While exploration of Ladakh's Buddhist gompas are likely to consume a large part of your time here, bear in mind that the region has other wonders worth witnessing -- not least, its matchless scenery. Unless you have a specific interest, don't feel compelled to see every monastery, or you'll likely reach saturation point before you've crossed them all off your list. And don't give in to the urge to race between the Buddhist sites -- half the pleasure in visiting lies in taking time to chat with the monks, or share a cup of butter tea with villagers. And, often, simply witnessing the landscape around you will make your heart soar. Note that entrance to most of the gompas requires the purchase of a ticket; most cost Rs 20, while more famous ones, like Alchi, are Rs 50.
The Road to Lamayuru
There are enough Buddhist gompas within easy reach of Leh to keep enthusiasts busy for several days. North along the road to Srinagar are Phyang Gompa (16km/10 miles from Leh), and 15th-century Spituk Gompa (8km/5 miles from Leh), which sits atop a lone rocky hill, crazily poised above Leh's airport. If you've a craving to see more remote, extraordinary Buddhist settlements, and are prepared to spend some time on the road, though, it's worth undertaking the scintillating journey to Lamayuru. En route are three more of Ladakh's most alluring monastic sites, the most famous of which is Alchi (along the left bank of the Indus around 70km/43 miles northwest of Leh, a short way off the Srinigar-Leh Rd.). On the way to Alchi, stop at Basgo, where a hillside citadel consists of several Buddhist temples attached to a ruined castle. A two-story-high golden statue of the future Buddha is housed in the Maitreya Temple, which has fantastic murals of fierce divinities that were the guardian deities of the royal family once resident here.
One of the oldest monasteries in the region, Alchi (8am-1pm and 2-6pm) dates from the 11th century, and is unique for the influence of Kashmiri art versus the pure Tibetan styles prevalent in most other monasteries. Situated in a quiet hamlet with a handful of souvenir and snack stalls and an increasing number of guesthouses and a camping ground, Alchi is centered around its inactive five-temple gompa complex, administered by the Yellow-Hat Gelugpa monks of Likir Monastery 30km (19 miles) across the river. You'll need a flashlight to explore the temple interiors, which are covered with vibrant, colorful, detailed murals and wooden figures. A courtyard leads to the dukhang, or assembly hall, where the statue of Avalokiteshvara is believed to be of pure gold. In the temple (Sumtsek), you can spend forever studying the trumpet-blowing angelic figures and trying to make sense of the tantric poses assumed by a host of elegant nudes. Sadly, Alchi's popularity, has started to detract somewhat from the experience here; the wonderful Vairocana Temple, for example, has become a sales outlet with cheap booklets and postcards for sale -- somewhat off-putting when you're trying to understand the epic tales told in panels painted on the walls.
Likir, in fact, may not be as famous as Alchi, but to our minds makes a far more enjoyable visit (with far fewer tourists), and can be seen either on the way to Alchi, or on your return from Lamayuru. Said to occupy an area once inhabited by fairies (the name "Lu-khyil" means "circled by water spirits") Likir was founded by a meditation master, Lama Duwag Chosje, after the 5th King of Ladakh gave him the land in 1065. The monks here are especially friendly and laid-back -- try to spend some time chatting with them as they unlock the various temples and prayer rooms for you. The monastery also includes a small museum (Rs 20); among the unusual items is a 400-year-old bulletproof iron jacket (or thaap) displayed alongside a 900-year-old shield (fak-fali) and equally ancient quiver (sakdha), suggesting an incredible history of conflict in the region that's generally associated with peace.
