Tourism in Ladakh: why I travelled to Leh Ladakh in Winters?

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If there’s one best road trip destination In India that needs no introduction, it’s Ladakh. Everyone dreams of either doing a motorbike expedition in Ladakh or simply a road trip in its pristine landscapes. The ₹600 crores (US$84 million) tourism industry in Ladakh was booming until the COVID19 pandemic changed our world forever. Vilayat Ali, the founder of Pristine Ladakh, shared how tourism has been unpredictable in the last one and a half years.

We completely lost the 2020 summer season, but 2021 looked promising with bookings done until Aug 2021. But then the second wave arrived, and everything vanished overnight, again. We somehow managed to survive in 2020 but don’t know how we can do it for one more year.

This is a common issue for most tour operators in Ladakh, and now survival has become an issue for them. While the situation won’t change overnight and needs an intervention of the government, the popularity of Ladakh gives a ray of hope to the people whose livelihood depends entirely on tourism. Just before the second wave hit India, I took a trip to Ladakh. It was my seventh trip to the valley, so I was not looking at the best places to visit in Ladakh or undertake a Ladakh bike trip as I had already done that before. This time my objective was to go wholly offbeat and create awareness about the issues that no one talks about. I am releasing a series of articles and videos on my experience in the land of high passes.

Why did I choose to visit Ladakh in the offseason?

I chose to visit Ladakh in Feb-March for two main reasons. Firstly, I wanted to explore Ladakh without the invasion of pesky tourists, pushing their selfie-sticks in my face and photobombing each and every picture I click. I am sure many would have faced a similar situation. Secondly, I wanted to understand the environmental and cultural issues plaguing Ladakh’s fragile ecosystem. Unregulated tourism is creating more long-term problems than short-term economic gains. Unfortunately, not many are paying attention to climate change, waste management and cultural erosion of Ladakh. So, I decided to use this trip to dig deeper and give a voice to locals’ struggles.

Leh Ladakh in Winters - Frozen Indus is a sight to behold
Leh Ladakh in Winters – Frozen Indus is a sight to behold

How I planned my trip to Ladakh in Winters?

Delhi to Leh Flight

The first decision I had to make was choosing the Delhi to Leh flight. Usually, the flights from Delhi to Leh are early morning which messes up your previous night’s sleep. Thankfully IndiGo’s flight to Leh was leaving at 10:45 am, so I quickly booked it. The icing on the cake was that it was the airline’s inaugural flight to Leh. So, there were a lot of surprises waiting for passengers. As I entered the Indira Gandhi Airport’s Terminal 2, I was greeted with a decorated check-in counter where the IndiGo staff distributed candies amongst the travellers. Also, there was a special certificate created for the occasion. The best part was that instead of one captain, there were three veteran captains on this flight. Upon arrival, a Ladakhi musical performance was organised at the Leh airport.

Here’s a video of my experience on IndiGo’s first flight to Leh.

Offbeat Ladakh – Delhi to Leh Flight, Accomodation and Acclimatisation

Accommodation in Leh

Due to fewer guest arrivals, very few hotels and guesthouses remain opened in winters. Moreover, harsh winters and sub-zero temperature make it impossible for mid to small size properties to provide central heating and 24/7 hot and cold water to their guests. Thankfully Grand Dragon Ladakh is well equipped. And that’s why I made it my base. Being one of the oldest and grandest hotels in Ladakh, it is a destination to explore in itself. I was told in the summers, the room rent reaches 16,000 INR per night. The plush property is well designed, keeping the local Buddhist art and culture in mind but fully equipped with modern-day fittings. And, that explains why despite the tourist off-season, the hotel was completely sold out. Upon arrival, I discovered that my trip had coincided with the Winter Conclave, Ladakh. Thankfully I got a good room with a beautiful view of the mountains. The three-floored property has 75 rooms and 12 suites with six luxury suites and six heritage. You can read a full review of Grand Dragon Hotel here: Luxury Stay in Leh Ladakh.

The Grand Dragon Ladakh: Luxury stay in leh Ladakh
The Grand Dragon Ladakh: Luxury stay in leh Ladakh

Unforgettable Experiences and Offbeat places

Being a bucket list destination, Ladakh ranks very high on Indian tourist’s to-do list. And, there is no shortage of experiences that one can have in Ladakh. But out of the 2.79 lakh tourists that visited Ladakh in 2019, very few went on the non-touristy trail.

Instead of tick marking the places wanted to understand the people, their culture, struggles and food. So, I asked my local counterpart to prepare a completely offbeat itinerary. 

