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!
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!
Our snow fest ended only as our host and guide Mr. Tukstan called us to get ready for the day.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And, as we advanced, I caught a glimpse of 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.
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.
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.
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.
And, as I went farther up, I finally saw the snow terraces!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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: