Of the many gompas accessible by road west of Leh, only Spitok, piled on a hilltop at the end of the airport runway, and Phyang, which presides over one of Ladakh’s most picturesque villages, can be comfortably visited on day-trips from the capital. The rest, including Likkir and the temple complex at Alchi, with its wonderfully preserved eleventh-century murals, are usually seen en route to or from Kargil. The 231km journey, which takes in a couple of high passes and some mind-blowing scenery, can be completed in a single eight-hour haul, slightly less by jeep. To do this stretch of road justice, however, you should spend at least a few days making short forays up the side valleys of the Indus, where idyllic settlements and gompas nestle amid barley fields and mountains.
One of the great landmarks punctuating the former caravan route is the monastery of Lamayuru. Reached via a nail-biting sequence of hairpin bends as the highway climbs out of the Indus Valley to begin its meandering ascent of Fotu La, it lies within walking distance of some extraordinary lunar-like rock formations, at the start of the main trekking route south to Padum in Zanskar. Further west still, beyond the dramatic Namika La pass, Mulbekh is the last Buddhist village on the highway. From here on, gompas and gonchas give way to onion-domed mosques and flowing salwar kameez.
There is, on average, an accident a day on the narrow, high and twisting Leh–Kargil road. Tata trucks are the most prone to toppling off the tarmac, and it can take hours for the rescue vehicles from Leh and Kargil to arrive and then clear the road. In summer, transport along the highway is straightforward as ramshackle state and private buses ply the route; getting to more remote spots, however, can be hard. Some travellers resort to paying for a ride on one of the countless Tata trucks that lumber past, or hitch with an army convoy, but getting a group together to rent a jeep from tour operators in Leh, while expensive, will be safer, save time and give more access to the side valleys.
Driving past on the nearby Srinagar–Leh highway, you’d never guess that the spectacular sweep of wine-coloured scree 3km across the Indus from Saspol conceals one of the most significant historical sites in Asia. Yet the low pagoda-roofed Chos-khor, or “religious enclave”, at ALCHI, 70km west of Leh, harbours an extraordinary wealth of ancient wall paintings and wood sculpture, miraculously preserved for more than nine centuries inside five tiny mud-walled temples. The site’s earliest murals are regarded as the finest surviving examples of a style that flourished in Kashmir during the “Second Spreading”. Barely a handful of the monasteries founded during this era escaped the Muslim depredations of the fourteenth century; Alchi is the most impressive of them all, the least remote and the only one you don’t need a special permit to visit.
Legend tells that Rinchen Zangpo, the “Great Translator”, stuck his walking stick in the ground here en route to Chilling and upon his return found it had become a poplar, an auspicious sign that made him build a temple on the spot. One tree near the entrance to the Chos-khor, denoted with a signboard, is symbolic of this event. The Chos-khor itself consists of five separate temples, various residential buildings and a scattering
of large chortens, surrounded by a mud-and-stone wall. It is best to concentrate on the two oldest buildings, the Du-khang and the Sumtsek, both in the middle of the enclosure. Entrance tickets are issued by a caretaker lama from nearby Likkir gompa, who will happily unlock the doors to these but isn’t keen to open the three less
If one sight could be said to sum up Ladakh, it would have to be LAMAYURU gompa, 130km west of Leh. 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
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 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.
Though it is surrounded by awesome scenery, most travellers don’t spend more than a few hours in KARGIL, capital of the area dubbed “Little Baltistan”, which rises in a clutter of corrugated-iron rooftops from the confluence of the Suru and Drass rivers. As a halfway point between Leh and Srinagar, its grubby hotels fill up at night-time with weary bus passengers, who then get up at 4am and career off under cover of darkness. Although the town has expanded several kilometres along and above the riverside, the central area around the main bazaar, which loops round into a northerly orientation, is very compact and walkable.
While Kargil has no attractions, it is an atmospheric place to pass a day or more while waiting for a bus to Zanskar. Woolly-hatted and bearded old men and slick youngsters stroll the streets past old-fashioned wholesalers with their sacks of grains, spices and tins of ghee, Tibetans selling Panasonic electricals and butchers displaying severed goats’ heads on dusty bookshelves. The town feels more Pakistani than Indian, and the faces (nearly all male) and food derive from Kashmir and Central Asia. Western women should keep their arms and legs covered; those walking around alone will probably encounter both giggling teenage boys and curious elderly Kargili gentlemen.
The majority of Kargil’s eighty thousand inhabitants, known as Purki, are strict Muslims. Unlike their Sunni cousins in Kashmir, however, the locals here are orthodox Shias, which not only explains the ubiquitous Ayatollah photographs, but also the conspicuous absence of women from the bazaar. You might even spot the odd black turban of an Agha, one of Kargil’s spiritual leaders, who still go on pilgrimage to holy sites in Iran and have outlawed male–female social practices such as dancing. Descendants of settlers and Muslim merchants from Kashmir and Yarkhand, Purkis speak a dialect called Purig – a mixture of Ladakhi and Balti. Indeed, had it not been for the daring Indian reconquest of the region during the 1948 Indo-Pak War, Kargil would today be part of Baltistan, the region across the Ceasefire Line which it closely resembles. Indeed, Kargil is so close to the Ceasefire Line and Pakistani positions that it served as the logistics centre in the 1999 war (see The road to peace?) and was repeatedly targeted by Pakistani artillery. Aside from the odd building destroyed, however, much of the town escaped unscathed as the army bases and airport lie on the outskirts
of town. Since further conflict in the summer of 2002 the dust has settled markedly and, as dialogue continues between India
and Pakistan on Kashmir, tourist numbers have been
Rafting and kayaking on the River Indus
Rafting and kayaking on the River Indus
While water levels are high, between the end of June and late August, Leh’s more entrepreneurial travel agents operate rafting trips on the River Indus. The routes are tame in comparison with Nepal’s, but floating downstream in a twelve-seater rubber inflatable is a hugely enjoyable way to experience the valley’s most rugged and beautiful landscape. Two different stretches of the river are used: from Spitok to the Indus–Zanskar confluence at Nimmu (3hr), and from Nimmu to the ancient temple complex at Alchi (2hr 30min). Experienced rafters may also want to try the more challenging route between Alchi and Khalsi, which takes in the kilometre-long series of rapids at Nurla. The annual multi-day expedition down the River Zanskar to the Indus is by far the most rewarding as it also includes the spectacular road approach to Padum.
Several adventure-tour operators in Leh offer whitewater rafting or kayaking on the Indus. Tickets should be booked at least a day in advance. Make sure when you book that the price includes transport to and from the river, rental of life jackets and helmets, and meals, and that there is a waterproof strongbox for valuables.