ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY fuse snow travel with slow travel as they discover an icy realm of frozen rivers and waterfalls with authentic Ladakhi hospitality
“Why have you come to Ladakh in winter? Why??” the old monk at Chemrey monastery asked exasperatedly, twitching his toes and shaking his head in disbelief. Clearly, travelling this far in non-tourist season wasn’t the done thing. Snug in our thermals and jackets, we stood laughing in the freezing courtyard and shot back, “So we could have the Buddha all to ourselves!” Selfish as it may sound, the lack of tourists and the absence of Royal Enfields echoing through the valley did accentuate the silent desolate beauty of Ladakh.
Many are daunted by Ladakh’s unforgiving terrain and temperatures of up to -25 in winter, but the truly adventurous swear it is the perfect time for rarer thrills. They come in Jan-Feb for the Chadar trek from Chilling on the frozen Zanskar River or the wildlife challenge in the rugged hills of Hemis to spot the enigmatic Snow Leopard. For those who don’t wish to undertake strenuous journeys, there are simple Ladakhi pleasures to be found.
There is an old saying in Ladakh that in this region of remote passes and mountains, only a good friend or a serious enemy will visit you. And what better way to get a sense of this harsh landscape than the flight from Delhi over Himalayan peaks, glaciers and frozen lakes? The full import of the air hostess’s nonchalant announcement that ‘the temperature outside was -10’ didn’t really strike us at Leh Airport, but high up at Chemrey Gompa, lashed by cold winds, we understood what sub zero was all about.
Just layering yourself with clothes, climbing a steep flight of steps or the effort in bending down to tie your shoelaces seemed like climbing Stok-Kangri, often leaving us with ragged breath. Fortunately, we had a few days to acclimatize. Smala, from the Forest Department gave an insightful presentation on the region’s wildlife at our hotel. Besides the apex species the shan (Snow Leopard), Ladakh is home to an impressive array of birds and mammals – kiang (Tibetan wild ass), wolf, ibex, sheep like bharal and urial, and marmots, best sighted on the Changthang plateau. Over time, many became intrinsic to Ladakhi culture, like the ubiquitous black-billed magpie, regarded as a messenger or a sign of guests coming home.
Stripped of their leaves, the skeletal forms of malchang (willow) and berfa (poplar) added an eerie touch to the landscape. Lakes had frozen into ice rinks where local boys enjoyed a round of ice hockey, a sport that was picking up in the region. The only thing that added colour to the bleak winter was the gustor (festival) at Spituk gompa. With prime terrace seats overlooking the central courtyard and a steep cliff behind us, we watched the twirling cham (masked) dancers. A large covered thangka stretching across three storeys of the gompa was unveiled to reveal Tsongkhapa, founder of the yellow hat Gelugpa sect.
The performance was riveting and our guide Tashi explained the nuances. The sword carried by the dancers was symbolic of a tool to cut ignorance, the skeleton figures denoted emptiness, the different colours symbolized the five elements and various attributes – blue was sky or power, white was cloud and peace, yellow was earth, green was water, red was fire. The highlight was Chhoshkyun, the red faced mask of the head of the gompa, in his fierce attribute.
Cosseted in woolen parkas, we sat around a bonfire as our host Danish Din Abdu shared the traditional thermal yardstick. “Chile kalan refers to 40 days of peak winter, Chile kurud is 20 days and Chile bacha is 10 days of milder cold.” With activity down to a bare minimum, the kitchen becomes the most integral part of the house. There is no running water; pipelines are emptied as water freezes and expands as ice, causing the pipes to burst. Family members huddle around the stove to keep warm with typical winter preparations.
After roasted marshmallows and grilled kebabs by the fire, we were invited for a traditional Ladakhi meal upstairs, served on low stools. Skiu is a hearty wheat pasta stew eaten during bitter cold months. The broth is made from mutton bones along with dried vegetables harvested in summer, to which meat and potatos can be added. As chhang (fermented barley drink) was poured into our kore (cups), Danish gave us a crash course in Ladakhi cuisine. Churpe (hard cheese), served as an instant snack, was presented in a pheypor or decorative lidded bowl, often used to store tsampa or barley. Another delicacy is timstuk, wheat flour made into thick strips and served as a soup with black gram. Usually made at homes, it is rare to find such dishes at restaurants in Leh.
The main course was more of an obstacle course as we tried everything from nang (Ladakhi sausage), shapta (meat curry), phingsha (keema with phing or glass noodles), even fried lungs! Vegetarians needn’t go weak-kneed as there’s plenty of great veg fare – phing alu or glass noodles with potato, taint (Ladakhi saag) and tingmo (Tibetan steamed buns). We thanked the shy cook Phuntsok Thundup profusely – perhaps the chhang had taken its toll. He was from Saini in Zanskar and was happy to learn that we’d be visiting Chilling the next day, the launch point for the Chadar or frozen river trek on the Zanskar.
