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