When you think about a trip to Ladakh in January, you already know that this can never be a regular “just another” vacation. This is the time of peak winter season and winters in Ladakh are always tough. Life here around this time gets harsh; so harsh that even locals move out to other areas of state or country and return after winter has passed. Basic amenities like electricity can go missing for days altogether. Due to temperatures dipping several degrees below zero; hot water totally becomes a luxury and running water gets out of question because even the pipes freeze. So can and should you actually plan a trip to Ladakh in January? While the answer of “Should” will be a personal choice, the answer to the “Can” part of the question is a definite yes. How and why is what I will provide details on in this article.
Why would a person want to visit Ladakh in January? There can possibly be but just 2 reasons to it. First and the most common reason is of chasing snow; being at a place for a few days that gets completely buried under a thick layer of snow in winters; to witness those white hills and valleys all around. I agree that this can be done at several other hill stations like Manali as well but those places have started to get crowded a lot. So if you want to see ample amount of snow everywhere with just a handful of people around, Ladakh is the place to go to.
Second reason if of being adventurous. Due to its tough climate and challenging terrain, a trip to Ladakh always has an angle of adventure to it; irrespective of the month you reach here in. Adventure increases even more if you plan a winter trip to Ladakh.
Both of these reasons are however in my opinion best applied when you have already visited Ladakh once in summer. A winter trip here is best as your 2nd or 3rd Ladakh trip; making it the first one is not really the best of ideas. If this will be your first time in Leh Ladakh, then my sincere advice would be to delay it by a few months, visit Ladakh first between June to September; and then plan for winters next year. This way you would have already familiarized yourself with the terrain and climate when it is not so harsh as it would be in January.
Please note that Inner line permit was reintroduced in Ladakh effective 2017. If you want to visit any further than the city of Leh; for example towards Nubra or Pangong; you will need to obtain an inner line permit from DM office Leh. Please take a look at the article below for instructions on how to get this permit. It is an absolute mandate even in winters and you will be required to submit photocopies of this permit at several check posts on the way.
Also read: How to Obtain Inner Line Permit for Ladakh
You mobile phones will only work in Leh. The moment you leave town for visiting any other area, you will be go off the network and will not be on again until you reach Leh. Another thing to remember is that only postpaid mobile connections work here so if you are using a prepaid connection, you cell will not work even in Leh. BSNL / MTNL has the widest connectivity here and will work even at places Nubra and Pangong. Reception will however be extremely bad and data connectivity next to none. For more details, please read Mobile Services in Leh and Other areas of Ladakh.
Can we visit Ladakh in January?
I will break this article in three parts. First I will suggest a few important tips, then discuss some pros followed by cons of visiting Ladakh in January. In the end, I will suggest an itinerary that you can follow for a winter trip to Ladakh.
Ladakh Roads in Winter
A common thought is that roads in Ladakh get completely blocked during winter. This however is not really true. While the connecting roads from Manali and Srinagar do get closed; internal roads in Ladakh leading towards places like Nubra Valley or Pangong remain open even in the month of January. There could be a temporary road block due to heavy snowfall at any of the passes in between but Army usually clears it as soon as they are able to. The city of Leh remains connected to all the other areas of Ladakh so local sightseeing will not be a problem at all. The only condition that applies is that you cannot reach Leh by road and will have to catch a flight there. However from Leh, you will be able to visit majority of the tourist attractions.
Plan Only by Air
This is somewhat related to the point above. Manali Leh highway usually closes sometime in October or early November followed by Srinagar Leh route in late November or early December. What this necessarily means is that there is no way you can make this a road trip. Be it by a car, or motorcycle or shared taxis; you will not be able to reach Leh from either Manali or Srinagar by road. You must and will have to book flights to reach there.
Hotels in Leh in Winter
Finding accommodation at this time in Leh and other areas of Ladakh will be a challenge. Most of the hotels and guest houses do not operate during winter season. There are however a few guest houses in Leh that entertain guests at this time as well but you must call them in advance and inform of your stay. January is not tourist season in Ladakh and your hosts will have to be prepared for your arrival. Same applies for other places like Nubra Valley and Pangong Tso as well. If you were not able to book you stay here from home, then do so after you reach Leh city, thus informing the hotel at least a day in advance.
Do not Plan night stays anywhere other than Leh City
Phone connectivity in Ladakh is not that great and booking your stay in advance may prove difficult. An easier way around this is to not plan to stay anywhere in Leh city. Draft your itinerary in a way that local sightseeing is only a day trip. For example, you stay early from Leh, visit Nubra valley and return to Leh by evening. Same thing applies for Pangong and Tso Moriri as well. Keep the plan flexible though. So let us say that upon your arrival in Nubra valley you were able to find a place to stay for the night; then you may choose to stay for a day and return the next. This point only applies if you were unable to book your stay. If you did then you can ignore this tip.