If you decide to venture all the way into Zanskar (and, truly, you should), you will come across what is perhaps the most fantastical monastery of all. About 4 hours from Leh, en route to Kargil, Lamayuru is not only interesting as a hub of spirituality but enjoys such a unique and unusual cliff-side setting that it's sometimes difficult to imagine that you haven't left the planet entirely. A monk will admit you to the prayer rooms; in the Du-khang, be sure to look for the gap in the wall that reveals part of the cave where the tantric master Naropa meditated in the 10th century. Below the monastery, the dusty village spills down the steep mountain, defying the onslaught of modernity. You can pick your way through the raggedy clusters of time-battered medieval houses and look up to find yourself peering directly into the underside of the temple's terraces. A peaceful, palpably remote settlement (now linked to the world by a brand-new tarmac road) where the arrival of a bus or truck is still greeted with some excitement, Lamayuru has a few small places to stay, and we'd suggest you overnight here rather than rushing off to rejoin the crowds in Leh
Where to Stay -- Capital of Ladakh during the 15th century, the village of Tingmosgang -- 80km (50 miles) west of Leh on the Likkir-Kheltsi trekking route -- doesn't see too much action these days, but does have one of Ladakh's better village accommodation options. Namra Hotel (tel. 01982/22-9033 or 94-1917-8324; email@example.com) has clean and comfortable rooms with warm beds, attached bathrooms and hot water, and there are great Himalayan views; the hotel also has a traditional Ladakhi kitchen. It's off the well-trodden tourist path, but makes an excellent alternative base from which to explore Lamayuru, Alchi, Basgo, and Likkir -- Tingmosgang Palace is a 15-minute walk from here, and you're within easy reach of Leh, too.
In Lamayuru, the best place to stay is the relatively new Hotel Moonland (tel. 94-1988-8508, 01982/22-4551, or 01892/22-4576; Morup_moonland@rediffmail.com; open May 25-Sept). It's a pleasant family run affair with simple rooms (most with attached bathrooms and hot showers) in a cluster of small Ladakhi-style buildings arranged around a little vegetable garden a short distance from the main village, but within striking (and viewing) distance of the monastery. Ask for one of the new upstairs rooms (due to open in early 2010), which will have the best view. The owner, Morup Dorje, is a Lamayuru local and can make arrangements for treks out to nearby villages; he charges Rs 1,500 for a double room including all meals (around Rs 800 without food) which feature vegetables that his ancient, traditionally attired mother grows here.
Gompas & Palaces South of Leh
Venturing south of Leh along the same road that goes all the way to Manali, you can take in a number of monasteries, and one or two Ladakhi palaces. Located across from Choglamsar on the opposite side of the Indus, Stok Palace (Rs 25; May-Oct daily 8am-7pm) is the only inhabited palace in Ladakh, home to the 74th generation of the Namgyal dynasty. The land-holding rights of Stok were granted to the royal family by General Zorawar Singh in 1834 when he deposed Tshe-spal-Namgyal, the Gyalpo (king) of Ladakh. It's an imposing complex, with around 80 rooms, only a few of which are still used by the current widowed Gyalmo (queen), who is sometimes in residence with her immediate family. Several rooms are taken up by the modest museum housed in one section. Museum highlights include a vast thangka collection, weapons, jewels, and, of special note, the queen's perak, a turquoise-studded headdress. The ghostly Buddhist shrine is an experience not to be missed.
Fifteen kilometers (9 miles) from Leh, Shey Palace and Monastery (May-Oct daily 8am-7pm) is worthwhile for the gompa, but the palace is little more than crumbling ruins. Thikse Gompa (daily 6am-6pm) located 25km (16 miles) south of Leh, is a striking 12-story edifice with tapering walls that sits atop a craggy peak. From here you get magnificent views of the valley, strewn with whitewashed stupas. Note that 6am morning prayers at Thikse are worth rising early to witness (but it's quite popular with tourists so don't expect to see it alone).
Hidden from the world on a remote verdant hillock, Hemis Gompa (45km/28 miles from Leh) is considered the wealthiest Ladakhi monastery, its atmospheric prayer and assembly halls rich with ancient relics and ritual symbols. During the summer season in June and July, the monastery comes alive for the annual Hemis Tsechu, a (now very commercial) festival commemorating Guru Padmasambhava's birth. Masked dancing by the lamas and ritual dramas are played out in the courtyard, and the locals sell Ladakhi handicrafts and jewelry; unfortunately, hordes of hawkers also trudge in from all over the country to push their wares, somewhat diminishing the visibility of local people. Every 12 years, a magnificent embroidered silk thangka (tantric wall hanging) is displayed to the public; the next such unveiling takes place in June 2016, when the Year of the Monkey comes around again. On your daylong trip into Hemis National Park, you may -- with luck -- come across brown bear, ibex, or (if the stars are truly aligned in your favor) the extremely elusive snow leopard. The popular Markha Valley trek also traverses this park.
