Monday, June 12, 2017

Spectacular Ladakh.

Leh Palace.  (Photo by Rayan Naqash. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Some people would think that I am crazy to organize an entire trip around two days of festival but that is exactly what I am doing for this trip to India.  Another reason was that it would take me to a part of the country that I have longed wanted to visit - the area known as Ladakh.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love to travel to remote destinations and if you can throw in some mountains, that would be ideal.  Ladakh checks both boxes.  I don't know how I managed to convince Ayşe and Chantale to come along with me but they are and I think we will have a fantastic time. 

I think Ladakh will remind me very much of Tibet which I traveled to in 2007 and which I absolutely loved.  In some ways, this trip is very much the same - it's a bit of a re-do and as I'm lucky to have the chance to go back and revisit places that I enjoyed seeing once before.

For our time in Ladakh, I decided it would be easiest to go with a tour so I did a bit of research on tour companies and in the end, settled on Ju-Leh Adventures because I liked their offerings, the cost and interacting with our contact, Stanzin, has been nothing short of quick and efficient.  My experience is reflective of their high ratings on TripAdvisor.

With Stanzin's guidance, we settled on a 10 day trip to Ladakh that includes a two day, one night trek and two days attending the Hemis Festival in Leh.  Wih the exception of two nights, we will be sleeping in a hotel in Leh.

For our trek, I told Stanzin we were not experienced high altitude trekkers.  Having done a village trek with Ayşe in Myanmar, I know she can handle the physical requirements but I have no idea about Chantale's capabilities not to mention my own as I am susceptible to altitude sickness.  But, the gals are up for the challenge so I gave Stanzin the thumbs up.  We are doing an abbreviated version of the three day, two night trek from Spituk to Stok - only doing the section from Zingchen to Rumbak (Time: 3-4 hrs Distance: 6.5 km) and then on the second day, going from Rumbak to Stok La to Stok (Time: 7-8 hrs Distance: 16.5 km).  I'm a bit worried about the second day because it starts out with a very steep ascent from Rumbak to Stok La and then ends with a solid downhill trek.

Image from Ju-Leh Adventure

The trek comes towards the end of our time in Ladakh.  Before we set out on foot, we'll get to explore the cultural side of the region and bask it its magnificent landscapes.

The ignorant me used to think that Ladakh was a state in India but in fact, it is region in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.  Ladakh is one of the most sparsely populated regions in Jammu and Kashmir and its culture and history are closely related to that of Tibet.

Map by Saravask.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In the past Ladakh gained importance from its strategic location at the crossroads of important trade routes, but since the Chinese authorities closed the borders with Tibet and Central Asia in the 1960s, international trade has dwindled except for tourism.  Given its remote geographical location and mountainous landscape, it's no surprise that Ladakh is popular for trekking and those with a thirst for adventure travel.

Here are just a few of the places we'll be visiting while we are in Ladakh.

Leh Palace.
(Photo by Ankit Mehta.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Leh Palace is a former royal palace overlooking Leh. Modeled on the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, the palace was built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 17th century. It stands nine stories tall; the upper floors accommodated the royal family, while the lower floors held stables and store rooms.

The now ruined palace is being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. The Palace Museum holds a rich collection of jewellery, ornaments, ceremonial dresses and crowns. Chinese thangka or sooth paintings, which are more than 450 years old, with intricate designs still retain the bright and pleasing colours derived from crushed and powdered gems and stones.

The roof provides panoramic views of Leh and the surrounding areas, as the mountain of Stok Kangri in the Zangskar mountain range is visible across the Indus valley to the south, with the Ladakh mountain range rising behind the palace is visible in the north. 

Thiksey Monastery.
Photo by Mufaddal Abdul Hussain
(Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Thiksey Gompa is a monastery affiliated with the Gelug sect (aka the Yellow Hat school) of Tibetan Buddhism. It is located on top of a hill in Thiksey village, approximately 19 kilometers (12 miles) east of Leh.

