2015 India – Ladakh

After another 12 hour sleep Paul still had difficulties waking me up. The traveling had really caught up with me and I needed to rest. Today would be a day of sightseeing in and around Leh. Our first place to visit was Shey Palace, a wonderful Buddhist monument. On the side of the path leading to the palace were prayer wheels and of course we rotated them clockwise to spread the blessings in the sky. Inside the palace was a small shrine with a 2 story high copper Buddha statue. Beautiful frescos covered the wall and we could enjoy some of the deities to be seen around the Buddha. What a place!

We had to drive quite a bit before we arrived at the 2nd place for today which was located at the other side of Leh where we visited Stok Palace, although the King of Ladakh was still living here one part of it was turned into a museum. We saw numerous pictures of local celebrities, beautiful painted Tangkhas (Holy paintings on cloth) and royal jewelry and clothing. Two rooms were specially opened for us where we could see the original kitchen and the meditation room of the king.

The next place to visit was Chanti Stupa, a  Buddhist religious monument built by an Indian based Japanese monk whose intention was to spread Buddhism by building those stupas around the world. In good tradition we climbed the monument in clockwise direction en enjoyed the beautiful paintings.

Time flew by fast and it was time for lunch. We went to a Tibetan restaurant in the centre of Leh which turned out to be extremely popular by locals. Paul enjoyed a spicy vegetable noodle dish with mutton, whilst I opted for stir fried vegetables with cashew nuts and spinach momo’s. Simple dishes but in one word delightful.

After lunch we had one hour to explore the market. We did some shopping and enjoyed places where Tibetan refugees sold home made crafts. Paul got a neckless and bracelet, I got two sound bowls, one for myself and one for Jacqueline, my yoga teacher, and we could not miss out on a set of Tibetan prayer flags that will certainly add atmosphere to our garden.

We had not finished yet as the next place to visit was the Leh palace. Situated on the edge of a hill overseeing the town below it’s Leh’s major landmark. A nine storied palace, built in the 17th century , it originally served as the royal residency. Now it houses the Ladakh branch of the Indian government’s archaeological conservation organization.

High above the Leh palace was the Tsemo fort, there was a steep path leading towards but because of the thin air neither of us was tempted to go up. that was until we could see a car parked next to it so we asked Tanzin, our driver how that car got there. It turned out there was a road leading to the fort  so we asked Tanzin to bring us there.

It was certainly worth it, if only for the views. Inside the fort there were two small temples with beautiful Buddhas and deities. The views over the valley where Leh was built were simply magnificent.

Back at the hotel we opted for a lazy evening. Neither of us was very hungry so we skipped dinner but did enjoy an old monk rum with coke. It had been another exciting day and both of us feel strongly this was the best trip we made together so far. The nature, the remoteness, the Buddhist monuments, we simply cannot put into words what we experience. We certainly are at the top of the world and there is no chance we will come closer to heaven than in Ladakh.

A very good night of sleep, an early breakfast and we were on the road again. Our first stop would have been the Thiksey monastery but as the road was blocked due to road works Thansing, our driver, decided to postpone the visit until our return to Leh tomorrow. As soon as we left the valley we found ourselves in a bare, desolate landscape. It did not take long before we started to climb but fortunately the roads were in much better shape than 2 days ago. There were still a couple of frightening moments but Thansing was a much calmer driver than the one we had on the trip from Chandigarh to Leh, this certainly helped to keep my blood pressure at a more acceptable level. Still I closed my eyes a couple of times.

From where we were driving we had a stunning look over the valleys. The contrast of the fresh green valleys where locals were growing crops with the bare steep mountains could not have been bigger. The mountains were constantly changing colors and texture. Grey, dark brown, beige, and sometimes even shades of green. Massive rocks, big boulders and sometimes smaller stones. We could see traces of avalanches, waterfalls and small lakes. Some of the summits were covered in thick layers of snow and ice which made a wonderful contrast with the deep blue skies and patches of clouds.

The ascend towards Changla pass was much smoother than 2 days ago so it almost came as an anti-climax when we arrived at the pass at 5360 meters height. This makes it the 3rd highest pass in the world. We enjoyed a short tea break after which we started the descend.

Like the ascend it was nice and controlled with no steep cliffs close to the road, I was, once again, a happy traveller. At one point we passed some fields where sparse grass was growing, this was where we saw our first herd of yaks. It was a large herd with mainly female yaks but we spotted a single bull in the herd.

Not much later we passed a flock of pashmina goats and two goat herdesses, the goats were very curious, came close by and even licked my hand. Still they were extremely alert as one unexpected move made them jump back into the safety of the herd.

