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Ladakh takes your breath away

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Trip report for 12 days spent in Ladakh, North West India in 2011

This report was originally published on Slow Travel forum.



Ladakh is popular with Indian tourists but few foreign travellers have discovered it. It only merits a few pages in many guide books. It is an area of high level desert surrounded by steep snow covered mountains sandwiched between the Himalaya and Karakoram Mountain Ranges. It is in Jammu and Kashmir and is the only part of that state the the British Foreign and Colonial Office advises as being safe for travellers. It is very different to the rest of India as the culture, religion and buildings are Tibetan.

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Having read Heinrich Harrer’s “Seven Years in Tibet” when it was first published in the 1950s, Tibet has always been one of the places I have dreamed of visiting. We had hoped to visit when we were in China in 2008 but, a few weeks before our holiday, the Chinese closed Tibet to tourists, so we never got there. Tibet was closed again the following year for a few weeks and we realised any plans to visit could well be scuppered at the last minute. We began to have second thoughts. Ladakh seemed a reasonable compromise.

We began to read and search the internet and we went to talk to Audley Travel in Witney who we used for all our long holidays. We decided June would be the best month. Mountain passes would be open. It was still early in the tourist season and not too hot. We decided to fly in, rather than take the road from Delhi via Manali. This takes 4 days. The road can best be described as ‘hairy’. It is subject to rockfalls and landslides which can close it. The road ascends to 5059m (16,598ft) with much of the journey at over 4000m (13,000+ ft) so altitude sickness can be an issue. Accommodation along the route is also basic, in tents.

Leh is an altitude of 3555 meters (11,490ft), and advice is to spend the first day doing nothing and take it easy on the second day to give the body time to adjust to the altitude.

We came up with an itinerary.

DAY 1 - Fly to Delhi

DAY 2 - Fly to Leh. Do nothing

DAY 3 - An easy day around Leh

DAY 4 - Visit the monasteries of Thicksy and Hemis

DAY 5 - Full day trip to Pangong Lake across ChangLa Pass

DAY 6 - Visit Mathro, Shey and Stok Palaces

DAY 7 - Drive to Shyok Valley across KardungLa Pass

DAY 8 - Day around Shyok and Nubra Valleys

DAY 9 - Drive back to Shey

Day 10 - Drive from Shey to Lamayuru and back to Alchi

DAY 11 - Visit Alchi Choshkor and Likir on the way back to Nimoo

DAY 12 - Visit Basgo Palace and Zanskar Gorge to see the metal workers at Chilling. Return to Nimoo

DAY 12 - An easy day around Nimoo

DAY 13 - Fly to Delhi

DAY 14 - Fly back to London.

In retrospect I think it might have been sensible to have done Pangong Lake later in the trip as this would have given more time for acclimatisation. ChangLa Pass is 5360 m (17585 ft) and Pangong Lake is 4350 m (14270 ft).

We decided to fly to Delhi with Virgin Atlantic as they offered Premium Economy at a reasonable rate. The outward flight was very empty. Coming back was full and we felt staff were under pressure and service was not as good. The in flight entertainment offered a poor selection of films and an even worse selection of TV programmes.

We were booked into The Claridges in Delhi which is a very comfortable place to stay and we always enjoy. Staff are excellent, rooms extremely comfortable with very effective air conditioning and food is good.

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Audley Travel used Banyan Travel for overall arrangements in India and Shakti Himalaya for Ladakh. Shakti are very much into the luxury end of the market. During the summer they rent village houses in Shey, Stok, Nimoo, Taru and Likir which are used by guests. Each has 2 or 3 bedrooms although they only let to one group at a time. As there were just two of us, this did make it more expensive.

The houses have all been renovated to a very high standard and en suite bathrooms installed. During the summer months the owners move out and the houses are staffed by Shakti, usually with 3 or 4 staff per house. Standards are exceptionally high.

Each of the houses is very different and some are quite old.

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We enjoyed seeing the inside of a traditional house and spending time in them. It had all the advantages of living in a traditional building but with all mod cons. The ground floor houses a large kitchen where we ate our evening meals with living quarters for the staff. The bedrooms are up a steep flight of stairs and arranged round 3 sides with a patio/courtyard area in the centre which has easy chairs and a table. We ate breakfast here - except for Stok where breakfast was served in the orchard - very stylish. There is a small lounge area and family shrine. Some houses have steps up to the roof where there is a covered lounging area. The bedrooms were very comfortable with a huge bed with and soft puffy duvet and pillows. Every night someone would turn down the bed and put in hot water bottles. When we arrived we were always greeted with a cold damp flannel to clean up and a fresh fruit drink. Food was excellent.

We had a couple of picnic lunches when the house staff would arrive and set up table and chairs in an orchard and serve a meal. We could get used to this life style!

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As the report is so long, the different places we visited can be found below:
#2 A word about altitude
#3- 4 Impressions of Ladakh
#5 Gompas, prayer flags, chortans and palaces
#6-8 Leh
#9 Thiksey Gompa
#10 Matho Gompa
#11 Hemis gompa
#12-13 Shey
#14-15 Stok
#16-18 ChangLa Pass and Pangong Lake
#19-22 KhardungLa Pass to Shyok and Nubra Valleys
#23-24 Shyok and Nubra Valleys
#25-27 Lamayuru
#28-30 Alchi
#31-34 Likir Gompa
#35-37 Basgo Gompa and Palace
#38-40 Zanskar Gorge and Chilling
#41-42 Nimoo
 
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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
A word about Altitude

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Altitude needs to be taken seriously. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can and does kill. Altitude can affect anyone regardless of age, sex or general fitness. The degree of severity can vary and some people are affected at lower altitudes than others. Most people acclimatise quickly at around 2500m and altitude isn’t usually a problem until 3000+m. It can be a major problem if you change altitude rapidly. This means flying into Leh at 3555 meters (11,490ft) and starting off on a full itinerary of activities is not a good idea.

