Winter in Ladakh is one of the harshest in India and temperatures can fall upto -30 degree Celsius at night. For the adventurous soul, this is the best time to visit Ladakh, as you not only get to experience near arctic temperatures, but also explore it at a time, when even quite a few Ladakhis leave Ladakh for better employment opportunities and warmer climate and there are only handful of tourists around.
While this winter travel guide would help you prepare for your upcoming adventure, you have to keep in mind that there are very real dangers of traveling to Ladakh in winter and no amount of planning can help, if the nature decides to unleash its full fury or if you throw caution to the wind and stop listening to your own body. So remember to proceed with caution and treat nature as well as your own health with respect and care.
Frozen stream en route to Pangong Tso
How to prepare and plan for a winter trip to Ladakh?
Planning becomes all the more important, when you are traveling to Ladakh in winter and it is best to have a rough plan in place and carry essential things needed for a trip of this scale, in order to avoid any complications later. Planning well in advance will not only help you get your gear and travel plan ready, but also mentally prepare you for this harsh yet wonderful journey.
When designing your itinerary, it is crucial to schedule at least first couple of days in Leh, in order to acclimatize to high altitude and cold environment. It is also a good idea to spend the last day in Leh, so that you have a buffer day to fall back on, in case of any delays en route. For free personalized itinerary, please start a new thread in Ladakh and Zanskar section and we will help you out with that.
Please go through our list of essential things for winter trip to Ladakh, for our recommendation on things you should carry, including types of clothes, shoes and eatables.
If it is snow you are after and wish to see and walk on the frozen Pangong Tso, then it is best to visit Ladakh between middle of January to end of February, when winter is at its peak and majority of snowfall occurs.
While you do not need to be extremely fit to visit Ladakh, it is a good idea to start getting in the habit of walking and climbing stairs, before your trip. Because even after hiring a taxi, you will still end up doing a lot of walking and climbing stairs, while visiting monasteries, and at high altitude and in cold climate, your stamina would be a lot less than what it normally is.
How to reach Ladakh in winter?
While Manali – Leh Highway normally closes in November, Srinagar – Leh Highway remains open till December. However these aren’t the best time to take the land route and once both these routes close, the only way to get in and out of Ladakh is by flight.
While several major airlines operate regular flights to Leh from Delhi, Jammu and Srinagar, due to fog and severe weather conditions, there can be delays and postponements at times, especially if you are traveling in January or February.
How to travel in Ladakh during winter?
During winter the only comfortable way to travel in Ladakh is by taxi. However at that time, finding seats in shared taxis is extremely difficult due to fewer tourists.
Hiring a taxi while being expensive is the most convenient option and allows you to travel at your own pace and stop as often as you want for photography and sightseeing. You can find latest taxi rate for Ladakh here, though contacting drivers directly will allow you to get a custom quote based on your own itinerary and get discount on the listed price. Rigzin (+919622954779 and +919469472772) and Dorjee (+919906971501) are two drivers who have been hired by several BCMTians and have a good rapport.
Hiring a taxi in advance will allow you to know the total transport expenditure you would be incurring, and you will also have the option of getting accommodation booked at various places through your taxi driver. If you do not wish to book taxi in advance, then you can arrange one through taxi union or your hotel, after arriving in Leh.
What to do after arriving at Leh?
After your flight lands in Leh, you should head straight to your hotel and try and acclimatize to high altitude and cold weather. By noon if you are feeling alright, then you can visit Shanti Stupa, Leh Palace and Main Market. However make sure not to overstress yourself, otherwise Acute Mountain Sickness can strike in a nasty manner.
Try and stay indoors, after sunset, since temperature can fall quite rapidly, once sunlight is gone and dogs in Leh can be quite aggressive as well. Try and reach your hotel/restaurant before sunset and if you need to travel after sunset, do it in a taxi.
Places to visit
While both the land routes to Ladakh close in winter, majority of internal roads remain open and can easily be explored in a taxi, even in peak winter. However please keep in mind that in case of Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri, road can get closed for couple of days or more, in case of heavy snowfall. Hence it is best to keep your plan flexible and avoid covering the above routes on your last day in Ladakh. Also keep an eye on weather forecast and check with locals about the prevailing weather and road conditions.