Lunch was enjoyed in a typical Tibetan restaurant. We could choose between a traditionally decorated room or a more modern one. Obviously we choose the traditionally decorated room which happened to be next to the kitchen. We choose a noodle vegetable soup, a wise decision as it tasted perfectly.

Next to the restaurant an old man, dressed in original clothes and boots made of yak skin, sat in the sun. I could not miss out on the opportunity and fortunately he agreed upon his picture taken.

More scenic landscape to be admired during the last hour of the trip. Somehow we are getting used to it but the sheer beauty of the landscape we were driving through simply could not be denied. Massively impressive and overwhelming!

Finally we could get the first glimpse of Pangon lake. Its blue green waters reflect the mountains of the Changchenmo range. the Pangon lake, situated at 4.267 meters height is the largest brackish water lake in Asia, or maybe it is better to call it a sea as it is 150 km long and varies width between 2 to 10 km.

We checked in at our deluxe tent at Whispering Camp, indeed it was more appealing than our first camping experience in the Himalayas. Hardly had we settled or tea and biscuits were brought that we enjoyed whilst sitting in the sun and overlooking the lake.

We decided for a short stroll to the shoreline. Going down was easy. At the shoreline we encountered a herd of cows grazing. The deep blue lake created a fantastic contrast with the surrounding mountains, it was indeed worth the 160km trip. The bull in the herd was looking at us with more interest than we would have wished for so we headed on and climbed over a stone wall, just in case…

Getting back to the campsite was a different story, even though it was only a 200 meter walk we felt like it was a major expedition. Needles to say at 4.267 meters height the air is thin and going slightly uphill was no easy task. We were breathing heavily and had to stop every once in a while to catch our breath. Still we were doing fine and had no major issues.

The rest of the afternoon we read a bit and relaxed till dinnertime. Dinner was amazingly good but there was not much entertainment after so we went to bed before eight…

Could not believe I slept 11 hours non stop, somehow I seem to need my sleep although I feel quite well during daytime, the dizziness is not worse than usual. After breakfast we left Whispering Camp for the trip back to Leh. We had to backtrack the same route as yesterday but that did not mean we were bored at all. We were very lucky indeed as we had the opportunity to see some himalayan marmots from close by. They were curious little animals waiting for something to eat but we stuck to the rules not to feed the wildlife.

Once we reached the Indus valley again we visited the Hemis monastery. It was secluded, hidden away in a gorge so the monks would not be tempted by distractions. It’s also the biggest and wealthiest of monasteries of Ladakh. It dates back to the year 1630 and was located about 47 kilometer from Leh. There was a lot to discover, first we visited a temple with a giant copper-gilt statue of lord Buddha. Next was the praying room decorated with fantastic frescos and numerous statues of lord Buddha and other deities. Two monks were praying which gave our visit an extra touch. In one part of the monastery a museum was created which housed a very rich collection of ancient relics. We could admire,sacred thankas and several other exquisite objects. It was a visit worthwhile.

The day before the road to the Thiksey monastery was blocked so instead we would visit that today. But not before we had a fantastic lunch in the garden of a hotel overlooking the monastery.

Thiksey monastery was built on top of a hill, a striking position and staggering views. It is very much a living, working monastery, something that we immediately noticed on arrival when we could hear the monks blowing the horn. I got very excited by the prospect of seeing a prayer session going on so we skipped the first temple and headed straight to where we could hear the noise coming from. Once we stepped into the temple we were entering another world. Monks were singing and praying, lead by two senior monks. At intervals the praying got louder, horns were blown and drums were beaten. Two young monks had to bang the drums and at the quitter moments provide the older monks with chai, the Indian milky tea. Shivers ran down my spine as the atmosphere to me was tremendously moving.

Whilst listening to the prayers we slowly moved around the prayer hall to admire the frescos, the numerous statues and the decorative pieces of cloth hanging down from the pillars. In the back room we could see a giant Buddha but at the moment I discovered a beautiful sand mandala my heart skipped a couple of beats. The amount of detail was overwhelming, it was like a beautiful picture but then totally made of sand. The monks must have worked months on it, only to be wiped away during a special ceremony, proving the mortality of everything.

I was blown away by the sheer atmosphere of the place and at one point even had to wipe a tear from my eyes. I would loved to have sit down and try to meditate but that would not have been fair to Paul so we moved back to the Temple of the Maitreya Buddha that we skipped to go directly to the prayer hall.

