By the 22nd, we had our plans straightened out and fully booked for. Our local monastery (gonpa) tour started out an hour late, by about 9 in the morning. After picking up Amol and Vinod, we headed out of Leh. The sightseeing circuit in Leh is heavily controlled by a sort of guild which operates on a fixed rate and is completely protectionist. So all operators basically charge the same rate and there are unofficial checkposts to prevent other taxis from doing tours. Anyway, we had got a pretty decent Toyota Qualis to travel in, but the driver only spoke broken hindi.
Shey Palace: Our first stop was Shey palace which sits on a hill facing a green valley. The green of the valley contrasted heavily against the barren hills that surround them. Where there is water and shelter from the north winds, mankind has made its niche in ladakh. The palace had a buddha statue, but I was more interested in the view outside.
Thiksey Gonpa: Next up, we went to visit the gonpa at Thiksey. An amazing monastery and school, bang on the leeward side of a hill almost covering the entire hill. We stopped for breakfast (a second one) at the foot of the hill, in the Chamba restaurant, owned and operated by the monastery itself. The food was good and the ambience was calming. Thanks to a customer endorsement for metrogyl, we were all in good spirits before we went up to the monastery.
We went uphill by the road. The monastery was a relatively big one, with an entire wall full of murals. The view from the monastery was amazing and so was the monastery itself. The central courtyard walls were covered in murals and so were the inner walls. I was quite surprised to see a candy bowl near the deities, full of chocolates and biscuits. We hung around there for a while, looking at the various message scrolls hung up there. After nearly a good hour spent there, we headed out.
Hemis Gonpa: After Thiksey, we headed towards the hidden monastery of Hemis. The monastery is completely hidden away amidst the hills and is not visible till you take the last turn. The monastery was relatively inactive and cold like a fridge. You can literally sense the past being preserved in this half-frozen temple.
Matho: We moved on from Hemis on to the village of Matho and into the monastery. The monastery stands as before, on top of a hill overlooking the village. The gonpa is famous for its oracles, who are possessed by the spirits of good and demonstrate their other sight by running on the walls blind folded. But by the time we arrived, we were possessed by the spirits of photography and all of us were more interested in clicking away than actually seeing the sights.
Stok Palace: The last stop was Stok palace, which is still inhabited by the royal family. Only five rooms were open for visitors in the palace and photography is prohibited inside the palace. The display cases are full of preserved jewelery, especially turquoise and jade. The one thing that caught my attention was a Damascus steel sword, tied into a neat knot. Legend has it that some king grew so strong and powerful that he had no regard for the holy men of the land, so one of them put the king in his place by performing the simple task of tying the king's sharp steel sword into the knot. But other than that curio, I found the palace quite boring.
Nevertheless, it was a pleasant day's outing. The roads were good, flat and generally straight, the sky clear and we passed through some very interesting countryside. And I learned my first word of ladakhi - Julley !.--
Everyone has a photographic memory. Some don't have film.