White magic: snowfall at Ladakh

It snowed on Sunday.

After my first encounter with snow, Spring seemed to be preparing to make itself at home in the valley. The air was getting warmer, and we even managed to take a couple of walks with just light sweaters on.

But Winter was not one to give up that easily. It let Spring claim the day, but under the cover of darkness, when least expected, it struck the earth with tons of snow.

We were in Stanzin’s room, discussing our project late into the night when someone shouted out aloud.

The world outside seemed to have given itself a makeover in the two hours we were inside.

The ground outside was taken over by the white brigade. Snow not only carpeted the ground, it blurred every contour out there. The electric wires outside got a sheathing of snow, making it look like there was a ropeway between buildings.

We ran out and had our first snowfight – Meherzad and me versus the others!

I awoke the next morning to see that Winter had gained over the night. The snow outside was almost half a foot thick. Sanjiv and I set out to clear the snow from our solar panels so that we’d have electricity during the day. In the untrammeled snow, every step seemed to be an exploration in areas where no one had set foot below.

But it’s no fun walking in snow. Snow is fluffy till you step on it. It gives way easily, and under the weight, it turns slushy and messes the soil below. And since snow is flaky, it clings to footwear easily and when it melts and seeps through to touch skin, one feels as if one’s feet are being pierced by innumerable needles.

Sanjiv and I initially thought we’d just whip the snow away from the panels with our hands. But just a few sweeps later, the hands turned numb and we had to quickly get back to the warmer environs of the hostel. We returned, armed with a wooden plank. We got a few more shots, but we quickly realized the futility of trying to clear the residue of the clouds and gave up.

Angry at being tricked by Winter, the sun rose early, and though its barbs lost their sting to the layer of clouds, they forced the snow to sink to the nether regions. In a little while, the snow gave up the territory it gained over the night, and all that remained were patches of snow, looking like the earth had foamed over in its fury.

We were ready for the day’s travel to Khaltse town, around 140 km from Leh, and before all the snow turned tail, we rushed out to make our first snowman.

A table lying outside provided enough snow for us to mould a body, and some snow lying


on the ground found its way into the head. The snowman had a small balloon strip for a nose, and a piece of wood for his mouth. I donated my goggles for his eyes, and we quickly posed for photos before he melted.

One wonders when one will sate of the same sights. The awe of the first encounter decays with every sighting, and one prays that it does not degenerate into boredom.

But the mountains have a charisma that appeals to the senses. One develops an easy familiarity with the same hills, and feels like waving out to old friends as one coasts along the road. My first encounter had me wielding the digicam like a novice soldier, just aiming in the general direction and pushing the trigger in quick succession, hoping that one of the shots would get the target. This time around, I waited with the ease of a seasoned sniper, taking time to aim and playing out my shots to use minimum ammo.

Winter had dusted the hills with snow, but it had done a tardy job. The peaks glowed in noon light, but the mountain looked as if it wore a threadbare tunic that came down only to its knees. As the heat grew over the day, the mountains lost more of their snow, and looked like their makeup was ruined due to the tears they shed.

Further ahead, I spotted grass worming its way out of the ground. A few formations of birds tried entertaining somersaults as they celebrated the oncoming of Spring. Spring was weaving her gentle magic into the landscape. Life was entering the valley.

Turbine of a micro-hydel plant

We stopped at a village called Ulle Tupma to conduct the micro-hydro team’s first survey. The village itself was just a few houses by the road which served as eat outs in summer for tourists. I did not have much to do, and got Sehwang to take me to the micro-hydro site.

The micro-hydro in this village was not functional for the last couple of years, the reason being increasing demand. Since this was a small capacity turbine, generating just 1.5KW of power, it did not have a charge/load controller. When it was designed, every house in the vicinity was given two CFLs as they are less demanding of power to generate light. But as the population grew, more people hooked on bulbs and CFLs due to which the power demanded far exceeded the supply. Irked with the increasing complaints, the operator ceased to maintain the setup properly, due to which the system seized.

After our analysis, we set out for the Khaltse government guest house, where we were to spend the night.

Most buildings in Ladakh are designed to be south facing so that they can make maximum use of sunlight during the day. The government guest house, however, was designed more for aesthetics, and did not respect this essential feature. In addition, it was a cement construction, which made it an ice-box at night.

That night was colder than usual. Karma later told me that it was because the winds were cold due of the recent snowfall. I grew comfortable under the heavy quilts at night, but when I stepped out in the morning; my teeth beat out a staccato rhythm to the cold tune.

That day, Sanjiv, Johnny, Karma and I got off at a village called Domkhar which is powered by grid electricity while the others carried on further. To keep our survey as representative as possible, we had earmarked villages with different power sources for our survey and we tried taking samples in proportion to the population. Dhomkar was supplied by a diesel generator, while further ahead, villages survived on solar panels installed in their houses.