The morning drive was extremely scenic – via Magnetic Hill and Gurudwara Patthar Sahib (where Guru Nanak had meditated and overcome a local demon) to Sangam, the confluence of the icy blue Zanskar river with the olive green Indus. A diversion to the left took us along the Zanskar – the river was frozen in parts and lacy sheets of ice wafted along its course.
Waterfalls stood frozen as if cast by a magic spell, glinting like icy sabre teeth. The road was blocked just short of Chilling, so we turned back and continued on the Leh-Kargil highway to Lamayuru. One look at the surreal landscape and you know why Ladakh is called Moon-land. Perched on rocky crags, the gompa offers stunning views all around.
Our driver Stanzin had an interesting analogy for the severity of the Ladakhi winter with respect to the timing of local festivals. “Spituk Gustor mein yak ka thand hota hai, Likir gustor pe bhed ka thand hota hai.” (Cold of the yak at Spituk gustor, cold of the sheep at Likir gustor).
We returned to Leh via Alchi. Unlike other gompas in Ladakh, the monastic complex was situated not on a hilltop but right in the heart of the village. It was built by noted 10th century scholar Rinchen Zangpo, called Lohtsawa (Great Translator) who disseminated Vajrayana Buddhism and erected 108 monasteries in the trans-Himalayan region. The features in the murals were distinct and we learnt that Kashmiri artists were employed to paint the walls; the paintings at Alchi are some of the oldest and most exquisite in Ladakh.
There were other signature experiences on offer. The serene prayer ceremony at Thikse Gompa was followed by a Ladakhi breakfast in a nearby home with salty gur-gur chai (yak butter tea), served with khambir (local bread). We learnt a little calligraphy from local artist Phunchok Chosgial who taught us how to write our name in Ladakhi. We even dropped by to meet Padma Lamu, an oracle from Chushul, who did a small prayer session at her house near Choglamsar and blessed us. With a costume change in local regalia, our Ladakhi transformation was complete.
Back at the hotel, Ghulam Mohiuddin, Danish’s father, now in his 50’s, reminisced about the old days when Ladakh had just opened to tourists in 1974. The first tourists (locals called them ‘hippies’ and followed them everywhere) were brought to Leh in special buses from Srinagar. Back then, the Manali-Leh highway didn’t exist (it was opened in 1989) and there were no hotels in town. The foundations of the hospitality industry were laid when the slightly affluent families were asked to host guests and build toilets for their comfort.
“My father was the manager, my mother was the cook and I was the errand boy. We did everything ourselves”, his voice quavered in emotion. From 500 tourists in the 70s to over 1.5 lakh tourists in 2014, the region had indeed come a long way. It was only in the hibernation of winter, devoid of mass tourism and package tours, that you get a sense of how things would have been in the old days… The weather may be cold in Ladakh, but the simple Ladakhis possess incredibly warm hearts.
With the Manali-Leh and Srinagar-Leh highways closed in winter, the only access to Ladakh is flying to Leh. Most internal roads within Ladakh are open, except the route to Pangong Tso, Nubra Valley and Tso Moriri, which can be blocked due to heavy snowfall.
Where to Stay
The Grand Dragon Ladakh
Leh’s plushest hotel that’s centrally heated, serves terrific food and stays open all year round with great views of the Stok Kangri range. Winter packages offer great value (3N/4D for just Rs.22,999 per person, valid Dec 1-Mar 31)
Ph +91 9906986782, 9622997222 www.thegranddragonladakh.com
Located 7km from Leh in Saboo village, Odpal George’s resort has 15 cozy cottages with traditional Ladakhi architecture and cuisine.
Ph +91-9419179742, 9419231374 www.sabooresorts.com
Located between 9000-15,000 ft, Ladakh is a high altitude cold desert with rare air. Winters are characterized by low levels of oxygen and temperatures ranging between -10 to -25 degrees. Make sure to carry enough warm clothing, jackets, woolen caps, thermals, mufflers and gloves. Keep head and ears protected at all times and avoid stepping out with wet hair.
Take it easy for the first day or two for the body to acclimatize due to sudden change in altitude. Watch out for headaches, dizziness and breathlessness. Get a precautionary health checkup. If SPO2 or oxygen level in the blood is below 90%, you’ll need supplemental oxygen. For low blood pressure, pop Diamox, a blood thinner, twice a day (after meals). Drink lots of water, preferably warm, with a diet rich in fat and protein. Regularly munch on dry fruits to keep energy levels up.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 13 March, 2016 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.