A cool breeze swirls around our tent at Chamba Camp Thiksey. Butterflies flutter among-st the bright blooms of marigolds, Marguerite, pansies, flocks, dahlias , chrysanthemums and assorted Himalayan flowers surrounding the tent. A bee buzzes against the tent walls while I slide into a fold-able canvas cot. Against a cerulean blue sky, a scattering of white clouds resembling those drawn in Himalayan thanka paintings. Across the swaying alfalfa and barley fields rises a white cliff of tiered monastery rooms. Thiksey Monastery glows like a pearl in the early morning light. As I clasp a cup of Himalayan tea, a concoction of Early grey tea, apricots and honey, to warm my hands in the nippy air, black choughs with red feet and beaks hop on the rocky terrain yonder. Choughs are distant relatives of crows. Up in the sky Himalayan eagles float on the chilly wind.
In all this beauty is the peace of this unique space on the planet.
We use the words peace, calm, quiet, serendipity rather loosely these days. Here in Ladakh, the words not only resonate with their true meaning, they seem almost inadequate to describe the emotion in this remote part of India.
The first day in Ladakh is scheduled to be quiet and lazy to orient oneself with the altitude. No better place to be than the Chamba Camp Thiksey, run by The Ultimate Travelling Camp(TUTC), away from the hustle of Leh. The first day is like a week long holiday. Far removed from anything on the earth, the sea of solitude surrounding Thiksey village is total surrender to one’s inner soul. We go for a walking tour of the village with our guide, Yang-chuck. It is easy to deep breathe here. The air may be thin but the clean, fresh breathing is yogic in every way.
The next afternoon, we travel to Leh, passing the Naropa Photang enclave with a 1000 stupas near Thiksey and the Dalai Lama’s expansive residence and spiritual center along the way. Old Leh is a ramble of an old city; once a bustling trading post on the Silk Route. Today, new lanes and a market dominate the city. It seems a part of a hippie trail with an assortment of characters, both modern yet vintage. Ladakhi women spread their produce from local villages around Leh. A colorful array of greens, tomatoes, carrots, turnips, radish and apricots. Leh city is dominated by a palace and a monastery high up in the sky. Both can be given a miss. UNESCO need to step in here and save Old Leh from complete deterioration. Politicos have declared it a slum. In actual fact, it is a jewel waiting to be saved and polished to it’s original lustre. Somewhere midway to the imposing palace is Old Leh’s saving grace. The fabulous LAMO art center, founded by Monisha Ahmed. The Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation is a reservoir of artful calm in the mess, decay and filth that is Old Leh. Within its old walls, you can ramble through a home steeped in history. Staircases lead you through an assortment of balconies and terraces, an old kitchen with artworks (possibly a first in the world) and an art gallery by the charming, smiling Issac Gergan.
Across the Leh market, textile enthusiasts and fashionistas must pay homage to Jigmat Couture. The sole beacon for Ladakh’s textiles and costumes, Jigmat Norbu and Jigmat Wangmo cheerfully and proudly display their woolen wonders over cups of steaming saffron tea. Their love for local fabrics will result in a museum shortly and will be an excuse for me to revisit Leh.
While in Leh, do not miss the sunset at Shanti Stupa high above the city. Go for the panoramic view but also for the peace to end a beautiful day.
Back at Chamba Camp, a bonfire beckons. While you sip tea or wine, a colorful local performance under the stars is enacted for your pleasure. A blend of music, dances, stories, folklore, mythology and pageantry, the evening is perfect in every way.
Meals at Chamba Camp Thiksey are culinary feasts. Breakfast is a joy with a plethora of eggs, hams, Indian parathas, local jams and freshly baked bread. Western and Indian meals include imported produce such as Australian lamb chops and fresh pink salmon cooked to perfection. All end with an assortment of delicious deserts and confectionery.
The next day, we leave in the pre dawn darkness for Thiksey Monastery to witness early morning prayers. The air is cold and crisp as we climb in silence to the roof the monastery. Two monks herald the dawn with their horns while young monks lead the older monks with the welcoming warmth of the main prayer hall. As yak butter tea and barley powder are passed around, the chanting of the monks induces a zen experience. The world outside ceases to exist as the soul is enriched by a sublime spiritual elevation. When we emerge from the monastery, dawn has broken and the mountains are dappled with light and shadow; the snow peaks sparkle in the weak sunlight. It is time to see other monasteries in the region.
