1. Go Breathless in Ladakh
Stark and dramatic, this landscape leaves you breathless. There is a beauty in the barrenness, a sense of high as you give in to the magic of Ladakh. This edition of Go Explore takes you into the heart of the mountains and the cold desert. Spiritualism lies atop cliffs as monasteries perched high up in the hilltops beckon you. There is a dash of colour as rivers and lakes appear out of nowhere. And you hear stories and legends everywhere.
My senses are heightened the moment I visit Leh. And it is not just the dizzying heights that make me go breathless. It is an excitement that cannot be expressed, only experienced. And if you want to feel that sense of exhilaration this summer, then visit Ladakh with me. I will tell you stories about the monasteries, the birds, the lakes and suggest some of the must see places on your trip.
2. Not Leh, but Shey
A row of prayer wheels, mani walls and chortens fill the landscape as I look down. The Indus River is a sheet of light blue, adding a dash of colour to the valley. I am standing on a little hillock where the monastery of Shey is located. A 1000 year old ballad talks of King Gesar or Kesar, the legendary Tibetan hero sent by the Gods to defeat demons. It is believed that Shey, which was the capital of ancient Ladakh kingdom was probably the mythical land of Ling, ruled by Kesar
Located about 14km from Leh, Shey, situated at a height of 11,000 feet is now a small village on the banks of the Indus. Not too many tourists head here today, but you can see the ancient forts, the palace in ruins, the monastery and the imposing idols of Sakyamuni, the form of Buddha, glittering in copper and gilded gold. Looking down at the valley and watching the flags fluttering in the breeze, I wonder how a capital town which had reigned for over 600 years could just be lost in the landscape.
3. Alchi – Not Just Another Sleepy Hamlet
Hidden amidst an apricot grove, with just a handful of homes is the oldest monastery in Ladakh that looks neither spectacular nor touristy. A couple of lamas sit outside the shrine meditating. Walking around I see a courtyard with small alleys that lead to several small shrines that display paintings like the Thousand Buddhas and the Wheel of Life on the walls. It is extremely dark and using a torch, I learn that the paintings are a fusion of the artistic and spiritual aspect of both Hinduism and Buddhism. The main temple, Sumstek is a three-storied shrine dedicated to the three incarnations of Buddha – Avalokiteshwara, Maitreya and Manjushree but we cannot see the heads of these deities as they stand in the first floor and there is no access to reach there .
Legends fill the air. The monastery apparently escaped the invasion of Ladakh by Ali Mir, a ruler from Baltistan in the 17th century. While King Jamyang was taken prisoner, a popular legend says that he was restored his throne after a secret marriage with one of Ali Mir’s daughter , Gyal Khatun. While historians refute the story, the legend says that locals even accepted the new queen as an incarnation of the White Tara.
4. Diskit – Haunted in the Valley of Flowers
The high point of any traveler’s visit to Ladakh is the journey uphill to the highest motorable road at Khardungala Pass. But the landscape changes dramatically as we plunge downhill to visit the Valley of Flowers, popularly known as Nubra Valley. The journey becomes the destination. The desert flowers sprout here and there and apricot orchards fill the minds’ eye while the Nubra or the Siachen River join Shyok. Suddenly the valley morphs into a desert with Bactrian camels chugging along sand dunes. I have never seen anything more surreal.
And in this dreamy landscape is a 700 year old monastery at Diskit. Fierce guardian deities greet me, while a mighty Maitreya, a form of Buddha is housed here. But there is an interesting story here. Dancers with masks celebrate the Festival of the Scapegoat or Desmochhey , symbolizing victory of good over evil. The story goes that a demon was killed here but he still haunts the Gompa. Ask the locals and they tell you that his wrinkled hand and arm is still housed in the Gonkhang or The Temple of Guardians. I am not allowed inside though.
5. Tsomoriri – Beauty in Melancholy
Lost amidst the mountains are lakes that are oblivious of their own beauty. Locals revere it as a sacred gift of the living planet. It is indeed divine. While Pangong Tso is largely on the tourist’s radar, the spectacular Tsomoriri located at a height of 15,000 feet is usually missed out on the itinerary. Standing and gazing at the many shades of blue is purely therapeutic. The azure waters sparkled while the mountains formed a formidable backdrop, with the peaks glistening in a coat of ice and snow. Shivering in the cold as the temperature goes several notches below zero, I lose track of day and time. The sun sets and the moon rises and in the pristine beauty of the moment, I listen to a tragic tale.
A young girl from the neighbouring Korzok , Tsomo was herding her yaks ,when one of them ran into the lake . Tsomo rushed towards the lake, yelling “ Ri Ri Ri “calling out to the yak. But as she stepped on to the ice, the waters swallowed both of them
6. Cha Tungtung Karbo – Meet the State Bird of Kashmir
A green carpet suddenly greets me and I am a bit groggy after gulping yet another glass of green tea. And then something moves in the grass. I am excited and so is my driver. “ Cha Tungtung Karbo, “ he whispers as I look at him confused. He is referring to the elusive black necked crane, the State bird of Kashmir. My driver explains that “Cha means bird and tung tung karbo is long-legged and white and that there is poem on the crane which talks about the rebirth of the Dalai Lama.”
The back necked cranes are considered very rare and they visit Ladakh from Tibet for breeding between June and September. They usually come in pairs and mark their territories. Cranes do have a spiritual significance in Buddhism as they symbolise marital longevity .
Ladakh is indeed a birder’s paradise and I see the Bactrian magpie, several redstarts, finches and robins, gulls and ducks and the bar headed geese. And the wildlife is equally fascinating. I may have missed the snow leopard but the Himalayan marmots have become a tourist attraction in themselves, while the most poignant moment of my trip was another herd of kiangs standing in a circle near the base of the mountain, apparently mourning the death of one of their kind.
Where to Stay?
I have stayed in several properties in Ladakh – from guest houses to homestays to tented accommodation to pitching my own tent. This summer do plan to holiday in Ladakh and here are some great suggestions for you.
- Right in the heart of Leh, near the market is this guest house with a beautiful garden. Visit Nezer View Guest House
- Owned by a family, the hotel offers breath taking, panoramic views of the snow swathed Stock Kangri mountain range. Visit Spic N Span
- Close to the airport and set in a picturesque surrounding is Mahey Resort with a beautiful garden is this charming property.Visit Mahey Retreat
- One of the few 4 star deluxe properties in Leh catering to all your needs. Visit Singee Palace
- A comfortable 4 star deluxe hotel, preferred by travelers located in the heart of Leh near the market. Visit Lasermo