For a list of some recommended hotels with their contact information, please take a look at the article below.
Keep your Itinerary Simple
By keeping your itinerary simple, I mean to not include areas too remote. You should plan in a way that you reach Leh, visit Nubra, Pangong and Moriri; and be on your way back. Areas like Chushul route, Marismik La, Horla and Charchagan La are best avoided while traveling so late in the season. In January, you may not even get permits for these places and even if you did, chance of getting stranded due to weather or a break down will be greater here in off season.
Ladakh Winter Clothing
It goes without saying, you need to pack all your woolens and warm clothes. Ladakh in winter is a place where the temperature will remain several degrees below zero. You must carry some good thermals, thick woolens and a heavy windproof jacket. Good quality gloves, woolen socks are a must. Along with your head, you also need to worry about your ears, face and neck and carry a cap/muffler that can protect all. Pack a pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes and a good sunblock lotion. Since it will be extremely cold, carry a lip balm and a good cold cream.
Also read: Clothes for Ladakh Trip: What to Pack
Keep Buffer Days in Your Itinerary
While traveling to Ladakh in December, it is safe to assume that it will definitely snow at high altitude passes. There is a high possibility that you are in Nubra Valley and cannot return to Leh because Khardung La was all snowed out and blocked. Same thing applies for places like Pangong and Moriri. Hence it is important that you do not bound yourself to dates strictly and keep at least 2 days as a buffer. In case you got stuck somewhere, you will be able to afford to be there for a day or two.If all went well and according to the plan, you can use the buffer days to either rest in Leh, or to explore some other areas; or maybe to rest at home for a while after you returned from the trip.
Rent a Private Taxi
This is your only choice of commute for a trip to Ladakh in January. There is absolutely no public transport available at this time and you cannot even think about renting a motorcycle. As a matter of fact there are actually no rentals available in January but by some miracle if you get your hands on a motorcycle, you must not take the risk. Low temperatures combined with cold winds is not the ideal climate to ride a bike here. Then there is also the grave risk of snow, black ice and slippery roads which may result in a serious incident.
Postpone for next year if planning by Public Transport
As it probably is already clear from the above point, if you were planning a budget trip by public transport; better cancel the plan for now and think of doing it next year in Summer.
Plan in Group of 4-5 People
A solo winter trip to Ladakh is not the best of ideas and this is related to the point I mentioned above. If you were traveling in a group, apart from the usual benefits, the biggest help will be in terms of overall cost of the trip. You will have to rent a private taxi; charges of which in Ladakh are high enough to burn a hole in your pocket. A 2 day trip to Pangong will cost between Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 15000. Same applies for Nubra and Moriri as well. This will make the taxi cost the biggest expense of your trip. If you are in a group of 4-5 people, this cost can be shared and will bring down the overall per head cost of the trip.
Keep your expectations Low
No I do not mean it in terms of sightseeing and the scenic beauty of Ladakh; that of course will be one of its kind and astounding like always. What I meant here was in terms of your stay. Unless you were able to book a luxurious hotel that remains operational even in winters; chances are that your stay will be at a very basic guest house or home stay. Hotel of course will be limited just in Leh City; elsewhere in Ladakh it will be either a simple guest house or as a paying guest. You will be provided with everything required to keep you warm and comfortable but do not expect a highly luxurious treatment.
Also read: 10 Reasons why you should NEVER visit Ladakh
Be Prepared for the tough Ladakh Life in Winters
You must prepare for the tough life that Ladakhi people go through in months like January and February. Running water will not be available and hot water will be provided in bucket in small amounts. You may have to go without a bath for days. Morning business will have to be done squatting over a dry pit. There will be cold winds all around. Nights will be merciless with temperatures dropping down to as far as -30 to -40 degrees. Your skin may get dry and start to hurt, your lips may get badly chapped. Worse, you may catch a cold or even run a fever. First day in Ladakh after you land will be worse with such cold temperatures combined with acute mountain sickness. No I am not trying to scare you but just listing a few things here so that you are better prepared mentally.
Advantages of Visiting Ladakh in January
After the tips above, let me mention a few pros of visiting Ladakh in January. There are not really many but I will list a few that come to mind.
Snow All Around
I believe this one goes without saying. Witness the valleys and hills of Ladakh buried under a thick sheet of snow in January. If your trip lasts a few days then in all probability, you will also catch a live snowfall. The amount of snow you will find here in winters is hard to find elsewhere in the country.
