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.
Zanskar mountains from my balcony
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.
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.