General advice is to rest the first day and take it easy the following day. This can be difficult as where ever you go in Ladakh there are likely to be steps to climb. The Disability Discrimination Act hasn’t arrived here yet.

Most people will experience minor symptoms of breathlessness and headache (treat with paracetamol or ibuprofen). These usually disappear within 24 hours.

Any exercise will leave you puffing and steps or climbs are a real killer (no pun intended). Bending down isn’t a problem but standing up afterward can be. Be sensible and take things steadily. Remember to rest and take your time. DON'T rush! Think before getting out of a car as in your excitement to see the view or take the fascinating photo it is very easy to forget the altitude.

If you do experience problems or mild symptoms last for more than a few days you may need to think about going down - even 500m will help. This again is difficult in Ladakh as this effectively means Alchi at 3100m (10200 ft).

Make sure you can recognise the effects of High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE). Both are serious and immediate action needs to be taken. Don’t be big and brave and hope it may go away. It won’t. Make sure your travel insurance covers you for emergency evacuation and air lift if it is needed.

As there is less oxygen at high altitudes you will be breathing more and may need to drink more to replace fluid lost through the lungs when breathing. Think twice before drinking alcohol as this can increase the side effects of altitude - even as little as one drink... Smoking is also bad.

People often feel less hungry at altitude. Eat smaller meals but more often if necessary. Blood goes to the stomach after a meal to help digestion, so a large meal not only slows you down it can also leave you lethargic and a bit headachy.

You are likely to feel tired and need more sleep.

Some people find it more difficult to sleep at altitude or they wake feeling they can't breathe. If this is the case, think about your breathing and make yourself take deep regular breaths until your natural breathing pattern is restored. Propping yourself up in bed with lots of pillows can help rather than lying flat, or try sleeping in a comfortable chair.

Some people take diamox to help with altitude. Talk to your doctor first as it can interact with drugs you may be taking and some GPs are not happy with its use.

Cars may carry a supply of oxygen but this is only a short term measure. There are military medical services at the top of ChangLA and KhargungLa Passes who are experienced in dealing with problems of altitude sickness.

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More information
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Impressions of Ladakh

The flight from Delhi takes about 75 minutes, over the top of the Himalayas with fantastic views of the snow covered peaks and ridges.

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All flights are in the morning as the wind gets up in the afternoon which can make it dangerous to fly. The plane flies up the Indus valley and we could see Leh and the airport below us. It then turns steeply around the edge of a mountain ridge, drops rapidly and comes into land.

At 3500m (11500’) Leh literally takes your breath away. The area is high level desert surrounded by steep snow covered mountains. Melt water is collected and used to irrigate fields so there are green oases in the bottom of the valleys. It was noticeable there was less snow on the tops when we left.

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Traditionally everyone was a farmer and 5 acres would feed a family and produce a surplus to sell. Land holdings are surrounded by stone walls with a small entry gate. Inside are apple and apricot trees. Fields are tiny. All work is done by hand. The ground is divide up into small plots about 6’ by 3’. Each one is surrounded by a small bank of earth to help with irrigation.

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The ground looks level but slopes slightly to help with irrigation. Water is taken to each holding along channels and flow is controlled by sluices. Every family is allocated a time slot for water. The water flows into the top of the garden and a small break is made in the wall of the top plot. When the plot is well flooded, the breach is sealed and another made in the next plot. This continues until all the plots have been watered. There is no wastage of water or run off. Weeds growing along the irrigation channels are cut for fodder.

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Before the days of refrigerators, families had a root cellar to keep food during the summer. This was a large ‘cave’ dug out of the ground and the hole was covered with a large stone.

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Families also keep a cow or yaks which provide milk and may have a donkey for carrying good. Milk is used to make curd, butter and cheese. Families used to move with the animals to higher pastures for the summer. Now the old go but most of the youngsters move to Leh and work in tourism during the summer.

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On the high mountain pastures around ChangLa and KhardungLa Passes, male yaks, females with no young and young yaks are left to graze during the summer.

Willow and poplar trees grow everywhere. The poplar is used for window frames, rafters, support beams and scaffolding. The willow is either coppiced or pollarded and branches used to line the underside of roofs.

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Wild pink rose bushes were in flower adding a welcome splash of colour to the scenery.

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Houses are all a similar design and made from sun dried mud bricks which are then plastered and whitewashed. Bricks are made locally and cost about 3 rupees a brick. Cement bricks are about 7 rupees and may be used for the corners of buildings to give added strength. Some newer and more expensive houses have stone brick bases with mud above. Traditionally the animals were kept on the ground floor and the family lived above. Fodder was stored on top of the roof. Now animals are kept in small sheds and yards by the buildings.

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There was a huge living kitchen with wood or dung burning stove which was used in the winter months to provide heat and cooking. Dung is mixed with straw and dried in the sun to be used as fuel. The walls have shelves round the walls with all the cooking pots and pans displayed as well as plates, bowls, cups, ladles etc all made from metal.

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During the summer cooking would be done outside in ovens heated by wood embers.

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Now houses use small gas rings in the summer. The Ladakhis don’t use chairs - they sit on cushions round the sides of the room.

In the towns the houses are low with small, very dark shops underneath and living quarters above.

