If one sight could be said to sum up Ladakh, it would have to be LAMAYURU gompa, 130km west of Leh and 107km east of Kargil. Hemmed in by a moonscape of scree-covered mountains, the whitewashed medieval monastery towers above a scruffy cluster of tumbledown mud-brick houses from the top of a near-vertical, weirdly eroded cliff. A major landmark on the old silk route, the gompa numbers among the 108 (a spiritually significant number) founded by the Rinchen Zangpo in the tenth and eleventh centuries. However, its craggy seat, believed to have sheltered Milarepa during his religious odyssey across the Himalayas, was probably sacred long before the advent of Buddhism, when local people followed the shamanistic Bon cult. Just thirty lamas of the Brigungpa branch of the Kagyu school are now left, as opposed to the four hundred that lived here a century or so ago. Nor does Lamayuru harbour much in the way of art treasures. The main reason visitors make a stop on this section of the Srinagar–Leh road is to photograph the gompa from the valley floor, or to pick up the trail to the Prikiti La pass – gateway to Zanskar – that begins here.
The steep footpath from the highway above town brings you out near the main entrance to the monastery, where you should be able to find the lama responsible for issuing entrance tickets (Rs50) and unlocking the door to the Du-khang. Lamayuru’s newly renovated prayer-hall houses little of note other than a cave where Naropa, Milarepa’s teacher, is said to have meditated, and a collection of colourful yak-butter sculptures. If you’re lucky, you’ll be shown through the tangle of narrow lanes below the gompa to a tiny chapel, whose badly damaged murals of mandalas and the Tathagata Buddhas date from the same period as those at Alchi.