Tuesday 7th July – more monasteries

I slept much better last night, despite quite a lot of early morning barking from the many street dogs.  Some of the group had already been into town for a wander by the time others appeared for breakfast at 8 am. Breakfast was good, coconut pancakes with honey being a personal favourite.

We set off for Thiksey monastery shortly after 9 am, with packed lunches which I hoped would suit everyone’s taste – sandwiches plus paratha and curry. It’s less than an hour’s drive along the Indus to Thiksey and we stopped on the way to look at the enormous convention site at Choglamsar where thousands of Buddhists meet when the Dalai Lama comes to town every year.  Stok Kangri was in the cloud this morning but people found it amazing to think of it being more than 2 500 m higher than the valley bottom where we were standing.

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Choglamsar

It was still very warm in the sun today, despite the cloud. We spent an hour or so in the monastery at Thiksey, finding more rooms than we did last time and enjoying spectacular views despite the cloud. John got to show people the junction of the Ladakh Batholith and Indus formation sediments from a distance and also talked about the paleolake between Thiksey and Sheh. It was busy with tourists, both westerners and Indians, whereas last time we were there Thiksey felt much more like a working monastery. A very cute monk, five or six years old, was being fed chocolate by lots of visitors to the cafe and being very giggly.

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Temple door and ceiling detail, Thiksey monastery

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The view East towards Leh, from Thiksey.  Shey palace is on the hill in the foreground.

From Thiksey we drove a few km back towards Leh and stopped at Shey palace. It’s quite a steep pull up the hill and a bit of a struggle in the noonday heat but worth it for more spectacular views. We didn’t spend so long here and, once down, drove across to the picnic area beside the royal fish ponds for lunch.  These ponds are the remains of a large paleolake which once filled much do the valley here.

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Thiksey fish ponds

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It was very pleasant in the shade of the willow trees there and, after lunch, I talked a bit about the role of stomata and we did leaf peels from the upper and lower leaf surfaces, using nail varnish, to look at back at the hotel. Interestingly, though it felt so hot, the air temperature was only about 20 Celsius – the main contributor is just the intensity of the sun at this altitude.

Mukhter stopped on the way back for me to buy vodka to preserve any diatoms we collect at Pangong, then drove us back to the hotel via Shankar stupa and gompa so that we knew the route in case anyone wanted to walk there later, though I think most people are gompad out for now.  This side of town was absolutely full of young Europeans dressed in full hippy gear – some of the girls looked so like Durham students that I thought I might see someone I recognised!

After a short rest and a cup of tea John, Helen and I wandered back into town, first to visit the Museum of Central Asia and then for some shopping. Getting to the museum involved walking down the street full of bakers using tandoor ovens so we just had to buy a piece of hot, fresh bread to share, for the princely sum of 10 rupees (10 p).

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The museum was interesting but still a little empty. It is housed in a modern building, designed in the manner of a traditional Ladakhi defence tower. The walls are made of granite from Shey and each floor is designed to represent a different area – Ladakh, Kashmir, Tibet and Baltistan (Pakistan). The ground floor had more of the photos taken by Rupert Wilmot in the 1930s which so impressed us at Kargil and the top floor had portraits of Ladakhis of widely differing origins with a short account of their life stories, which wa also very interesting. There were also some beautiful paper cuttings, done by a woman called Helena Becker, depicting scenes from the days of the Silk Road trade. I was particularly taken by the grumpy camel…

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In the museum courtyard people were busy making traditional resources for building – peeling the bark off willow poles to be dried for ceilings and so on.

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Stripping willow poles

After the museum we thought we’d have a go at finding some singing bowls. The first place we spotted the plain brass beaten ones we were after only had rather large, heavy bowls, though they did make a beautiful sound. We then went to the Tibetan Refugee market across the road and found just what we were looking for – lovely little bowls about 10 cm across. The pitch of the sound they make is higher, but still true. Helen and I also bought pretty turquoise earrings there.

After dinner, most people came along to our communal space to have a look at the leaf peels and were interested in what they saw – there clearly were more stomata on the lower side of the leaves, fortunately.

