The sun was shining bright and the clouds like cotton candy were floating by as our flight was heading to land at one of the smallest runways in the world at an altitude of 12500 feet.
As far as my eyes could see, there were just snow-capped mountains and the streams making their way through the mountainous terrain.
We were flying so close to the mountains that I wondered if the flight was flying low or the mountains were way too close, it was more like an aerial tour. I was busy feeding my eyes and the camera with spectacular views of the snow-capped mountains.
As the flight started descending everyone pulled out their coats and beanies, bundled themselves up to be welcomed by the cold Ladakhi winds. The temperature was minus 3-degree celsius.
Ladakh was on our list for a long time. We had drooled over the pictures of the stark blue sky, barren mountains and otherworldly landscape over the internet for ages. So, when we were invited to visit Ladakh during winter, we did not even hesitate for a second to say yes.
No wonder it is on every traveler’s list and we are no different. All bundled and ready we were all set to take in the vista that Ladakh had to offer during winter with Grand Dragon Ladakh.
• • • Welcome • • •
As we stepped into the hotel we were greeted by the pretty ladies, dressed in traditional Ladakhi dresses, with a white scarf known as Khata. This is an age-old tradition which is followed in Ladakh. After the beautiful welcome, we were escorted to the restaurant in the hotel for a late breakfast.
The centrally heated hotel was such a relief from the cold winds. Finely sliced garlic with all the goodness of the spices in the form of soup was served so that it helped in acclimatizing our body with the altitude (we were at 12,500 feet above sea level where the air was thin). We met our guide Tashi who shared with us some tips for surviving the Ladakhi winter and making sure we were bundled with multiple layers whenever we stepped out of the hotel.
( Read: Packing for Ladakh )
We were asked to take complete rest for 24 hrs and not to undertake any stressful activity. We were not even allowed to use the stairs for first 24 hrs.
• • • Room • • •
We had a cozy yet luxurious room to ourselves. The room had a big large fluffy bed with comfortable pillows, a large screen flat TV, a phone, complimentary wifi and a huge French window offering gorgeous views of the Stok Kangri mountain range draped in white snow. There was also a walk-in wardrobe connected to the bedroom.
The bathroom had hot water running 24 x 7 which was a blessing. We loved the extra care taken by the hotel by placing an Apricot scrub, lip balm and moisturiser for our rescue.
We were happy to see dry fruits, fruits and beverages waiting for us as we entered the room. We were so full from the decadent breakfast that we skipped the lunch on the first day and decided to relax in our rooms.
Well, the first day was meant for acclimatization and there was nothing better than snuggling under the clean sheets of a newly made bed after taking a bath.
• • • Dining • • •
Our days started with a savoury breakfast that included freshly squeezed juices, yoghurts, toast, cakes, muffins, bread, meat, jams, cheese and cooked breakfasts like poori bhaji, parathas to keep our energy levels up for the sightseeing ahead. There was also a variety of tea served based on preferences. Sam always opted for Kehwa (the local tea made with dry fruits).
Bundled up in our winter clothing, some good wine, a warm bonfire under the starry skies, a gamut of hearty food and lots of travel stories to exchange was the perfect setting for the dinner on most of the nights. The dinner was hosted by the hotel in the open restaurant. As the day began to metamorphose into the night, bonfires were lit and warm mulled wine replaced the Kehwa.
We were even invited to devour on a traditional Ladakhi dinner hosted by the hotel. The dinner started with the famous local drink – Chang served in Kore which is wooden cup/bowl that is also used for tea, coffee or soup followed by momos, Tim Sutak, Ping Aloo, PhingSa and Phating Chu.
The lunch menu was equally scrumptious. High Tea was served in the evenings at the restaurant with an array of vegetarian and non-vegetarian sandwiches, cookies and muffins along with a fine selection of teas.
• • • Amenities & Activities • • •
The hotel has amenities ranging from Sauna, kids play area, snooker tables, conference and meeting rooms, a fully equipped gymnasium.
The hotel also organizes activities like – A Talk about the Wildlife of Ladakh by the Wildlife Warden and Calligraphy classes. We thoroughly enjoyed participating in both the activities.
We even picked up some cute souvenirs and hats form the souvenir store in the hotel lobby.
