The old town curls up in the shadow of a hill on which are located the lehchen pelkhar, or leh palace, and above the palace, the namgyal tsemo gompa. The nine storey royal palce, an imitabtion of the great potala in lhasa, was built by sengye namgyal when he shifted the capital from basgo to leh in the 17th century.
Entry fee: Indians rs25, for foreigners rs100, Timing: 10am to 4pm
NAMGYAL TSEMO GOMPA
From the palace, you could take the path further up the hill to namgyal tsemo gompa or the temple of the guardian deities, built by gyalpo tashi namgyal. The namgyal tsemo gompa and castle tsemo, the adjoining ruins of a fort – the first royal residence to be built in leh – tower over leh. The gompa has two buildings, the red maitreya temple, which houses a large Buddha flankd by Avalokiteshvara and manjusri and white gonkhang temple at the very top, with ancient murals and rooms for monks.
This white stupa in Changspa is a relatively new addition to Leh, inaugurated by the dalai lama in 1985. One of several such monuments erected by a ja[anise Buddhist ‘peace sect’, the stupa is decorated with panels depicting the buddha’s life. The architecture is modern and lacks the character of the other ladakhi monuments, but the site offers great views of leh.
PATTHAR SAHIB AND MAGNETIC HILL
26km west of leh towards basgo, patthar sahib is asmall dip in the road beside a signboard announcing ‘magnetic hill’. Also known as Gravity hill, these are places where the layout of the surrounding lan produces an optical illusion which makes a slight downhill slope look like an uphill slope. Thus a car left out of gear will magically appear to be rolling uphill! From here, continue 3km ahead to gape at the confluence where the Indus river receives its Zanskar tributary, just short of Nimmu.
60km northwest of leh, likir gompa is in a lovely location. Founded between 12th and 13th centuries, likir was first associated with the kadampa order of Tibetan Buddhism. Today it is headed by the Dalai Lama’s younger brother, ngari rinpoche.
Standing on a spur which runs out almost to the edge of the Indus stands another ild capial of the ladakhi kings, I a preety spot with numerous chortends, and graceful willows that dip their leaves into an artificial lake. Even after sengye namgyal had built the leh palace, the ladakhi rulers continued to think of shey palace as their home until the dogra invasion.
The nubra river runs through desert, but set like jewels on a necklace are the little oases of tirit, sumur, tegar and panamik. Nubra means green named for these fertile, well cultivated oases. The village is also said to have the best climate if ladakh. First up along the nubra road is tiny tirit village, ahead of tirit is lugzhun village where you can pause to take in the confluence of the nubra and shayok.
To the north east of leh lies the nubra valley, beyond the formidable khardung la pass. This was the ancient trade route that linked the north Indian plains with the central asian cities of yarkand and khotan, a trade route which existed until 1949, when the Chinese firmly closed the border. More’s the pity, as people of nubra, once proud and independent traders, are dependent on handouts from the Indian army, and on tourism.
Retrace back to the shayok riverbed ahead of khalsar, and take the road forking west to visit the villages along the shayok valley, famous for its double humped Bactrian camels lolling amidst wild seabuckthorn bushes in desert sand dunes.
PANGONG TSO (LAKE)
160km southeast of leh the largest salt water lake in asia lies in eastern ladakh, at 14,764ft on the border of Indian and Tibet, one third of it falling in india and two third in Tibet. In 17th century, deldan namgyal (the king of ladakh), had supported Bhutan in the Tibet Bhutan war. The peeved Tibetans responded with a military attack on ladakh. Deldan, unable to fight them, sought assistance from the mughals, who agreed to intervene on the condition that the king convert to islam. The Tibetans and ladakhis were equally horrified by theis prospect and reached an agreement in 1684. Deldan namgyal gave away portions of his territory to the regent of Tibet and with this they drew the new border through pangong tso. Even today, a third of the lake lies in india and two thirds in Tibet, china.
From the shore, pangong tso seemed an unending expanse of blue. It is 134km long and 5km wide at its widest point and 328ft deep. Geologists believe that the very brackish lake was once a freshwater one. Over time minerals were deposited through glacial action and snowfall, rendering the lake salty and its entire freshwater species extinct. In 1863, british explorer godwin Austin noted in his journal that the lake was only slightly salty, showed no signs ofaquatic life but that the shores were srewn with shells of fresh water species. Today, as you walk along the lake, consider yourself very lucky if you find such a fossil-shell.
Chang la: changla pass over the ladakh range at 17998ft the third highest motorable pass in the world.
Polo: the game was introduced in ladakh in the 17th century during the reign of sengye namgal, whose mother gyal khatun was a balti princess. In the ladakhi version of polo, theams of six players compete against each other in a game that lasts for an hour.
Main bazaar, best buys here are the array of traditional ladakhi wear – the tall, brocaded hats synonymous with ladakh, known as tipi; felt shoes with curling toes known as papu; sheepskin lined, cross button vests known as gongchas, and the brocaded, sheepskin lined cloak worn by ladalhi women called lorol.
Moti bazaar, offers beautiful pearls, turquoise, coral, lapis lazuli and silver jewelry.
September’s colorful ladakh festival: September 20th to 26th. The colorful inaugural procession, featuring performaers from all over ladakh, draws thousands of onlookers as it winds through leh bazaar. Cultural performances and exhibitions of handicrafts like thangka paintings are on offer. Nearer villages also organize cultural shows, camel safaris and adventure sports events.
Dosmoche: February 27th and 28th: marks the symbolic victory of good over evil. This two days festival held at diskit and likir monasteries and leh palace. The atmosphere turns electric as incense burns and monks perform the chham masked dance. Later good luck charms said to ward off evil spirits are prepared and dough figurines called strma that signify the ‘scapegoat’ are discarded as a symbolic ‘letting go’ of evil spirits.
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