The colours of winter: Leh-Ladakh!
A week in Ladakh’s severe winter, surrounded by ice, snow and the potential blizzard, might seem like a poorly planned trip. However, if you know you’re way around or have that inside edge with the ‘locals’, it could be the most fascinating time to visit the region.
About mid-February, every year, the locals of Matho a remote village about 27 kms from Leh, dress in their brightest colours and celebrate the annual festival (Stok) of a 400 year old monastery in the region. Formerly a part of Tibet, this region that is nestled close to the China border, still has the traditions and charm of a Tibetan community.
Strung across an otherwise barren and stark region, Tibetan prayer flags of all sizes and colours add a burst of colour to the landscape. The first time, I saw this incredible mix of blue sky, white snow, brown earth, green river and those red and yellow flapping flags – I felt like kneeling alongside the Matho locals, in prayer.
Living so closely with the land and hence vulnerable to the unexpected whims and fancies of Mother Nature, the people of Leh have nurtured time-worn traditions of appeasing Deities and spirits of nature. One such tradition that winter tourists are fortunate to witness, is the Matho-Nagran festival.
Donned with masks and costumes, two of the monastery’s lamas that are selected once every three years, perform all types of death defying stunts that include leaping blindfold around the Gompa’s precipitous parapets while slurping kettle full of Chang, and slashing themselves with razor sharp ‘Sabres’ without drawing blood.
For first-timers the experience is thrilling! Not fully convinced of the ‘power of these unseen deities’, I hold my breath in anticipation of an accident or near fatal mistake. However, each year the lamas return back to the monastery ‘in one piece‘ (Phew!!!)
The event ends with a lot of dancing in the monastery courtyard and prophecies about the coming year, by the ‘Rongzam‘ (the chosen lamas).
Still believe that winter in Ladakh is boring?
Then spend a few days living the life of a local ladakhi and partaking in their festivals…. and experience the immense colours and culture that Ladakh’s winter months offer.
On our third and most grueling day of the Ladakh Chadar trek, we came across a hot water spring! oh joy! You could spot the smoke rising from this spot, from miles away!
Atmaram had the bright idea of boiling eggs in the water.
Boiling eggs in an Himalayan hot spring???!!!
But although I laughed at the idea at first, it was the best meal of the trip!
Incidentally, the spring’s water is known to have medicinal healing properties ….. was really tempted to take a dip…
Took this image of a monastery in Leh. It’s so beautifully white that it almost seems like the guys in the pic have carved it out of snow!
During the winter months, most of Leh-Ladakh shuts down and people play, chat, cook and weave….
Here’s a local Ladakhi weaving away….
Stay tuned for more images of my Ladakh Chadar trek!
My 85th time in Ladakh and I was still running up and down the aircraft aisle clicking shots of the massive Himalayan range, that can be sighted for 20 minutes straight on a Delhi-Leh flight.
The relatively empty aircraft was the perfect perch, and I tried to get a shot from every window on the flight – so as to capture these magnificent beauties from every angle.
“First time in Ladakh, kya?”, asked this young guy who was on the tour with me, when he saw me running around the aircraft, wide-eyed and deliriously happy!
Much to his shock, I explained that it was my 85th journey to the region and I still couldn’t get enough of the place.
If you’ve been to Ladakh, you know what I mean……and if you haven’t been yet, this image just might entice you to make the trip!
Ladakh gives you a sense of having arrived at the very edge of the planet. Unlike more popular tourist destinations across the Himalayan range, in Ladakh the horizon comprises of endless sheets of snow and ice, giving one the sense of stepping into infinity.
The vastness of the area, amazes me each time. Trained to seeing buildings or trees or at least something filling the horizon – this initial glimpse of Ladakh – can make even the peppiest, ready to go, let’s trek to the China border – type of tourist – stop and stare with wonder.
Almost thirty years in the region and I still stop and stare each time I come to Leh-Ladhak.
Wanna know why? Just check out this image of the region!
Most tourists visit Ladakh after it thaws, in the summer. But in 2004, I decided to do a winter trek across the Zanskar River of Leh, at an altitude of over 12,000 ft.
Most of the year (over 8 months), snow and ice block the single road that connects Zanskar valley in Ladakh to the rest of the world.
Come, November and temperatures of -20 degrees result in the river freezing over and a thick layer of ice (almost 8- 10 feet in width) forms over the river.
Thus the frozen Zanskar river or the ‘Chadar trek’ (as it has come to be known) becomes a road during the winter and serves as the only means of getting to Leh, for the locals of Zanskar valley!
For some of us, it has also become the most challenging, test of endurance, a trek that can prove to be, at times, a life altering… if I may add… spiritual experience across ice.
Can’t seem to get enough of the place, so I’m heading to Ladakh next month for yes, my 86th journey across what used to be a part of the silk route way back when!
Interested in a life altering experience?