Winters in the true high-altitude cold desert, the Changthang, are a savage and spectacular affair. Temperatures tumble to seriously sub-zero, blinding sandstorms scream through valleys so expansive, the eye can barely take them in at one go, and blizzards, when they hit, reminds me, strangely, of the Eagles’ second live album, and in quick succession, Meat Loaf’s debut album.
But once things calm down, as they always do, and as the sun reappears, as it usually does, they reveal landscapes that put surreal to shame.
Winters are the time when Ladakh finds itself some me-time after the gruelling fair-weather summers of unbridled tourism. And like we all do when unruly guests finally leave, Ladakh locks itself in by swamping its passes with snow, and buries itself in silences.
This land does not suffer transgressors, and temperatures in the minus 50Cs ensure there are no visitors. For good measure, there’s windchill that’s as high as 30Cs. But these conditions prime the land to transform. Lakes become canvases of ever-changing art. The dancing light painting mountains through the day.
Little pools of miraculous thaw reflect light and clouds and mountains in fantastical ways.
The days are tough, the nights deadly, but that’s the penance this land exacts in exchange for the Nirvana it offers in beauty.
A jigsaw of mini-ice floes swarm the surface of a lake to find their fit. The freeze and thaw are an everyday routine during the onset of winter in Ladakh. Clear skies, however, are not.
Tso-Kar, or the White Lake, does not live up to its name in winter. It turns blue and brown, depending on the time of the day and the reflections the sky and mountains cast on it. High winds at night in this valley spill thin sheets of water over thinner sheets of ice, creating abstract patterns and surreally shiny reflective and refractive surfaces.
The end of December is a time of spells of snow and lack of sun. Here, mineral-rich mountains fend off that approaching gloom showing off their colours, which seems almost an act of defiance.
A sharp gust of wind comes as the emissary of the approaching storm, it’s advance marked by flying sand and grit. Wind speeds during severe storms on the Changthang often exceed 100kmph. For a lightweight like me, lying low and holding on is the only option in valleys without places to hide. Over the years, I’ve tried and failed to acquire a taste for coarse sand.
Shaggy yak care little for the cold. In fact, they revel in it. Snow, however, is another matter. A bad year in Ladakh is one where the snow is more than a foot thick on the valley floor. For herbivores, this is too deep to paw and get to the scarce grazing under it. For the carnivores, that’s a good year.
Humps of soil-covered permafrost stick out of a summer marshland. Stretches such as this one, on the way to the now-famous Pangong Tso, offer goats, sheep and their wild brethren a full stock of food for the winters. In summer, the bog-like conditions ensure no one can get to the grass.
The Nubra Valley, at the juncture of the Shyok and Siachen rivers. Unlike the rest of Ladakh, this valley is relatively warmer throughout winter, with temperatures dropping to only about -10 Celsius.
After one of the Changthang’s famous cold-clasps, when temperatures plunge by more than 15 degrees within minutes, a lake takes on an other-worldly appearance. The sudden freeze cracks ice several feet deep, and suspends air-bubbles mid-way to the surface.
The Pangong-Tso, made famous and mightily vulnerable by Three Idiots, settles down for its winter repose after the last tourists have departed and the “yellow scooter photo props” have been transported back to their sheds.