Mountains, markets, and monasteries: Magical one-day tour of Leh town in Ladakh

If there was ever a desert I would call magical and otherworldly, that would be Leh, though it does not look like a typical desert, save for its monochromatic browns, especially visible from the plane ride. Perched at approximately 3,500 meters (11,482 meters), this capital of Ladakh in the Northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is surrounded by the magical Himalayas and Karakoram mountain ranges.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Magical Leh town from the plane. (See more aerial photos of Leh and the Himalayas in my Delhi-Leh plane ride post.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Leh town is  surrounded by the world’s highest mountain range.

After resting on our first day to acclimatize to the high altitude, my travel buddy and I began our Ladakh adventure with a day tour of Leh. Because of the winter weather (Leh has no Internet during winter, but the forecasted temperature we checked online beforehand was between -7 C at night to 10 C at noon), we took the tour by car, and not by motorbike, the latter being quite common during summer. Our homestay host, Mr. Tukstan, was our driver and tour guide.

The drive along town itself was a treat. The Himalayas, which I  had ecstatically watched from my plane ride, was everywhere, a dreamlike backdrop to the already peaceful town.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Locals waiting in Leh. The beautiful Himalayas stands, ubiquitous, in the distance.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are also interesting structures around town like white stupas and this twin arch.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The most beautiful parking lot scenery I’ve seen so far. We saw this during our drive after lunch.

Quiet reverence at Spituk Gompa

Our first stop for the day tour was Spituk Gompa, more well-known as Spituk Monastery. “Spituk” means “exemplary,” and indeed the monastery is known for its exemplary Buddhist community, as foretold by Rinchen Zangpo, a principal translator of Sanskrit Buddhist texts.

Tibetan Buddhism thrives in Ladakh as a significant population of Tibetans moved here as a consequence of conflict between Tibet and China, both in the early centuries and even in recent decades. Ladakh, being geographically close to the two, was affected by the conflict.

Built along the hill, the monastery’s different structures can be reached via a network of stairways. I mindfully made my way up the steps to prevent an attack of altitude sickness, as I experienced palpitations the night before.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You can explore the Spituk Gompa through its stairways.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It is common practice in the monastery to spin and go around the prayer wheel. Spinning and going around the prayer wheel is equivalent to reading or reciting the Buddhist mantras or prayers.

Spituk Gompa, monastery, touching and spinning prayer wheels, Tibetan Buddhism, view of Leh town, Ladakh, snowcapped mountains, Himalayas, landscape, India.jpg

There are also small prayer wheels that can be spun.

Spituk Gompa, monastery, wise sayings from Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism, view of Leh town, Ladakh, mountains, Himalayas, landscape, India

On some of the monastery’s walls are words of wisdom, mostly from the Dalai Lama. (Photo by Jherson Jaya)

What was most striking to me about this monastery, though, is the room and the seat for the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama, in fact, usually comes to this monastery every year, though the time is not fixed, according to the monk we talked to. This same monk was the one who encouraged us to enter the room when we found it, which felt like a synchronicity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Entering the room of the Dalai Lama

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At the foot of the Dalai Lama’s seat

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The monk who encouraged us to enter the room of the Dalai Lama. He occasionally appeared and led us in some of the rooms we went to in the monastery.

I have great respect and admiration for the Dalai Lama, and so it was a privilege and a blessing to be there at the foot of his seat.

Another revered leader and lama who has a room at the monastery is Bakula Rinpoche. The late Bakula Rinpoche was a minister of the Indian government, while the latest reincarnation is currently 12 years old (I couldn’t help thinking of Aang in the animation Avatar: The Last Airbender when I found out about this!). Incidentally, the airport in Leh is named after Bakula Rinpoche.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The room for Bakula Rinpoche has a scenic view of the Himalayas.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Altar with photos of the different reincarnations of Bakula Rinpoche

As we made our way up the topmost portion of the monastery, I felt an immense quiet fall upon me, save for the wind. Prayer flags formed a network of colors leading to a simple room (no photos allowed, though) where I later found had more words from the Dalai Lama. The colorful flags fluttered in the breeze amid a backdrop of the Himalayas.