My 7 Nights and 8 Days Itinerary for Ladakh in Winters Trip

Day 1 & 2 – Arrival, Acclimatisation and Shanti Stupa

Day 3 – Thiksey Monastery, Nyerma Nunnery and Ladakhi artisanal meal experience at Stoke Palace

Day 4 – SECMOL School, Chilling, PAGIR, and Bombguard waste dump yard site

Day 5 & 6 – Aryan Valley via Khaltse

Day 7 – Leh sightseeing (Hemis Monastery, Chuchot Village Double Humped Camel Farm, Central Asian Museum, Heritage town and Leh market)

Day 8 – Return to Delhi

So, in the upcoming #OffbeatLadakhWithTSW series, I’ll share in detail some of my ‘Ladakh in Winters’ experiences with you. Here’s a trailer of the series.

Travel Tips:

Is Ladakh open for tourism in 2021?

Until 14th June, the Leh district administration had imposed a weekend curfew across the district from Friday 9pm till 5am on Monday to curtail the rising number of Covid-19 cases. But some relaxations have been given like the odd-even non-essential vehicular movement is allowed with 50% of seating capacity. Public transport and non-essential shops are closed on all days. Restaurants can only provide home delivery, and hotels can open dine-in restaurants with their 30% capacity. Tourists are required to arrive with a negative RT-PCR report.

In the coming weeks, all restrictions are expected to be waived off.

The panoramic view of the Leh Town from Shanti Stupa
The panoramic view of the Leh Town from Shanti Stupa

Practical Tips for a great Trip to Ladakh

Getting In

By road

Riding a Royal Enfield in Ladakh is every biker’s dream, but that opportunity is only available for a limited window. There are two ways to get into the Union Territory of Ladakh – the Zoji-La Pass Kargil route from Srinagar District in the Kashmir Valley and the high altitude Manali-Leh Highway from Himachal Pradesh. The Manali-Leh road is open only from May/June to October/November when high mountain passes are safe to travel with no snow on the road. The Srinagar-Leh road is open from April/May to November/December.

Leh Ladakh road trip - solo travel or with friends?
Leh Ladakh road trip – solo travel or with friends?

By flight

The military run airport at Leh
The military run airport at Leh

Direct flights from Delhi Airport to military-operated Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport at Leh year-round on Air India, Vistara, Spicejet, GoAir, and Feb 2021 launched IndiGo. Air India also operates weekly flights to Jammu and Srinagar.

By train

The nearest railway station is Udhampur, where you need to take a taxi, bus or a flight to reach Leh Ladakh.

Getting around

Ladakh is well served by local buses plying from Leh to Kargil towns. And, if you find them a tad too slow for your liking, you can always find taxis in Leh and Kargil as well as in block headquarters like Diskit, Tangtse, and Khalsa. In addition, you can save money by hopping into shared taxis going to Nubra, Kargil, Srinagar, and Zanskar. They usually leave Leh in the early morning.

Best tourist places to visit in Ladakh

Roads within Ladakh, except to Zanskar, are open all year round. But before planning to visit Ladakh in winters, check the weather report as the Khardung-La Pass to Nubra and Chang-La pass to Pangong Lake can get closed due to heavy snowfall in winters or spring. For example, I couldn’t visit Pangong in Feb 2021 because there was heavy snowfall at Chang-La.

If it’s your first time in Ladakh, most likely you would want to visit Pangong Tso Lake, Khardung-La Pass, Nubra, Thiksey Monastery, Tso Moriri lake, Hemis National Park, Diskit Monastery or Lamayuru.

Pangong Tso Lake is on every travellers list who visits Ladakh for the first time
Pangong Tso Lake is on every travellers list who visits Ladakh for the first time
Top things to see in Leh Ladakh: Khardungla
When people look for top things to see in Leh Ladakh: Khardungla tops the list
The lifeline of Ladakh - Indus River
The lifeline of Ladakh – Indus River

However, I would strongly urge you to go off the beaten space and explore places such as Aryan Valley, Zanskar, Changthang, Sham Valley, and Markha Valley, among many more regions that hardly get the benefits tourism. Instead, 90% of the tourists visit the usual touristy spots – Leh, Khardungla, Nubra, and Pangong.

Alchi is a great place for a day tour from Leh
Alchi is a great place for a day tour from Leh

Best time to visit Ladakh

The best month to visit Ladakh is anytime around the year. However, if you want to see Ladakh in full bloom then June to Sept is a great time. Days are crisp, long and the weather is pleasant. However, you’ll find lots of summer holiday crowd in the months of May and June. Often I get asked questions such as “can we go to Ladakh in winters” or “how cold is Ladakh in winters” or “is it safe to visit Ladakh in December or January”. The answer is Yes. After all, there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. Ladakh looks gorgeous in winters and you can explore the wintery beauty of Ladakh from January to March. But pack winterwear appropriately as the Ladakh temperature in winters can go up to -30 degree Celsius.

