Monasteries and Mountains

I’m awake so early I sneak down for a cup of chai and first round of breakfast before John and Helen surface, then sit In the garden in the sun reading. It feels much warmer than yesterday already, with a fantastic, cloudless sky. I am joined by the two ladies in Ladhaki dress who greeted us yesterday, who sit on a swing seat enjoying the peace and sunshine between greeting people coming in on the morning flights. Poor John is still struggling with a headache and I don’t think the sight of Helen and I enjoying dal for breakfast helps much! Danish, Yasin’s right hand man in Leh, comes to meet us this morning and gets the hotel to produce for each of us a little sachet of a local altitude sickness remedy to carry around – eucalyptus tablets and cloves. It is certainly effective in clearing my nose, which feels very stuffy in the dry atmosphere. He has arranged for the hotel to supply a picnic for us today which, judging by the size of the wicker picnic hamper, is going to be quite something!
We are introduced properly to the driver, another Tashi, who will be with us now for nearly the whole trip. He is very friendly and helpful and, usefully for us, speaks good English. Our first stop today is Thiksey monastery, perched above the Indus valley some 25 km south of Leh along the Manali road. As we drive, Tashi explains to us about the stupas, in various styles and states of repair, which line the route. The oldest date from the 16th Century and all are whitewashed every year by those who live nearby. We stop at the bottom of the road up to the monastery to take photos and Tashi explains to us about the stones on the prayer wall, carved with the inscription ‘Om mani padme hum’.

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Thiksey monastery and prayer wall

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Carved prayer stones

The monastery is very old, with rather grisly wall paintings from the 17th century in the room adjoining the main prayer hall.

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Wall paintings

There is a huge new, golden Maitreya or future Buddha in the main temple room, which is decorated very ornately with painted walls, woven hangings and silk scarves brought as offerings.

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The future Buddha

The rooves in the monasteries are supported on mats of twigs, which we soon realise are cut from the pollarded willow trees we see everywhere. Tashi explains that the ends of these are cut in different ways which have religious significance.
The views from the roof along the Indus valley are spectacular and John is happy because we get a really clear view of the two rock types on either side of the Indus suture zone here – a great illustration of how we hope to combine geology, ecology and culture on next year’s trip.

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The Indus Valley and suture zone

As we drive, we occasionally ask Tashi to stop the car so we can photograph rock formations or flowers. He always does this with smiling good grace, despite the fact we probably seem bonkers. From Thiksey, we continue along the Indus to Karu, before heading up a windy road towards the Zanskar range and Hemis monastery. This feels very different to Thiksey, hidden away at the head of a narrow gorge on the edge of the Indus Molasse rock formation. The land below the monastery is watered by the stream flowing down the gorge and fodder crops grow on the terraced fields.

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Looking up towards Hemis

We see the dried grass stacked on the rooves of houses everywhere, drying out ready for winter. The rocks above the monastery are richly covered in an orange lichen which we hope to get a closer look at later.

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The view from Hemis

From Hemis, we drive down the valley then across the foothills of the Zanskar range, before heading further up into the mountains for our picnic lunch at Shang Sumdo. This is a truly spectacular drive over dry river beds and up a very narrow twisty gorge through the contorted sediments of the Indus formation. Erosion has produced spectacular scree slopes thousands of feet high – even on these some vegetation is clinging on for dear life. Our picnic site is out of this world – the ravine opens out into a small flat valley surrounded by mountains so stunning I feel slightly hysterical. The softer rocks have been eroded away leaving all manner of odd looking crags and pinnacles – like something straight from Lord of the Rings.
My grasp on reality is not helped by the picnic Tashi produces from the hamper in the back of the car, along with stools and blankets for us to sit on. We have delicious tomato soup, sandwiches, salads, juice and coffee and more cakes than we can possibly manage. As we eat, we watch a Lammergeier circling the peak in front of us. After lunch Helen and I climb a little way up the closest hill in search of plants. Even In this inhospitable terrain we find a purple flowered labiate which may be catmint, Tanacetum, and a good variety of lichens. Where a little more soil has had a chance to collect, buckthorn is abundant and a pretty yellow-flowered clematis, mostly gone to seed now.

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The yellow-flowered clematis

Artemisia dubia is abundant around the stream and, in the water, the tiny, pink-flowered water speedwell, Veronica anagallis-aquatica.

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Water speedwell

We discover that one of the less obvious effects of altitude sickness, especially after eating, is that crouching down to look at flowers is distinctly uncomfortable – anything that gives our lungs less room to expand seems to be a problem. As we drive down the gorge after our latish lunch the rocks are already in shadow – different features are highlighted now. We drive the few km along the Manali road to Igu where CP has told John he should be able to see the contact between the granite batholiths and Indus Molasses on either side of the suture zone. This proves elusive, so we decide to have another look on our way to Pangong Tso when we are all less tired.

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