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Leh - Spituk - Alchi - Likir - Uleytokpo

♪♫♫♪♫ Wherever I lay my hat, that's my...monastery ♪♫♫♪♫

sunny 30 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Soon after we went to bed last night the power went out, and didn't come back until 04:35 this morning. I know the exact time as I was awake most of the night, between the barking dogs, the temperature being too hot or too cold, my nose bleeding (I remember the altitude having that affect when we went to Tibet too), feeling congested and waking up gasping for breath and the hard bed, I got very little sleep.

They may look peaceful and docile during the day, but at night they wake up and fight loudly until dawn.

Spituk Monastery

Our first stop this morning was the Spituk Monastery, founded in the 11th century, and initially built as a Red Hat institution, but was taken over by the Yellow Hat sect in the 15th century. The monastery contains 100 monks and a giant statue of Kali. The name "Spituk", means exemplary as it is said that an exemplary religious community would develop here at the Monastery.


I am still very confused about the different types of Buddhism, but the way I see it, Buddhism can broadly be divided into three 'schools' (routes to enlightenment): Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Tantric. Within Tantric Buddhism, there are several sub-schools, including Tibetan Buddhism, which is what is generally practiced in this area. Red Hat and Yellow Hat are further sub-schools of Tibetan Buddhism. However, Red Hat covers three different traditions: Nyingma, Kagyu (which the Drukpa Sect of Hemis Monastery is part of) and Sakya, whereas Yellow Hat only refers to the Gelukpa sect. Confused? Now you know how I feel.... Not that we ever actually saw the monks wearing their hats at any one time.


146 steps up and down before 9 o'clock this morning, we're getting better at this altitude lark. This monastery had plenty of prayer flags all the way up, making it a little different to the others and really very picturesque.


Inside the monastery there were lots and lots of vegetable oil bottles and ugly masks, and no photographs were allowed. The view from the top showed the south western end of Leh, including the runway we landed on a couple of days ago and the valley which the plane approached so dramatically.


We followed a good road out of town, through our first check point when the landscape became much more barren. There was not much other traffic on the road, a few hardy cyclists, the ubiquitous Tata trucks and a convoy of foreign tourists, five to a car the same size as ours (glad we have a private tour!). Today the weather is quite cloudy, which has given us some relief from the stifling heat; but I suppose we must be getting used to it too, as the thermometer still said 30° C but it doesn't feel that hot.

This bit may be flat, but there are many hills ahead...

A Tata driver relaxes on his truck at a check point

Group tourists packed five to a car! Love having our car to ourselves!

Magnetic Hill
A particular stretch of the Nh1 Highway is marked off to denote the 'Magnetic Hill' where mystical forces will 'pull your vehicle uphill, seemingly defying the laws of physics'. Local lore says the mountains have 99% properties of a magnet or that supernatural forces cause this curious phenomenon. It is not the first time we have experienced such an optical illusion but it sure is a bit of harmless fun. Coming this way, it seemed obvious to us that the car was rolling downhill, but when we returned this way the next day, the road did in fact look like it was on an incline.


At the conflux of the Zanskar and Indus Rivers, we stopped for a while to watch the two differently coloured water merge at a bend. There were rafters on the Zanskar River, which looked like a lot of fun - mostly gentle with the odd rapid.


Back into the verdant valley at Nimmu village, with a few 'interesting' bridges and a huge military camp. We then followed the valley on the NH1 before heading up a series of z-bends onto a plateau surrounded by jagged mountains, some with snow-capped peaks.

Basgo Palace


To reach Likir, we turned off the main to onto a rough track that took us up to the site. Trying to get the driver to stop so that we could take a photo from a distance seemed to be a little difficult. He doesn't quite seemed to have grasped the concept of photography yet...


This seemed to be a little off the main tourist route, although there was a group of trekkers there when we arrived, who'd obviously got there on foot. Rather them than me!