Ladakh and Zanskar Road Map by Aarti and Harsh. Click to enlarge
Leh, Sham Valley and Monastery Circuit
Leh along with Sham Valley and Monastery Circuit has a lot to offer to a visitor and can easily be covered in 2-3 days. Add to that, Leh and surrounding area is comparatively lower in altitude and generally isn’t as cold as the Changthang Region and Pangong Tso. Hence it makes sense to spend the first couple of days exploring Leh (Shanti Stupa, Leh Palace, Namgyal Tsemo Gompa and Hall of Fame) along with Sham Valley Tour (Alchi, Likir, Spituk and Basgo Monasteries, Gurudwara Pathar Sahib, Indus and Zanskar Sangam and Magnetic Hill) or Monastery Circuit (Hemis, Thiksey and Shey Monasteries).
Shanti Stupa, Leh
Where to stay: While majority of hotels in Leh close down by middle of October, a few remain open. Since weather is extremely cold, it is best to stay in a hotel which offers central heating. Our recommendation would be for Hotel Tso Kar (Rs. 2500/night onward) or The Grand Dragon (Rs. 7000/night onward).
Where to eat: Just like hotels, majority of restaurants in Leh are also closed during winter and finding delicious food is difficult, especially if you love spicy food. We recommend Neha Sweets in Leh Main Market, second last dhaba at Karu and restaurant next to samosa seller in Nimmu for delicious meals.
Nubra Valley and Khardung La
Khardung La along with Nubra Valley is a must visit for all those visiting Ladakh for the first time. Not only is Nubra Valley at similar altitude as Leh, it offers a wide variety of landscape and cultural experience to its visitors. You can either do Nubra Valley as a day trip, covering Khardung La, Diskit Monastery and Hunder Sand Dune. Or spend one or two nights there and cover Hunder Sand Dunes, Diskit Monastery, Turtuk, Sumur Village and Panamik Hot Springs and Monastery. If you are an NRI or Foreigner, you will need Protected Area Permit in order to visit Nubra Valley. Indian Citizens will just need to submit a self declaration form at check posts en route (available at photocopy shops in Leh.)
Where to stay and eat: During winter, accommodation is severely limited in Nubra Valley, hence it is recommended to either book the accommodation in advance or at least confirm its availability, before your trip through your taxi driver or hotel in Leh. Our recommendation would be for Habib Guest House, which offers decent budget accommodation and food and has gas powered heaters.
Pangong is one of the largest high altitude lakes in India and while only one third of this 135km long lake is in India and rest in China, it is nonetheless a slight to behold. During peak winter (mid-January to February end), Pangong Tso becomes completely frozen and hard enough for cars to drive on! It is a must visit for all travelers, no matter how many times you have visited Ladakh. There are also several smaller lakes and streams en route, which you can explore and on normal permit, you can drive up to Merak Village.
Frozen Pangong Tso by RK Bharat
You can also take a detour from Tangste to Harong Wet Lands, which are quite scenic and are rarely visited by tourists. You can do Pangong Tso as a day trip, or with a night stop at Tangste Village, in order to spend more time at Pangong Tso and visit Harong Wet Lands. Indian Citizens with right permit can also drive along Pangong Tso to Chushul village and thereafter proceed to Hanle or Tso Moriri. Since Pangong Tso is on the LAC, NRIs and Foreigners need Protected Area Permit in order to visit Pangong Tso. Indian Citizens will just need to submit a form at check posts en route (available at photocopy shops in Leh.)
Where to stay and eat: While you might be able to find homestays at Spangmik or Man and Merak Villages, it is best to spend the night at Tangste Village, which is lower in altitude and comparatively warmer. Only budget accommodation is available in Tangste with Ladakhi toilets and gas powered heaters, which you have to shut off at night. Food too is a basic affair at Tangste, and nonexistent at Spangmik, unless you can convince a local to cook for you. Second last dhaba at Karu is a good place to have breakfast.