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The government provided solar panels for electricity 20-25 years ago. For the last 15-17 years mains electricity has been provided but the supply is very unreliable and often cuts out for a few minutes.

Most guest houses have a water supply and flush toilets. However many houses don’t have water supplied to the house and all water has to be collected from pumps or from the irrigation channels.

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Most of the women still wear traditional dress which looks a bit like a long coat with a gathered waist. Most of them are made from dark material and they have different weights for summer and winter. They usually wear a brightly coloured head scarf tied over their hair. A few of the older men wear the traditional dress. This is a bit like a short dressing gown worn over leggings. Most wear western clothes. School uniform is western and the baseball cap seems an essential part of the uniform. There is no obesity and children don’t eat crisps or sweets on the way to and from school - or use mobile phones.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Impressions of Ladakh continued....

The scenery is stunning. In places the river valleys are broad and the road runs across flat stoney or sandy desert.

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In other places the river has cut down into a deep gorge and roads are cut out on a narrow ledge on the hillside with steep mountain on one side and unguarded drop on the other.

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Roads are narrow with many bends. They don’t seem wide enough for two vehicles to pass but somehow they seem to manage, often at the narrowest bits. Overtaking can be hazardous. The driver sounds his horn and overtakes trusting the overtaken vehicle will slow down and pull to one side. It usually does. Shrines along the road and remains of lorries below remind you not all do.

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There were very bad floods in summer 2010 which washed out many bridges and roads. Official figures report 500 dead although unofficial figures put this much higher. Houses were damaged and soil was washed off fields. In other places there are thick deposits of silt.

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In Summer 2011, temporary bailey bridges had been built on main roads crossing rivers that had deep scoured channels.

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On side roads bridges are still being rebuilt and streams have to be forded. The roads are still in very bad condition in places and locals are employed to repair the roads. Many bridges were decorated with prayer flags to protect against a recurrence of the disastrous floods.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Gompas, prayer flags, chortens and palaces

There are Gompas (monasteries) in all the settlements which are built on the highest part of the village, often on a high cliff. A road usually goes to the bottom of the monastery but there are always stairs to climb which can be quite steep. Many are several storeys high and dwarf the settlement below.

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There is always a courtyard where the yearly festival takes place, several Lhakhangs (temples), residence for the Head Monk and sleeping quarters for the other monks. Some have guest house and restaurant attached.

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Inside the Lhakhang, opposite the doorway is the chair for the head monk and often a chair for the Dalai Lama, with their pictures placed on the seat. Benches for the monks are arranged at right angles. Every available space on the walls inside the temples is covered with paintings and there are many statues, some several metres high. There are also brightly coloured wall hangings.

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Above the doorway of the main temple is a rolled up Tanka (or Thangka) which is a painting with embroidery of a Buddhist deity or a mandala (sacred symbols). This is unrolled and hung up for a few wereks each year during the festival.

The most important Lhakhang is called the Dukhang (Main Assembly Room).

Shoes must always be removed before entering the buildings. It is advisable to take a spare pair of socks as floors can be dusty.

Prayer flags are seen everywhere in Ladakh, on bridges, at the passes, on buildings, on flag poles. Most are a small square of brightly coloured material attached to a long string and are inscribed with prayers and mantras. As wind passes over the surface of the flags, the air is purified and sanctified by the Mantras. The prayers are scattered in the wind to spread good will and compassion. There are five colours which are arranged in a specific order from left to right: blue, white, red, green, and then yellow. Blue symbolises sky/space, white symbolises air/wind, red symbolises fire, green symbolises water, and yellow symbolises earth.

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There are white Chortans (or Stupas) around the Gompas and in villages.

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Some are old and gradually collapsing into white rubble.

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Others like the Shanti Stupa in Leh are new. They are an integral part of the Buddhist faith, helping to spread Buddhism and act as a protector to bring peace and happiness. Holy relics are placed in the centre. Always go clockwise round them.

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The chorten is made up of 5 distinct parts. The pointed top represents the crown of Buddha, with the body, hands and legs making up the 4 ‘layers’ beneath. The square base represents the throne. It is also symbolic of the five elements of nature, fire, earth, water, air and ether (when a person dies their body is converted into ether).

In places there are small buildings housing three chortens painted in different colours which keep the locality safe. They represent Avolikiteswar (yellow) for compassion, Manjusri (white) for wisdom and Vajrapani (blue) who is the rightful Buddha and fights against ignorance.

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At the start of every settlement and often associated with chortens are Mani Walls. These are beautifully made platform like rows of stones. Some are quite old. They are faced with stones and carved stones with the mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ or images of Buddha are placed on top of the wall. Again go round clockwise.

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Large Prayer Wheels are found in every village and all gompas. They are brightly coloured metal drums inscribed with mantras and contain tightly wrapped rolls of mantras inside. The wheels are turned clockwise to scatter the mantras to the winds. There may be a bell rung by a rod on the prayer wheel to count the number of turns. Gompas often have long rows of small prayer wheels. These must be turned clockwise.

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Ladakh still has a King and Queen. Their roles are ceremonial rather than governmental, although the Queen has been elected as an MP. They now live in a palace at Stok.

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The remains of earlier Palaces can be seen at Leh and Shey. These are massive mud brick structures which rise steeply up the sides of the valley. The walls are massive and slope slightly inwards to increase stability. Inside was a rabbit warren of rooms and buildings with the family temples. The lower levels were used for stables and storage with servants quarters above and the royal family living on the upper floors. Leh and Shey are being restored by the the Archaeological Survey of India.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Leh - The Grand Dragon Hotel

We spent four nights in Leh, staying at the Grand Dragon Hotel, which describes itself as the only luxury star hotel in Leh and is the best (and most expensive) place to stay. It is on the outskirts of Leh on Old Leh Road.

