When I saw the picture on the front of the tour dossier I knew I wanted to go to Ladakh. It was a picture of a small monastery perched on a rocky crag. Just that, nothing more. The building itself wasn’t particularly imposing, but the white walls bright in sunshine against a backdrop of shadowy mountains imparted a sense of isolation, remoteness, even desolation. I wanted to see the place for myself, to photograph it for myself.
We booked an extra two days onto the start of the tour so we could acclimatise to the altitude; that meant an extra two days to explore the little town of Leh, and an extra two days to photograph that monastery. We could see the monastery – Tsemo gompa – directly across the valley from our hotel room, although a better view was from the Japanese Peace Pagoda, the Shanti Stupa, further up the mountainside behind us. But the all important sunshine – evening sunshine to illuminate the monastery against the mountains, proved to be elusive. Two days in a row we took a taxi to Shanti Stupa in the hopes of getting the picture; two days in a row the late afternoon sun disappeared behind a bank of clouds. That second evening, the clouds were particularly heavy and brought torrential rainfall in the night, turning the crystal clear river below the hotel into a gushing muddy torrent. Thick cloud persisted into the following morning when the rest of our tour group were due to arrive. Flights in and out of Leh can only be scheduled for early mornings because of the likelihood of cloud cover coming in over the mountains later in the day. (As we were finding out.) Cancellations are not uncommon. The group got within sight of the airport but the plane was refused permission to land and had to turn back to Delhi, to try again the following morning.
But there was of course more for us to see and do than that one monastery …
The town was a leisurely walk downhill (with a delicious pause at Yama coffee house) and, until we became acclimatised, a taxi-ride back up to the hotel. The road was lined with shops and stalls selling colourful clothing, bedspreads, fearsome masks, necklaces, prematurely aged ‘antiques’, tacky tee-shirts. (When we visited Diskit monastery later in the trip, I was surprised to see a monk wearing an ‘I got Leh’d in Leh’ tee-shirt: I did wonder how good his English was and whether he understood the pun.) Pedestrians, cars and motorbikes jostled for passage. The main bazaar is currently in the process of being ‘beautified’. (‘Inconvenience is regretted.’) At some point in the future it will be transformed into a place of smooth broad streets and modern looking shop fronts, possibly shorn of any character. For now, the few vendors sat with their goods for sale and perhaps a small child spread out on a blanket on the pavement amid the rubble, iron rods, JCBs, cement lorries, cows, dogs: a part, yet apart. Prayer flags fluttered above all the upheaval. We escaped into the narrow alleys of the Muslim quarter where bakers went about their bread-making; they pretended to ignore our cameras but you could tell they were enjoying playing to the gallery.
We visited Spitok gompa – the first of many colourful monasteries we were to see.
We drove up to Tsemo gompa and explored its dark inner mysteries.
The following morning we collected the rest of the group from the airport and set off westwards: destination Lamayuru. Our route took us past the two-tone confluence of the brown Indus and green Zanskar Rivers, past mountains washed oxblood red, lovat, mellow ochre and sandy brown: soft colours in a harsh landscape.
We stopped at the eleventh-century Alchi gompa and admired early Buddhist murals still vivid in the half-light. Alchi is one of the oldest monasteries in India, although it is no longer active.
We carried on alongside the turbulent river and then a winding road took us higher into the mountains, past eroded rock rippled and folded into a barren cream-coloured moonscape until finally we arrived at Lamayuru.
Lamayuru is very much an active monastery, built into and spread out over the slopes of the mountain. We visited early for the morning puja. The vibrant colours of the paintings and brocade hangings inside the gompa contrasted with the austere surroundings of the exterior. The low murmur of chanting monks went on for hours, interrupted at intervals by the sounds of tinkling bells, clashing cymbals, drumbeats and the drone of long horns. It was a very relaxed atmosphere – so relaxed that some of the young novices dropped off to sleep. No-one seemed to mind, though – and the novices did manage to rouse themselves from time to time to bang a drum or blow a conch shell. And to serve the senior monks tea and tsampa. One monk unexpectedly and surreptitiously pulled out his smartphone in the middle of the puja. I don’t know if he was checking the footy scores or playing candy crush saga – but he did look a bit sheepish at being spotted.
Our own phones were useless – not that we wanted to use them inside the monasteries, of course. Ladakh is politically in a vulnerable position, uncomfortably bordering India’s powerful neighbours, China and Pakistan. There is a marked military presence in the area, with garrisons aplenty. Permits are needed to visit some of the more remote areas. Phone signals for international mobiles are blocked: you never know – we might be spies or planning a military coup.
We drove past isolated dwellings and meadows of yellow, white and mauve flowers below us on the valley floor. Here and there, tufts of bright flowers belied the barrenness of the smooth slopes that rose to a skyline of serrated edges and distant snow. At the end of the road we arrived at Atitse monastery. Outside in the sunshine, a whole community was busy, busy, busy with reconstruction work. Machines there were none: I saw nothing more hi-tech than a hose. The work-force – men and women – brushed past us with buckets of earth, passed mud blocks hand to hand along a line, laid out wooden dowels and covered them with soil and plants to form a new roof; inside, in semi-darkness and tranquillity, three or four monks chanted and drummed but after they’d finished their prayers were happy to chat to us.
We carried on to the summer settlement for lunch. Flower-filled, dotted with goats and donkeys and surrounded by protective mountains, it might have seemed a bucolic idyll to us – but we weren’t the ones doing the washing-up in the stream in front of a little house that was sans plumbing, sans electricity, sans anything remotely suggesting comfort. The lines on the weather-beaten faces of the old couple, whose little house it was, testified to a hard life.
