Leh in Winters! A day trip!
January 16, 2019
Winters vacations were fast approaching and planning for them was keeping me busy. The diverse locations like Jaipur, Manali, Kausani, Srinagar, Shillong, Sikkim were being popped up by my family members and friends. With New Year round the corner I knew all these destinations will be brimming with tourists. Leh cropped up as I knew it is quite remote and with no tourists there I might get everything very cheap.
Few Google searches and all my convictions were quickly put to rest. On the contrary to my belief, the travel, the stay and everything at Leh was more or at par with summer tariffs. Luckily I got a good bargain at Make My Trip with my round trip from Delhi to Leh costing Rs. 7000 per person [Return fare was nearly 3 times of to fare….Strange!] and my stay at Ladakh View Home Stay costing Rs. 3000 per night. I assure the readers that it has been the most expensive trip for me and after finalizing the deal, I was not sure whether I have made a good decision.
Only after I had made the bookings I went into the micro details of Leh in winters. Sadly, the internet inputs did not help my optimism a bit. The weather is always below freezing point, the locals are all gone, the markets are shut, no water and in addition my friends and family members’ views were even more discouraging. I was even ready to cancel the bookings altogether even though I would have made huge losses, especially in air ticket cancellations. I did find some support and positivity from some blogs like that of Vargis Khan and my brother and finally I resolved, come what may, I am going!
29 December: Off to Delhi from Lucknow via Lucknow Agra Expressway and Agra NOIDA express-way to catch early flight to LEH.
30 December: Our flight departed on schedule at 7:15 am. All the flights to Leh depart in the morning. To our surprise, the flight was packed to the last seat, not because of tourists but because of Locals and Army men as all the roads to Leh are closed in winters. Within an hour we were at Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport. The first glimpse of Leh makes you realize the contrast of grey desert of the valley with the surrounding white snow clad mountains.
As you move out of the plane, the first whiff of air that brushes your face is a stiff reminder of how your stay is going to be. We were all prepared as we had carried our gloves and caps in our hand bags. The Airport is small and maintained by the Army and no photographs are allowed. Mr. Mansoor [of home stay] had pre booked the taxi for us. The driver, Dharma was waiting for us with his Maruti Omni.
The temperature was -20 degrees Celsius but the sun was shining brightly. The bright blue sky and the glistening mud coloured buildings with colorful woodwork were some of the first noticeable things enroute as our cab traversed the winding streets of Leh. Within 10 minutes we were at our Ladakh View home stay and it was only 9:00 am.
We were welcomed by Mr. Mansoor and his family. He was surprisingly curious to know why we had planned our trip in winters. We observed the inside of our room which was large but chilled. It was neat, tidy, without TV and had blankets, quilts, an electric blanket, an electric kettle and a room heater. The main entrance to the rooms had a thick warm curtain. Everything to keep out cold but it somehow crept in. The bathroom was fully equipped but the pipelines were frozen. We were provided with 2 cans of warm water for the toilets and jug of warm water to drink. We were strictly advised not to venture outside by Mansoor’s wife for the day so that our bodies can acclimatize with the cold and less oxygen. Within minutes we were in the warmth of our beds with heaters fully on for a small nap.
By noon we were awake and fresh. Temperature had gone up to -8 degrees. We realized we were breathing deep but that happens on the first day. We had hot black tea on the rooftop as we soaked our eyes and hearts with the beautiful sights of Leh. Gleaming Leh palace and Tsemo Maitreya Temple on one side and Leh town with minarets of Jama Masjid reaching tall to the bright blue sky on the other but the silence was deafening. It was heavenly and I wondered why nobody dares to come here in winters.
Brimming with excitement we decided to venture out against the wishes of my home stay guardian [not advisable if not feeling fit and comfortable]. As we walked down to the Leh main market which was barely 100 meters, the frozen drains and ice chunks on the sides of the narrow lanes were a firm reminder that we needed, and we were, to be fully draped in warm clothes from head to toe [for details of clothing read preparations].
The market was neat and plush and was vivacious with good crowd. Half of the shops were shut but try to analyze it as half glass full. Big showrooms, travel agencies, coffee shops, bye lanes originating from the market with small shacks, peoples whom you think you saw them on the flight, everything was so lively. We walked into New Wazwan planet restaurant at the end of the market and had light but delicious vegetarian lunch [remember eating light on first day]. It serves authentic kashmiri dishes and is economical too.