Since we had only Karma who spoke the local lingo, the three of us trooped along with him till we came to a cluster of houses. There, he quickly identified someone who spoke Hindi and Sanjiv stayed behind to speak to him. Once done, Sanjiv would ask the villager to guide him to another Hindi speaking household and continue with the work there. Johnny and I followed the same pattern, and within a couple of hours, we had got around 15 readings in toto from the village.

Sehwang and the others returned to pick us up and we set out for a village close to Kargil, called Biama.

Ever since the Kargil war, the army has taken up positions along the Kargil border. We registered our entry into the area in the morning as students and LEDeG staff and proceeded further. We passed by the proud banners of the Batalik Eagles as we drove through the mountains.

Biama is around 50 km from Khaltse, and is a region where the sunlight is tepid. As per a government scheme, most villagers were given a solar panel of 40W and two CFL lights to meet their lighting needs. But since the panels were not able to charge fully, most of the villagers claimed that they got just a couple of hours power during the day. Many of them subsisted on farming, and grew tomatoes and apricots for sale in addition to wheat for their consumption.

Marketing teaches a lot about branding, but I’ve never expected to see brand power in operation. LEDeG has been in operation for around 25 years now, and the brand equity they enjoy is amazing. In every village that we visited, all we needed to say was that we were working with Ecology (that’s what the villagers call LEDeG) and the villagers were willing to patiently answer all questions we put forth to them. Barring the villagers I accosted on the road, every other person I interacted with invited me in for tea. This was not something that we just saw in one village. In every village across Leh, the same warmth was expressed just because we were with Ecology.

People keep asking me if we work over the weekends too. But we enjoy traveling and interacting with people so much that even the survey seems enjoyable. For conducting the survey, we have visited places far into the interior of Leh that even trekkers do not go to.

To reach one of the villages, Lalit, Sehwang and I had to cross the Indus on a two foot wide wooden bridge with no handholds to the side. Since it was an old construction, it rocked slightly with each step. Towards the centre, it kept bouncing as we walked, as if wishing to drop us into the seething waters of the Indus far below. But our efforts were amply rewarded. After our survey of a couple of households, they brought out a plate laden with the choicest apricots. Lalit and I picked up a couple each, but Sehwang told us that the custom was to pick all but two-three from the plate. So we set off, munching apricots and breaking the seeds to get the soft kernels inside, crossing the rickety bridge again to get to the road and continue on our way.

We spent three days in Khaltse.

A close comradeship formed between Karma, Sehwang and us during this time; the kinship that develops over shared adventure.

The final day’s adventure is something I’ll remember for a long time. We needed to take a few samples from a village called Ursi, 12500 feet above sea level. Eager for a walk, Lalit, Johnny, Sanjiv, Mirza (that’s what the locals called Meherzad) and I set off with Karma leading the way. Eager to get to the top, Lalit and I left the safety of a trodden path and tried cutting through the fields. The path quickly turned into a narrow ledge jutting out of the side of the mountain, hardly a foot across.

It’s not just bad paths that trouble the intrepid trekker. In the thin air, a little exertion finds one giving up the nose as a means of inhalation and swallowing huge gulps of air. After walking continuously for a km or so, all one can think of is to sit and breathe. When one halts, the heart beats out wild patterns, trying to keep blood flowing. But in a few moments, the body resets itself and one can move on.

Trying my hand at farming 🙂

We finally got to Ursi after an hour’s climb and found people tilling fields with a plough yoked to a couple of yaks. Sanjiv and Johnny got busy with speaking to villagers, and as I did not have anyone to translate for me, I stuck to communicating with smiles and gestures. I indicated that I’d like to have a try at tilling the ground, and the farmer showed me how to hold the plough and dig the ground with it. After walking one side of the field, I had to shout ‘ho!’ to indicate that we had to turn around, and the lady leading the yaks would pull on the bridle to make them take a u-turn. After a few ‘Ho!’, I tired quickly and the farmer got back to his job. Sanjiv tried his hand later, and the villagers were taken up with our efforts and invited us to have ‘chung’, the local liquor that tastes like wine, with them.

Tilling a field with yaks at 12500 feet and having a cold glass of chung after that.

Life rarely gets better…

In 2006, I spent the months from March to May in Ladakh. Six of us from SPJIMR had chosen to do our summer project there, working on understanding and forecasting energy demand and supply for the region. It was an incredible experience. As part of the project, we travelled across Ladakh for primary surveys. The posts below were written during the visit.

I couldn’t, however, get Ladakh out of my mind. I visited Ladakh again in 2009 with friends to enjoy the now-discontinued Confluence music festival. The post on the second visit:

Read all my travel posts here.


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