Ladakh - Our Travel Dairy: Leh Local Sightseeing, Indus River Valley and Sham Valley
The magical land of Ladakh
We explored Ladakh for 9 days, travelling through long unending mountain roads, stopping by marshlands, climbing hilltops to the sounds of bells and sight of paintings in the imposing monasteries, the bridges decorated with prayer flags, simple rustic people and unique arid and vast expanses of nature.
In first part of our Ladakh travel diary we have covered our visit to areas in and around the city of Leh as part of Leh local sightseeing and day trips from Leh to Indus River Valley and Sham Valley.
Our Leh Local Sightseeing, Indus River Valley and Sham Valley
Day 1 – Arrival and Acclimatisation:
We arrived at Leh, the capital city of Ladakh by air from Srinagar late morning. The approach to the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport which is located at around 10,600 feet was breath-taking. The aircraft was flying low and close to rugged barren mountains yet dancing close to the arid lands with patches of greens. An adventurous start of the journey to hinterland!! After collecting our luggage and exiting the airport we were met by our Ladakh road trip driver Sonam Namgail. After exchanging pleasantries we headed towards our hotel ‘The Bodhi Tree Hotel’. At the lobby of the newly built and well decorated hotel, we were treated to a welcome drink of refreshing sea buckthorn juice (local berries) and traditional Tibetan ceremonial white silk scarf (khata or Khatag) which symbolises purity. Apart from their use in wishing luck to arriving or departing guests, these are also used in ceremonies.
After completing the formalities, we checked into our spacious and airy room with a magnificent mountain view. As it was our day one, our plan was to relax in the room. We took our first dose of Acetazolamide (commonly sold as Diamox in India) to fight altitude sickness, which almost every traveller faces on their first day in Leh as it is located at an altitude of over 10,500 feet from sea level. We ordered lunch in the room and after a while the altitude sickness started to kick in slowly making us lightheaded and nauseous in spite of taking Diamox.
Landing at and taking off from Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport always present a breathtaking view of the valley beneath
We tried to sleep and thankfully managed to sleep through the evening and night only waking up once to eat a little. The sleep and Diamox helped us to acclimatise and woke up feeling fresh the next morning.
Day 2 – Local Sightseeing, Leh:
Nearly acclimatised we started our first day of Ladakh travel in and around the city of Leh.
Ladakh Shanti Stupa:
Ladakh Shanti Stupa - The highest located stupa in the world
We started the day with a visit to the iconic Ladakh Shanti (peace) Stupa (Buddhist shrine which is dome shaped). Located at an altitude of 11,840 feet at the top of the Changspa hill in Leh, the Stupa is the world’s highest and offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the city of Leh and its surrounding areas and mountains. The Shanti Stupa holds the relics of the Buddha and symbolises world peace. It was built by Japanese Buddhist Bhikshu Gyomyo Nakamur in collaboration with the Founder of Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist order of Japan, honourable Nichidatsu Fujii Guruji, who had built many such Shanti Stupas around the world. Brought to life by ‘Architect of Modern Ladakh’ honourable Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, the stupa was built with his vision that echo Ladakh’s tradition of peace, harmony and tolerance. Work started in 1983 and in the year 1985 His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso laid the foundation stone of the Stupa.
The panoramic view of city of Leh from Shanti Stupa
Today the Ladakh Shanti Stupa is one of the popular tourist attractions of Leh for travellers from India and around the world.
View of Chemrey monastery from the agricultural fields of Chemrey village
Located around 40 kilometres from the city of Leh, on the hilltop of the village of Chemrey and surrounded by the fertile agricultural land, the Chemrey monastery is considered one of the most picturesque monasteries. Due to its distance from the Leh city, the footfall is less and therefore chances are high that you will find solitude and peace without the crowds, maybe just a couple of others as we had. The absence of large group of tourists preserves the peaceful and tranquil ambiance of the monastery.
A part of the wall paining of thousand Buddha in Chemrey monastery
Founded in 1664 by Lama Tagsang Raschen, Chemrey monastery belongs to the Drugpa monastic order and dedicated to King Sengge Namgyal from the 17th century. The monastery houses a small number of monks and comprises of two Dukhang or assembly halls and a Lhakhang or temple. The wall of the old assembly hall has painting of thousand Buddha from the 17th century which are preserved well for visitors to appreciate. The monastery also houses a rare and valuable collection of Buddhist scripts. Among all these priced possessions, Chemrey monastery’s main attractions are its large (one story tall) statue of lord Padmasambhava and the 29 volumes of scripture written in silver and gold letters.
