Ladakh is not meant for a quick trip, say seasoned travellers
Most of the seasoned bikers and travellers have welcomed this move, saying it was long due. Vargis Khan, a well-known travel blogger and Youtuber, who also guides many travel enthusiasts for their trips to the mountains, has himself faced AMS. “When I first suffered from acute mountain sickness in Ladakh, which was during our night stay at Pang, it took me quite some time to realize what it actually was. My body temperature shot up, letting me believe that I was suffering from fever. I had a severe headache and could not get myself to eat or drink anything. My chest felt as if it was being crushed from both sides. The entire night at Pang was spent tossing and tumbling and even the next day was no better. Until we finally arrived in Leh, my entire body felt like it was hit by a train.” He is happy with the move by Ladakh government, and adds, “This move will put a control on tour operators and groups who try to rush tourists through Ladakh with a packed itinerary. They bring them to Pangong Tso right after they reach Leh or a day after. It is foolish, as it jeopardises peoples’ lives.”
Kunal Mehra, who is currently based out of Leh and organises tours for groups, echoes similar sentiments and says, “Most people want to tick off Leh-Ladakh from their lists by just making a trip here. However, this is a place to hold down yourself and not to run into. All the locations in Ladakh are at a high altitude, mostly above 11000 feet, so you cannot just reach here and start heading out to Khardung-La, Chang-La or Pangong Tso. In the peak season, we have seen many tourists in the hospital complaining of shortness of breath and lack of oxygen. So, you need to get accustomed to the climate and take it easy. I think the new guidelines will help with that.”
Longer itineraries and stays in the future
Looking at the advisory, groups planning their trips to Ladakh have been rethinking their plans and coming up with longer itineraries. “With the inclusion of the 48-hours mandatory acclimatization, trips to Ladakh will now start at a minimum of 5 nights and 6 days, covering all the main attractions in and around the area,” shares Samar Hussain, a tour operator. While there are no rules or advisories in place for acclimatisation at other popular high altitude tourism places in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand or Sikkim, trekking groups recommend minimum 24 hours acclimatisation after arrival.
Don’t neglect travel advice from authorities and locals, say travellers
As per the officials in the union territory’s tourism department, almost 80 per cent of visitors fly into Ladakh, as it saves them the time taken by road travel. While locals advise tourists to rest for two days on arrival and then begin their trip, most visitors neglect this. “People just land at the airport in Leh, hire a taxi and head out to the high altitude passes and lakes. They fail to consider the fact that their bodies are not used to such climatic conditions and will take time to get accustomed to them,” shares an official from the department, adding that tourists should always heed the advice of authorities and locals who know the area well. As per reports, between January to June 2022, 11 people have died due to AMS.
Actress Shivya Pathania had a first-hand experience of the tough conditions in the mountain area recently. The actress was in Ladakh in May to shoot for an ad and an avalanche struck, leaving her and many others stuck at an altitude above 17000 feet, with low oxygen levels. Shivya posted a video on her account saying, “One must be very aware of oxygen levels in Leh-Ladakh and let themselves acclimatise to the weather conditions before going to high altitudes. Night travel should be avoided. If you are travelling to the area this season, make sure you know about all this. Life is precious, short, and unpredictable. The least we can do is take ample precautions.”
Tourist footfall in Ladakh
2019: 2.79 lakh
2021: 3.14 lakh
2022 (until May): 85000
– As per data from the Directorate of Tourism, Ladakh
“All tourists arriving in Leh must undergo at least 48 hours (about 2 days) acclimatisation before initiating their journey to higher altitude areas of Leh like Khardung-La, Pangong Lake, etc. However, they may visit nearby areas of Leh town during the acclimatization period. Pangong lake area is a wildlife notified sanctuary and hence accommodation availability is limited. Considering the limited accommodation available, tourists/ visitors should avoid plans to stay at Pangong without prior booking.”
– Directorate of Tourism, Ladakh
What is Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)?
Dr Ashutosh Shukla, Senior Director & Medical Advisor Max Hospital, Gurgaon, shares, “People who travel to places with an elevation above 8000 feet can develop altitude sickness because our body does not properly acclimatise to lower oxygen levels at higher elevations. It results from a rapid change in air pressure and air oxygen levels at higher elevations. It develops if you travel without giving your body time to adjust to less oxygen. This condition is also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and presents with shortness of breath, headaches, nausea, redness of the eyes, flushing of the face and photophobia. It may develop within 6 hours to 4 days after reaching a high altitude and can last up to 5 days.”
Dr Sulaiman Ladhani, Consulting Chest Physician, Masina Hospital, Mumbai explains how a person must be treated in case they are diagnosed with AMS. “If there are mild symptoms of AMS, the best thing to do is to return to a lower altitude level, reduce activity level, rest at least a day or two before you go higher up. Hydrate well, and take medication as per medical advice, but if the symptoms get worse, there is breathing difficulty or symptoms of severe mountain sickness, please seek medical help at the earliest and ensure that the treatment is given on time, or it can be fatal.”
Be weary of AMS!
All flights to Leh arrive early in the morning. That means you haven’t had ample sleep and rest through the night. Still, if you head out immediately after landing, chances are you will end up in the hospital with an oxygen mask. In 2019, well-known travel blogger Yogesh Sarkar, on his tenth visit to Ladakh, succumbed to AMS after he landed in Leh and went out to Pangong Tso immediately the next day. So, it’s always suggested to be cautious –
Kunal Mehra, a tour organiser based in Leh