Ladakh in winters typically means Chadar Trek. But not all of us can do trekking in the extreme weather of Ladakh winters. Does this mean Ladakh is out of bounds for us in winters? Thankfully No. There are mini road trips that you can do with Leh as your base location in the region. Where you can comfortably stay in centrally heated hotels like our host The Grand Dragon Hotel. I spent 4 days in Ladakh to discover these absolutely scenic road trips from Leh.
Ladakh Road Trips
Drive to Chilling via Magnetic Hill
Chilling is the starting point of famous Chadar Trek that happens in winters on the Zanskar River when it is frozen. And trekkers walk on this frozen river. However, if like me, you are not the trekking kind fellow, but still, want to enjoy the river & mountain landscape of Ladakh in winters – take a short drive to Chilling. That takes you along the Zanskar River.
Confluence Point of Zanskar & Indus River
On this drive, you must include the confluence point of Zanskar and Indus River. This is one of the most beautiful and discreet confluences that I have seen. Muddy green Indus flows from Leh and merges with the pristine blue Zanskar. For a distance, the waters flow in parallel. Demarcated by a thin layer of frozen water, as if moving together while remaining independent. It is a sight to relish when you see streams of blue and green water flowing together. Typical winter images to cherish if you are yet to visit this part of Jammu Kashmir state.
In January, you would see the edges of the rivers freezing and the pieces of frozen ice floating in the river. As you drive up the Zanskar River towards Chilling, the blue waters of the river by the icy frame would mesmerize you. At places, the river is more or less frozen and the stream of water flowing below it can only be heard. At other places, the frozen ice would showcase the frosty ice color and the pattern would let your imagination go wild.
I have never done a more beautiful riverside drive than a drive along Chilling river.
Not to forget you pass the magnetic hill on way to Chilling. I personally did not experience the magnetic field, but many fellow travelers had stories to tell. Truth is that the hills here are full of iron ore. It is absolutely possible that these hills have more magnetic force than other hills and that may impact the large iron-based vehicles.
You can do this drive from Leh in half a day. That is a good time to stay out of your hotel in winters.
Drive to Lamayuru via Moonscapes
Lamayuru or Lamawu as it is called in the region is one of the oldest monastery and monastery towns. The highlight of this drive were frozen waterfalls. I do not think I would ever be able to do justice to what I felt when I saw that frozen waterfall. It was like a moment in time that is frozen. Until I saw this I would have never thought that flowing water could ever be frozen in time. You would see many big and small such falls on the roadside. Yes, you can see them without really doing the Chadar Trek. These frozen waterfalls make the images of Ladakh immensely popular.
Depending on what time of the day you are driving, the light would keep changing the landscape in front of you. The barren mountains come alive when the shaft of light puts all the focus on them. Sometimes, sunlight illuminates only a part of the mountain creating a unique scene just for your eyes. Photographers get various opportunities to capture unique images of the landscapes of the region.
Perched on top of a hill like Dhankar Monastery in Spiti Valley, this monastery makes the whole landscape even more picturesque. Standing on rocks that look fragile like termite hills the whole monastery and in fact, the village looks like a fragile scene passing before your eyes. Your guide will, of course, tell you that nine lamas came and set up this monastery a few centuries ago. And this monastery has been hanging there since then. Though a large monastery that accommodates hundreds of Lamas, it is a rather simple monastery with painted outer walls and simple interiors. Like all hilltop monasteries, this monastery also provides a vantage point to see the landscape surrounding it.
Just before you reach Lamayuru from Leh, you see the haphazard landscape often referred to as moonscape or the surface that resembles the surface of the moon. So it is like your very own mini-trip to the moon. I found the place very unique and a bit surreal. On one side were these barren mounds of rocks and on the other side of the road were these hills with snow sprinkled on it – giving it a very salt & pepper look.
Drive to Alchi Monastery
Every village in the region has its own monastery that is usually known by the name of the village. So is Alchi Monastery that can be reached via a small detour on way to Lamayuru. If you are someone who admires wall murals as I do, I suggest an independent half-day tour to this lovely monastery. Make sure you have a Lama guiding you through the painted walls and large mud-based stucco work on the walls of the monastery.
Now I have seen Tabo Monastery that is usually called the Ajanta of the Himalayas. I must admit the murals there are much better, but what makes Alchi special is the giant sculptures of Bodhisattvas in all the five or six rooms of the monastery. The sculptures are 2-3 stories-high and stand across these floors with each of the floor and ceilings painted in vibrant colors.