Situated at an altitude of approximately 12000 feet and located approximately 45 kilometres from the city of Leh on the west bank of Indus River near Leh-Manali highway, Hemis monastery is the largest and wealthiest monastery of Ladakh. It belongs to the Drukpa lineage of Buddhism, Hemis monastery was first established during the 11th century and then re-established during the late 17th century by Ladakhi king Sengge Namgyal. Hemis monastery is one of the most popular tourist attractions for visitors in Ladakh and every year a large number of visitors from around the world pay a visit to this monastery during a 2-day long Hemis festival dedicated to lord Padmasambhava.
The centre courtyard of the monastery of Hemis monastery
The monastery is one of the best examples of Buddhist architecture. The whitewashed walls of the monastery are decorated with Buddhist paintings with bright red, green, blue, yellow and golden colours. The two assembly halls of the monastery house a large collection of thangkas (Budhist religious painting). In the temples of the monastery visitors can find large status of Sakyamuni and lord Padmasambhava. The centre courtyard of the monastery holds religious festivals and the view of the monastery and the surrounding mountain from the courtyard is fascinating. The monastery has a museum which has extensive collection of golden sculptures, manuscripts, Buddhist thangkas, weapons and various other artefacts. Visitors are not allowed to take pictures inside the assembly hall and museum.
Stakna gompa on top of the hill by the bank of Indus River
Located on the west bank of Indus River around 25 kilometres from the city of Leh, the Stakna monastery or Stakna gompa is the only Bhutanese statue of Maitreya Buddha established by the Bhutanese scholar and saint named Chosje Jamyang Palkar during the late 16th century. The name Stakna literally means ‘tiger’s nose’ due to the shape of the hill on top of which the monastery is located. Due to its small size and proximity to two other famous monasteries in Leh, Stakna monastery does not feature on the top attractions for majority of travellers and tourists coming to Leh and due to this the monastery receives minimal footfall, which makes it a very peaceful place for the handful travellers who decide to pay a visit.
Tibetan thangka paintings on the wall of Stanka Gompa
The main attractions of the monastery are the marble statue of Avalokitesvara which believed to be brought over from Assam and the spectacular view of the Indus valley from the rooftop of the monastery. The monastery offers a unique view of Hemis monastery and Thiksey monastery from a distance.
Thiskey monastery which resemblance Potala palace in Lhasa
Located around 19 kilometres from the city of Leh, Thiskey monastery is the largest Gelugpa monastery in central Ladakh. Located on a hilltop in the village of Thiksey at an elevation of approximately 11,800 feet, Thiksey monastery is considered one of the top tourist attractions of Leh.
Thangka paining on the wall of Thiskey monastery from bygone era
Thangka paining on the wall of Thiskey monastery from bygone era
Built during the 15th century, the monastery is a twelve-storey complex, painted in white, red and ochre and has a strong resemblance with the Potala Place in Lhasa, Tibet. The buildings of the monastery complex are arranged in the ascending order of importance where at the foot of the hill, the dwelling units or living quarters are located and above which sit the monastery and the official residence of the chief lama. The highest level of the monastery complex has a stupa.
The Maitreya Buddha statue of Thiskey monastery
The monastery has a large collection of Buddhist artefacts such as stupas, thangkas, wall paintings and statues. The main attraction of the monastery is the 15 meter tall statue of Maitreya Buddha which is one of a kind. The rooftop of the monastery offers a breathtaking and impressive panoramic view of the Indus valley and the Zanskar mountain range in the backdrop.
Shey Palace And Monastery:
View of Shey monastery from the ruins of Shey palace
The Shey palace and monastery complex is located on the Leh-Manaili highway 15 kilometre south of Leh on a small hilltop. Constructed during the 17th century by Deldan Namgyal, the king of Ladakh, the Shey palace which is now a ruin used to be the summer palace.
View of Shey village and lake from Shey monastery and the Shakyamuni Buddha statue
The monastery is famous for its 3 storeys tall Shakyamuni Buddha statue which is made up of copper gilded with gold and considered to be the second tallest such statue in Ladakh. The upper floor of the monastery has a number of beautiful wall paintings which are worth a visit. On the ground floor of the monastery is a library which stores many old manuscripts. Apart from the statue and paintings, the monastery offers a scenic view of the Shey village, the Indus River valley and the Shey lake which is located directly opposite to the monastery.