While being smaller in size than Pangong Tso, Tso Moriri is almost as beautiful and also freezes completely during winter. Located 211km from Leh in Changthang region, Tso Moriri is higher in altitude than Pangong Tso and route leading up to it is even more scenic than the one you encounter en route to Pangong Tso. Due to the distance involved, it is extremely difficult to do a day trip and hence it makes sense to spend the night at Chumathang Village, which is 70km before Tso Moriri. You can also incorporate Tso Moriri in a trip to Hanle or as part of a trip covering Pangong Tso and Changthang Region, Leh – Pangong Tso – Chushul – Hanle – Tso Moriri – Leh. If you are an NRI or Foreigner, you will need Protected Area Permit in order to visit Tso Moriri. Indian Citizens will just need to submit a form at check posts en route (available at photocopy shops in Leh.)
Tso Moriri Lake, Ladakh
Where to stay and eat: Hot Spring Resort at Chumathang is just about the only option, if you are planning to visit Tso Moriri in winter. It is also a very comfortable place to stay, since it is located on top of Hot Springs and remains comfortable, even at night. Karu en route to Tso Moriri is a good place to have breakfast, while for lunch and dinner, Chumathang is just about the only option, since there is almost nothing available at Korzok Village, which is located on the banks of Tso Moriri Lake. If you are traveling from Pangong Tso to Tso Moriri, then have your lunch at Chushul Village, since the tea shop at Nyoma isn’t open at times.
Chushul, Hanle and Changthang
Chushul, Hanle and other areas in Changthang Plateau aren’t open for foreigners, and they can only go till Merak Village on Pangong Tso side and Loma Check Post. In case of Indians, getting permit for Chushul is half the battle, since even after having permit, Army or ITBP can turn you back, based on the condition along the LAC (ceasefire line between India and China). However if you do manage to get the permit and then permission to go across Chushul, then it is a lovely place to visit, since off road drive along the Pangong Tso is a wonderful experience and at Chushul, you can visit Chushul and Rezang La War Memorials. At Hanle you can visit the highest altitude observatory in India and Hanle Monastery.
View from Hanle Observatory, with Hanle Monastery in distance
From Hanle you can visit Photi La, Chummur, Kyun Tso and from Chushul or Mahe, you have the option of visiting Mitpal Tso and Yeye Tso. However do these routes only if you are interested in exploring off beat places that few if any go to and don’t mind traveling on extremely bad terrain with no help around for miles.
Where to stay and eat: Chushul has restaurant where you can have noodles or maggi, while Nyoma has a tea shop as well. Accommodation is available at Hanle in the form of Sonam Guest House, which only has wood/dung powered heating during winter. Observatory Guest House at Hanle is a comfortable place to stay at; however it is no longer open to civilians. Hence you will need contacts to get permission to stay there.
Lamayuru and Kargil
If you are interested in visiting Lamayuru Monastery and Kargil in the dead of winter, then you can do that as well, since the road between Leh and Kargil remains open even in winter. You would also be able to club Sham Valley circuit in this trip with a night stay at Kargil.
Where to stay and eat: Majority of the hotels in Kargil would be closed at that time; hence the best option would be to stay at the JKTDC Guest House. Food at Nimmu is good and at Kargil, you should be able to get food at JKTDC Guest House.
Since you will be traveling in extremely cold climate, it is best to keep yourself warm, as much as possible and avoid taking off gloves while outside (change camera settings before getting out of the taxi) and if you have to take off your gloves, make sure to put them back on again, as soon as possible.
Avoid moving from hot places eg. heated room/restaurant to outdoor immediately, spend a few minutes between both the places eg. door and let your body get used to the cold temperature, before proceeding further.
Avoid going out with wet hair or cloths, since that can lead to headache or worse, hypothermia.
Make sure to eat regularly and consume plenty of protein and fats, in order to keep yourself warm and energy level up. Regularly munching on dry fruits is a good way to get essential fatty acids and protein.
Make sure to stay hydrated by regularly drinking water and make sure the water you are drinking is hot. Carry couple of thermoses per person and get them filled regularly at your hotel and restaurants.
Avoid traveling with more than 4 passengers in a taxi (5-6 in case of Xylo), since due to heavy clothing, space is at a premium and more people will only make the trip uncomfortable. Also make sure heater isn’t running inside taxi, unless you really need to warm up fast. Because if the heater is running, then stepping outside the taxi can cause headache.
In case you have any queries about traveling to Ladakh, please feel free post it in our Ladakh and Zanskar Forum, and we will help you out with it.