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

This is Day 2 of our tour around Ladakh. Read Day 1 here.

If Leh town was already a beautiful snowy dream with the white-streaked Himalayas standing in the distance everywhere we looked, my travel companion and I were pulled deeper into a fantasy winterland going to and around Alchi and Likir Monastery, our destinations for the second day of our Ladakh tour.  Mountains in bright, vivid white stood on either side – sometimes even all around – and many were close, so close that I felt we could touch them. And, the monasteries and other structures were carved on the slopes of these mountains!

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Never did the mountains feel so close in Ladakh than during this day of our trip.

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They were so close I felt I could touch them.

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Most of the few structures we saw are built along the slopes of the mountains.

The day started out with a beautiful promise of what we would be seeing later. As I lay on bed not quite awake at around 8 am, my travel companion called out to me with little-boy excitement: “Claire, look! It’s snowing!”

I bolted upright, never mind the headache I was nursing from altitude sickness.

Never having experienced snowfall before and not really expecting it as we had come to Ladakh at the tail end of winter, we were like little kids looking up at the sky and catching snowflakes on our palms. As a child, I used to cut them out of folded colored paper, amazed at how the patterns would turn out, and with understanding that the real ones are by far more beautiful. That proved to be true on my first snowflake encounter.

Our first snowfall experience. Footage is a bit shaky as my hand holding the camera was unsteady from the cold and the excitement!

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Yes, snowflakes are utterly, beautifully real, and not just patterns I used to cut out of colored paper.

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Having lived in the tropics for almost all of my life, I simply could not get enough of them.

Our snow fest ended only as our host and guide Mr. Tukstan called us to get ready for the day.

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I was excited to find even the cars we passed covered with snowflakes as we walked along.

As Mr. Tukstan drove, we again saw Leh’s frosted peaks in the distance. Gradually, though, as structures by the roadside decreased, the mountains began to appear closer.

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First glimpses of bright, almost blinding white, up close!

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As we drove around, more snow-covered mountains stood breathtakingly close…

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…and, white peaks touched white clouds.

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The mountainous terrain gradually wrapped around the Indus River.

We drank in the sights, not talking for a long time. My travel companion only broke the silence to say that he finally understood why Ladakh is on many Indians’ bucket list, the same way Batanes – among the most beautiful places in the Philippines – is to Filipinos. Indeed, when the Indians we met in other cities heard that we were going to Ladakh, their eyes had either taken on a dreamy quality, or at the very least, had shone with an immediate understanding.

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Eventually, brightly-painted roofs popped out of the dreamy white, blue, and brown scenery.

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We also saw structures that looked like houses.

As brightly-colored structures began to dot the mountainous terrain, I began to anticipate our stop at Alchi Monastery, also known as Alchi Gompa or Alchi Chhoskhor (monastic compound). Around 70 kilometers from Leh town proper, Alchi is among Ladakh’s oldest monasteries, estimated to be built around the years 958 and 1055. Alchi is a monastic complex of temples, built with both Buddhist and Hindu architecture, as a significant population of Hindus lived in the country’s Kashmir region before around 100,000 were forced to flee because of a violent ethnic cleansing.

Save for a few locals near the entrance, the narrow pathway along Alchi’s complex was deserted. I let my friend go ahead as I walked slowly, mindful of how the effort was making my heart beat faster, and taking care not to bring it close to palpitation, one of the symptoms of altitude sickness.

 

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Walking along Alchi’s monastic complex of temples

Alchi has three major shrines: the Sumtsek (also Sumtseg) or the Three-Tiered Shrine, the Dukhang (Assembly Hall), and the Temple of Manjushri.  Entrance rates to Alchi Monastery are 50 rupees for foreigners, and 20 rupees for locals.

We first saw the Sumtsek, whose second floor is partly supported by pillars and beams of ornately carved wood. Unfortunately, probably because it was winter, the shrine was locked, along with the others we passed by. I was able to admire the intricate woodwork and the wall paintings, though.

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Stopping at the Sumtsek or the Three-Tiered Shrine

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Resting on the wooden beam at the entrance of Sumtsek are carvings of Buddha.

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Above the door to the shrine, meanwhile, are wall paintings of Buddha.

I walked farther along Alchi’s passageways, pausing at its prayer wheels, and occasionally enjoying the backdrop of mountains – some bare, some blanketed in snow.

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Walking along Alchi’s many prayer wheels

The passageway of Alchi ends with a view of the turquoise Indus River flowing beneath the snowcapped mountains. Alchi was purposely built at the banks of Indus, and how symbolically fitting this was, as Indus’ waters flow from Tibet, just as Buddhism has traveled to Ladakh from Tibet.

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At the end of my walk I stopped to savor the view of the Indus River.

On the way back, though, we encountered a monk and was able to talk to him, thanks to Mr. Tukstan. With the monk’s keys and permission, I was able to enter a few temples.