The following day on our way back to Leh, we visited Basgo monastery and fort. Like so many that we were to visit, the buildings sat in isolation, high up in an arid landscape: inside was a riot of vivid colour, with rich hangings and an enormous golden Buddha.
We returned to Leh. The late afternoon sun disappeared behind a bank of clouds …
The next morning we set off for Korzok, at over 4500 metres one of the highest villages in the world. We stopped en route to visit Thiksey gompa: more monks in burgundy robes, more rich brocade hangings, more flamboyant colour, another huge gold Buddha and another puja ceremony.
Two lammergeiers soared over a valley of muted browns, greens and grey – grey from the gathering clouds. Our road was a zigzag score on the side of the mountain. We inched past road works, trucks, banks and piles of snow to reach the top of the pass –Taglangla – which claims to be the second highest in the world. (It isn’t.) Geraldine and Martin, our tour leaders, battled gusting wind to add another string of prayer flags to the tangled heaps already there. We carried on through a bleak panorama in which a herd of yaks grazed peacefully and wild asses trotted off into the distance; beyond were mountains patchy with snow; and further beyond were clouds.
Our road became little more than a track. We stopped for lunch at what seemed to be an arbitrary point in the middle of nowhere, with just a couple of tents and a building or two. Off to the side was Tso Kor, a salt lake where migratory birds can often be seen; but not that day.
Another pass: the wind had just about reached gale force, but more prayer flags needed to be added to the strings already flapping frantically. On we went through snow leopard country – our driver told us he’d seen them on previous trips – but we were not so lucky. There was little sign of human habitation. We reached a section of new tarmac road – not yet open – which would at some future date link to the other side of nowhere. We carried on over the bumpy ground and tracks next to it.
The clouds were becoming more threatening – and by the time we reached Korzok in the late afternoon it was raining steadily. We had brought no raincoats with us, no umbrellas, nothing for inclement weather. We had read that Ladakh was a high altitude desert, largely in the rain shadow formed by the Himalayas. Precipitation, especially in the summer months, was rare.
We’d come for the Korzok Gustor, a two day festival at the gompa. We were in tented accommodation. The tents were spacious and had attached, fully-fitted bathrooms – but they were fair-weather tents, not really designed to cope with the battering of heavy rain and strong winds that we were to get each night; fortunately most of the rain stayed outside and only the awning poles blew down. We had been warned that it would be cold at night at that altitude – and it was. We went to bed wearing our fleeces and double layers of thermals; I had my water bottle filled with boiling water from the kitchen – which had the added advantage of providing warm water to wash my face in the morning. (It was far too cold to wash much else.) Overnight, a trickle of rainwater made its way from the tent pole to form a puddle in the middle of the concrete bathroom floor.
The morning dawned crisp and dry, although clouds and fresh snow grazed the tops of the mountains on the other side of the lake. We spent most of the day at Korzok gompa watching the monks dancing – until the rain arrived in force in the afternoon and continued for most of the night. High altitude desert, eh?
The second day of the festival also dawned crisp and dry – but first we were going visiting. We drove further up into the mountains to the Changpa nomad encampment – a scattering of yak hair tents as well as some more modern ones of cream-coloured cotton. Herds of pashmina goats were tethered for milking; shy children smiled at us. The people were obviously very poor – but we were honoured guests, even at 6:30 in the morning. A few of us were given bowls of freshly-made (delicious) curd by our hostess. In another tent, our friend Pam was served tea. Pam looked on as her hostess broke up some yak dung to feed the fire under the kettle before bringing out her best china (probably her only china) – and giving the cups a quick wipe clean with her hands. Yup, those same hands that had just broken up the yak dung. Pam said later that it was the best cup of tea she had ever had.
Back at the gompa, more prayer flags were being strung over the courtyard. (Obviously, you can never have too many prayer flags.) Goats and horses were led in to be blessed. I must say the animals were reluctant participants in the ceremony; far from being filled with holy fire after their blessing, they couldn’t have looked more woebegone and dejected.
The first day had been something of a rehearsal; now the monks were masked and in costume. Their dances enacted stories from Buddhist teachings to the accompaniment of chanting, the groan of long horns and a steady drum beat. The edges of the courtyard (on three levels) were crowded with spectators – tourists with cameras, but mostly nomads: some in ragged and patched clothes, some in their best finery, one or two ladies wearing traditional turquoise head-dresses. We were all tyrannised by pint-sized masked novice monks with whips who were demanding money with menaces – and they seemed to take far too much enjoyment in lashing out; fortunately – and possibly more by luck than judgement – the whips failed to make contact.
We were to have returned to Leh the following day by the same scenic route through the Rupshu Valley that we had taken to Korzok, but it was rumoured that the road had been washed away in places by all the rain. So instead, we drove through the Indus valley, arriving back in Leh to an overcast sky and the news that a 24-hour taxi strike was to start at 6 the following morning. We were supposed to be heading off northwards to the Nubra valley then – and our vehicles were ‘contract carriages’ – technically taxis. There was a suggestion that we leave at 5 a m to avoid the road blocks but somehow that didn’t happen. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been possible to get the necessary permits in time.
So – an extra day in Leh. But was there room for us at our hotel? A few of their rooms were available – but not enough. Some had already been booked by a group that was coming from Srinagar …
More pictures can be seen at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/52323463@N06/albums/72157656708684896/with/20101337489/