Day 3 – Indus River Valley And Sham Valley (North of Leh Towards Kargil):
On day 3 of our Ladakh adventure we drove towards north of Leh on Leh-Kargil-Srinagar highway (also known as National Highway 1 or NH1) along Indus River valley and Sham valley visiting some of the top and well-known attractions.
Gurudwara Pathar Sahib:
Travellers and locals in this part of the world stop by this sacred place while travelling to and from Leh and pay their respect and ask for blessing. So did we as this was our first stop of the day. Located around 25 kilometres from the city of Leh on NH1 highway lies this gurudwara (worshiping place for the people belonging to Sikh religion). It was constructed in the memory of Guru Nanak ji, founder guru of the Sikh faith. The gurudwara is not only a place of worship for the followers of Sikhism, but local Buddhist people and others also bow to this place in respect. People from all religions and faiths are welcome here as long as visitors respect the holiness of this place. The Indian army also helps in running and maintaining this gurudwara. In the gurudwara lies a stone which believed to have the shape of Guru Nanak ji.
Entrance to Gurudawar Pathar Sahib and the holi rock which believe to have Guru Nanak ji's body shape
As the folklore goes when Guru Nanak ji was travelling though this place towards Kashmir he settled down in this very place to help the locals who pleaded Guru Nanak ji’s help from a cruel demon who used to frighten and eat people. One day when Guru Nanak ji was meditating the demon threw a rock from the hill on Guru Nanak ji, but by divine intervention the rock transformed into molten wax when it met Guru Nanak ji and embedded him and took his body’s shape. Angry with this the demon kicked the rock and again miraculously the rock transformed into molten wax and the demon’s feet got imprinted on the rock. Realising his mistake, the demon apologised to Guru Nanak ji and devoted rest of his life serving humanity as summoned by Guru Nanak ji.
When we visited the gurudwara, we found the place very peaceful and full of positive vibes. We paid our respect and asked for blessings for the remainder of our Ladakh trip.
Located around 30 kilometres from the city of Leh on the Leh-Srinagar highway lies a small stretch of the highway known as the Magnetic hill, a popular tourist attraction. This stretch of straight road is called so due to a strange phenomenon where vehicles appear to roll uphill even when the engine is turned off. Even the authorities have put up a board stating ‘Magnetic Hill – The phenomenon that defines gravity’. Almost every tourist car driver turns off the car engine at this spot to give visitors a taste of this strange and unreal phenomenon.
Magnetic hill on Leh-Srinagar highway, the uphill part where cars roll forward
There are two very separate school of thoughts that explain this phenomenon,
Magnetic force theory
Optical illusion theory
The magnetic force theory suggests that the hill that lies straight in front of the road has strong magnetic force that pulls all vehicles uphill and the optical illusion theory suggests that the topography of the surrounding area creates an optical illusion where a downhill road appears uphill to the naked eye. Whatever the real reason may be, the phenomenon does give an unreal experience. We did stop our car once we arrived and to our surprise we felt our car rolling forward uphill with the engine turned off!!
Indus River-Zanskar River Confluence:
Located around 35 kilometres from the city of Leh on the Leh-Srinagar highway or NH1 lies the confluence of Indus River and Zanskar River in Nimmu valley which is a major tourist attraction and a spot for river rafting for adventure seekers. Zanskar River which originated in Zanskar valley is one the major tributaries of the Indus River which originates in the Tibetan plateau and is the major source of water in the rugged Ladakh region.
View of the Indus River and Zanskar River confluence from the Leh-Srinagar highway
There are two separate points from where the view of the Confluence can be observed. The first one and the better one is from the Leh-Srinagar highway which runs along the mountain near the confluence and gives a spectacular bird’s eye view. The second one is from the riverbank where the two rivers meet. The riverbank of the confluence is calm and serene and you can enjoy some peace and quiet here.
View of the Indus River and Zanskar River confluence from the river bank
The colour of the two rivers at confluence changes depending on the time of the year. During the month of April and May, the two rivers reflect different colours – Indus green and Zanskar blue, which makes the view of the confluence spectacular. From June onwards, Zanskar starts to change colour to brown and by monsoon and in the months of July-August, the Indus also turns into brown due to the mud the monsoon brings along. When we visited in the month of August both rivers had turned into different shades of brown.