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Taking photos is not allowed inside the temples, possibly to preserve Buddha frescoes, which Alchi is also known for. And entering a shrine can be awe-inspiring. I remember the Vairochana (also Vairocana) Shrine, where Buddha paintings rise from wall to ceiling, forming a mandala at the top. In the middle is what appears to be a Buddha statue. Vairochana is the primordial form of Buddha, and embodies emptiness, a principle of Buddhism.

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As I followed the monk to the different temples, I also came upon this garden with prayer flags.

Leaving Alchi, we drove farther into snow country. Through a bridge, our car was able to cross across the Indus River. We stopped for a while along its banks to savor the view of Indus’ pale turquoise fading into the brown and white mountains.

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Colorful prayer flags adorn the bridge we crossed over Indus River.

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Indus River is more breathtaking up close.

As we neared our next destination, Likir Monastery, we again passed by structures – this time making up what looks like a village – at the foot of mountains.

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Beautiful village beneath mountains

And, as we advanced, I caught a glimpse of Likir Monastery from afar.

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Likir Monastery from afar

And then, as we drew nearer, I blinked in happy disbelief as I saw what appeared to be snow terraces along the mountain slopes. Remembering my country’s own green rice terraces, I could not help staring at these white ones.

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First glimpse of “snow terraces.” I only caught a tiny part of them in this frame. Later, as I ascended, I would be able to see them in all their expansive beauty.

Likir means “water spirits encircled,” as it is believed that water spirits used to live here. The water spirits took the form of two circling serpent spirits, called the Naga-rajas.

I was a bit reminded of Spituk Gompa, which we had visited the previous day, as I walked around Likir Monastery. There was also a life-sized red prayer wheel, several smaller prayer wheels, and a whitewashed facade on its structures. One Dukhang (assembly hall) and temple also reminded me of the look of the room with the Dalai Lama’s seat at Spituk. In fact, Likir is the seat of  Ngari Ripoche, the spiritual leader of several monasteries in Western Tibet, and whose current incarnation is the Dalai Lama’s brother.

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The huge prayer wheel is one of the first sights as we went up the monastery.

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A local spinning the smaller prayer wheels

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I noticed white walls and wood-paned windows are a usual design of monasteries.

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At Gonkhang Temple, red doors open up to a hall of red pillars and thangkas, which reminded me of the Dalai Lama’s room at Spituk Gompa.

Halls and temples were bright and colorful, with red and varnished brown being the dominant colors, and walls painted with Buddhist deities or symbols, and ceilings hanging with thangkas, Tibetan Buddhist paintings on cloth.

At the center is usually a form of Buddha, a Bodhisattva, or guardian deities. Bodhisattvas are compassionate beings who strive to attain Buddha-hood for the sake of all sentient beings.

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Guardian deities at Gonhkang Temple

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At one Dukhang (assembly hall) is the Avalokiteśvara (also Avalokeshvara) at the center. The Avalokiteśvara is a Bodhisattva (also seen as a form of Buddha in some traditions) with a thousand arms and eleven heads, so he can better hear and help all suffering beings.

Likir Monastery is also known for its 23-meter high Buddha, particularly Maitreya, considered a Buddha of the future who will appear on earth and share Buddhist teachings.

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A 23-meter-tall Buddha sits at the monastery’s top level.

And, as I went farther up, I finally saw the snow terraces!

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It was the mountains, breathtaking as usual, that I noticed at first. And then my gaze shifted to see more…

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…and there were indeed snow terraces gently sloping down from the monastery!

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Snow terraces up close!

Later, when I looked at photos of Likir, I saw that they are indeed terraces, and are vivid green during the summer.

Afterwards, we went to Likir’s town to have our first meal of the day. Mr. Tukstan had been enthusiastically recommending poori (also puri), a fluffy fried bread common in Northern India, to us several times, and it was indeed delicious. Unfortunately, again, we had little appetite because of altitude sickness.

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For a late brunch, we ate poori (or puri), a fried bread common in Ladakh, coupled with steaming beans which looked like lentils.

On our way back to Leh, we made a few stops to savor more of the mountain scenery and take photos. We couldn’t stay out long, though, as the wind was blowing bitterly cold.

roadside, snowy mountains, snowcapped, Himalayas, near Alchi and Likir Monastery, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, Northern India

Stopping by for the beautiful roadside scenery. Photo by Jherson Jaya

Because the mountains did not just feel close but were indeed close to us on some parts of the route, we got off to walk on the slopes. Even while the cold was penetrating, I felt like a kid walking on snow – and at a mountain slope! – for the first time. In some areas, the snow was so soft and thick that my feet sank up to my ankles!

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Blissful walk on the snow! At some areas, I found my feet sinking down the snow’s thick layer.

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Touching snow also felt like a dream.

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My travel buddy enjoying his own snow walk. I still couldn’t believe we were walking here!