The Buddha statue was two stories high and wears an expression of absolute serenity. The crown was exquisitely carved which showed the craftsmanship of the artists who created it. Absolutely fabulous would be an understatement to describe this masterpiece but other words do not come into my mind.

There were several other temples to be visited, each devoted to their own deities and each with it’s own special character. We visited one of the older temples in the monastery which was kept quite dark. the frescos over here were in their original unrestored state.

We climbed the stairs to the roof from where we had superb views over the valley and the surrounding mountains. It seemed that the whole monastery was a labyrinth of alleys and stairs and one could easily get lost over here. 

I could not leave the monastery without a second visit to the main prayer hall as the atmosphere over there was absolutely mesmerizing. I could have stayed much longer but enough is enough so we left the temple, totally impressed by the vibrancy we had experienced.

Back at the hotel is was time for a shave, a refreshing shower and fresh clothes. We did some shopping at two shops opposite the hotel and enjoyed a well deserved old monk rum with coke. As neither of us was very hungry we skipped dinner. Paul relaxed by reading a book and I worked on the travel story and watched the pictures. They brought back happy memories from the previous days.

We only stayed one night in the hotel and the next morning we headed off for another adventure to the Nubra valley. The roads were nicely paved (most of the time) and wider than before. Steadily we were climbing and after not to long we could see Leh in the valley deep below us. like other times it was an extremely scenic route and as turned out we were following the traces of the ancient Silk Road.

After about an hour and a half we arrived at Khardong-La pass at a whopping height of 5602 meters height, a truly breathtaking experience. The views were staggering, from once side we could see the valley where lay was located and from the other side we looked into the Nubra valey. further there was not much to see and we were clearly warned by a sign that staying longer than 20-25 minutes at this altitude could be harmful for our health…

Of course we made the mandatory picture proving we had been at worlds highest motor-able pass in the world ( a true competition with all the other people who wanted to do the same), climbed the gompa as far as our breath allowed and made some pictures on the ice. It had started snowing by now a bit so it was time to leave and descend into the Nubra Valley.

The road had deteriorated by now but still the both of us managed to keep our nerves, except a couple of hair raising moments. The valley was completely grey and only after a while we could see a river running, a river that was as grey as its surroundings, saturated by the Himalayan soil.

The first place to visit was the Samtanling monastery. It was quite a modern build,, only established in 1972, and besides the old prayer hall that was especially opened for us by a monk, it did not leave that much of an impression. we were missing the livelihood that we experienced the day before at Thiksey.

Just before three we arrived at the Desert Himalaya Camp which turned out to be the best campsite we had stayed at so far. There was even warm water available in the morning a luxury we had not had before.

Tensing gave us an hour to relax after which we went to the “world famous”, but not so impressive, sand dunes of the Nubra valley. After having visited the sand dunes in Dubai last December these ones were a bit of a joke, oh well, actually this is the first disappointment of our trip and we certainly are not complaining at all.

Before dinner we enjoyed a beer or two after which we were once again surprised by the best dinner at a campsite until now. The Desert Himalaya Camp certainly exceeded our expectations. There was a bonfire advertised for the evening but as Paul was quite tired and I simply totally exhausted we called a day and seeked the warmth of our duvets in our little tent. It had been another wonderful day.

Next morning neither of us did want to get out of bed as breathing was still difficult and a basic thing like brushing teeth seemed to be a major task. We packed our bags, enjoyed breakfast and sharp at eight left the camp on our way to Diskit monastery. The monastery itself was beautifully located on a rugged cliffside but all attention was drawn towards an enormous statue of the Maitreya Buddha that was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama only in 2010. The statue was massive indeed and we felt dwarfed by standing in its presence.

Unfortunately the Photang of the Dalai Lama which exhibited an splendid collection of ancient Thankas was closed so we made it to the monastery itself. Tensing told us we had to climb 120 steps, not an easy task under the circumstances of this thin air. Although we had descended from Khardong-La pass we still found ourselves at a height of over 3500 meters.

The Diskit Gompa was originally built in the 15th century and some parts certainly had suffered from the teeth of time. Still there were three beautiful temples to be seen. first we went in the old prayer hall where a most stunning collection of statues and deities were to be seen. Unfortunately,it was not allowed to make pictures there and a monk was making sure everybody obeyed that rule.

In the new prayer hall an old monk welcomed us and explained the statues and photos. It was a wonderful experience and once again I felt totally at peace in these surroundings. Not that I will ever have the aspiration to become a Buddhist monk but the environment is simply amazingly, one can literally feel the spirituality.

