An overwhelmingly white landscape topped up with snow covered mountains, frozen lakes and icy rivers, a winter visit to this desert Iceland is nothing short of a story book visit. You tend to forget the numbing cold, however, as you gaze into a vista so ethereal.
Unlike the large number of visitors that swarm the streets of Leh during the summer months, you are likely to encounter very few tourists in the chilly winter months when temperatures drop below freezing point. Very few albeit the most hardened tourists dare to make the winter plunge into Ladakh, both due to the extreme cold as well as the fact that most roads are snow bound and the only way to reach Leh is by air. The good news is that thanks to BRO (Border Roads Organization) most of the internal roads in Ladakh remain open even in winters; even the roads leading upto Khardung La and Pangong Tso are kept open throughout the year which makes it possible to capture the winter beauty of these natural wonders.
If you are planning a winter trip to Leh Ladakh, keep an extra day or two in the itinerary both for acclimatization purposes as well as to cover for changes in schedule due to snow bound roads and other unexpected delays. The best way to travel within Ladakh in winters is either to be part of a shared taxi or hire a private taxi for the purpose. Driving on snow covered roads in winter can be downright dangerous and best left to locals, so don’t attempt to do so unless you have prior experience.
While much of the itinerary depends on what kind of activities you plan to indulge in , for instance if you want to undertake the Chadar Trek then your itinerary will pretty much involve covering just that since it takes a good 5-6 days to cover the entire stretch. On the other hand if capturing the winter beauty of this Land of Passes is the purpose of your visit, the following itinerary should serve you well
Day 1: Arrive at Leh
You will feel the instant dip of temperature as soon as you land at the Kushok Bakula Rimpochhe Airport as the chilly winter winds hit your face. Hop into a taxi, (you won’t find many at this time in Leh since tourist season is over). Check in at the hotel and spend the afternoon napping in your room. Watch out for any symptoms of AMS including headache, nausea, vomiting and severe exhaustion among others. If you feel up to it, take a short leisurely trip to the local Leh Market, Leh Palace and if possible the Shanti Stupa
Day 2: Leh to Sham Valley Tour including a brief stop at Chilling
Since your body is yet to fully acclimatize to high altitude conditions, it is always advisable to spend the first couple of days at lower altitudes before venturing further up in the Himalayas. There are many interesting places to see on the way to Sham Valley including Magnetic Hills, Gurudwara Pather Sahib, Alchi Likir, Basgo Palace as well as the confluence of Zanskar and Indus river at Nimmu. Weather and your body permitting, take the route opposite the confluence to where the famous Chadar Trek begins. Try walking on the frozen Zanskar River for a short distance to get a first- hand experience of why the Chadar Trek draws trekkers from the world over. Return to Leh for an overnight stay
Day 3: Leh to Nubra Valley via Khardung La
Your body having acclimatized itself to low oxygen mountain heights, it is now safe to undertake the journey to the highest motorable road in the world, the Khardung La Pass and further on to Nubra Valley.
Kudos to the Indian army who work tirelessly to keep snow off the roads to ensure even remote villages deep within this Himalayan land have access to basic supplies. Crossing the highest pass in the world in the dead of winter is an experience in itself, the view of the mighty Himalayas with its snowcapped peaks and frozen valleys from atop the highest pass is a rare sight to behold and one that is going to stay with you long after the trip is over. As you approach towards Nubra valley, barren lonely mountains and brown valleys make their way into the landscape as do sand dunes and sometimes sand storms. The famous Bactrian camels, a familiar sight in summer months is no longer to be seen on the deserted snow covered sands of Hunder. Make a night halt at Diskit. Prior booking is advised as not many options for accommodation remain open in winter months. Visit the Diskit monastery famous for its statue of the future Buddha, also called “Maitreyi” before retiring for the night.
Day 4: Return to Leh
Visit the snow covered sand dunes of Hunder and Panamik Hot water Springs before heading back to Leh.
Day 5: Leh to Pangong Tso
This is likely to be the most nerve wrecking part of your trip into Ladakh so far as crossing the steep slopes of Chang La Pass even in the summer months is no joke. In winters the slippery snow covered surface taxes the skills of even the most experienced drivers. But once you cross the Chang La Pass there is beauty to behold like none other. The frozen Pangong Tso lake bordered by the majestic Himalayas offers a view so beautifully unscripted, it is like nature has woven a magic wand over this pristine white land. Since accommodation around Pangong Tso are virtually non-existent in winter, make your night stay at Tangste, some 50 kms before Pangong Tso for the night.
Day 6: Pangong to Tso Moriri
Weather permitting travel to Tso Moriri in Changthang region for a drive that is even more panoramic. Tso Moriri is located at a higher altitude than even Pangong Lake, so only a brief halt is advisable before descending to Chumathang for the night.
Day 7: Tso Moriri to Leh
Day 8: Leh to Lamayuru and back to Leh
The drive from Leh to Lamayuru takes you through the frozen beauty of the Indus shores to the wondrous moonland of Lamayuru, as famous for its similarity to the lunar land as it is for its old and famous Lamayuru Monastery. Also known locally as Yung-Drung, the monastery is home to the majestic 1000 eyed 11 headed statue of Chenzing apart from a rich collection of paintings, statues, thangas, artifacts and carpets.
Day 9: Fly back from Leh
Even as this ethereal trip comes to an end, its memories will live with you for a long time and will be a source of immense pleasure!