I had my third tryst with Leh Ladakh in February 2017. This small hill town is the headquarters of Ladakh in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. What set this visit apart was that it happened in winter, which is not the usual tourist season in Ladakh.
Winter in Ladakh
Winters in Ladakh are harsh. Temperatures drop to -25°C and pipelines freeze. Most hotels cannot offer running water or heating facilities. So, they shut up shop until summer. After dark, Leh turns into a veritable ghost town.
Yet, winter is perhaps the best time to visit Leh-Ladakh nowadays. That is because at this time, Leh goes back to being the quaint little town it once used to be. Leh in summer is really popular with tourists so it gets pretty crowded and the atmosphere is very different. So visiting Leh in winter was great.
View of Leh from the Namgyal Tsemo temple
Where to stay in Leh Ladakh
We stayed at Singge Palace this time. It is one of the few hotels in Leh which offer central heating and running hot water in winter—apart from good food and a great view from the rooms.
The view from our room in Singge Palace
During my last visit, I had stayed in Nezer Holiday Inn. Nezer was open, too, and the owner invited us in for a cup of ‘kahwa’—Kashmiri spiced tea. Nezer is a great budget option. But you have to make do with bucket showers, and a gas heater, a hot-water bag, and blankets to keep warm at night.
Leh Ladakh Trip Itinerary – Day 1
9 am: Climbing to Leh Palace and Namgyal Tsemo Temple
After spending the mandatory ‘acclimatization day’ in the hotel, we decided to climb to the Leh Palace and the Namgyal Tsemo Temple the next morning.
Leh Palace Namgyal Tsemo Temple View of Shanti Stupa from Namgyal Tsemo Temple
Leh Palace is a quintessential Ladakhi structure, marked by the ceiling of willow branches supported by the broader poplar beams. The walls are of a sandy colour—the same as that of the mountains. The doors and windows are painted a bright reddish brown.
The Namgyal Tesmo Temple is a small shrine on a hilltop above Leh Palace. The views of Leh town, the Shanti Stupa, and the mountains we got from there made it worth the climb.
11 am: Enjoying the Leh Dosmoche Festival
We came down in time for the Dosmoche Festival at Leh Palace. This was its second and final day. With the sound of Tibetan Buddhist cymbals and horns, several lamas, some of them masked, came out of the palace with a sacred totem. Dosmoche Festival is one of the more interesting things to do in Leh Ladakh.
They carried it down to the Leh market as we—the tourists and devotees—followed. Down in the market, with thousands of people watching, the lamas carried out some more rituals before returning to the monastery.
The Leh Dosmoche Festival
1.30 pm: A fabulous ‘wazwan’ lunch
Not many restaurants in Leh remain open in winter. We came across one called New Wazwan Planet and decided to try it out. It turned out to be fantastic!
Photo credit: Sumit Kesarkar (@lensonearth)
Some ‘wazwan’ delicacies at New Wazwan Planet. The dish on the extreme right in the topmost photo is the rista.
‘Wazwan’ is the wedding feast of the Kashmiris and contains the best dishes they can offer. One of them is ‘rista’—meatballs in gravy. I tried it out with ‘rotis’ (flat bread). It was delicious.
3 pm: Shopping at the Leh Fair
The heart of the town had been transformed into a huge fairground because of the festival. Mainly garments, woollens, and food were being sold, and people gambled in the open. We did a spot of shopping at the fair to get some souvenirs from our Leh Ladakh trip. It was also cool to see the locals doing their thing.
At the fair
Leh Ladakh Trip Itinerary – Day 2
9 am: Enjoying the view from Chang La
On day 2 of our Leh Ladakh trip, we left Leh at 7 am for the frozen Pangong Tso (lake). It was quite a thrilling ride through the snowscape. Our first stop was Chang La at 17,688 feet, one of the highest motorable passes in the world. It was bitterly cold but the views were amazing.
11.30 am: Photography at Pangong Tso
The frozen Panggong Lake Kiang, the Tibetan wild ass
Pangong is famous for the multiple hues of blue in its water. We had seen that on our summer visits. This time, we photographed the frozen Pangong. On the way, we also came across the kiang, the Tibetan wild ass. Sadly, the marmots, which are common in summer, were missing.
3.30 pm: A prayer at Thiksey Monastery
The 49 foot Buddha statue at Thiksey Monastery
Thiksey is one of the largest monasteries in Ladakh. It is designed after the Potala Palace in Lhasa. It was humbling to stand once again in front of its 49-ft Maitreya Buddha statue.
4.45 pm: The enchanting Shey Palace
This palace is not a grand structure. But its dark interiors and the way it seems to have been carved out of the mountain have always enchanted me. We spent about 20 minutes there before driving back to Leh.
My 48 hours in Leh were up, and the next morning, we left for Hemis National Park in search of the snow leopard. Would we see the famously elusive big cat of the Himalayas? Who knew! In a magical land like Ladakh, anything is possible.