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It is a large white building with brown window frames with attached conference centre and banquet hall. There was a small garden in front with chairs and canopies. This was a lovely spot to drop out and begin to acclimatise to the altitude.

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Entry is into a large reception area with lounge and small shop selling post cards, books and a range of gifts to the right and restaurant and coffee shop down the corridor to the left. There are stairs and lifts to the upper floors. We were dealt with quickly and efficiently when we checked in.

We were given a room on the third floor with views south over the Stok Range (bare rocky mountain sides with dusting snow on top overlooking flat river valley with trees and fields), golf course and a muddle of mud brick housing with prayer flags on the roofs. Rooms on the other side of the corridor had views to Leh Palace.

We had a large room with big comfortable bed, two armchairs, table and desk/working area with flat screen TV above and a hanging area. Internet was available for a small charge. The bathroom had an effective shower but no bath. There was a supply of toiletries and the towels were good. Both bedroom and bathroom were spotlessly clean. The room was warm.

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The dining room has considerable style with beautifully painted woodwork.

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A buffet with a range of vegetarian dishes and one or two meat options was laid out on a long table at one end. There was high staff presence in dining room. Staff were very friendly and helpful and explained the different dishes and how they were cooked. They kept us well supplied with black tea and were very concerned we had enough to eat.

Breakfast was a help yourself buffet in the coffee shop, which got all the morning sun. There was cereal, a selection of Indian dishes, eggs and toast.

We had an all inclusive rate. Bottled water was charged extra, but there was no charge for cooled boiled water or tea.

The electricity supply in Leh can unreliable and would cut out for a few minutes, which made us think twice about using the lift…

We enjoyed our stay here. It was a nice room with a great view. The staff were excellent. We can recommend it as a place to stay in Leh.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Leh continued...

Leh is the capital of the Ladakh region and lies in the fertile valley of the Indus. It is very green and lush and irrigated by melt water from the mountains.

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The town is dominated by Leh Palace with Namygal Tsemo above.

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The crumbling ruins of the old town cluster round the base of the Palace. Small mud brick buildings with flat roofs line the winding streets which are too narrow for cars. Streets have a central drain carrying ‘grey’ water away from the houses. Many of the buildings look unkempt or derelict although the Tibetan Heritage Fund is beginning to restore some of the buildings and build covered drains in the roads.

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The newer town spreads out below the old town. There is a one way traffic system round the centre of the town. This is always busy with traffic and no parking is allowed. The cars weave in and out in attempt to overtake and there is much sounding of horns. Main Bazaar Road and the one running parallel to it to the east are wide and lined with a range of small shops including tourist shops.

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There is a fruit and vegetable market run by traders from Kashmir.

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Local women come into Leh in the afternoon, settle down on the pavements of Main Bazaar Road and sell a range of home grown produce (salad crops, mouli, turnips).

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Along another street men from the surrounding areas sit on the pavement selling dried apricots, fruits, almonds, cheese, yeast (for bread and beer). They stay in Leh for about a month, renting cheap accommodation, and then return to their village when they have sold all their produce.

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It is worth exploring the small alleyways off the main streets. These are narrow and packed with small shops selling shoes, hardware, materials (with separate tailors and dress makers shops), clothes, material for home shrines, traditional dress, religious books, with bookbinders, goldsmiths…

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There is a bank and there are ATMs in Leh, although there are always long queues and they often run out of money.

Further from the centre is more rural and made up of several smaller villages. This is where most of the guest houses are found. There are no restrictions on building new houses and as the tourist boom has increased many people have built guest houses on their land. Houses are more spread out and surrounded by trees and farmland. Streets are narrower and lined by high stone walls.

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Willow and Poplar trees grow everywhere. The poplars are very tall and many have lower branches removed. These are used for window frames, rafters and beams in buildings and for scaffolding. The willow branches are used for infill between the main beams. Many of the trees are very old and have been pollarded hard many times.

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Land holdings of the different families are surrounded by stone walls. Beyond the fields, the desert begins and the mountains rise steeply from the river valley. In Early June these were still covered with snow which melted rapidly during our 12 day stay.

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Leh Cont....
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Leh continued - the sights.

Everyone begins with Leh Palace , which can be reached by walking up through the old town or else by road which winds round the edge of the town and climbs up through desert scenery to the Palace.

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The Palace towers nine storeys high and dominates Leh.

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It was built by King Sengge Namgyal in the early C17th. The upper floors accommodated the royal family, with stables and store rooms on the lower floors. It was abandoned in the mid C19th when Dogra forces took control of Ladakh and the royal family moved to Stok.

The massive walls taper inwards slightly to improve stability. The lower part of the walls is built of dressed stone blocks with horizontal beams of poplar to give strength. Above the walls are made of sun dried mud bricks.

Over the years the Palace has become ruinous but the Archaeological Survey of India has begun to restore parts of the Palace and put in new window frames.

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Local labour is used and there were women carrying 3 heavy stone slabs on their backs up the steps and ramps to where needed.


Inside is a rabbit warren of passageways, stairs and rooms. It would be very easy to get lost. It is very dark with little light and dust everywhere. We went into the central Lhakhang with a statue of the Buddha of Compassion, old festival masks, sacred books and wall hangings.

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We climbed up to the main assembly hall where the King would meet with his ministers. This is a large room with clerestory windows. There are the remains of the original wall paintings which are in poor condition. Unfortunately many have graffiti scrawled over them. There is an exhibition in the room showing before and after pictures of restoration work done by the the Archaeological Survey of India.


