Le Freezer- A winter in Leh

Here’s a story of when the ‘Plan A’ went kaput and we were stranded in an alien land without a ‘Plan B’. No mobile phones working and no internet connectivity to reschedule our return tickets, here’s a snippet from our first trip farthest from home. This post is written by Lahar Ganapathi, my brother and my favorite co-traveller on most trips. This is a throwback post to the winter of 2015, When we were among the earliest few Indian travellers: Doing the Chadar trek.

Day 1:

So, it’s the peak of winter in the north of India. Chadar trek was finally happening which was planned a few months in advance. With all the built up excitement, we left Bangalore for Leh. Delhi was where we met a few others doing the same trek, however they had bad news for us. That was of the Zanskar River being blocked due to a landslide upstream and all activities downstream indefinitely banned, or rather a section 144 was imposed. We were not the ones to be disheartened by the news and continued to Leh, onward from Delhi after a night’s sleepover at the Indira Gandhi International airport. So, after an uncomfortable sleep in the waiting lounge of the airport and a few hours of delay later in morning, we finally took off for Leh.

The view from above the Himalayas was breathtaking from the point where the Gangetic plains raised up to the mountains. There was stark difference as we saw a plain flat ground rising drastically, forming the snow-clad mountains in a matter of minutes. A flight to Leh in peak winter provided a beautiful view of the mountains in full glory, as if they were majestically looking down towards flatter lands at the bounty they provided. So, after all the aahs and oohs we finally took notice of the changing landscape as we reached Leh, white snowy terrain giving way to brown rocky terrain. In a moment we were already over Leh airstrip and we landed without any bumps. The announcement stated the temperature as 6 below 0.

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You are flying over the Himalayas…

Being from the temperate part of India and never having experienced such a low temperature, excitement took over my sensibility and I got off the plane wearing only a normal woolen sweater (good enough to push through winter in Ooty or any other hill station down south). Yeah, such a jerk I was to do that. At first, the cold did not feel much different from other places. But, trust me it was -6 at 12:30 in the afternoon, with overhead sun. 10 minutes was all it took to knock the heat out of me. As it got unbearably cold, I scrambled for my warmest layer. It took three layers to feel warm enough. We caught a taxi to the hotel where we were scheduled to meet the other trekkers and the organizer. By this time, barely half an hour after laying foot in Leh, the cold had already F*&%$# up my toes to the extent to not feel anything for the next few days. The first news we got from the organizer was what we had heard in Delhi. ‘Zanskar is blocked and the government has banned activities downstream’.

Okay, enough for the first day. We huddled up near a gas heater in the hotel, while sipping on some hot yak milk tea. We were provided with a room for the night at a nearby accommodation. All done, we gathered in the room to discuss plan B for the next few days in Leh. Good night.

Day 2:

We woke up and immediately I noticed the frost on the window glass. The moisture in the room had frozen on the windows. First for everything, I was immediately mesmerized by the intricate pattern ice tended to have. Okay, so after a warm comfortable sleep we were ready to beat the cold. Once outside, we could notice that our body had “somewhat” acclimatized to cold. No tap water in Leh in winter; so don’t expect luxury of running water. You’ll be provided with a bucket of ‘hot’ water, which is normal water ‘feeling’ hot. We were then off to the hotel to meet the organizer, he had his own Plan-B for the situation. He claimed to take us to Nubra valley and Hemis national park, home of the rare Himalayan snow leopards. Our calculations were that, it would be a waste of money to do only two things for the cost of the whole trek. So, we opted out of his itinerary and took refund. We also made friends who liked our approach to the situation, a couple from Hyderabad who incidentally became best of friends over next the few days. So, now we are left in the streets with enough cash, more than enough cold and no idea as to what next.

Our immediate requirement was clear, to find shelter for the next few days. By then it was around 11.00 in the morning and we headed out hunting for a room. Since it was the season when Leh has the least footfall, it was kind of difficult to get a room as most of the hoteliers had shut shop for the season and the remainder were booked. Finally, we did manage to find an accommodation. We stayed with a family who rented out their son’s room to us. So accommodation set, what next?

We set out on a walk to the main market. We made a few enquiries around with the locals, about places of interest in and around Leh. We were immediately made aware of the ongoing Gustor festival at Spituk monastery. We immediately set out for the festival. Hired a cab and off we went. This monastery happens to be right across the Leh airport and has a commanding view of the runway. Looked like the whole of Leh had descended to the monastery. The road leading to the monastery was blocked a mile away due to the surge of vehicles and people coming to the festival. Chill, we ain’t scared to walk a few hundred yards. We passed through various stalls that were selling festive items and tents that served hot tea and lunch. The locals, all had a peculiar warmth in their sun burnt faces: so welcoming and refreshing.