After going back, we immediately rested to re-charge for our Pangong Tso adventure (yes, the lake featured in the Bollywood movie Three Idiots!) the next day. While we already had unforgettable experiences and I was more than happy with our Ladakh journey, I was still looking forward to Pangong to cap off our Ladakh adventure. Unfortunately, our altitude sickness just got worse and I could barely get up the following morning. However, I dragged myself out of bed and asked my reluctant travel buddy to do the same, as I knew he would regret it if he would not see the lake. We were already here, anyway, and I believed our bodies could hold up even just for a few minutes’ encounter with the picturesque lake.

Once more, breathtaking mountain scenery unfolded before our eyes as the car made its way to Pangong. Now, though, I felt groggy and barely took photos. I occasionally drifted into sleep to gather energy for our adventure ahead.

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We passed by this small village on the way to Pangong Tso.

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Even as my body felt like a deadweight, I could not help admiring the scenery.

And then the news – an avalanche, our driver was told at the checkpoint. We could no longer proceed to Pangong as piles of snow blocked our way.

My heart clenched, feeling a mixture of relief and disappointment. Admittedly, it was more relief as I acknowledged that we would be going up at least 1,000 meters higher than our current altitude, and that it would take a tremendous amount of willpower – probably the Herculean kind – to walk to the lake once we got off the car. And, knowing there had been an avalanche and realizing the possibility of another one, I grasped all too clearly the dangers of driving around Ladakh’s mountainside roads during winter.

I accepted it as what needed to happen at that moment. Our Ladakh journey anyhow felt like a magical dream driven by a mysterious force, and I trusted its movement. Before and during the trip, I had prayed for safety and magic – a prayer that was answered beautifully.

On the way back, we passed by prayer flags on the roadside. With my heart feeling fuller and bigger than any disappointment, I offered up a silent prayer of thanks.

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Just some among the many prayer flags we passed by. At some point, I took the opportunity to say thank you for our Ladakh journey.

Read my travel buddy’s own account of our tour around Alchi and Likir here.

This is Part 3 of my Ladakh series. There will be more to come, especially on dealing with altitude sickness. In case you missed it, here’s Part 1 and Part 2:

PART 1: The most scenic plane ride: Himalayas in photos along New Delhi-Leh flight
PART 2: Mountains, markets, and monasteries: Magical one-day tour of Leh town in Ladakh

 

 

 

 

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15 thoughts on “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

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

  2. All my travel cum photography sojourns have made me realize that if really wish to be yourself, go offbeat and going to the Ladakh region in winters is really offbeat, Thanks for sharing this.

    • Thanks! Actually, we didn’t plan to come during winter. Our trip to India was scheduled on March, and we spontaneously bought flights to Leh because they were affordable. We only found out as our trip drew near that we would be there during winter hehehe. But indeed, winter feels quiet and solemn in Ladakh.

      • You can’t cover Ladakh in just one visit, there is so much to see and learn. Good that you came in winter an saw the site of winterland. And yes flights would be cheap as who would want to be at a place with both maximum and minimum temperatures as subzero. Further, the effective oxygen at this height is 13.5%.
        Still water freezes in winter, we know that but it’s that much cold that we can see frozen rivers, especially Zanskar River in the Zanskar Valley. This is the starting point of Chadar Trek ( Ice Sheets as thick as feet are formed at places) https://shadesoflens.wordpress.com/2017/02/01/chadar/

        And yes its quiet and solemn in winter and sometimes this is what we need.

    • Yes, I did hear about river trekking during winter in Ladakh. That definitely requires a lot of physical preparation, considering the high altitude! But I know it must be worth it. You are lucky to have experienced it. I saw your guide.

      • Preparation is important but it is not as daunting as it looks. To begin some jogging and where you starve your lungs for oxygen, second make yourself feel cold as we know human body is adaptive, use cold water to take a bath if you can manage. And all of this is to be done before beginning any high altitude journey. Happy travels and please be in touch

  3. Ang surreal ng lugar.. the snow, and its intricate shape and design, the Indus River, and its clear waters (a rare sight in our part of the world!), the temples, and how each one exudes beauty and solemnity. Sa parte ng India na ito, nagiiba talaga ang view ko of it, na it has so much more to offer talaga. And I’m glad you and Jherson got to experience it despite having Altitude Sickness.

    • Yep, surreal talaga. I sometimes wonder if everything was real – also because of the effect of altitude sickness hehehe. Good thing I had photos and a companion to confirm na totoo talaga. 🙂

  4. Even for someone (unhappily) familiar with lots of snow, this is absolutely gorgeous. Did you use a company or individual to guide you all the time in Ladakh? How did you find them?

    • Great to know someone who experiences snow regularly finds Ladakh beautiful, too! 🙂 Our guide is the father of our guesthouse’s owner. My travel buddy searched it online and also read TripAdvisor reviews. I have yet to write about our guesthouse experience. 🙂

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