Sankar Gompa is situated in the suburbs of Ley and is unusual because it is not built on a hill. It was built about a hundred years ago, on the site of a 500 year old temple. This is a quiet and peaceful spot and gets few visitors. It is a small Gompa with about 25 monks but only a few of them are permanent residents. Guide books give opening times of morning and evening. We visited at midday and found a monk to let us in through the big metal doors and to open the Dukhang for us.

Inside the walls is a small garden surrounded by a covered walkway and the Dukhang (Main Assembly Hall) on one side. The pathway from the gateway had the eight lucky signs painted on it.

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The Dukhang is a simple, whitewashed building, with steps Inside the walls are covered with paintings. The throne of the head monk is facing the doorway with the benches for the monks at right angles to it.


Shanti Stupa is a short drive from Leh, past an army camp and up a steep hill. It has panoramic views across the fields to Leh, the desert and surrounding mountains.

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It is a massive white structure built on top of a hill by the Japanese between 1983-1991 by Ladakhi and Japanese Buddhists to promote world peace and prosperity and to commemorate 2500 years of Buddhism.

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A broad flight of steps leads to the first story with a large mural with the Dharma wheel representing the eight fold path to Buddhism with a golden deer on either side. Further steps lead up to the second tier with a colourful frieze with images of Buddha and four recesses with larger images of the life of Buddha.

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Below the Stupa is a small Japanese temple which has three monks and a caretaker.

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We enjoyed this more than expected.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Thiksey Gompa - one of the finest examples of religious architecture in Ladakh



Thiksey Gompa is huge and and is built up the side of a rock rising from the flood plain of the Indus. It has been described as one of the finest examples of Ladakhi religious architecture and one of the most beautiful. it was built about 1430 and belongs to the Gelukpa (Yellow Hat) Order of Buddhism. About 100 monks live in the monastery and it is the largest monastery in central Ladakh.


The building has twelve levels which ascend the hillside with the red painted Chief Lama’s private residence at the top. Below the white monastery buildings tumble down the hillside with temples and rooms where the monks live

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The side road climbs steeply up the side of the rock and ends in a small car park and visitor vehicles are not allowed beyond here. Through the gate is a restaurant and gift shop. The road continues to climb to a courtyard in front of the Dukhang, where festival dances are held. This is surrounded by covered passages with wall paintings. Steep steps climb up to the yellow painted Dukhang, where morning prayers are held.

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Inside the Dukhang, the throne of the Dalai Lama with his picture faces the door, with the low benches for the monks arranged at right angles to the door. There are old wall paintings of the protector kings, Tankas hanging from the ceilings, butter sculptures and statues of Buddha and other great monks.


Behind the main hall is a smaller room with a statue of Sakyamuni Buddha surrounded by smaller statues.



Try to visit Thiksey in time for the 6.30 early morning prayers (puja). The monks sit cross legged on benches chanting from the holy books in front of them. This is quite an hypnotic experience.

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Young monks serve butter tea at different points in the service from large tea pots. This looks pink and tastes like hot milk. Apparently this is the best way to start trying butter tea as that made in local homes is a lot saltier. Later on a large container of tsampa (roasted barley) was taken round. Monks took a handful and mixed it into the butter tea before eating it.



There are excellent views of Thiksey village far below. The Gompa owns all the land and farmers are allowed to keep 10-12% of produce for their own use. The rest goes to the Gompa as ‘rent’. The Gompa also provides employment for locals as drivers, cleaners, secretaries, hotel managers etc. It owns a guest house, two restaurants, souvenir shop and a Tibetan Medicine Centre. Money taken in these is used for the upkeep of the building. The locals support the monks and give them money to buy clothes. 


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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Matho, one of the less visited Gompas


Matho Gompa is on the opposite bank of the Indus to Thiksey and Shey. It is in a side valley and hidden from view. It receives few visitors. 



It is a nice drive across the flat desert with views to the snow capped mountains. The Gompa sits on top of a crag with the village and monks school below.

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There are excellent views from the Gompa.

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Matho Gompa is the only gompa belonging to the Saskyapa sect, founded about 1000 years ago and the dominant religious faction in Tibet during the C13th. The first buildings were C15th but were destroyed by Muslim incursions in the C16th. 



There is a large courtyard with temple buildings on one side and a library containing old manuscripts.

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The new Lakhang built in 1974 and is a beautiful building.

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The entrance verandah has mural paintings of the Guardians of the Four Directions and an elaborately decorated doorway. Inside the Lhakhang all the wall murals were painted in 1977.

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The big statue of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva was begun in 2004 and finished in 2010.

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In front are dishes of offerings to the Buddha.

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The centre of the Buddha is made from cement which is carved into shape, plastered and then painted. The cement base is covered with wood from Kashmir which is carved and then painted. The statue is surrounded by manifestations of the 21 Taras carved from wood and seated on lotus flowers. On the left is a statue of Green Tara, who was born from the tears of Avalokiteshvara. On either side are statues of the Kings of Naga with snakes surrounding their heads. In Buddhism, the Naga symbolises hatred and statues are in a position of respect to take away hatred. There are fierce mythical beasts under the statue holding up the gods.

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The adjacent Lhakhang was being restored and repainted when we visited. The central pillars were made from carved concrete and support a cement bar with wood above. Four painters on very rudimentary scaffolding were painting the roof beams. They had been working for four months and it would take another 4-5 months to finish. Then they would begin on the wall paintings.

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There was a partly completed statue of the present Buddha with his two disciples; Sheripu on the left and Mongaliyana on the right. The Buddha had been covered with gold paint but was awaiting other painters to come and finish the painting.

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The old Dukhang has paintings of the four cardinal gods on either side of doorway.

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Inside the walls were covered with paintings 200-300 years old which included pictures of the old protector gods complete with skull necklaces and two skeletons dancing (Chitapati).

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This is a delightful place and we were the only visitors. We found it interesting to watch the workman and see the partially finished statue of Buddha.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Hemis Gompa - the biggest and wealthiest Gompa

Hemis is the biggest, wealthiest and most important monastic institution in Ladakh. It is known for its two day festival marking the birth of Guru Padmasambhava.

It is on the west bank of the Indus and built on a green hillside hidden deep in a side valley surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery.



It is reached by a side road from the small village of Karu.

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It is a superb drive up the valley surrounded by tall, jagged mountains with very marked strata running at an angle down the sides of the slopes. Snow covered peaks can be seen at the head of the valley. 



Gradually the village with mud brick houses with brown wood window frames and flat roofs, comes into view with chortens and mani walls. It is surrounded by beautifully made terraced fields with stone walls supporting the terracing. In June, there were wild rose bushes, covered with pink flowers growing along the road. The road goes round a bend and with Hemis gompa
in a dramatic setting surrounded by mountains.

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The Gompa dates back to 1630 and was founded by the first incarnation of Stagsang Raspa Nawang Gyatso, who enjoyed the patronage of the royal family. The Lamas of Hemis were prosperous, owning much land and and supervising many smaller scattered monasteries. It is the headquarters of the Drukpa order (Red Hat) of Bhuddhism and trains Lamas for the monasteries at Leh, Shey and Basgo. Most of the monks live at the subsidiary monasteries.



There is a parking area at the base of the monastery with a steep climb to the main door.

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This takes you into the courtyard where the mask dance is held during the annual festival. Three monks were practising dances for festival next month to the accompaniment of drum and cymbals.

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There is a covered walkway with old wall paintings in panels on two sides with the Museum building at the far end.

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To the right are two large temples up small flights of stone steps with a wooden verandah running along the front of them. The temple on the left is the Tshogs-khang (main temple) which was shut (June 2011) for restoration work.

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On the right is the Dukhang (used for ceremonies). Above the doorway is a huge rolled up Tanka, which is displayed during the festival. This contains the throne of the Rimpoche and seating areas for the Lamas. It is a big room with tall wooden pillars and wall hangings. Natural light is from a square cupola with windows.


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There is a statue of Giyalwa Stagtsang Raspa who founded monastery and to right statue of the protector god Giyalpo Pehar. The walls also have paintings of Sakyamuni (the Historical Buddha) with blue hair, paintings of the 84 Mahasiddhas who have received enlightenment and whose job is to take Buddhism to the people and the 16 Arhats. There were plenty of offerings in front of the statue

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Guru Lhakhang is reached by steps to the right of the Dukhang. This is the newest temple and has a big statue of Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) who is the head of the Tantric sect. Beneath him was a statue of Miyu Thung Giuanlongpoche, looking very fierce. He was a local king and a supporter of Guru Padmasambhava and is represented as carrying a staff to show his power and respect.

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On the walls are paintings of the eight manifestations of Guru Padmasambhava.



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Hemis is Ladakh’s wealthiest monastery as it was endowed by the kings and nobles. Being situated in a remote valley and regarded as being relatively secure, other gompas brought their treasures to Hemis for safe keeping. 



A selection of treasures is displayed in the museum. There is a large entrance hall with ticket office and shop selling a good range of post cards, books and gifts. The museum is down a flight of stairs and has display cases arranged round the walls of several large rooms. No photos are allowed. The display consists of statues, mantra paintings, religious objects, weapons, musical instruments, the King’s throne…
Lighting is not very good and labelling very basic.



 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Shey Palace and Gompa

Shey is a short drive south east of Leh and was the summer capital and seat of power of the first kings of Ladakh. The original palace was built in the C11th and is now in ruins.

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Below it is the palace built by Lhachen Spalgigon, in 1645. The royal family were forced to abandon it by the Dogras in the mid C19th. It is being restored with government money using local labour.

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A side road climbs steeply towards the palace with the final bit done on foot. There is a large chorten and near by local women were busy cleaning butter lamps from the Gompa.

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In the middle of the palace complex is the main Assembly Hall, the Dukhang, which is kept locked apart from Auspicious Days. It contains a 7.5m copper statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, which stretches up through the three floors of the Lhakhang. Only the upper Lhakhang is open where the head and top of the body of Buddha, covered with yellow robes, can be seen. The walls were covered with C17th wall paintings.

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There are good views from the ruined palace, which towers above the village with a lake beneath. Feeding the fish is a popular pastime.

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On a bend in the main road beneath the palace there is an C8th carving of five Tathagata Buddhas.

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To the east of the palace is Ladakh’s biggest chorten field with a mani wall. There are hundreds of whitewashed shrines of varying sizes scattered across the desert landscape. The chortens are C15th and many are now very eroded. They were built by the King of Shey and his prisoners taken in battle as an atonement for their sins.


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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Shey Village house

We spent one night in Shey Village House, which is one of the houses used by Shakti Himalaya.
It is reached along a narrow road between high walls and is entered through a small gateway from the road into a yard. The building is thought to be about 200 years old and is huge.

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We climbed the steep steps into a dark hall with a huge mirror on the opposite wall and kitchen area off. More steps lead to the first floor with a large patio area with table and chairs where we ate breakfast and lunch. There were views down onto the garden with small fields waiting to be cultivated and brick cow shed with two cows. There was a ladder up to the roof which is used to store fodder.

The rooms are arranged round this open area. There is a small lounge with chairs and floor cushions and bedroom with three large windows. The family shrine is up three steps and has a decorative painted doorway with wall paintings on either side and a small container for the butter lamps.

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A second bedroom was at the end of a long corridor. This is a huge room with tremendous character. There were two wooden pillars and a wood burning stove. The two small windows made it quite dark. On one wall was a large mirror propped against wall. The huge bed had white muslin drapes with gold edges. It was very high and we needed the footstools provided to climb in. There was a hanging rail for clothes and a beautiful old painted cupboard.

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There was a big bathroom off with basin, toilet, shower and good towels. It was a long run from the outside wood fired boiler, so it could take a long time for the water to run hot.

Dinner was in the big old kitchen and was cooked on a couple of gas fired burners. It was an excellent meal.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Stok Village and Palace



Stok village is in an oasis on a side valley of the river Indus. It is a very green and fertile area. The houses are surrounded by their own land with a high mud brick wall.

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Poplar and willow trees are planted around the edge of the fields to provided timber for building and heat.

Roads are unmade and driving along them all that can be seen are the mud walls, trees and roof tops. Irrigation ditches bring water down from the hills and in places there were small metal pumps which, for many, is the only source of water.

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Few people have cars and donkeys are still important for transport, and often woke us up early morning. Otherwise all crops have to be carried on the back.

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Stok Palace dominates the village. It is a massive four storey building on a crag above the village, with brightly painted red wood. Since our visit, it has been converted into a luxury heritage hotel.

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It was built around 1820 by King Tsepal Namgyal who was the last ruler of an independent Ladakh. It became the permanent royal residence when the invading Dogra army attacked Leh and forced the King to abdicate in the mid C19th.

The present King and Queen still live in one wing of the palace. They have no constitutional role but still perform some ceremonial functions. The King is an engineer and the Queen is an elected member of the Ladakhi government.


The palace is reached by a steep climbing road with a large parking area. It is a large rambling building around a central courtyard with a red door with gold decoration marking the entrance to the royal wing.

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The Namgyal family heirlooms are on display in the small museum. No photography was allowed in the museum which has displays of armour, the original King’s throne, ceremonial dresses, King’s crown (cream silk with silver decorations), Queen’s jewellery, some from the C9th. The highlight is the queen’s head dress or perak which is encrusted with 401 lumps of uncut turquoise, coral and gold.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Stok Village House

We spent two nights in Stok Village House. This is a splendid big building at the end of a lane. Animals are still kept in pens around house and the ground floor is used for animals and storage. The kitchen dining room is on the first floor with three bedrooms and the family shrine on the top floor around a courtyard with chairs for sitting. There is a small lounging area with canopy on the roof.

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We were given a choice of bedroom and chose a west facing room with large windows overlooking mountain. (The other rooms had smaller windows and seemed dark. They did have stoves in them, which might be appreciated on cold nights). It was a large airy room getting all the heat from the sun. We had a big and very comfortable bed with soft pillows and bedside tables with lamps and torch. There was a hanging stand and chest of drawers, but not much table space for belongings or working. There was a large bathroom off with toilet, basin, shower, good towels and an excellent range of locally made toiletries.

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We ate dinner in the traditional kitchen.

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This was a big area which doubled up as living room in winter. It had a splendid decorated wood burning stove. The walls were lined with cupboards and shelves for pans, jugs, tea pots and ladles all made from metal. Iron lanterns had candles for light. There was a small modern kitchen used by staff off this.

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Breakfast was served in the orchard which was very stylish.

One evening we went to watch the house owner milk the cows in a small enclosed yard with mud brick walls and hay stored on roof above. There were two small black Ladakhi cows, one with a calf who was still suckling, as well as a very friendly Jersey calf. The cows were milked by hand into a small pail. The milk is used by the family to make curd, butter etc. They also keep Zho (male cross between cow and yak) used for ploughing and two donkeys.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
ChangLa Pass and Pangong Lake - To ChangLa

This is a 5-6 hour drive from Leh and we did it as a very long day trip with an early start. It is a dramatic drive over ChangLa Pass claimed to be the third highest motorable pass in the world at 5270m (17290ft).

Leaving Leh on the Manali Highway, the first part of the drive is fairly built up past the model village of Saboo. I asked what a model village was but didn’t really get an answer except that it had a school. Then through Shey with the ruins of the Palace high above us on the hillside, the massive chorten field and Thicksey with its Gompa climbing up the mountainside.

The settlements are left behind as the road crosses the desert.

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Stakna Gompa can be seen on the far side of the river.

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Karu has grown up at a major road junction where the Pangong Lake and Hemis valley roads branch off the main road to Manali and Delhi. There are shops, restaurants and a police checkpoint where permits and passport have to be shown. A note is made of the vehicle registration in a big book.

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The road turns off up a side valley and begins the climb to ChangLa.

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The narrow and bendy road is cut out of a ledge along the side of the mountain, which rises steeply on one side. The other side drops steeply into the valley with no safety rails. It hardly seems wide enough for cars to pass, but they do, often at the narrowest bits.

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There are good views down to Chemrey in the the valley below, surrounded by green fields, some carefully terraced. Every available bit of flat land is cultivated.

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The road continues to climb up the bare side of the mountain by steep double bends.

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Sakti village was far below with the remains of a fortress falling down the hillside below. There is no written history of this.

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Settlement and fields gradually run out as the valley bottom becomes bare rock and dust. The road gets increasingly narrow and the surface is beginning to break up badly in places. Early morning in June, water running across the road was still frozen as the snow line was reached, although this had thawed out later in the day.

