The Leh Palace
The Leh town is the most prominent city in the Ladakh region north of the mesmerising Kashmir Valley. It is located at a height of 3505 m (approx 11500 ft) in a small valley almost 6 kms from the right bank of the river Indus.The Leh Palace is a replica of the world famous Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. The palace is located on the Tsemo hill and rises an astonishing 9 stories. The construction of the palace was initiated by Tsawang Namgyall the founder of the Namgyall dynasty (1533-1834) in AD 1553 and was completed by his nephew Senge Namgyal, the most illustrious ruler of the dynasty.
The palace is visible from all parts of Leh and is the most visible symbol of its past. We climbed up the palace and marveled at its enduarance. Built from basic material comprising of mud bricks, poplar wood, mud mortar and wooden rafters, the palace seems to be in a remarkably good condition. It is done in a simple style with very little ornamentation and is unlike any other palace I have seen in North India. It is remarkably free from graffitti, which unfortunately is inevitable in historical places in India. The only slogan I could find etched on one of the walls was ‘Free Tibet’.
Buddhism is the dominant force in Ladakh. Most people are Buddhists and the culture is hugely influenced by Buddhism. Lamas clad in flaming red robes are a common sight. Monastries located on steep hills in remote areas are big tourist draws. We visited The Lamayuru Monastry located 160 kms from Leh, The Alchi Monastry, The Likir Monastry, The Diskit Monastry (located at Diskit in the fabled Nubra Valley approx 120 Kms from Leh), Thiksey Monstry and the Hemis Monastry.
Alchi and Likir monastries are the oldest monastries in Ladakh. Alchi Monastry was set up about 1000 years ago. The great translator and scholar Rinchen Zangpo visited Ladakh in 1020 AD and founded the monastry. The work on the monastry was completed in the year 1035 AD. Artists from Tibet and the Kashmir valley decorated the walls of the monastry with wonderful paintings of the life of Buddha and tantric art. The monastry is located on a bluff overlooking the mighty Indus, which rushes past the monastry. Unchanging and eternal.
The Likir Monastry is located about 30 kms from the Alchi Monastry. Likir Monastry was founded by sage Lhawang Chosje in 1088 AD. He introduced the teachings Kadampa expounded by the Indian saint Atisha. In 1470 sage Lawang Lotus arrived from Tibet and converted this shrine into Gelukpa Sect expounded by Lord Tsong Khapa. The monastry is ancient and remarkably well preserved. Monks dressed in red robes can be seen chanting. Some are occupied in day to day chores of running the monastry. The world seems to be at peace with itself.
Hemis Monastry is perhaps the most famous of all the monastries in Ladakh. The first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru visited the monastry in 1949. A faded black and white picture kept in the monastry museum shows him seated with the priests in the monastry. Hemis is 40 km from Leh and it appears to be precariously perched on the side of a huge mountain.
Hemis is the largest monastry in Ladakh. It represents the Dukpa Kargyupta school of the Mahayana sect. The monastry was built in 1630 by Kushok Shambhunath an eminent scholar and later the Rajguru of Gyalpo Singye Namgyal the rulerof the kingdom of Ladakh.
The monastry was extended in 1730 to include magnificent prayer halls, numerous shrines, chapels and living quarters for the monks. The monastry today also has a museum, which houses all manner of things providing a glimpse in the lives of the monks. The Hemis Gompa has a huge prayer wheel, which we silently turned praying for peace in the world. More than 500 monks can stay in this monastry, though I was told that the present strength of resident monks is just 60.
We sighted the Indus for the first time, while on our way to the Lamayuru monastry. We were on the road which goes to Srinagar in the Kashmir valley. Norboo our guide and driver in Ladakh pointed to a stream flowing deep down in the gorge and casually mentioned that that was Indus. We craned our necks and caught our first sight of the river, which in many ways had acquired a mythical quality in my mind. Soon we were descending and driving by on the road next to the river.
Indus has lent its name to India. We have been taught from our very childhood about the fabled Indus Valley Civilization, which flourished on the banks of this river more than 5000 years ago. As I watched mesmerised the unending flow of the river, I could not help but wonder about this magnificent river, steeped in history, sustaining civilizations, repository of so much of our culture and heritage rushing past as if in a great hurry. Later we also went to the banks of the river at Sindhu Darshan a ghat about 8 kms from Leh, where the river flows serenely in the Leh valley. We dipped our hands and feet in the cold waters of the river and sat quitely in the sun watching the river, the hills and the meadows. A strange peace descended upon us.
