Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus
I’ve just returned from Leh, the Indian town on a perfectly blue, high-altitude desert bordering China and Pakistan. Set at the crossroads of the Punjab and central Asia, Kashmir and Tibet, it was once the hub of 17th century caravan trade. I warn you there is a lot to do here, so plan your trip with a generous amount of time. I wish I had. I was there shooting so only stayed a few days, gorging myself on the ancient Buddhist monasteries and the delights of the town itself. Close by are lakes and other mountains that deserve weeks to explore, such as the Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake, which I will have to hit next time. Watch out for the altitude---a mere 12,000 feet. The first day just rest and hang out at your hotel.
We landed at the Oriental Guest House at the end of the hippy mile. The upper rooms offer panoramic views of the mountain ranges. Everything in Leh moves slowly...but it does move, so just try to relax.
Chopstick has everything from Thai to Japanese to Tibetan and Ladaak; it’s clean and fast---something that cannot be said of a lot of the eateries in town. Great for Moo-Moos and Thukpa, a local Tibetan soup. Yama Coffee has excellent breakfasts and serves the only coffee my difficult Belgian photographer would drink.
Down an alleyway near Chopstick in the Fort Road complex, we found a great shop called Mandala Tibetan Art. A laughing Tibetan lady showed us deep handmade seven-metal monks’ bowls. She rang them and placed each one up to my head. I was sold. They rang deep and sonorous; the world and its cares faded away. She guaranteed me eternal peace and the avoidance of some of my next few disagreeable lives. Of course I bought the largest one I could carry.
Main market is a fun place to buy some Ladaak shawls, scarves and hand-knitted mittens in deep mountain colors. Check out the whole street before you buy and bargain, of course.
At one of the many Tibetan markets I bought a prayer wheel with prayers inside, prayer flags of the female deity for my officemates, and some nice hippy jewelry. A lot of these markets have the same products; my advice is to grab unusual things when you see them, as you may not find them again.
Leh Palace, built in the 1630’s, does not have much inside, but offers a grand view over the city. It’s a tough hike from behind the main mosque, Jami Majid, or you can hire a car to drive you. LAMO (Ladakh Arts and Media Organization) makes it worth the trip. Found right below the palace, LAMO was showing some incredible early Ladaak photos displayed in renovated traditional mud buildings.
The Cultural Museum behind Jami Majid is now being renovated but looks fantastic. Stop in when you are in town and see if they are done.
Wander the Main Bazaar. Right now it’s under construction but the shops are still open. Look for the back streets called Old Town, full of charming flat-roof houses constructed of mud bricks.
A DAY OF MONASTERIES
Huge dog statues greet you at Thiksay, a 15th century monastery full of hyper-colorful murals of guardian saints and demons: lots of skull headdresses, wicked fans and flames bursting out of heads. See all of the halls for the paintings and immense gold buddhas, then go to the roof for the best view of the whole valley.
On the way to Thiksay, stop at Shey, a vast plain filled with hundreds of stupas, burial mounds housing Buddhist relics. A very magical and mystical, whatever-you-want-it-to-be kind of place. We went towards the end of the day when the light hits the hills and the stupas are framed against vibrant green poplars and snowcapped mountains.
At the old 8th century monastery of Tak Tok we meet a grumpy old monk who shows us an odd room with money pasted onto the ceiling as offerings. Centuries of soot from yak candles have gently covered the murals.
Chemre is a hilltop monastery with an interesting museum and some fantastic murals.
Hemis is nearby, the largest of the great temples, where every once in awhile they unfurl a three-story thangka, a beautiful multi-media work of religious art. My advice is wander the back staircases; the monks seem pretty relaxed and there are some amazing hallways and balconies.
All around Leh are small hand-carved prayer stones, spread out on the tops of the walls. In Tibetan script they say “Om mani padme hum” or “hail to the Jewel in the Lotus.” Their raw abstract qualities make them seem particularly modern and artistic, almost as if Donald Judd had visited at some point. Prayer wheels are also ubiquitous; I love how people walk by and turn them as they go about their day.
The perfect 6 AM morning hike: right next to the hotel is the Shanti Stupa. Daunting stone steps up the side of the mountain reward you with a panting view of the whole town and valley.
Oriental Guest house: www.orientalhotel-ladakh.com/
Drivers: the Oriental Guest house had good drivers they can arrange for the day.
Infinite travel to organize adventure tours like biking, hiking, etc. firstname.lastname@example.org
Mandala Tibetan Art Fort Road Raku near Chopsticks restaurant
Chopsticks Fort Road
Leh Heritage walk email@example.com