Snow Storm and Sand Storm: A Day in Ladakh

Ladakh is known as the Cold Desert. We understood the real meaning of this phrase on our week-long visit to Ladakh this summer. We had visited and seen the beauty of the White Desert, the Rann of Kutch, white salty marshy desert! And here we witnessed the rugged, natural beauty of Ladakh! There was hardly any greenery. There were mainly two types of trees.  One was locally called ‘Yulak’, a teak-like tree, a local variety of poplar, tall, but with very small rounded leaves, unlike teak. The wood from this tree was used for doors, windows and wood carving on the top of all windows. The other was called ‘Yarfa’, another variety of poplar tree, but with slightly longer elliptical leaves and more foliage. These trees were trimmed in order to allow then to spread their branches and provide more shade and foliage. However, such vegetation was seen only around Leh situated at a height of 11,500 feet above sea level.
View of Snow capped mountains from Leh Palace!

It was an amazing journey of 130 kms due North of Leh to the Nubra Valley. A journey of steep narrow mountains roads, the highest Pass, snow-capped mountains, snow fall, and sand dunes in Nubra Valley and a sand storm, all in a day’s drive! We started out from Leh and soon began a steep climb. The road was narrow and with sharp curves. I was scared stiff, must admit I’m scared of heights and steep falls. I had to keep my eyes closed at first, while the car took sharp turns on the narrow road. So we climbed up to 15,500 ft. to the South Pallu check point. As we approached we found that we were among the snow-capped mountains and no longer clicking them from various strategic points. We got down from the car really excited to get photos close up of the snow and mountains. And then miraculously it began to snow. It was such a joy to see the first few drops of snow-flakes fall.

Among the snow capped mountains, near South Pallu, 15,500 ft

As we moved ahead the snow began to fall at a steady pace. It was a long time since I had experienced snow fall. The last I had seen snow fall was in 2013 and 2014 in the US. The speed of the car slowed down and the cars lined up as the army personnel were stopping gypsy jeeps like vehicles and helping to install iron chains on the wheel to prevent slipping and skidding. We had to stop again while a convoy of 24 army trucks passed, going downhill to Leh, perhaps to collect provisions for the army stationed on the mountain Passes.

Snow storm reduces visibility

Army faces stiff condition on the High Passes

White snow and clear blue sky above
Khardungla Pass, 18380 ft

We reached the top of the mountain range, the Khardungla Pass at 18,380 ft. We were Ok, and did not get any of the symptoms of breathlessness due the low oxygen levels in the air. It was one of the most exciting and high points of the day. The mountains around and the road was covered with fresh snow. With vehicles and people stomping around, much of the snow turned to ice. Vehicles and people were slipping and skidding over the ice. While I was busy enjoying the scenery and capturing it, I suddenly saw my partner, who came looking for me, slip and fall on his side, the left shoulder taking the entire impact. Strangely, as I watched the fall, his entire body was in a straight line horizontal to the ground, almost like the Heroes in fight scenes in the Hindi re-make of Tamil-Telegu movies! Weird fall, said he felt he had no control and nothing to hold on to. Fortunately, he was fine, except for some soreness the next day!

Caught an Icicle!

On our way down from Khardungla Pass to Khardong village, we tried to capture the bright blue sky, but iPhones did not get the real colour!! The narrow roads allowed me to catch an icicle from the car and I held on to it till my hand froze! We climbed down to the North Pallu Check post at 16000ft.

As we began to descend further the scenery changed. We saw some herds of Yak. The snow on the mountains had melted, they were bear and brown and rocky. The colours of the rocks were fascinating, from black to brown to red and even green! Then the mountains changed to ravines, on the side of the road were deep-steep rocky gorges, with streams flowing eventually to the river Shoyak. My partner said, “Look the Grand Canyon! Kya yeh bhi koi Grand Canyon se kam hai?” I said, “Oh yeah, but don’t think you escape from our trip to the Grand Canyon!” another tourist spot on our bucket list.

The Ladakhi Grand Canyon

At some point of the descent we got a view of the Nubra Valley, at least one facet of it, a large river basin. Unlike the ravines earlier, there was greenery and cultivation around it and also the very large and grey muddy coloured River Shoyak.

Nomad herds woman graze Pashmina Sheep along Shoyak river
The scene changed again as we moved on. The character of the desert, ‘Cold Desert’, began to appear. There was sand and sand dunes everywhere, large tracts of bear land. The vegetation changed again to short shrubs and desert like plants. We passed the Deskit village, with the Deskit Gompa, monastery, and on to Hunder Village. Hunder is the desert village with sand dunes and the famous two-humped camel.

The Hunder Village had miles and miles of sand dunes and tens of two-humped camels and of course tourists, mainly Gujaratis! We rode two-humped camels, Raja and Karishma. They were not as tall as the one-humped camels we rode in Jaisalmer. The experience was very comfortable and less scary. As one of the young boys exclaimed, “We are in a desert with sand dunes and camels but wearing sweaters and coats!” What an amazing thought! It reminded me of my first encounter with a cold and freezing beach, a sea front. That was in Connecticut, a welcome party near Prof. Paul Schultz’s home! The same feeling of unnaturalness, freezing when in India we expect to be sweating (by the sea) or baking (in the desert)!
Two Humped Camels in Hunder Desert, Ladakh

Children slide down and clamber up the sand dunes

We walked up some sand dunes and sat down at the top where there was a steep slope. A Tamil family joined us on the slope. The father urged his son and later his daughter to slide down the sand dune slope. The son soon did. I wondered how he would get back up. He clambered up. It was hard work. Then the sister slid down the slope too, both of them raced back to the top! Finally, the father decided to slide down too. The slope was very steep. He walked down a little and managed to clamber up where the slope was slightly less steep. Not bad for him! 
While we sat on the sand dunes, a sand storm rose. We were covered with sand. 

When it subsided we saw that the mountains around that we captured earlier on camera were almost invisible! The desert strangely had a river/stream flowing through it. I was fascinated by the flowing stream. The water was cold in the Cold Desert! It had been a most remarkable day from the snow-capped mountains, snow fall, the desert, sand dunes, camels and a sand storm!

Stream in the desert



2 thoughts on “Snow Storm and Sand Storm: A Day in Ladakh

  1. Beautiful! Your post made me relive the memories of my trip to Ladakh four years back. 🙂 And yeah, hunder desert is one of its kind. Loved that landscape.


  2. Totally agree on you naming 'Ladhak – the Indian Grand Canyon' !!!It's indeed an amazing trip. In fact, the drive from Leh to Pangong lake via Changla pass was one of the best road trips of my life till date.


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