After breakfast, we pass a red Oracle Stupa on the way to Matho Monastery. A bridge that permits one car at a time hangs precariously over a raging Indus River. This is my first sighting of this majestic river that flows into nearby Pakistan. The power and force of the Indus is incredible. Near the bridge is Stakna Monastery. Past a magical terrain of rocks, towering mountains, flat plains, deep valleys and potent-with-Vitamin C Thesta Lulu fruit trees, we finally ascend to Matho Monastery.
Matho Monastery sits atop a rocky mountain with sweeping views over the land around. dry and barren in parts, green and abundant in patches, this monastery houses a museum, two prayers halls and a restoration centre where an NGO works to restore old parchments, armor, paintings and Ladakhi art.
After lunch at Chamba Camp Thiksey, we set out for the imposing Hemis Monastery. With 500 monks in residence, this is the largest, most wealthy in the Leh valley. Apart from the prayer halls and temples, an informative museum and a walk around the warren of corridors and lanes, make the time to visit the grand terrace of Hemis Monastery with its stunning views.
We wake to Day Four in Ladakh. It seems like we have been a week here already. Such is the peace, quiet and solitude.
Passing Chemdey Monastery on the way to Warila pass, our naturist Aakanksha recounts details about the Ladakhi terrain, the flora and fauna. And about the beer made by the Chemdey Monastrey monks. The famed beer is made no more. But at a time the Chung Beer, Arrak and weaker distillations kept people, kids and cattle in a happy state of Ladakhi high. Cattle? Yes. You read right. Quite like Wagyu cows with their beer diet.
From all the monasteries I visited in Ladakh, TaktThog Monastery is the most spiritually moving. This is where the holy Padmachamasava meditated in a cave. One can sense His presence in this low, dark, soot filled cave that has currency from many countries decorate the cave ceiling. I add my rupee note to the ceiling segued with yak butter.
Talking of yaks, we pass herds of the large bison like creatures on the way to Warila pass. There are also Amchis, local doctors collecting herbs and flowers. Clouds of yellow campomellas and purple gentians spouts from the rocks while marmots scurry into their holes. Griffins, lammergeiers with five feet wide wing tips , red beaked choughs and Himalayan eagles rule the skies at Warila. When we finally reach the pass that stands at 16,800 feet, the majestic Karakorum mountain range is in view beyond the Nubra valley below. To stand atop the pass and realize that one is higher that the Mont Blanc,(highest mountaintop in Europe), is humbling and exhilarating.
There is a reverse migration of cattle and animals of prey up here in the mountains. The cattle go up in summer while the snow leopards and wolves descend into the valleys. Local nomads tell us stories. About how ten days ago, a snow leopard took a goat and they had to drive it away with stones. A pack of wolves took away two cows and three goats.
When we descend back into the valley, at about 16,000 feet, Chambha Camp Thiksey sets up a luxurious surprise. A tent on the ridge of the mountain; replete with bar and a hot three course meal. Unbelievable. Trust The Ultimate Trevelling Camp to set up this splendor in the rocky wild terrain. Chilled vodka with pistachio nuts to cheer the picnic. Followed by Greek feta salad, carrot and orange soup, chicken biryani and chocolate mousse in a jar. Sheer decadence!
On the way back to camp, we notice another ‘nice’ feature if Ladakh. Recall your holidays when you carried sweets and mints to give local kids in remote parts of the world? Here in Ladakh, students give sweets to tourists. Yup! True!
Khardongla Pass is at 6000mts/18,380 ft. At a time it was the world’s highest motorable pass. Tibetan China now holds that honour. But the signs at Khardongla still proclaim it is the highest and we can’t help but forgive them for not changing the signs. After all this is truly high. Signs recommend not to stay more than twenty five minutes as it is harmful to your health.
So we hurry on to Nubra valley.
On the way, we stop at Khardong village, the first village in Nubra named after the pass we have just crossed. Yonder are yaks and Zho (which our guide points out is a cross between a yak and a cow). Everywhere in Ladakh are prayer flags fluttering in the cool breeze. Prayer flags are strung between spaces for health, longevity, on the twelfth auspicious Buddhist cyclic year, at Losar (New Year), over bridges, homes and temples.
Descending into the Nubra valley from Khardongla is akin to taking a crash course in geology. The landscape is ever changing, the ravines deep and formidable, rock formations resemble Turkish Cappadocia and when one sees the Shyok River gushing into the Nubra valley, a photo stop is de rigeur. The mighty Shyok at one stage meets the river from the Siachen glacier. It is all breathtaking and achingly beautiful.