Founded in the year 1065 and consisting of a number of shrines inside its complex, this well preserved monastery also houses a 7.6m tall protective deity, wearing a golden armour. Building the monastery like a fort offered sanctuary to local inhabitants during periods of war. The monks here, who presently number around 120, wear Yellow Hats. This is the first place we've actually seen the hats on this trip - sadly the monks weren't wearing them at the time, the hats were just resting on their seats inside the monastery.


There is also a school here at the monastery, housing some 30 students who are taught in Hindi, Sanskrit and English. The name Likir means "The Naga - Encircled", because the monastery is surrounded and guarded by representations of the two great serpent spirits. Lots of sculls on the roof too.


Likir Monastery is the seat of the Ngari Rinpoche, the younger brother of the Dalai Lama. Although he does not permanently reside here, he attends for the more important pujas. There is a picture of him in one of the halls, surrounded by flashing lights. I found this whole monastery a little surreal in fact.


In the Gongchang Temple, a one-man band (monk) created a prayer ceremony, playing the drums, cymbals and chanting.


The museum (no photos inside) was opened up especially for us, as was one of the other halls, with a monk showing us around. It contained the usual paintings of Buddhas, daggers, coins, masks etc, some 500 years old, but my favourite was an 800 year old skull used as a drinking vessel by the lamas. While we were walking around the museum, the monk who let us in was trying out the ringtones on his mobile. As I said, surreal!


On our way down the rough dirt track with its steep hairpin bends we met a brave tourist pedal cyclist making good headway!


Back on the nice asphalt road more hairpin bends took us down through the valley with different coloured scree on each side – from beige, through brown and green to a deep, almost purply red. Around each corner was more huge, rugged and dramatic scenery. My camera was going off like a machine-gun, shooting off pictures though the window every few seconds.


After a short while driving through another verdant valley, we were back in the barren landscape and turned off over a great bridge to head off to yet another monastery, Alchi.


We even saw a game of cricket along the side of the road, on a rare flat piece of ground!


Along the approach road to the monastery were lots of little stupas, in various states of disrepair. Alchi seemed like a rural and poor village, and for ages we were stuck at some roadworks on a bend where there was only enough space for one car to pass the large truck, and between the vehicles passing in both directions, the workers tried to repair the road the best they could. By hand of course – or at least with just a pickaxe.


Despite its humble approach, Alchi was the most touristy of all the monasteries we have visited to date in Ladakh, with the walk from the car park lined with souvenir stalls. I was, however, very pleasantly surprised at how un-pushy the sales people were - they all seemed quite happy with me taking photos of their wares. Mainly religious paraphernalia, there were also some beautiful pieces of jewellery.


Alchi Monastery was very different in other ways too – first of all it was not situated on a hill (there were no steps to climb, yippee!!!!), secondly there were lots of beautifully carved wood around the doors and thirdly, the interior paintings were weathered and blackened by smoke; reminiscent of medieval European churches. Entry to the temples within the complex were through low doors and no photos were allowed inside. With so many temples on one site (one of which was called Lotsa!), our shoes were on and off and on and off and.....


I really struggle with walking with my back bent over like that and then lifting my legs over a high threshold. As far as my back is concerned, it's one of the worst movement I can make. It didn't help that the visiting kids would block the doorway so I often got stuck half way in or out.

The monk selling the tickets for entrance to the Sumtek Temple (at 50/r each - around 40p) - where unfortunately photography was not allowed. I did however buy some post cards, scanned copies of which are below.


Four separate settlements, with monuments dated to different periods, make up the Alchi Gompa (Monastic Complex). Of these four hamlets, Alchi monastery is said to be the oldest and most famous, dating back to the year 1000 AD and containing some of the oldest and best preserved wall paintings in Ladakh.


These local children caused a bit of a sensation with quite a few Indian tourists, and boy did they know how to pose! There was almost something slightly uncomfortable about it...


Turning the prayer wheel at the gompa (monastery). The wheels should always be turned clockwise and the devotees very often recite the Sanskrit mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” It is said that all the teachings of the Buddha are contained in this mantra therefore it can not really be translated into a simple phrase or sentence, although word for word it means something like: “The jewel is in the lotus” or “praise to the jewel in the lotus “. Of course to Tibetan Buddhist, Om Mani Padme Hum means so much more, they believe saying it out loud or silently to oneself (or spinning it around in a Mani wheel) invokes the powerful benevolent attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion.


