal oxygen level. If not warm have couple of sips of cold water at regular intervals [Home stay provides you with electric kettle too]. You can also enjoy hot black tea [provided to us free of cost whenever we asked for it at our home stay] and the regular tea with milk, referred to as Lipton tea.
Clothing: It needs to be warm all the times. 2 sweaters and 1 good quality jacket or 1 high neck sweater and couple of jacket whichever is comfortable for you. Thermocot inner wear especially beneath thick trouser or jeans. Quality sports shoes with warm socks. Your toes will freeze nevertheless even after you have put 2 socks together. Rexene/ leather hand gloves [with warm fur lining] and monkey caps are a must and don’t forget the shades [goggles].
Psyche: It is all in your mind. Believe in yourself. Every one will question your wisdom not only at your native place but even in Leh. Tell them you are different and you were born to explore. There are many who visit Leh in cold season and you will get good company. You might [I never did] feel mild headache on first evening at Leh. It is normal. Relate it to the local person. If somebody does fall sick take him/ her to the local hospital which is open 24*7 and medication is free [Only Rs. 4 for registration].
Best of Luck!!!
For more do read my personal experience ‘LEH in winters’
I am grateful to Vargis Khan whose blog induced positivism and encouraged me to visit Ladakh in winters!!