When I say achingly, I mean it quite literally. Tossed over rocky roads for over six hours is bruising.
All aches and pains vanish when one arrives at Chamba Camp Diskit. Like Thiksey, the camp provides a surreal view of Diskit Monastery with an imposing golden Maitreya Buddha nearby.
Bliss is short lived as we are bundled over to Hundar village. High up in the mountains, Hundar reveals a geographical surprise. Sand dunes with camels rides. After the double humped Bactrian camels in the Mongolian Gobi (they stank) and those in the Chinese Taklamakan (badly behaved), the Hundar Bactrians are clean and docile. And easy to ride on. For the uninitiated, the rising into the air and descending to the sand may be daunting, even frightening. But all fear vanishes when the camel lumbers through at snail’s pace over the dunes.
A short drive away, TUTC throws up another luxury surprise. Over a gurgling river in the dunes (they made a makeshift bridge just for us), there is a high tea set up among the dunes. Unbelievable but true! The set up include an open tent to watch the sunset. Tea, coffee, chilled vodka, smoked salmon canapes, hot crumb fried basa fish and spinach pakoras. Yummyliscious. Cheers to another great day in Ladakh.
Chamba Camp Diskit is different from Thiksey. Smaller… but cozier. I love it. The camps are fitted out with the latest tents from Africa. The amenities are top of the line ; at an international luxury level that is hard to beat. Beautifully appointed with leather trunks, Safari furniture beautifully covered in orange leather, the tents are luxury redefined. With WiFi included.
The next morning, we leave Diskit, cross Hundar bridge with numerous stupas and head to the furthermost village of Turtuk. It is a long ride through what must be the world’s bleakest, roughest, most barren terrain. The Shyok river thunders towards the Pakistani border a few kilometres away. After three tiny villages where women work while men idle, we finally arrive in Turtuk.
In this remote part of India, what was once Baltistan, we ramble through the village. Clear Himalayan water streams past every stone house. Courtyards are filled with apricots, apples and vines laden with grapes. Mariam, 75, in her apricot garden tells us about her brother on the other side of the mountain in Pakistan. Separated since 1971 after the village was divided between India and Pakistan.
We meet Yabgo Mohd Khan Kacho, chieftain of the village, descendant of an Afghani royal who arrived and settled in this part of India in the 13th century. He shows us his treasures. Regal head-wear, armory, costumes. The residence is made of delicately carved wood, painted a pale turquoise blue and green in parts. As he waves us goodbye with his serpent shaped walking stick, I look back for a moment to savor a scene I may never see again. It seems like a page from history.
Later we picnic in luxury in an apricot orchard. Again a hot meal, three courses and desert. Under the shade of apricot trees. With a posh Aston Martin picnic set no less. Posh indeed. Bravo The Ultimate Travelling Camp for the attention to detail in every way.
Returning to Diskit, we climb to Diskit Gompa Monastery. After the long day, it is a tough, out-of-breath climb to the monastery roof top. Climb slowly, take breaks. Persevere. The view is worth it. The panorama is sweeping and stunning. On the horizon, grey rain clouds advance…which adds to the dramatic, cinematic landscape. We scurry down to the gigantic Maitreya Buddha statue. Admire the view, the 32 metre high statue facing Pakistan and the mighty Shyok river.
Back at the camp, we enjoy a gastronomic four course dinner and slumber in utter bliss.
Since there was a landslide at Khardongla, we decide to take the Warila Pass back to Leh Valley. What a wonderfully wise decision. This road, not taken by most tourists, is a must. There is barely any traffic, the scenery is astounding at every turn and the senses cannot completely grasp the marvels that unfold. We consume our boxed lunches near an icy, sparkling, clear rivulet. The greenery is unbelievable. Everywhere yaks, marmots, pink daisies. A huge eagle among the rocks. Craggy peaks and snow capped summits.
We were back in Chamba Camp Thiksey for a night. One glorious last night. It rained that evening. The skies turned purple and it poured like a Goan monsoon. Then magically, the skies cleared… permitting the view of a final sunset. And in the East, a parting gift from Ladakh. A glorious double rainbow arched it’s way from above the mountains into the fields across Thiksey Monastery.
It is a rainbow I will forever hold sacred.
Wendell Rodricks traveled to Ladakh with The Ultimate Travelling Camp.