The first temple called Lotsa temple has walls covered with small Buddha paintings in the manner of thousand Buddhas. But of course, there are far more than a thousand Buddhas painted in this room. In the Vairocana temple next door, there are Mandalas painted. That is pretty usual in Buddhist monasteries. But what makes the Alchi Monastery Mandalas unique is the embossed work on them that kind of gives them a frame. At places, I also felt that there are placeholders for precious gems and stones but could not verify the same. Being a mud structure with not much upkeep, paintings are lost in many places; some patchy restoration work can be seen at places.
At Manjushri temple, you see four different images of her in 4 colors – golden, orange, blue and green placed back to back. The ceiling of this temple has all the designs that resemble textile designs interspersed with hunting scenes depicting various animals including tigers and horses and arms like bows and arrows. Alchi monastery is the first place where I saw the use of black and white colors for painting. While usually, they are missing from the palette except as support colors for skin tone and hair.
Kashmiri Painting style
Style of painting at Alchi is distinctly Kashmiri. As the Lama Ji told us, only Kashmiri painters could have worked in the harsh climate of the region. There are lots of Persian features that you can see in paintings that remind you that Ladakh was a part of the silk route. And must have seen many races from east and west passing by.
In the courtyard of Alchi Monastery lies a unique stupa that you can go inside. This is also profusely painted inside. You can happily stand inside and admire the paintings – insulated a bit from the cold.
Alchi monastery dates back to late 10th, early 11th CE. And is said to be one of the 108 monasteries built by the great translator Rinchen Zangpo. Other monasteries he built can be seen at Lamayuru, Tabo & Nako.
Drive to Thiksey & Chemdey Monastery
These monasteries lie on the way to famous Pangong Lake. You need to check if the route to Pangong is open and if it can be visited when you are there. In case you cannot visit it, you can still do a half-day tour that takes you halfway on this route.
Read about the stunning Chandratal Lake, the other Himalayan blue lake at Lahaul Spiti, Himachal Pradesh
For a long stretch, you drive on the national highway along the Indus River before you take a detour to Thiksey, which again is a beauty to watch from a distance as well as from close by. The circuitous route that takes you on top of the monastery reminded me of my Spiti Trip.
On way to Thiksey, we saw this small stream half-frozen yet flowing ferociously eager to go and meet the river Indus. Surrounded by a barren stick like Poplar trees it was a place to spend some time with. I saw this stream from the top of the Thiksey monastery. Then we crossed a small bridge over it and drove some distance along with it.
The drive to Chemdey monastery passed by small roads that were surrounded by tall but barren trees. It was again the surreal part of this drive.
We attended the Morning Prayer at Thiksey monastery where we saw the young and old Lamas doing their morning chants while having their breakfast that included several rounds of tea. Even we were offered the same tea. Thiksey monastery has interesting paintings in its courtyard. And like the Alchi monastery, it has a tall stucco work image of future Buddha i.e. Maitreya Buddha.
If you are someone who enjoys monasteries you can even visit the Hemis monastery. We skipped it as its main attraction the museum is closed in winters.
Drive to Shanti Stupa on way to Khardungla Pass
Khardungla pass is another famous pass of the region. I am told that the road leading to it faces serious traffic jams in summers when the place is full of tourists. Again the pass may not be open when you visit Ladakh in winters but that does not mean you cannot admire it. Drive to Shanti stupa that is located little on the outskirts of Leh on way to Khardungla Pass and would be part of most the regions tour packages.
The landscape of Ladakh in winters
Stand on the top of the hill or maybe climb up the Shanti Stupa and admire the landscape all around it. On one side you can see Leh palace and a unique dry golf course. Behind them, you can see the whole Stok Kangri range of mountains that looks absolutely stunning at sunset time. Turn back and you can see a straight line cutting through the giant hill and this is the Khardungla pass. Thankfully the boards here tell you all the information around the Stupa.
Shanti Stupa is a new range of stupas that are coming up in most Buddhist places. I saw a similar one in Rajgir in Bihar. It is a neat and clean white stupa carrying all the signs of Buddhism with symmetric staircases to go up and down.
Drive around Leh
While your body adjusts to the altitude of mountains, you can drive around Leh town. And visit its Spituk Monastery that is located just outside the town. We attended the annual Gustor festival here. That is a story for another post. You get a lovely view of the Leh city and Leh airport that is almost like an open-air airport.
Walk in the Leh Bazar, most of which would be closed for winters. But the boards telling you about guest houses and lodges will give you an idea of how crowded this place must be during summers or tourist season.
Ladakh in winters has low tourist traffic. It almost feels that all the landscapes – rivers, mountains, vistas are all waiting for you only. Imagine having the whole surroundings just to yourself barring a few monks here and there. The season also offers plenty of opportunities to capture the best of the images of the region.
Recommend you to read following Travel Blogs on the Himalayan destinations.