Thiksey is noted for its resemblance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet and is the largest gompa in central Ladakh, notably a nunnery that houses around 25 nuns.

Maitreya Temple. Thiksey is a twelve story complex and houses many items of Buddhist art such as stupas, statues, thangkas, wall paintings and swords. One of the main points of interest is the Maitreya Temple which houses a 15 meter (49 feet) high statue of the Maitreya Buddha, the largest such statue in Ladakh.  The statue was installed to commemorate the visit of the 14th Dalai Lama to Thiksey in 1970.

Tara Temple.
Photo by Redtigerxyz.
(Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.) 
Tara Temple. Thiksey also contains a temple dedicated to goddess Tara with her 21 images placed in glass-covered wooden shelves.  I am back to the land of Taras. I was first introduced to the Taras when I was in Tibet.  A Tara is essentially is a female Bodhisattva and there are 21 forms of Taras.  It's no wonder I could never keep them straight - I already struggle with the Buddhas, forget the Taras. :-(

According to an article in Wikipedia, the most widely known forms of Tara are:
  • Green Tara, (syamatara) known as the Buddha of enlightened activity.
  • White Tara, (Sitatara) also known for compassion, long life, healing and serenity; also known as The Wish-fulfilling Wheel, or Cintachakra.
  • Red Tara, (Kurukulla) of fierce aspect associated with magnetizing all good things.
  • Black Tara, associated with power.
  • Yellow Tara, (Bhrikuti) associated with wealth and prosperity.
  • Blue Tara, associated with transmutation of anger.
  • Cintamaṇi Tara, a form of Tara widely practiced at the level of Highest Yoga Tantra in the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism, portrayed as green and often conflated with Green Tara.
  • Khadiravaṇi Tara (Tara of the acacia forest), who appeared to Nagarjuna in the Khadiravani forest of South India and who is sometimes referred to as the "22nd Tara".

The top floor of the monastery houses the Lamokhang temple, which is a repository of numerous volumes of scriptures including Kangyur and Stangyur. Only men are allowed to enter this floor.

Lamayuru.
Photo by IoannisDaglis
(Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Lamayuru is a small village in Ladakh that is home to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that is one of the largest and oldest gompas in Ladakh, with a population of around 150 permanent monks. It has, in the past, housed up to 400 monks, many of which are now based in gompas in surrounding villages.  I'm sure the monastery will be an interesting place to visit but I think what will really captivate me is the landscape known as the Lamayuru Moonlands.  For some really fantastic photos of Lamayuru, check out this webpage.  We definitely have to climb up Meditation Hill!

Hunder
Located 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of Leh, Hunder is a small village situated in the Nubra Valley where the Shyok River meets Nubra River. Hunder lies on the ancient silk route, once an important international trade route. Today it is one of the most strategic points located close as it is to the Siachen Glacier, the world's highest battle ground between India and Pakistan.  Okay, I don't think we're going to the glacier though that would be a very cool thing to do.

Hunder.
Photo by sushmita balasubramani.
(Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Foreign nationals are required to get a Protected area permit to visit the Nubra Valley so I am counting on the fact that Stanzin will take care of the paperwork for us.

Going from Leh to Hunder will take us across the Khardung La, a mountain pass located at an elevation of 5,359 meter (17,582 feet). From Khardung La it's a 130 kilometer of rough drive to reach Hunder Village.

Hunder sits in a high altitude desert making Hunder a popular to bring tourists to for rides on bactrian camels. I've been on camels many times but I suspect it will be a first for the gals so this is a must do!

There are several ruined buildings in Hunder, including the ruins of the King's palace, the Langchen Khar ("Elephant Palace"). There is a fort at the top of the hill, called Gula. Hundar also has two Buddhist temples: white temple (Lhakhang Karpo) and the red temple (Lhakhang Marpo).  We'll be spending a night in Hunder so we should have time to explore all that the small village has to offer.

I cannot wait to get to Ladakh!  Just a few short weeks away!