Not all prayer wheels are custom made and adorned.


Last night we asked the driver (who speaks extremely limited English - although it has to be said that his English is better than my Hindi...) about lunch today – wondering whether we should pack a picnic or if we were stopping somewhere; and he told us we'd stop in Alchi for lunch, so when we got out of the car we asked him if we should have something to eat there before continuing. He dismissed that idea, saying “later”. With a wave of a hand indicating winding roads. That “later” turned out to be the camp where we are staying tonight.

Back on the road..


Back over the bridge...


The road certainly did not improve much...


We saw several of these pulley 'bridges' along the way (basically just a metal cage supported on a wire and pulled from one side to the other by human power), and I would have loved to have had a go, but being unsure of the health and safety issues I never did. I now wish I had.


We then came across a huge army convoy - and of course the road is not really wide enough for two vehicles to pass comfortably, at least not when one of them is a large truck. Not wanting to argue with the army, it was always us who ended up giving way and stopping to let them pass. David counted 31 trucks in total.


At Uley, we entered a verdant valley.


The bridges along this route make a heck of a lot of noise as you pass over them - they are basically just metal plates resting loosely on top of a metal frame.


West Ladakh Camp and Resort
Although not where I thought we were staying, the camp was great! A number of large permanent tents spaced out amongst the trees on a narrow piece of land at the bottom of a steep valley with the ragged, sheer rock face looming threateningly the opposite side of the raging river on one side and the road on the other.


After settling in to our spacious tent – complete with en suite toilet and shower (in an adjacent tent), we were asked if we wanted lunch.

I love the glass basin in the bathroom!

Half an hour later we were seated as the only two people at a table for twenty, with a lovely vegetarian lunch of aloo muttar chapatis, poppadoms, dhal, tomato soup and enough rice to feed a table of twenty.


After a much needed siesta, we settled down on our terrace (table and chairs on the ground outside our tent) with a drink, a few snacks, binoculars and the laptop. We'd brought Duty Free Morgan's Spiced with us from London, but even after three nights in India, the bottles remained unopened – not like us at all! The Diet Coke we bought in Leh spent a few hours chilling nicely in a little nearby stream and hey presto, we have a sundowner!


At dinner there was only us again, it seems like we're the only people staying here. Conversation went as follows:

Us: drinks?
Him: drinks.
Us: what do you have?
Him: Yes
Us: Water? Beer?
Him: Beer.
Us: Yes please
Him: 150 Godfather
Us: 150 Godfather?
Him: Yes
Us: OK


It was quite good beer, and the food was very pleasant too – pasta with tomato sauce, noodles, fried potatoes, vegetable rice. Nothing was particularly spicy though, but we did find a nice green chilli sauce on the table. large_West_Ladak..t_Dinner_1A.jpglarge_West_Ladak..hilli_sauce.jpg
Not sure about having an audience while I eat though.

As soon as I finished my meal, I rushed back to the tent to take some pictures after dark, I just about managed two shots before the power went off. I hung around for a while and as soon as the lights came back on again I jumped up and grabbed the camera but before I could even set up the tripod, the power went out again.


I played with the torch for a while, then we sat in the dark outside the tent watching the stars. With no ambient light around at all, the stars were bright and the sky seemed enormous! A very thoughtful member of staff came over with a battery operated light which he placed on the table. As soon as he was out of sight again, we switched it off to continue watching the stars – no sooner had we looked up at the sky, the power came back on again! The lights went on and off a few more times, and after the fifth time, at around 21:45, we decided to go to bed. I don't think I have even known such complete darkness as it was inside that tent – you couldn't even see your hand two inches in front of your face! If I thought the beds at Namgyal Palace in Leh were hard, they had nothing on these camp beds!


Posted by Grete Howard 13:20 Archived in India

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Must be the adventure of a life time if even you have to have siestas!

by Helen

So which hat do you wear?!!!

by Aadil Desai

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