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Sunset over Stok Kangri

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Monday 6th July – on to Leh

We had a leisurely morning today as its only a couple of hours from here to Leh. Breakfast was lovely and not just for the view over the Indus. There were pancakes and porridge on offer, with honey still with bits of honeycomb in and tasty apricot jam, all of which made a very pleasant change to the usual fare. Given that we didn’t arrive till about six last night, it was lovely to chill out and enjoy the peace and lovely views at the Apricot Tree afterwards. Some of us strolled round the garden or wandered through the back lanes of the adjacent hamlet whilst others preferred just to chill out on their verandas or in the courtyard. In theory there was wifi on the ground floor but it didn’t seem to let more than a couple of people use it at any given time, so I gave up in the end.

We left at 11 am and Muktar suggested we make an unscheduled stop at Alchi monastery, which has some of the oldest wall paintings in Ladakh (around 1000 years). This was much more commercialised than anywhere else we’ve been, with lots of stalls selling Tibetan goods.  Chris and Amanda bought a lovely Tibetan singing bowl with a beautiful clear tone. When you put water in it and make it sing it produces tiny waves all over the surface with a wavelength to match the pitch.

For me, the highlight of Alchi was seeing the completed mandala on display, after what we’d seen yesterday at Lamayuru. At first sight it looked like an intricately-coloured embroidery with clever embossed patterns but when we looked closely we could see that it was, in fact, made from tiny deposits of coloured power. The whole thing is a circle about a meter in diameter and took four monks a whole year to complete! The wall paintings were incredible too – small repeated Buddhas covering whole walls as if they were wallpaper.

From Alchi we drove on just a few km to Saspol where the drivers found us a shady picnic spot by a little tributary of the Indus. There weren’t enough plants around to do serious botanising but we did get to see a pretty blue-flowered wild lettuce (Lactuca dolichophylla) up close as well as more of the honey-scented yellow vetch which seems so abundant. They were allowing it to grow in the fallow vegetable beds at the Apricot Tree, presumably to act as a green manure.

Driving through this part of the Indus valley there is a sense of growing prosperity from all the new buildings going up which is good to see. It’s also really good to see that even the smart new houses are generally being built in the traditional style and using the traditional, sustainable, building materials of mud bricks and wood. We stopped briefly at a viewpoint over the Indus at Basgo and then pressed on to Leh, arriving about 3 pm. Yet again, there has been confusion about lunch and the hotel were apparently expecting us, despite the fact that the drivers and Fouzia knew we had packed lunches from the Apricot Tree. We managed to change this into tea and coffee sitting outside in the shade, whilst we were checked in, which seemed to be a rather laborious process.

The Grand Himalaya hotel is fine and, again, has lovely views and big spacious rooms with verandas. It’s higher up the hill in Leh than the Grand Dragon, which means there is more obstructing the views across to Stok Kangri and the Zanskar range, but also means it has panoramic views towards Leh Palace, Shankar Stupa and the Ladakh Batholith at the back.

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Zanskar mountains from my balcony

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Leh Palace

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View from the back of the Grand Himalaya hotel

We also have tea and coffee-making facilities in our rooms for the first time, so all is good. We all felt pretty grimy after the journey and I also needed to handwash some clothes, but decided a quick explore of town would be better before rather than after showering. We were very glad we had – the ‘beautification’ of Leh, which meant the high street was completely dug up in September, has proceeded apace. Some paved areas are now paved but there is also an incredible amount of dust. Some old buildings have been cleared and there are piles of sand everywhere. It will be interesting to see how it has changed by next year.

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Walking down into Leh

The other obvious difference is in the number of western tourists around – I’ve heard German, French, Italian and a Slavic language spoken today and there are also plenty of Japanese tourists around. Our first objective was to find an ATM and withdraw cash but this proved easier said than done – it seems a bit random which banks accept which cards. We gave up and came back to the hotel to shower and wash clothes in the end. We are all a bit breathless going up the steps to the third floor but, apart from that, so much better at 3 500 m than we were when we flew directly into Leh – good to know that the theory of gradual acclimatisation works and hopefully means we won’t have problems getting to Pangong.

Dinner was very good – some tasty Chinese-style dishes were a welcome addition to the usual curries. We discussed what to do about timings and lunch for tomorrow as some people came across Leh museum today and would like to go there tomorrow afternoon. After dinner, John showed people some cross section maps he has on his iPad of the rocks we have traveled through today.

