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.
Table of Contents
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Practical Tips for a great Trip to Ladakh
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.
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.
The nearest railway station is Udhampur, where you need to take a taxi, bus or a flight to reach Leh Ladakh.
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.
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.
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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