Almost no Tourists
Everyone has their own reason for going to Ladakh but majority of the people want to experience the peace and solitude; away from the busy cities and crowded tourist destinations. If you too fall in that category than you will not be disappointed at all. I know I said tourists in the heading but the fact is that there will only be a handful of people around. You will truly know the meaning of the phrase “in the middle of nowhere”. It will mostly be just you in a white Ladakh.
Frozen Lakes of Ladakh
Have you been to Ladakh before? Have you already see the beautiful lakes of Pangong and Moriri? Do you want to see how they look like when they freeze and turn in to a sheet of ice? Visit in later of January and you will know.
Also read: 11 Things you must not do in Ladakh
A trip to Ladakh always means a lot of adventure which increases even more in the winter. Traveling on slippery roads through snow, freezing temperatures, cold winds, harsh weather, tough living conditions make the trip even more adventurous than it will be in Summer.
Disadvantages of Ladakh Trip in January
After the advantages, let me also list down a few challenges of being in Ladakh in winter season.
Ladakh Weather in January
Cold, unpredictable and unforgiving are the words that describe it the best and this will be your biggest disadvantage. All the snow makes the trip sound exciting but not all of us are capable of handling such extreme cold. If you are someone who gets bothered by cold weather a lot then it is best to give up Ladakh entirely until next summer.
Ladakh temperature in January
At nights the temperature will dip down to between -20 to -30 degrees or even less than that. Days too will be no better. Even if Sun is in the sky, temperature will keep hovering between 0 to -10 degrees.
Will be Expensive
There is really no way around this. This trip will definitely cost you more than usual and the only way to reduce the cost is to plan in a group. Try booking your flight a few months in advance so you can get a good price. Cost of Living in Ladakh rises during winter so be ready to pay some extra bucks for hotels and meals. Biggest expense however will be of commute. You will hire a private taxi which can cost several thousand as I explained above. Plan in a group of 4-5 people so that you can share the cost.
Also read: How to Plan a Trip to Ladakh with Children
As you probably already have an idea of this by now, spending these few days in Ladakh will be an experience one of its kind but definitely not easy. If you cannot go without bath for even a single day, cannot squat over a dry pit, cannot work around cold, cannot stand the freezing nights, fall sick quickly or often, do not plan. If there is any medical condition involved like Asthma or cold related diseases, you MUST NOT PLAN.
Manali to Ladakh in January
Traveling from Manali to Leh in January by road absolutely cannot be done. You will have to reach Ladakh by Air which will deprive you from the charm of traversing on this one of the most famous highways of India. I will definitely consider this as a disadvantage of winter trip. Ladakh is a beauty in itself but the two roads connecting it to rest of the country too are quite a charm and an important part of Ladakh trip. If you plan in winter, you will definitely miss out on it.
Ladakh Winter Trip Itinerary
Your itinerary will really depend on how many days you have in hand but I will make a few suggestions; based on which you can prepare your final itinerary.
- You should not plan anything for Day 1. Go straight to your hotel after you land in Leh and just rest. Let your body adjust to high altitude and the cold weather. For more information on what acute mountain sickness is, please read How to Handle Altitude Sickness in Ladakh.
- If possible, and if you have time, stay in Leh on Day 2 as well. Visit some local places like Leh palace or Shanti Stoopa.
- Avoid traveling towards a high altitude pass on Day 3. If you are feeling OK by now, take a drive on Srinagar Leh highway and see Magnetic Hill, Indus-Zanskar Confluence and Gurudwara Patthar Sahib on the way. If weather favored, you can go all the way till Lamayuru and see the lunar landscapes there and Maitreya Buddha at Mulbekh.
- For Day 4, go to Nubra valley and stay there. Nubra is at an even lower altitude than Leh so it will be good in terms of acclimatization as well. Do not go to Pangong on Day 4.
- Return to Leh on Day 5
- Go to Pangong on Day 6 and return to Leh on Day 7. If you could not find a place to stay at Pangong for the night, return on the same day itself but ensure that you get an early start from Leh.
- Go to Tso Moriri on Day 8 and return to Leh on Day 9. If you could not find accommodation at Karzok, then return to Leh the same day.
- If you need help finalizing your itinerary, you are most welcome to ask.
Visit Leh Ladakh in January
After all said and done, if you asked me, a winter trip to Ladakh is an amazing experience after a few conditions I mentioned above. If you can afford to travel to Ladakh in January then by all means, please do so. I hope the information I provided above was of help. If you have any further questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below or at our Community Forum; and I will be glad to answer.