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There was a dusting of snow on the road as we approached the top of the pass. There is a small medical centre run by the army before the pass is reached. The land levels out into high plateau as the pass is reached and permits and passports have to be shown. Changla Pass is always busy with cars and people. There is a small temple, coffee shop, military post and assorted small buildings. At 5270m, advice is to spend no more than 20 minutes at this altitude.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
ChangLa Pass and Pangong Lake continued.... Dropping down from ChangLa

The road on the far side of ChangLa Pass is possibly less dramatic as it drops down through a much more open valley. In the morning the raod was still covered with snow

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By afternoon, on the return journey, much of the snow had melted.

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Lower down, the valley becomes much broader and sides are grass covered.

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Horses, Tibetan wild Ass and yaks can be seen grazing round here.

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There is virtually no settlement except for the small village of Tangtse, in a wide valley bottom surrounded by grazing land. Permits and passports have to be shown again at the police check point .

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The road continues to drop steadily down through wide valleys with grazing for yaks, horses and Tibetan wild ass. Suddenly there is the first glimpse of Pangong Lake which is deep blue against the yellow/brown mountains.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
ChangLa Pass and Pangong Lake continued... Pangong Lake

Most people park as soon as they reach the Lake, where locals have set up small tents serving meals.

The lake is very beautiful but, at 4267m (14000ft), many people don’t go far from their cars. Most people walk down to the tip of a small peninsula where part of a Bollywood film was set.

There is a rough track which continues further along the lake shore with parking beside the lake. This is a sensitive area near the Chinese border and tourists are not allowed beyond Merak village. The boats seen on the lake were used for military patrols.

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The lake changes in colour during the day. The deepest hues of blue are when the sun is high, with a turquoise shade near the bank and deeper hues in the middle of the lake. It loses colour later in the day and turns dull as the sun moves towards the horizon. The lake freezes to a depth of several meters in winter.

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The Lake is beautiful but it is a long drive to do in a day. Accommodation is available at the Lake but we understand it is basic by western standards.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Over KhardungLa to Shyok and Nubra Valleys - To KhardungLa

Shyok and Nubra valleys are reached by a long drive from Leh, over KardungLa Pass. Guide books describe this as the world’s highest motorable pass at 5602m (18380ft). However a modern GPS survey now gives this an elevation of 5,359m, making slightly lower than ChangLa Pass. There are also two higher passes in Tibet.

A well made road from Leh zig zags steeply up the mountain side with views down on Leh with views of fields and houses. The bottom of the valley was green and fertile but the mountain side is very dry with a lot of dust. At the top of the valley is the green and fertile village of Ganglas.

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South Pulla is a small army and police point where permits and passports have to be shown. Beyond the road surface is unpaved and quite rough in places. It gradually contours up the face of the mountain with the road bending round spurs. There is quite a bit of scrubby vegetation in places. ‘Pastures’ referred to in the guide books are slightly greener areas with yak grazing.

Anyone suffering from travel sickness may need to take a pill as you can be thrown from side to side during the bends.

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Signs warn motorists driving hazards.

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The road does get very busy. Guide books suggest there is a control on the direction of traffic with a one way system with traffic from Leh allowed between 9-12 and traffic from Nubra between 1-5. If so, it wasn’t in operation the days we did the trip. There was quite a bit of downward traffic as we climbed to the pass. There are no safety barriers along the side of the road which drops away into the valley far below. Drivers don’t look for wider passing areas and always seem to pass on the narrowest bits of the roads. Shrines along the roadside and the remains of lorries below the road on the approach to the pass are a reminder that accidents do happen.

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It is quite a gradual climb up to KardungLa Pass, until just before the top where there were several tight bends and a sharp corner before the pass.The pass is well above the snow line and there are amazing views across the mountains. Groups of Indians were getting very excited by the patches of snow above the road and scrambling up to throw snowballs at each other.

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The pass was busy with cars and people. There is a small restaurant, temple, very basic toilets (with an amazing view) as well as assorted police and army buildings with an emergency medical centre.

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White scarfs and prayer flags were fluttering in the wind. We were given scarves and prayer flags to tie up.

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Because of the altitude, tourists are advised to spend no longer than 20 minutes at the pass.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Over KhardungLa to Shyok and Nubra Valleys continued... Dropping down from KhardungLa

The far side of the pass is much gentler and the road drops down a series of hair pin bends down a ‘U’ shaped valley.

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At North Pulla, there is an army camp, police check point and several small cafes.

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The road improves beyond here. We had lost the snow and there were green pastures with Yak grazing. Males, females with no young and young yaks are left to graze here during the summer. We had occasional glimpses of big, fat marmots.

It is a pleasant drive along an old flood plain high above the river valley. On either side are tall bare mountains. Scattered settlements begin to appear, surrounded by fields. Many are only accessed by foot on rough tracks from the road.

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We drove through Khardung village with several small eating places along the road with plastic tables and chairs outside.

Leaving Khardung behind, there is no agriculture and the scenery changes to sandy desert.

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The river has cut down into a deep gorge (described as a 'Grand Canyon' in some of the guide books). There are deep eroded gullies down the sides of the mountains which are made up of many different colours of rock.

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In places this gives a streaked appearance running down the sides of the mountain bluffs which guide books describe as ‘tiger’s paw’. With the eye of faith some do look like gigantic paws on the side of the mountain.

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The road gradually descends through dry dusty desert above the gorge. It is carved out on a ledge on the side of the mountain and there are many blind bends as it goes round spurs on the mountain side. The rocks are now deep purple in colour

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