Spituk Gompa, monastery, touching colorful prayer flags, Tibetan Buddhism, view of Leh town, Ladakh, snowcapped mountains, Himalayas, landscape, India.jpg

A feeling of awe and quiet fell upon me as I touched prayer flags for the first time. (Photo by Jherson Jaya)

We walked with reverence along the path of the flags.

“All this time I’ve only been seeing them in photos. And now, here, I can touch them,” my travel buddy said in awe.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My travel buddy was equally awed with the prayer flags.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Prayer flags and the Himalayas

We thoroughly enjoyed the quiet and sacred atmosphere inspiring reverence in Spituk Gompa. Perhaps because it was still winter, there were only a few other visitors besides us, and so we were able to savor the silence. Also, in some parts of the temple, we could hear the music of “Om Mani Padme Hum,” a common Buddhist mantra. According to the Dalai Lama, the mantra alludes to a transformation to a “pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha” given the right practice, method, and wisdom.

Below is a clip I found online of the mantra in music to give you a taste of what we experienced. It is quite similar, if not the same, with the version we heard at the monastery.

Leh market meanderings 

After our Spituk Gompa visit, we went down to the town market, which I was particularly excited about – I try to visit markets in places I travel to as I believe they give a glimpse of the richness of local life. True enough, Leh’s market is a busy, though still peaceful, hub of local activity. From colorful dried fruit, pashminas, and winter clothes to singing bowls and local medicine (pharmacists or sellers in pharmacies are interestingly called “chemists”), there is a wide and interesting range of local goods. I saw men walking in knit sweaters and bubble jackets (yes, this affirms our choice of winter clothes to keep warm!), and also women in the traditional Ladakhi attire of robe (kuntop) and shawl (bok).

There is a street reminiscent of a town square lined with stores selling different merchandises, punctuated by majestic structures like mosques. At the end of the street, the Himalayas, again, stands in grandeur.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It is quite an experience walking and people-watching along Leh market’s main street.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Women in Ladakhi attire hanging out at the market’s main street

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are interesting stores in the main street like this one of “chemists,” which we discovered was actually a pharmacy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Just right at the corner of the main street is this friendly woman selling singing bowls and jewelry. I happily bought one singing bowl, as I had always wanted one for meditation and my and my partner’s facilitation work.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You can buy extra winter clothes in Leh if you want to!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From the market’s main street you can enter alleys like this, which also has a variety of stores.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At one of the alleys, I chanced upon Ladakhi women drinking tea which looks like the local butter tea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At the end of one alley I saw this store selling what looks to be Ladakhi-style winter wear.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Happy and relaxed dogs on the market’s main street. I noticed that all the dogs I saw in Ladakh looked relaxed. I envy their ease in the cold and high altitude!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Aside from a colorful mosque, at the end of the market’s main street are concentric circles which look like a simple mandala to me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mr. Tukstan took us to his relative’s bookstore at the market’s main street. They have great foreign titles, too! Here we also had our coffee break.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After we applied for a permit to visit Pangong Tso (Lake), Mr. Tukstan took us to Friends Corner, a popular restaurant at the market’s main street.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My lunch was a delicious half-serving of thenduk, a Tibetan pulled noodle dish. Unfortunately, I did not have much appetite as my body was trying to adjust to the altitude.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My travel buddy, meanwhile, ordered steamed vegetable momos, another popular Tibetan dish. He, too, did not have much of an appetite and was not able to finish his dish.

Leh Palace’s silent walls

The nine-story Leh Palace, also built on the hillside like Spituk Gompa, is more quiet than grandiose. Long-abandoned by the royal family when Dogra forces, an ethno-linguistic group from India and Pakistan, seized Ladakh, what is left are mainly walls made of mud and stone, and some photos showing the region’s history.

What makes Leh Palace worth visiting for me, though, are the breathtaking views from different vantage points. That, and the silence, which we may have also experienced because of the winter season.

Leh Palace, overlooking view of Leh town, colorful prayer flags, Ladakh, snowcapped mountains, Himalayas, landscape, India

There’s a breathtaking view right at the entrance of Leh Palace! (Photo by Jherson Jaya)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Entrance to Leh Palace

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Inside, it’s mostly empty halls like this.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are dark areas where light beautifully gets in.

