Two words: central heating. At the Grand Dragon Ladakh, warmth comes at you from under the floor, it flows from the radiators and air-conditioning vents and its robust enough to make you sweat, even when it's a crisp -12 degrees Celsius outside. But, above all, the Grand Dragon exudes the warmth of Ladakhi hospitality.
Opened in 2007, the Grand Dragon swiftly established itself as the finest hotel in Leh, leagues ahead of the rest in terms of creature comforts, nod to sustainability, food and beverage offerings, and service. But perhaps the most wonderful thing is just how proudly rooted in place it is, as the distinctly Ladakhi design and interiors testify, proving that it's not just branded chain hotels that can have the highest standards or offer the best modern conveniences.
It's also family run. The Abdu family, which owns it, has been in the hospitality business since 1974, when Ladakh first opened up to tourism, and have run the venerable Hotel Dragon since then. That hotel, which was renovated in 1997 and has a modest 20 rooms (and may undergo another transformation yet again), was established by Din Mohammed, the family patriarch.
The Grand Dragon, which with its new wing which was added in 2016, is now a 76-room property, was conceptualised and developed by his sons, Gulam Mustafa and Ghulam Mohiuddin. It is serendipitous that Gulam Mustafa is also the first modern artist to emerge from Ladakh, and the hotel is filled with his depictions of traditional Ladakhi culture and architecture.
He is the one who spearheads the hotel's design idiom, with a meticulous attention to detail, sometimes mulling over the specific carving or colour of a door frame for weeks, if not months. The result is a warm blast of creativity that has sewn seemingly disparate elements into a beautiful, wholesome tapestry. But more on that later.
From the moment I entered the intricately carved wooden entrance, they took me under their wing, cooing and pampering me silly. Given the altitude, the first challenge was acclimatisation. Someone came up to my room with a pulse oximeter, to make sure my oxygen levels were okay. Then they plied me with garlic soup. Garlic thins the blood and is great for dealing with altitude sickness. They even steered me away gently from a deep-fried kebab I was eyeing, and suggested a healthier alternative. That's how personal the service is.
The dining room has to have one of the best views in the world, with the stunning Stok range almost in your face. One could subsist on that view alone, unless you're the greedy individual I am. The world seemed to have congregated in that wintry dining parlour with its heavily embellished ceiling. Several continents were represented, as well as a healthy number of Indian tourists. Some were there to see the snow leopard and other Ladakhi wildlife some had come for the legendary frozen Zanskar trek others were just soaking in the culture.
Then there were government officials in expensive goose down jackets staying to facilitate an impending PM visit.
Chef Puneet Kaushik laid out quite the Ladakhi feast for me, rising gamely to my demand for vegetarian fare. I started off with a steaming hot thukpa, pretty much a meal in itself. But I plodded on, with some delicious kothe momos, fried on one side and steamed on the other.
The main course of skyu followed, a potato and beans concoction laced with local wheat pasta. After that, I surprised myself by being able to squeeze in several helpings of local berry ice cream. Another day, there was a sumptuous coconut-based soup with 30 condiments on the side, so I could customise it to my liking. Travellers coming to Ladakh 30 years ago would have eaten very differently, I thought to myself.
"There are three key ingredients of a Himalayan hotel," Danish Din, director, Grand Dragon, who belongs to the third generation of owners, told me. "Hot water, a heated room and fresh food." As you can imagine, the Grand Dragon has its bases covered. In fact, it was the first hotel in Leh to have running hot and cold water even in -35 degrees Celsius temperatures (also, if you're interested, the first lift and first electronic key card).
Not only did the new wing take the room count from 51 to 76, it also went unabashedly Ladakhi in its styling, showcasing the region's cultural heritage, textiles and carving traditions. The rooms here evoke a regal splendour, with koshen royal cloth adorning every bed. Even the pattern on the quilts is gorgeous, but so subtle I wouldn't have noticed it if Danish hadn't pointed it out to me. The lamps glow with a Ladakhi sensibility.
The detailing is exquisite, especially in the luxury suites, which takes the experience up by several notches. The showcase is the heritage suite, which is let out only sparingly. It's almost a work of art, with cloud motifs flying about everywhere. Mosaic tiles have been used to dramatic effect in the entranceway, as well as a local Ladakhi stone. The bathroom is a stunner, and the ceiling echoes a traditional Ladakhi one. Danish wonders if future expansions should embrace a more contemporary aesthetic, but the jury is still out on that one.
How did the proprietors create a hotel which became synonymous with Leh in just a decade? Quite simply, by building the best hotel they could and running it passionately to the highest standard possible.
Features like underfloor heating are not something you'd readily notice and appreciate, but they make all the difference in extreme weather conditions. Leh itself was surprisingly lively in winter. Its Old Bazaar, a historic pit stop on the Silk Road, was busy on the weekend, with games and garments in plentiful supply. In the adjacent park, a public game of tambola had locals hooked. At 11,500ft, it was a surreal sight.
Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport in Leh has regular flights from cities like Delhi, Jammu, Srinagar and Chandigarh. You can reach Ladakh by road either from Srinagar or Manali and the captivating landscape will make the journey memorable.