We had a short stroll in the market and with the sun going down the market wore a deserted look quite early. With nothing else to do we made our way back to our home stay. We all had simple dinner of dal and chapattis provided by Mansoor’s family. My wife had mild headache and Mansoor’s wife immediately checked our oxygen levels and assured us that there was nothing to worry about. We went to sleep early as we learnt that there is power cut from midnight to 5 am everyday.
31 December: We have booked Dharma for local sightseeing. He was there at 10:15 am. The thermometer was showing us -16 but with sun shining brightly it felt better. We crossed the town and moved towards the east of Leh on Leh Srinagar highway. Our stops [in same order] were:
The Hall of Fame: As you move 4 kilometers out of the town, near the airport, the constructions now sparse and you get the real feel of the valley, you come across a magnificent memorial aptly named Hall of fame. We purchased the tickets for Rs. 20 each and extra Rs. 20 for still camera [videography costs Rs. 100]. The park has memorials of brave soldiers who gave away their lives in Indo Pak wars of 1948, 1965, 1971, Sino Indian War of 1962 and Kargil War of 1999. The place is truly inspirational as my son saw the real guns, mortars, radios, transmitters and other equipments for the first time and expressed his sincere desire to join army in future. There is a small park too where he enjoyed monkey bridge, rope mesh climbing, tunnel crawling along with some vintage Enfield bike and Shaktiman trucks.
Spituk Monastery: Further 4 kilometers from Hall of Fame in the same direction and we were at Spituk Gompa also known as Spituk Monastery or Pethup Gompa. A small flight of stairs and we were at the Buddhist monastery, said to have been built in 11th century. The monastery houses nearly 100 monks, although we saw only few, and a giant statue of Kali which is unveiled only for 3 days in the year [we were lucky we visited it in those 3 days]. From the top we got the beautiful view of frozen river Indus.
Gurudwara Patthar Sahib: About 30 Kilometers drive in the vast open dusky brown valleys of Ladakh and 20 minutes later we arrived at Gurudwara Patthar Sahib. It was like a colourful oasis in the barren lands. It is a sacred place as it commemorates the visit of Guru Nanak Ji to Ladakh in 1517. It also houses a boulder said to have imprints of Guru Nanak Ji’s head, shoulders and back as it was hurled towards him with bad intent by a demon but he turned it into wax.
There is a folklore associated with this place of Lord Nanak neutralizing a demon of the place which is engraved on a metallic board inside the Gurudwara. The fact is while constructing the Leh Nimo road, army came across a huge boulder which they could not move inspite of best of their efforts. It was then the locals told them about the auspiciousness of the boulder and the Gurudwara was constructed in 1970. Since then army maintains the Gurudwara which remains open throughout the day.
We offered our prayers before the holy rock and received the karah Prasad [halwa]. After darshans, we sat down in the langar where we were served with chapattis, rice, dal and chhole paneer. It must have been the most scrumptious lunch I have had in a long time.
Magnetic Hill: Further 4 Kilometers on Leh Kargil road and we reached Magnetic Hill also known as Gravity Hill. It is one of the 3 Cyclops Hill in India. Located at 14000 ft whether it is mysterious or illusion but for us it seemed real. Our driver stopped his van on the road and it seemed to be pulled back uphill.
Sangam Point: Another 4 Kilometers and we were at the confluence of river Indus and river Zanskar also known as Sangam point. Last day of the year and the rivers were frozen. With hardly any humans around, high hills, -10 degree temperature, clear blue sky with bright sun hanging atop and stream of icy river beneath, it was mesmerizing. For an hour or so we just enjoyed walking on snow with our shoes making crunching noise and slipping occasionally.
Shanti Stupa: In our return leg our final halt was at Shanti Stupa. A relatively new white stupa was built in 1991 by a Buddhist from Japan. As it stands on a hilltop in Chanspa at a height of 11800 ft the air was chilled and we had to hurry back after doing a quick parikrama.
As the sunset approached fast we made our way back to our home stay with a brief halt at a natural skating rink just before Leh where we had coffee and enjoyed watching locals doing ice skating and playing Ice Hockey. We paid Rs. 2800 to Dharma as taxi fare for the round trip. He had been a wonderful guide. In the evening we enjoyed momos while we were served chapattis, ladakhi bread, lentils and vermicelli-potato vegetable in dinner. Thereafter we slept deep after a busy day well spent.
For Day 2 read the next blog: Winters in Leh – Pangong Lake