Thanks to the Boarder Roads Association, BRO, and the Indian military, Kashmir and Ladakh are accessible by a large network of roads. Sharing disputed borders with both Pakistan and China, India carefully maintains access to her furthest reaches. Due to the rugged landscape this is no easy task and the roads are continuously under construction. New roads like a ribbon of black ink in the desert will abruptly turn into a tail bone crushing jeep road at any moment. Never the less, roads in any condition stretch out in all directions following river valleys, crossing massive mountain passes, and making their way up into tiny villages still holding on to traditional customs. BRO is proud of its work and every few kilometers there is another sign likethe one above boasting their success, encouraging safety, or making curios statements. Some of our favorites are: “If Married, Divorce Speed”, “Respect All, Suspect All”, “Better to be a Mr. Late than a Late Mr. Never”, “After Whiskey Driving Risky”, and “Don’t Be Silly in the Hilly”.
After Whishkey Driveing is Rishkey? Apparently whoever painted this sign was testing the theory.
We decided to take advantage of BRO’s good work and rented a Royal Enfield motorcycle. We set out for three days exploring the many Buddhist Gompas in the villages of Ladakh. Originally we planed on making a big trip out if it by staying overnight along the way but after hearing many stories of broken down motorcycles we decided to play it safe and make three different day trips out of our base in Leh. We hooked up with Marc, who was with us on our trip to the Nubra Valley, as he also was planning on renting a bike and having a travel companion with a 2nd bike was an added comfort incase of a breakdown. This decision turned out to be the right one by the end of the third day.
Numerous hilltop Gompas are found in and above traditional villages all over the Buddhist ex-Kingdom of Ladakh. Each is usually supported by an active monastery and monks maintain the temples and grounds. The villagers hold on by making the most out of a short but prosperous growing season that sustains them through the long and cold winters when the roads close isolating them from the rest of the world. Havens of greenery surround the villages standing out against the barren mountainous landscape were irrigation has allowed growth in this mountain desert. The Ladakhi people are masters of self sustained living in this environment and much of the tourism you see in Leh is based around ecological awareness.
Some sights from our motorcycle adventure:
Fort above Naropa Royal Palace, Shey, Ladakh
White Washed Stupas in front of Thiksey Gompa
Photo of the Dalai Lama and offerings inside the Thiksey Gompa. We missed seeing His Holiness by 1 day in Dharmsala and only by a few days in Ladakh. We also learned from an unverified source that he is the worlds 2nd most recognizable man behind Obama.
Buddha Statue in Thiksey Gompa
Coming across a narrow bridge covered in prayer flags with Stakna Gompa in the background
Two and half hours west of Leh is Alchi, this otherwise unimpressive village is home to the Chhoskhor Temple Complex. This complex is home to fresco wall murals dating back to the 11th century when Buddhism made its way over the Himalaya from Kashmir. The “Great Translator” Lotsava Ringchen Zangpo is credited with the creation of 108 temples throughout the Himalaya and aiding the spread of Buddhism from southern India into Ladakh and Tibet. Today, only a few of these temples survive. Located up a side valley and tucked away in the village, the temple complex is almost hidden in contrast to the other rock and cliff hugging monasteries of the area. This may have allowed these temples to remain intact. The walls of the temples are covered from floor to roof in incredible intricate paintings. Very little conservation work has been completed and is evident in the cracks and water damage of the walls. Hopefully in the near future more will be done to protect this “living museum”.
Photographs where not permitted in the temples, therefore the following pictures where taken from the Alchi: The living heritage of Ladakh, a photo book we purchased.
This is Ahyama Tara the most adored goddess of Alchi. Each of her six hands are in different gestures and she is holding a blue lotus and book.
There was three of these 17 feet high stucco statues all covered in fresco paintings. This is Avalokiteshvara, the god of compassion. The lower garment is filled with miniature scenes of gods, goddesses, palaces, priests ect. It is impossible to capture the magnitude and detail of the work.
This is diety is known as Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara or also as Ekadashamukha Avalokiteshvara and is one of the most popular deities. The eleven pairs of arms hold different objects and she wears an embroidered long shawl and rosary.
Marc picks up a hitchhiker! This women found us at a fork in the road to Likir Gompa, after us asking for directions she asked us for a ride. After Meghan and I egged Marc on, she hoped on.
Light at the end of the tunnel. Making our way up to the Likir Gompa we found these old prayer wheals at the end of a dark passageway
Giant Sitting Buddha statue at Likir Gompa
Marc, Myself, and the Enfields
On the third day we took a trip up to the small village of Chilling. We did this mostly for the excellent ride up the Zanskar river valley on a narrow and twisty road. The views were amazing and the village turned out to be really nice as well. There were no tourist facilities but we had heard that there were a few families who provided home stays. We were not staying the night but managed to find a woman who was working out in the fields and convinced her to make a delicious lunch for us. Fresh greens, dal, rice, ladakhi bread, and mint tea. Delicious!