Sunday 5th July – Kargil to Nurla

We are now very happily ensconced in the Apricot Tree hotel at Nurla, after another long drive. The hotel is lovely and we all have rooms with verandas overlooking the Indus. The walk along the shore we’d thought of for tomorrow isn’t going to happen though – the river is considerably higher than it was in September and the path is completely under water!

We spent an hour or so this morning in the Museum of Central Asia in Kargil which had interesting artefacts linked to Kargil’s place at a the hub of a number of different trading routes, but little in the way of labelling or interpretation, unfortunately. From there we drove the short distance to Shergol to look at the monastery, at the drivers’ suggestion. This is an amazing feat of engineering, built right into the side of the conglomerate which makes up the hill.

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Shergol monastery

It also gave us a chance to see some of the lovely pink roses up close and enjoy their fragrance, as well as an assortment of drought adapted thistles and legumes.

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There seemed some confusion over whether the monastery is 200 or 2000 years old, but the people there were very friendly and let us wander around and up to the roof. Here a couple of lads were leaning over the edge in an alarming manner and whitewashing the front. One sported a T-shirt from the Ladakh marathon, which impressed me, for one.

By the time we got down the steps from the monastery the drivers had sorted out a very welcome juice and biscuits break. From Shergol we travelled onto to Mulbek to look at the enormous, 2000 year old Buddha carved into a limestone ‘exotic’. The limestone pillars along this stretch of the road look very much like meerkats to me! The drivers found us a place a little further along the road to stop for lunch in the shade of some trees. It was interesting to look close up at the barley crop growing in the adjacent field, which looked like it was basically growing through stones.

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Barley growing at Wakka Mulbek

There were lots of pretty geraniums and a yellow vetch of some sort growing on the margins too. The roadsides for this stretch of the journey were covered in a yellow Corydalis, but one much too common to interest Brian, I’m sure.

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Corydalis

As well as the fresh green fields of barley, we spotted bright yellow fields in the valley bottoms which looked very familiar. Mukhter confirmed that they were, indeed, oilseed and said, I think, that people process the seeds in their own homes to extract the oil.

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After lunch we climbed up Namika La and then Fotu La passes, the latter the highest on the road between Srinagar and Leh at 4108 m. Helen and I both felt a little light headed here, but nothing more serious – it might partly have been the fact that it was quite windy at the top. The views were every bit as breathtaking as we remembered, but quite different approaching from the other direction.

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Group photo at Namika La

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Fatu La Pass

We noticed for the first time that you can see down to the pale coloured sediments of Lamayuru from the top of Fotu La, which gave us a great opportunity to introduce the idea of the disappearing lake. This formed around 40 000 years ago as a result of tectonic activity damming the valley, and then disappearing just as rapidly around 1000 years ago, also as a result of tectonic activity.

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Lamayuru with pale paleolake sediments behind

The drivers suggested another tea break at a shady viewpoint overlooking Lamayuru before we dropped down to visit the monastery. We spent quite a lot of time there as there were a number of friendly monks busy about the place, happy to be photographed and answer questiions. Some of them, including some young boys, were busy grinding up calcite on a stone to add to the pigments which they will use to colour a mandala in the next few days.

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Ceremonial trumpets and young monks grinding calcite for a mandala at Lamayuru

We had a very brief stop at ‘Moonland’ below the monastery to look at the fantastically-formed sediments up close before heading down towards Kaltse. The checkpoint where we entered Leh area turned out to be something of a trial. First of all it transpired that we needed to pay a 300 rupee environmental tax each. Then it turned out that the official’s ledger, into which all our details had to be transcribed, had a space for visa number and this wasn’t on all the forms we’d copied yesterday. I ended up having to go through everyone’s passports again to record this in the ledger, which took some time… Once we’d done that, though, it didn’t take long to reach Nurla and the hotel was well worth the wait. They made us tea and coffee in the central courtyard, shaded by the apricot trees. I made the mistake of washing my face on the lovely white flannel which no longer looks quite so pristine!

We ate together at 8pm to give everyone time to shower. Some of us very much enjoyed our first beer for some days and the food was delicious too – a real salad with a tasty sesame dressing was a big improvement on what we’ve had elsewhere and everyone seemed happy.