View of Likir monastery from a distance
Likir Monastery is located in a picturesque Ladakhi landscape on the top of a small hill at an elevation of over 12000 feet, in the village of Likir in Sham valley and is around 52 kilometres from the city of Leh on the Leh-Srinagar highway. To reach the monastery you need to take a 6 kilometres long side road from the highway.
75 feet high Maitreya Buddha statue of Likir monastery
Thangka painting on the walls of Likir monastery assembly hall
It is one of the oldest monasteries of Ladakh and was established in the 11th century. Likir means ‘The Naga – Encircled’ represents the two serpent spirits Nanda and Taksoka who are believed to be the guardians of the monastery. When established in the 11th century by Lama Duwang Chosje, the monastery used to belong to Kadampa sect of Buddhism and during the 15th century it was re-established under the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The original constriction of the 11th century was destroyed in a fire and the present-day monastery was reconstructed in 18th century. The monastery has two assembly halls, main temple, monk’s quarter, a central courtyard and a school. The main attractions of the monastery are the old manuscripts, collection of thangkas, murals, various statues, wall paintings and a 75 feet high Maitreya Buddha statue covered in gold.
View of Lamayuru moonland from Lamayuru monastery
Located around 115 kilometres from the city of Leh in Sham valley at an elevation of over 11500 feet lies the village of Lamayuru on Leh-Srinagar highway. The village, apart from its monastery is also famous for its unique landscape which earned the place its name ‘Moonland’. The rugged mountainous surroundings of the village of Lamayuru and its unique geological characteristics – the presence of soft rocks and clay-rich soils, steep slopes and crevices created due to erosion resembles the lunarscape. There are a few vantage points close to the village from where the beauty of the landscape can be witnessed. The landscape is said to look even more magical and unreal at night in moonlight and attracts a large number of tourists during full moon nights.
Lamayuru monastery, located on top of the Lamayuru village
Located in the village of Lamayuru, the Lamayuru monastery which is also known as Yuru monastery is one of the oldest and largest monasteries of Ladakh and belongs to the Drikung Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery was constructed during the end of the 10th century by Mahasiddha Naropa who came to Lamayuru to meditate in a cave. The cave in which Mahasiddha Naropa meditated can still be found inside the monastery next to the assembly hall or Dukhang.
Lamayuru monastery's chortens are among the most colourful and decorated
The original monastery used to have five building, however at present only the central building exits and the remains of the four corner buildings. The monastery houses an assembly hall or Dukhang, temple, residential buildings and three stupas or chortens. The chortens of Layamuru monasteries are among the most colourful and decorated. In the courtyard of the monastery, in front of the assembly hall, on the wall, you can see bright and colourful thangka paintings. The monastery holds a notable collection of scriptures, thangkas, murals and statues of various deities.
View of Basgo village and Palace from the Leh-Srinagar highway
About 45 kilometres from the city of Leh near the village of Basgo in Sham valley lies the ruins of Basgo palace and Basgo monastery on the mountain slope above the village. Basgo once was a strategically important location on the trade route and gained political importance with the establishment of the second Ladakhi dynasty during the end of the 15th century. At present day the Basgo place and the fort is in a state of ruin, however the monastery is functional. We did not visit the monastery due to time constraints and only stopped at a distance to enjoy the view of the Basgo village and the monastery and palace above.
Leh Hall of Fame:
Located near the Leh airport, the Hall of Fame is a military war museum constructed and maintained by the Indian Army in the memory of the brave soldiers who laid down their lives defending the nation during the Indo-Pak war. The Hall of Fame houses three main sections – the war museum, the war cemetery and the war memorial.
Display of weapon captured in Kargil war at Hall of Fame
In the war museum, you can see the weapons used by the Indian Army as well as those captured during the Kargil war. The museum also exhibits numerous photos taken during the war, photos and letters of brave soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in defending the nation and its people. The museum also showcases a 30-minute informative film on the Kargil war. There is also souvenir shop selling various memorabilia.
The war cemetery at Hall of Fame
On the open ground in the rear section of the Hall of Fame is the war memorial and the war cemetery. The war memorial with blue skies and mountains in the backdrop offers a magnificent view.