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  • Bill says:

    Leh Ladakh looks absolutely amazing! I love the countryside and those huge mountains. The city itself is beautiful, too.

  • Claudia says:

    Oh, wow! From your photos, I think Leh Ladakh is even better in the winter. It’s so beautiful there. I’d love to see it in person one day.

  • Ivan M. Jose says:

    Ladakh looks so serene but at the same time, it seems to pack so many surprises.

  • Gervin Khan says:

    This is amazing! I missed traveling 🙁 I hope you had fun!

  • Heather says:

    What a beautiful place! I would love to go there any time of the year.

  • Lizzy says:

    Beautiful. I love the Buddhist art and culture. But not that cold weather!

  • The Joyous Living says:

    that’s very good to know that the passes can be closed during the winter months. looks beautiful though!!

  • Nyxie says:

    You mentioned something at the very start of this that struck a cord with me : Not many are paying attention to climate change. It’s sadly true and even more sad is the fact that big companies, that ultimately cause the majority of the polloution, don’t care enough to change things. Their attitude is ‘I won’t be here, so it’s not my problem.’

  • Cam says:

    wow… these photos are stunning. I cannot wait to travel again this summer.

  • Ryan Zofay says:

    This place looks absolutely breathtaking! When I have the time to travel this will be on the list of places to visit.

  • Yudith Napitupulu says:

    I miss travelling. But My place is still under lockdown due to increasing covid patient. Ladakh sounds like an amazing place. I wish someday I can go to this place.

  • Bryan Carey says:

    Lots of scenery and culture in this part of India. The winter pics look nice, but I think I would stick with visiting in the summer.

  • Emman Damian says:

    Wow! I didn’t know that Ladakh is in India! It looks so pretty. Can’t wait to visit it after the pandemic.

  • Mikroautobusų nuoma says:

    Travel, new adventures and discoveries are always a good idea. Annoying tourists who want to capture beautiful people in beautiful surroundings, the daily life of famous places. This probably has no explanatory reason. The support of the locals is important, you need to enjoy nature, the attractiveness is complemented by trips to local areas, nature entertainment and inspiration for fresh air. New ways of traveling and the warm atmosphere, minibus, car rental or cycling offer the opportunity to see few sights. Discovering local places to enjoy an exclusive holiday also means travelling and walking. Immerse yourself in adventure to return again.

  • Borse Hemantkumar says:

    It’s really a Heaven on earth. The flora n fauna the majestic hospitality of natives the beautiful snow clad mountains always linger in our memories. I would love to see them again n again.

  • Ashley t says:

    This place looks absolutely amazing. I would love to visit here one day.

  • Leah says:

    Sounds like you really lucked out with the flight! I think this would be a great travel destination and I’m glad you were able to visit off season.

  • Kriti says:

    Leh Ladakh is one of the best places on Earth to visit.
    This article looks good.

    Warm Regards,

  • Brianne says:

    It’s so beautiful there! I can see why you decided to go in the offseason. Winter in Ladakh is gorgeous, and there were far fewer tourists.

  • Emman+Damian says:

    Your photos look amazing! I can’t wait until the pandemic is over. I really want to travel to this place. It looks so serene!

  • Ryan Zofay says:

    What a great idea to travel during the off season. It looks amazing!

  • Brennan Balzi says:

    This place looks great and going anywhere in the offseason is a smart tactic. It can save you money and it is less crowded. Just be aware that sometimes some attractions are closed.

  • Ivan+M.+Jose says:

    Ladakh is still so beautiful despite the winter. I miss travelling even more just by reading your comprehensive guide.

  • Nkem says:

    What an incredible trip! I admire your zeal to adventure and get to know a place from the local perspective.

  • Elise Ho says:

    This looks like an amazing trip. It is so great to be able to see different things.

  • Ntensibe Edgar says:

    Aahhh…it’s nice to hear your perspective on Leh Ladakh. I think I will travel there in September for the full bloom!

  • Vishnu Vasanth says:

    Really worth reading this blog. You have given valid and notable points for travellers who are planning their trip to Ladakh, Ladakh is a really must visit touring destination for travellers and had a lot to offer. Your well planned 8-day itinerary will help me for my next Ladakh vacation. I do read your other blogs too. Keep up the good work.

  • Khushboo Kapoor says:

    Very well-drafted article. You are the best in your profession. Can’t wait to travel here soon.

  • arun saini says:

    Thank you for providing info of Leh Ladakh tour…

  • vignesh says:

    Really it’s an amazing blog, I’ll definitely visit Ladakh one day. Good work, Keep going.

  • Avinash Lokhande says:

    Ladakh is a trendy and beautiful tourist place to visit. I find your content to be more informative and satisfying to me because it is more informative.

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