Leh Palace exhibit, Ladakh, India, Kashmir, Black Hat temple dancers from Tibet, Tse Choling monastery,.jpg

There are some photos on the walls, too, that tell about both Ladakh’s and Tibet’s colorful history. This photo is of temple dancers in Tibet. They perform a dance where they stab a figure of “evil,” which actually symbolizes the ego and its necessary death in Buddhism.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Outside is the earth-toned facade of the palace and different viewpoints of Leh town and the Himalayas.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are different vantage points from each level of the nine-story palace. This is the balcony at the center, where you can see the palace’s facades on either side, and a view of Leh town and the Himalayas up ahead.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Go up another level to get to this vantage point. And yes, those are prayer flags!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On the other side is this view.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This Ladakhi woman gamely said yes to my photo request.

Meditating on peace and compassion at Shanti Stupa

Our last stop was Shanti Stupa. From afar, we could already see its pure white stand out amid the arid brown landscape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Driving to Shanti Stupa

Shanti Stupa was build together by Ladakhi and Japanese Buddhists in 1983 to promote world peace and also to celebrate 2,500 years of Buddhism. “Shanti” in fact means peace. And indeed the place feels peaceful when I walked around.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Going up the entrance, I saw this sight. Pigeons seemed to be relaxing and enjoying the view, too!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The main hall and other structures

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Walking around and looking down, I saw this and got excited. It was my first time to see that much snow up close.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I then went up to the stupa.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The stupa has a circling, spiraling structure that reminds me of a mandala.

When I reached the base of the stupa, I took my shoes off as required, and went up.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On top of the stairway is this golden Buddha.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Below it is this mandala, where I stayed for a bit to bask in the peace of my surroundings.

The stupa’s pathway spirals to the top, and I followed it as I walked. I remembered the prayer wheel and the practice of circling. Some parts of the path were freezing – there was snow! – and I tried to avoid them, determined to finish the spiral.

I circled in silence and took in the many depictions of Buddha around the stupa, from birth to death. There was also a carved relief of Buddha meditating and defeating “evil,” most likely the ego.

As I made my way down, I found locals going around the stupa too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Locals walking around the many depictions of Buddha. See the snow on the left?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A local making his way down amid the snow.

After I left the stupa and passed by the main hall, I saw my travel buddy calling out to me. He had just engaged a monk in conversation and he invited me to join them. Monk Lobzang Thinlay animatedly talked about inner peace, compassion, and non-attachment. He also shared about the “three poisons” that can afflict humans.

Below is an excerpt of his sharing:

We would have stayed longer but we knew it was going to get dark – and colder – soon, and Mr. Tukstan was waiting for us.

We made our way back to the guesthouse in high spirits. Those moments of peace at Shanti Stupa and Monk Lobzang’s sharing were the perfect ending to an already perfect day in this town seemingly woven in beauty and magic.

I looked forward to what the next days would have in store for us.

Read my travel buddy’s own account of the first part of our Ladakh journey.

This is Part 2 of my Ladakh series. Read Parts 1 and 3 here:

PART 1:  The most scenic plane ride: Himalayas in photos along New Delhi-Leh flight
PART 3:  Deeper into snowy and monastery-carved mountains: Day tour of Alchi and Likir Monastery, a walk on snowscapes, and the road to Pangong Lake, Ladakh

 

 

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “Mountains, markets, and monasteries: Magical one-day tour of Leh town in Ladakh

  1. Some drugstore are called “druggist” hehe… Right now i missing the town of Leh especially the market. I thinks there are more people and tourist now because its spring already.

  2. Pingback: The most scenic plane ride: Himalayas in photos along New Delhi-Leh flight | Traveling Light

  3. I can’t imagine how you got to see all those interesting sites despite experiencing altitude sickness. Along with the beautiful scenery (the stupas, even the snow!) and the accommodating people (especially the monk you met), siguro you felt a lot of mixed emotions noh? But I’m glad the journey was worth all of your efforts, esp. for you, Claire.. kudos dahil you got to successfully climb all those structures! 🙂 Your preps paid off.

    • Thanks! Preps are still not enough given the limited time, but altitude sickness is really difficult to predict. Even fit, athletic people get it.

      But yes, Ladakh is worth all the pains. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Deeper into snowy and monastery-carved mountains: Day tour of Alchi and Likir Monastery, a walk on snowscapes, and the road to Pangong Lake, Ladakh | Traveling Light

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s