Khardung La and The Nubra Valley
The exotic Nubra Valley is located 120 kms from Leh. The Shayok river and the the Siachen river flow through the valley. The valley is accesible by road via the Khardung La pass, which at 18350 ft is the highest motorable road in the world. We set off for the Nubra Valley on a dazzling morning. The climb to the Khardung La Pass is tortuous. The road hugs the mountains and is barely wide emough to accomodate a vehicle. Norboo our guide and driver drove with skill and panache. We rose higher and higher and soon the road disappeared and we were now on a dirt track, which was barely motorable. The gorge to our left was so deep that we could hardly see its bottom from our perch. Finally Norboo took a turn to the right and we were at Khardung La.
Khardung La was chilly. The wind had picked up and was threatening to cut us into two. The lack of oxygen was causing a constant unrelenting throbbing in my head. We realised that we were hardly in any physical condition to stay at such altitudes. Khardung La as far as we could see comprises of a few huts and a small restaurant, which serves hot beverages and Maggie noodles. We quickly had a cup of tea and a bowl of noodles, took some pictures and were off to Nubra Valley.
The way from Khardung La to Nubra Valley is downhill. The road improves after 20 odd kilometers from Khardung La. We drove swiftly crossing army camps sprinkled in the valleys across Ladakh and hamlets spread out around the road. It took us around nearly 3 hours to reach Nubra Valley. The valley is tucked away amongst huge mountains. Shayok flows slowly in multiple streams through the valley and seems to occupy much of it. The bed of the river is wide and there are huge sand dunes on either side of the stream. In many places one sees only pristine sand dunes spread out everywhere.
We reached the town of Disket in the valley and than carried on another 5 kms to Hundar a tiny hamlet where we were staying the night. Hundar is truly an oasis with clear streams flowing everywhere, dense growing wild, flowers in a mutitude of colours, red, pink, ochre, purple, tangerine, white, were everywhere.
In the evening we went for camel rides on the sand dunes. The double humped camel I was informed is a native of Ladakh. Shaktiman the camel that I rode was decidedly grumpy. After 30 minute in the valley we felt rejuvenated. While Hundar 5 kms away is an oasis the Nubra valley where we went camel riding is desolate. There is sand, huge and bare mountains, wind and the river with very few animals or people around. It is beautiful.
The night sky at Nubra Valley was lit by millions of stars, all seeming to hang so close in the sky. We could also see the Milky Way stretching out to eternity. For city dwellers like us, where all the lights we have in the night are from the sodium vapour lamps lighting our streets, it was a moment to cherish and remember.
The Beauty of Ladakh
Ladakh’s beauty is of a kind, which is rare. Barren mountains rising ever so high, deep bottomless gorges, fast flowing rivers and streams, rock colours so vivid that they imprint themselves on the eye, sky a deep shade of azure, wide barren planes in between mountains, lush valleys and sunshine so bright that it hurts the eye. The ubiquitous fiery red robes of the lamas, the colourful prayer wheels everywhere and a gentle friendly people are all part of the wonderful memories that we have carried back with us. All the elements of nature combine to make one feel so humble and insignificant in the larger scheme of things.
High Altitude Sickness
Ladakh is situated at very high altitudes. High altitude sickness is common. I suffered from it all through my stay in Ladakh. One would get breathless after an innocuous walk, the head would feel heavy and throb continuously and one would lose appetite as well. To make matters worse I caught a bad cold. It did not allow us to go river rafting in the Indus or trekking in the valleys. We would love to do this whenever we visit Ladakh again.
We flew into Leh on a direct early morning flight from Delhi. All our stay and travel arrangements in Ladakh were handled by Overland Escapes (www.overlandescapes.com) an eco friendly travel company based in Leh. They were great. Norboo our guide and driver took care of us right from the moment we arrived in Leh. Mr. Dorjee our local contact at Overland Escapes visited us every evening, took good care of us and ensured that nothing went wrong. We would strongly recommend them to anyone planning to travel to Ladakh.
PS: All pics by the author. The author and his wife were in Ladakh from Aug 20th to 28th 2008.