Give me half an opportunity and I will be back in Leh. By road, even if it takes at least three days from Delhi to get there.
What will I do there? Walk along the Indus river. Go early morning to Shanti Stupa to contemplate with no one arounf, or in the evening to watch the sun setting in the surrounding valleys. Sit in coffee shops and make friends. Browse and shop for Tibetan handicrafts and art. Read. Listen to music. Visit monasteries. Attend local festivals. And keep myself busy with all the simple pleasures known to man.
Leh and the rest of Ladakh lends itself to all such ambitions. Leh is your base to explore Ladakh – and makes for a near-perfect travel destination. This is where you will feel at the top of the world.
[The Kunzum Travel List is a compilation of great holiday ideas and available as an e-book, and in paperback by December 2011. To read more and to order the book, click on Kunzum Travel List.]
A bit of history first
Leh was not the first capital of Ladakh. The first settlement with an elected ruler was supposedly in Gya, 80 kms (50 miles) from Leh towards Manali. These settlers were the Aryan-like Mons, early 10th century emigrants from Karja or Kullu. The Mon ruler was called Gyalpacho but Gya denizens now refer to him as Yapacho. The Mons’ power was curbed towards the end of the 10th century. They couldn’t oust the warring nomads from Khotan and sought help from Skilde Neemagon, ruler of Purang in Tibet; in lieu, they had to concede vast properties such as Shey and Leh. Choosing Shey as the headquarters of the ceded area, Neemagon populated Ladakh with Mongoloid Tibetans. The Aryan Mons and Brokpas were reduced to minorities, and the Gyalpacho to the status of a district governor. Shey became Ladakh’s first capital in the 10th century when Palgyigon built a small palace here. His father was Nyima-Gon, founder of Ladakh’s first royal dynasty. King Sengge Namgyal moved the capital to Leh in 1600 A.D. marking the occasion with the construction of the nine storeys high Leh Palace; you cannot miss its towering presence when you drive into town.
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The Shey Palace
Located 15 kms (10 miles) east of Leh, Shey village is quiet, clean and sparsely populated. Relish its lush meadows along the Indus in the summer, with rare birds for company. The shift of the capital to Leh spared Shey its share of unwanted attention, and saved it from degenerating into an urban mess.
The original Shey Palace has seen expansions over time. The current structure was built by Deldan Namgyal, who resided here for most of his reign in the mid-17th century. In memory of his father, Sengge Namgyal (regarded as Ladakh’s greatest king), he commissioned an 8 metre high statue of a seated Sakyamuni. Built in copper and brass, then gilded and studded with precious stones, it is the world’s largest such image of Mahayana Buddhism. The palace also houses Ladakh’s largest victory stupa, with a top of pure gold. From Shey Palace, you get some stunning views of the glittering sunset skies. You know exactly where to head to in the evening.
The Leh Palace
Modelled on Lhasa’s Potala, the Leh Palace sure has a majestic presence over the city. Even though there is not much to impress once you are inside.
While the exterior overwhelms the eye, the interiors are a mere maze of mud-plastered rooms and passages. Badly damaged when the Tibetans and Mongols invaded Ladakh in the late 17th century, it was further wrecked by the Dogras in 1834. Of over 100 rooms, most are inaccessible. Originally, the palace’s lower levels housed animals and served as storage for fodder, wood, dried meat and vegetables. On the upper floors lived the royals and their guests. There was also a throne room, a reception hall and prayer areas.
At the palace entrance, pause and look up. You’ll spy the ruins of a fort built by King Tashi Namgyal in the 16th century on Namgyal Tsemo (‘Peak of Victory’). Its gonkhang (‘temple of guardian deities’) is still used by worshippers. Folklore has it that the king entombed bodies of the invading Mongols in the temple’s foundations to ward off future attacks. Just don’t go digging to prove anything.
Call upon the royal family at Stok Palace
Yes, Ladakh has a royal family tracing its lineage back to 1470 A.D. And they live at the Stok Palace, a few miles from Leh across the Indus. Built in 1825 by the then king Tsewang Thondup Namgyal, the royals took refuge here in 1834 when the Dogras overthrew them. The family has had no real powers since then but Ladakhis still respect them as their royal masters.
While you may not be able to meet the family, you can take a tour of much of the palace and its well curated museum. Women would admire the queen’s crown and exquisite, turquoise-studded perak (‘head dress’) and Balti princess Gyal Khatun’s neckpiece. In the king’s room are unique gold/silver-embellished thangkas, including 35 that depict the Jatakas.
You can glimpse a gold and silver chorten locked away in a room and a 7th century image of Avalokitesvara, Tibet’s patron saint of compassion. There’s a small temple where the royals still pray in. Wooden blocks to print prayer flags, leather jewellery boxes, jade cups, fine porcelain – all make it a treasure trove of relics. A trumpet crafted from human bone symbolises the Buddhist belief in the impermanence of things, including human life.
Watch the Moon rise over the Indus
It is said the Indus originates from the mouth of a lion in Mansarovar, in China controlled Tibet. Thus it is also called Sengge Tsangpo or the Lion River.
It’s significance goes to back to the time when some of the earliest human settlements on this planet came up along its banks. As it flows from Tibet to Pakistan through Ladakh before meeting the Arabian Sea, it symbolically binds the people of the three nations. A common lifeline, one only wishes these ties could secure peace between warring neighbours.
Few rivers in the world can boast of flowing through as stunning a landscape as the Indus. As you drive southeast along its banks towards Tso Moriri or northwest towards Batalik, you will see it flow by valleys, gorges and peaks of countless hues. Can you imagine setting up home along its banks? See it all up close if you get a chance for some whitewater rafting.
Walk along its banks in the evenings and admire the views created by a setting sun and a rising moon.
A New Age Peace Stupa
The Shanti Stupa, built in 1985 by The Japanese for World Peace, rises above a hill beyond Leh’s Changspa area. Visit it for sure either at sunrise or sunset. In all likelihood you will be alone at dawn, and it may be the opportunity to reflect and meditate. Evenings are magical with the peaks of Stok Kangri and the valleys around attaining a golden hue. If you want to hear silence surrounded by Nature’s majesty, spend time at the Shanti Stupa.
The Leh Market Street
Downtown Leh makes for an interesting place to spend a few hours – but you may find blaring taxis and diesel generator sets a bother at times. The market is full of Tibetan handicrafts, and many are worth a buy. Especially those being sold in open air markets; shops tend to be a trifle more expensive for the same stuff. If you are looking for travel and camping gear and accessories, you can choose from the best of brands – most being counterfeits from China. But not a bad buy if your conscience does not prick you.
Want to feel healthy? Village women from around Leh set up shop on pavements selling truly organic veggies grown on their farms. If Instant Nirvana is what you seek, seek an espresso or filter coffee at one of the many cafes in the market; strongly recommended is the Desert Rain run by the local Moravian Church. The pancakes are a treat here. You will find many a restaurant serving authentic Ladakhi or Tibetan fare, or some very well done Italian salads, pastas and pizzas.
Leh: Travel Tips
Getting there: The best way to get there is by road – but it takes at least two days from Manali. And roads are open only from June to early October. For driving directions, refer to Kunzum Travel List #14 – Route K12.
* There are daily flights to Leh all year round, except when weather conditions don’t allow.
* Accommodation: Leh has enough places to stay for all budgets.
* Best time to go: Winters are extremely cold and harsh in Ladakh – best to go from May to October.
* Recommended stay: At least 8 days to explore Ladakh after reaching Leh.
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