Zanskar River Valley
Mark Enjoying the Curves. Another BRO road sign we liked was “go easy on my curves”. Not this time!
One of the few homes in Chilling
Our Host in Chilling
And as I eluded to earlier I did have a break down. On the way back from Chilling, just before the main road, I broke a spoke that derailed the chain and mangled the chain guard. Without tools I was helpless but the guy I rented the bike from came out without delay and fixed the bike up and even gave me a break on the price of the rent! How is that for service.
Fixing the Bike
After a couple of days rest in Leh we set out again for 4 days, this time by car. We hired a private car from mechanic. It was a Maruti, a compact Indian made car that is a favorite for its durability and reliability. You would not know by looking at it though. The vehicle resembled my old Ford Festiva! It was 13 years old and insured for 15,000 rupees or about $325! It served us well over all the bumpy roads even though at first I felt like all the wheels and doors would fall off before we finished the trip.
Me and the Mighty Maruti
Prayer beads hanging from rear view mirror
Our first stop would be 10km south of Leh and the celebration of the Dalai Lama’s 75th birthday. There was speeches from local dignitaries, traditional dances chanting monks and tons of people. The people watching was most enjoyable.
A few people watching pictures
We arranged permits to visited the upper Indus river valley. Again, with its proximity to the “line of control” between India and Pakistan, we were limited in where we could visit. This area is again unique for India in that there are people of Aryan decent living in the villages. Called Brokpa or Dard people, there is some discussion in where they come from originally, some speculate decedents of Alexander the Great’s army. The people are certainly of fairer complexion and have different features, but what sets them apart is their tradition dress. As is common everywhere, one only sees the older generation and typically the women keeping up with the dress. Married women wear three braided dreadlocks on each side of their face with an additional group down the back. Both women and men wear flowers in their hair with pearl earrings (where do these come from?). The village of Dah, the farthest we could travel up the valley, is epicenter for the Dard people. The village sat above the road and we had to walk 10 minutes through terraced vegetable fields and apricot orchards to reach the village. Dah had two very simple guesthouses and an wonderfully peaceful ambiance.
Beautiful Indus River Valley
Under the grape vines, perfect place to relax and read. Dah, Ladakh
Our Guest house in Dha
Dard woman in traditional dress. We saw these women in the village but I found this picture on the internet
We spent the next day slowly retreating down the valley visiting small towns along the way. There is not much traffic and only one or two busses a day make the trip in either way so the main means of getting from place to place is hitchhiking. We picked up school children walking 3-5 km to school and another older gentleman along the way. The village of Laido where the old man was going, turned out to be a nice diversion. Behind a newly constructed Gompa a man and his wife where busy hand weaving wool clothe. We visited them for a bit and shared in a Ladahki butter tea (a tea tasting a bit like goat).
Hitchhiker, he was praying the entire time in the back seat, I wonder if he does this always or if it was because a gora (foreigner) was driving?!
Weaving the old fashion way Cheap entertainment. You see children rolling wheels from India, Thailand to Latin America!
This was a military check point up a side valley. We attempted to go north, but after 20 minutes, many official calls, and tea and biscuit’s, the military personnel informed us “not possible”. Oh well, we tried.
Picture of the mighty Indus. This river usually runs glacial blue!
We finished out the road trip by taking the road west toward Kargil and overnighted in the to of Lamayuru. We passed this place on our way to Leh and were looking forward to being able to slow down and enjoy the road. The switch backs up the side of the mountain didn’t disappoint.
Twisty and curvy and up and up….amazing
Lamaruyu gompa and village.
Morning incense burns in front of gompa
View from the Lamaruyu - Leh road
We returned to Leh for a final two nights before heading out on a micro bus on the morning of the 12th to take us to Manali, 450 or so kms south of Ladakh. What we knew was going to be a long and exhausting trip slowly dissolved into one arduous journey, but that is another blog entry in the Joy of Travel series!.
Tsemo Fort - Set high on an ridge above town this is the iconic image of Leh, viewable from almost anywhere in town.
Leh Palace above old town - On the same ridge as the fort this crumbling old building is also a Unesco World Heritage site
Mysterious pig head in Leh Palace
Tsemo Fort view form an adjacent rock outcropping. The prayer flags span a gap that must be over 100 yards
Meghan waits patiently with some monks as I snap more photos