As we walked, an air force plane flew past us to the runway. All ration to Leh is carried out by air in the winter as the roads are closed due to snowfall. The festival was one of a kind experience, something we probably had watched only on TV: Horns, colorful masks, bells, buddhist monks and their humming of prayers. Nice, we sat among the devotees and enjoyed the festivities happening in the courtyard. After it was done, we headed back to the parking. But this time, we stopped for lunch in one of the many tents. Ah, scrumptious, we filled our belly and topped it off with a hot tea. We were set for the next few hours. We headed straight to the main market since we had no other plans yet. Walking around the place, there were quite a few small stupas scattered around the main market area. We stepped into a few shops for the sake of buying souvenirs. At no time did we feel as being outsiders in Leh, pretty easy to mingle among the residents.

Okay done for the day. We walked back to our homestay and settled down. At dinner, it was decided that we eat something what the locals prefer. Not knowing what it was, we just told the landlady to serve us ‘whatever the locals eat’. Yeah, that’s it. In came a bowl of steaming hot thukpa for each of us. More like a thick soup mixed with chunks of meat and lots of vegetables. So much, for not knowing what the locals eat. Blah, it certainly did not satisfy my hunger and I ended up eating my sister’s share, as well as a serving of rice. Okay done for the night. Tomorrow is going to be a good day.

Day 3:

We had done a little socializing in the town last evening and ended up getting a car guy to take us to places around Leh. His was a comfortable Tata Aria. We left to Pangong Tso, A bloody massive lake situated across India and China. We were told by the car guy that it was the lake or place where the last scene of the movie 3-Idiots was shot. Oh okay! We didn’t know that, didn’t care either. Enroute to pangong we passed through the school where the Phunsuk Wangdu from that movie resided. Also, we passed through lakes converted into ice hockey rinks. Ice hockey seemed to have a good following there. But as the driver noted, not much was done to develop the sport.

It was quite a long journey, we took a pee stop at some barren place. Tanks emptied, and what we saw was a vast barren stretch of land. So off we were back in the Aria. We could see snow filled peaks in the distance getting nearer with every passing kilometer. And after a while we were at Chang La, a pass situated at 17688 ft or 5360mts above sea level. Another pit stop, this time it was because of the snow. We stopped just to feel snow, because Why not! Okay my sister barely stepped out of the vehicle only to get back in. It seems she felt a jolt of extreme cold ride in her spine. Ha, rightfully the lostlander, who lost her senses in the cold. Kid me not, every breath there took an effort, the altitude made us tired for every step we took.

Okay Chang La conquered, next stop was Pangong tso. Maybe an hour or so from changla, we reached Pangong. So much excitement to get on a frozen lake.. So we spent a while there clicking pictures, admiring the beauty of the place. It has been the closest I have been to China. So long to Pangong, we headed back to civilization.

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A milestone at the Pangong tso

We were dropped off at Shanti Stupa, a major tourist attraction in leh. Thank god, it was winter and no tourist to crowd the place. We had the whole place to ourselves. It was around 5:30.p.m., so we walked back from there to our home, through the desolate streets of Leh. Not a single soul was seen loitering in the evening. It was getting insane cold as the darkness loomed over…

Oh, I forgot to tell about the magnetic hills of ladakh. Our Aria-man took us to this place called as the magnetic hills where cars and others wheelers defy gravity. Stop your car on the slope and watch it slowly roll up the slope defying all known logic of gravity. After this, we were taken to our beloved river which gave haath at the last minute, Zanskar. Or it was rather the confluence of Indus and Zanskar. We did actually go down to river bank when a police van appeared out of nowhere asking us to leave the spot because of the section 144 or curfew imposed in the area (remember the landslide that made us change our plans? That one!).

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The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar

Okay lucky enough not to end up in a police station I guess. The road enroute to this place is somewhat good, vast stretches of dry land with snow filled peaks in the distance. Our Aria-man was kind enough to tell us that these vast stretches served as testing grounds for Mahindra vehicles in high altitudes and that they have tested almost all their vehicles there. This was quite a day actually, we’ve been driving the whole day. For lunch we stopped at this particular town which looked dreamy, with shops lining both sides of the road the entire town’s length.

To be continued…

You can also read my version of the same trip. Click here to read.

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