We wandered around the premises, made sure we turned the prayer wheels in clockwise direction and soaked the special atmosphere. I can only summarize my feeling in one word, magic!

After we finally descended the 120 steps again we left Diskit and hit the road again towards the Khardong-La pass. We crossed the little village where we had enjoyed lunch the day before and once again were amazed how people can survive in these bare circumstances.

We made a short stop at the pass and started the descend into the Ley valley. By now both of us were suffering from a sensational overdose of natural beauty, combine with bumpy roads. Paul was reading a book and I tried to sleep a bit, not the easiest things to accomplish in these circumstances.

We safely made it to Leh where we checked into our hotel. Then we went for a stroll through the old parts of Leh (stupid me to forget the camera). The 15th of August, independence day, everywhere were people waving flags and greeting with happy independence day. It was a nice atmosphere, especially when we went into a drugstore / barbershop for some lip balm and the lady in there was extremely happy and enthusiastically waving the Indian flag and repeatedly saying “India is no.1”. What a lovely encounter.

As soon as we discovered a Tibetan restaurant our choice for a late lunch was made. Paul opted for steamed vegetable cheese momos while I opted for the same but in a soup. Combined with a herbal tea we enjoyed the most wonderful lunch. Sometimes it’s better to opt for the simple places to get back to the essence of food, prepared with passion!

We strolled a bit more through the centre after which we returned to the hotel where we enjoyed a beer at the courtyard. It was our last evening in Leh and we were looking forward to the rest of our journey. It did not become very late that night, somehow we do need our sleep badly, especially me…

Before the alarm went off both of us were fully awake. The 16th of August, our 13th anniversary. what a special place to celebrate with no one in our direct environment being aware of our special day. On Facebook there were plenty of congratulations and well wishes which made our day memorable, especially being in India where gay relationships are still an act of crime….

Just after eight our tour coordinator introduced us to our new driver who would be bringing us all the way to Srinigar in Kashmir. This day we would complete the first leg of the journey to Kargil, in the east of Ladakh.

As soon as we left the Leh valley one thing was very clear, the quality of the road! Nicely paved road (with a couple of bad patches in between) and wide enough to comfortably cater for two cars side by side. It made it a very comfortable ride.

Our first stop was at a place called Sangam, the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. amazing to see how two totally different colored rivers merged and continued as once.

The landscape was totally different again, somehow it seemed to be more lush and fertile than the rest of the valley which looked more like a desert. Purple flowers created a nice layer over parts of the valley and somehow the mountains appeared more rocky and sharp.

The English of our driver was limited at least to remain polite so we hardly had a conversation, I had difficulty making clear I wanted to stop at all points of interest, it was a tour after all and not a taxi ride… Kashmiri music, which had a much stronger islamic influence than we had heard before, was coming out of the loudspeakers which gave a nice touch but after a couple of songs everything sounded the same.

Even when we passed a most impressive gompa, the Lamayura monastery our driver asked whether we wanted to stop or not, ehhh, did I not make that clear?

By now we had travelled 127 km away from Leh so a stop was more than welcome. The Lamayura monastery is following Tibetan Buddhism. It’s made up of a number of shrines and had a great collection of Thankas. A couple of devotees in traditional costume were spinning the prayer wheels and somehow I did have a deja vu of my journey in Tibet.

Originally the monastery was made of 5 main buildings but there is only one currently left, surrounded by some ruins. Although Paul had had his share of gompas I could not get enough strolling through the labyrinth of stairs, alleys and open areas in order to find more temples and interesting places. I was so delighted to find a room filled with stupas and ancient black hats, only used in ceremonies once a year.

There was so much to be discovered I could have spent hours but instead I returned to the car and we headed to a restaurant, with a fabulous view of the gompa, for lunch.

And then we were on the road again. One pair of eyes simply were not enough to absorb the majestic landscape surrounding us. The air was willed with our gasps every time another spectacular view unfolded itself.

After about two hour drive we arrived at Mulbek where a tall rock sculpture of the Maitraya Buddha was to be admired. In front of it a small temple was build with the usual relics, still I did enjoy being there.

Not much later we arrived in Kargil. We had already noticed a change in building style and the fact that most women were veiled. This was most certainly an area where islam dominated as we had expected. Besides being located on the bank of a river the city did not impress us much, maybe we were just a bit tired. talking about tired, so was the hotel…. Definitely the least where we stayed this trip but then we could not be worried as it was only for one night. Dinner was much better than expected though and we were amazed by the variety in flavors.

Continue the journey in Kashmir