• • • Staff • • •
Leaving the best for last, the hotel staff were amazing. They were very professional and were extremely well-trained. Other than the good service, they take the time to chat with you and share with you stories and information about Ladakh and their people. Our guide Tashi who was with us during the entire trip was such a sweet guy. He was too keen to share all the knowledge he had about the place, monastery and lifestyle of the Ladakhi people.
• • • Sightseeing • • •
As said earlier, our first day was all about relaxation, so the actual sightseeing started from Day 2.. We attended the famous Spituk Gustor festival which is held every year during the month of January. The festival is marked to celebrate the victory of good over evil. Thousands of locals throng to the Spituk monastery for the festival. The festival started somewhere around 10-ish and continued till the afternoon. The monks danced wearing masks and dresses of different colours. They danced in the formation of four, signifying the four disciples of Lord Buddha.
And then we headed to the hotel for lunch, after having hearty lunch we all headed to Shanti Stupa for the sunset. The view from Shanti Stupa was mesmerizing. But, unfortunately, it was little cloudy on that day but we had the entire Shanti Stupa to ourselves. Tashi mentioned that during summer you literally have to struggle to get a single picture without anyone else in the frame.
Day 3 started quite early and we drove all the way to Chilling passing by Nimmo which is a confluence of the river Indus and the Zanskar river. The frozen Zanskar was our companion throughout our journey to Chilling. But we were not able to reach chilling as BRO had other plans on that day. There was a blast just 11 km away from Chilling for road construction and the roads were blocked. But the road trip with frozen waterfalls and frozen rivers meandering through the barren mountains was enough to entice us.
We headed towards our next stop Lamayuru monastery passing by the half moon land. It is said that Naropa (an Indian scholar) caused a lake, which used to fill the valley, to dry up and founded the Lamayuru Monastery. We got to see some stunning views from the monastery and then headed towards Alchi where we had our lunch at a Ladakhi house.
Alchi is one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh. The monastery is famous for its wall paintings and woodwork that have survived through the millennia. There are four buildings (the buildings are made of clay and wood and have still survived the test of time) in the monastery and each building has an a unique theme.
Day 4 started with a visit to Thiksay monastery for morning prayers which was energising and peaceful. What a start to the day!!! Prayers were followed by breakfast at a Ladakhi home with the traditional setup.
Next on our list was a visit to the home of the local Oracle which was a different kind of an experience. Oracles are said to be spiritual healers and locals have firm belief in them. Spirits that possess oracles during trance states are usually said to be from the pantheon of Buddhist deities. After seeking blessings from her, we left for the hotel.
• • • Flashback • • •
During one of the evenings in the hotel, Mr. Ghulam Mohiuddin took us down the memory lane. He told us about the humble beginnings of his family in the hospitality industry.
It is said that close to 60 hippies visited Ladakh in late 70’s. Lack of infrastructure was a big problem back then. But with the support of govt, locals started sharing their home with hippies and slowly the hospitality industry was budding in the region.
The hotel started with 3 rooms in the late 70s where the first guests were 3 foreigners in the Dragon Hotel and post that there has been no looking back. The new hotel Grand Dragon opened in 2007 and is the most luxurious hotel in entire Ladakh. The hotel walls are filled with paintings by his elder brother, Mustafa. Many politicians, as well as film stars, have stayed at the hotel while shooting for their movies.
Of the entire conversation, we were kind of impressed the most was that Mr. Ghulam’s thoughts and vision for an overall development of Ladakh and how to boost the economy of the region.
• • • Overall • • •
We had a fantastic time at Grand Dragon Ladakh. The food was amazing, 24 x 7 running hot water was a blessing. The hotel staff were very cordial and looked after every need of ours.
It is the finest luxury hotel in Ladakh and also is open throughout the year. The hotel arranges day trips to Pangong Lake, Spituk Monastery, Thiksey Monastery, Chilling, Zanskar, Lamayuru, Alchi and many other places. We highly recommend a stay at this hotel if you are planning to visit Ladakh.
Winter Packages are valid from Jan 01, 2016 to March 31, 2016
Stay tuned for a virtual tour of the hotel.
PS: We were guests of Hotel Grand Dragon Ladakh.