Southeast of Leh, the Indus Valley broadens to form a fertile river basin. Among the spectacular Buddhist monuments lining the edges of the flat valley floor are Shey, site of a ruined palace and giant brass Buddha, and the stunning monastery of Tikse. Both overlook the main highway and are thus served by regular buses.
With the exception of Stok Palace, home of the Ladakhi queen, sights on the opposite (south) side of the Indus, linked to the main road by a relatively unfrequented and partly surfaced road, are harder to reach by public transport. South of Stok, Matho gompa is more famous for its winter oracle festivals than its art treasures, but is well worth a visit, if only for the superb views from its roof terrace. Further south still, continue to Hemis, Ladakh’s wealthiest monastery and the venue for one of the region’s few summer religious festivals. To side-step your fellow tourists without spending a night away from Leh, head up the austerely beautiful tributary valley back on the opposite side of the river from Hemis to the gompas of Chemrey and Thak Thok, the latter built around a fabled meditation cave.
East of Thak Thok, the road crosses the Chang La and then veers east to the high mountain lake of Pangong Tso, most of which lies in Tibet. Far more relaxing and inviting is the vast wilderness of Rupshu with trekking possibilities around the shores of Tso Moriri, in the deep south. Permits are required for these three areas.
Ladakh’s most photographed and architecturally impressive gompa is at TIKSE, 19km southeast of Leh. Founded in the fifteenth century, its whitewashed chortens and cubic monks’ quarters rise in ranks up the sides of a craggy bluff, crowned by an imposing ochre- and red-painted temple complex whose gleaming golden finials are visible for miles in every direction.
Tikse’s reincarnation as a major tourist attraction has brought it mixed blessings: its constant stream of summer visitors spoils the peace and quiet necessary for meditation, but the income generated has enabled the monks to invest in major refurbishments, among them the Maitreya temple immediately above the main courtyard. Inaugurated in 1980 by the Dalai Lama, the shrine is built around a gigantic fourteen-metre gold-faced Buddha-to-come, seated not on a throne as is normally the case, but in the lotus position. The bright murals on the wall behind, painted by monks from Lingshet gompa in Zanskar, depict scenes from Maitreya’s life.
For most foreign visitors, however, the highlight of a trip to Tikse is the view from its lofty roof terrace. A patchwork of barley fields stretches across the floor of the valley, fringed by rippling snow-flecked desert mountains and a string of monasteries, palaces, and Ladakhi villages.
To enjoy this impressive panorama accompanied by primeval groans from the gompa’s gargantuan Tibetan trumpets – played on the rooftop at the 7am puja – you’ll have to stay overnight or arrange an early jeep from Leh.
Thanks to its famous festival – one of the few held in summer, when the passes are open – HEMIS, 45km southeast of Leh, is visited in greater numbers than any other gompa in Ladakh. Every year in mid-July, hundreds of foreigners join the huge crowds of locals, dressed in their finest traditional garb, which flock to watch the colourful two-day pageant. However, at other times, the rambling and atmospheric seventeenth-century monastery can be disappointingly quiet. Although it’s one of the region’s foremost religious institutions, only a skeleton staff of monks and novices are resident off-season.
The main entrance opens onto the large rectangular courtyard where the festival chaam dances are performed. Accompanied by cymbal crashes, drum rolls and periodic blasts from the temple trumpets, the culmination of the event on the second day is a frenzied dismemberment of a dummy, symbolizing the destruction of the human ego, and thus the triumph of Buddhism over ignorance and evil. Once every twelve years, the Hemis festival also hosts the ritual unrolling of a giant thangka. The gompa’s prize possession, which covers the entire facade of the building, it was embroidered by women whose hands are now revered as holy relics. Decorated with pearls and precious stones, it was last displayed in 2004. There is a museum in the corner of the courtyard but the modest collection of thangkas, masks and musical instruments barely justifies the inflated fee.
Pangong Tso, 154km southeast of Leh, is one of the largest saltwater lakes in Asia, a long narrow strip of water stretching from Ladakh east into Tibet. Only a quarter of the 134-kilometre-long lake is in India, and the army, who experienced bitter losses along its shores in the war against China in 1962, jealously guard their side of the frontier. Until the mid-1990s, it was off-limits to visitors, and tourists still need a permit to come here. The lake, at an altitude of 4267m, with the dramatic glacier-clad Pangong Range to its south and the Changchenmo Range reflected in its deep blue-green waters to the north, measures 8km across at its widest point and provides a tantalizing view of Tibet in the distance, although the bitter winds blowing over the brackish water make it one of the coldest places in Ladakh. The only public bus from Leh drops off visitors at the village of Spangmik before continuing to the restricted border area; it returns around 7am on Monday. There is basic accommodation and food at Spangmik. To add further interest to the trip, take in the monasteries of Chemrey and Thak Thok en route.
Famous for the large herds of kiang, or wild ass, which graze on its shores, the lake of Tso Moriri, 210km southeast of Leh, lies in the sparsely populated region of Rupshu. You need a permit to travel here.
Nestling in a wide valley flanked by some of the highest peaks in Ladakh – Lungser Kangri (6666m) and Chanmser Kangri (6622m) – the 20km-long lake is home to flocks of migratory nangpa or bar-headed geese, as well as occasional herds of pashmina goats and camps of nomadic herders. Located on the shores of the lake at an altitude of 4595m, Korzok – the only large village in the area – is a friendly place with a small gompa. To help protect the fragile ecosystem against the influx of tourists, a new directive stipulates that no habitation can be built within 700m of the shoreline. Visitors should bring their own food supplies and make sure they take all their rubbish away.
The open spaces around Tso Moriri make for some pleasant trekking, including the relatively easy – if you are acclimatized – three-day, 40km circuit of the lake. Another route gaining popularity is the trail from Rumtse near Upshi via Tso Kar to Tso Moriri. Some trekking operators in Manali and Leh can arrange more ambitious routes such as the ancient trade route linking Spiti to Tso Moriri and Leh via Kibber. Treks start from around $45 per person per day in a group of four, which usually includes transport, food and tents.