The Nubra Valley
Today, a 5-hour jeep drive over the world's highest motorable pass, Khardung-La (5,514m/18,380 ft.), leads you to northern Ladakh's lush Nubra Valley, a fertile region with more incredible gompas and some of the most extraordinary mountain scenery in the Himalayas. For centuries, the journey into Nubra was part of the legendary Silk Route used by caravans of traders dealing in gold, silk, hashish, and carpets, carried between the Punjab and various regions within central Asia -- the Route breathed its final gasp in the 1930s when communism in China and Partition in India put an end to the traditional silk trade. Deep within the breathtaking Karakoram mountain range, the twin-tiered valley combines terrific desert-scapes and fertile fields watered by the Siachen and Shayok rivers -- sand dunes and oases lie side by side. Predictably, the valley is dotted with peaceful, pleasant, sparsely populated villages -- while "bucolic," "idyllic," and countless other clichéd travel adjectives might describe these hamlets (like most of Ladakh's villages), there's a surprising lack of sentimentality, most probably because of the harsh conditions that manifest for most of the year. These are hardier people than most Westerners could imagine and meeting them in this little-explored landscape really adds to the sense of escape; set off on foot or rent a bike and take time to explore. Tourist literature (and out-of-the-loop travel agents) also punt the famed hot sulfur springs (at Panamik) and rides on double-humped camels as reasons to visit, but these are misguided attempts to spoil your vacation. Nubra's real pleasures are of the untouristy sort. Wander through its humble villages and hike into the looming, craggy mountains to discover shrines and fluttering prayer flags, and the sense of a being in a remote, forgotten world will take your breathe away. To visit, you need to arrange an Inner Line Permit in Leh (do it through any travel agent or through your hotel), and technically you must be traveling in a group of at least four people. Hire a jeep with driver (count on spending Rs 8,000 for 3 days, unless you share the vehicle with others), and set off early in the day. If you have more time and really want to get under the skin of this cut-off region, consider a multiday hike -- Banjara offers an 11-day Nubra Valley trek with camping along the way.
There are also two special monasteries worth highlighting here and the first is strikingly photogenic Diskit Gompa, now marked by a newly created gigantic golden Buddha posing on the hilltop nearest the road. Reached via a maze of stairways, Diskit is populated by some very friendly, charming monks, many of whom have studied extensively and are happy to share their knowledge and insights with interested visitors. In the Protector's Room you'll see some very severe stucco figures, most with their faces covered (these are revealed only during the festival held here in Oct), as well as myriad thangkas and tantric drawings -- it's like stepping into a frozen moment in a Tibetan opera. At the front of the temple, a white-faced demon holds in his hands the skull and hand of a Mongolian warlord who came here some 350 years ago; ask the monk on duty to tell you the full story.
Along the other arm of the Valley, en route to Panamik, the Samstanling Monastery just above the pleasant village of Sumur may feel a little too modern and pagoda-like to strike you as an authentic stop, but the murals inside the assembly hall (dukhang) are exquisite, and the monastery has one very special surprise. This is where you can meet and receive a blessing from the recently discovered reincarnation of the great visionary lama Bakula Rinpoche. Barely 3 1/2 years old in July 2009, the young boy spends much of his time placing lengths of sacred thread on those who come to visit him (a small donation is appreciated). His private nursery, where he is also receiving training for the many life tasks that lie ahead of him, is just below the monastery's parking area. It's an enchanting, if little understood, encounter with an auspicious, enlightened soul.
Where to Stay -- The best places to stay are in and around Sumur en route to Panamik, near the Samstanling Monastery; here there are three comfortable options, including Hotel Yarab Tso (tel. 01980/22-3544 or 94-1934-2231; reservations in Leh: Mamosthong High Adventure Travels; tel. 01982/25-2480 or 99-0698-6047; Rs 3,212 double, including all meals and service charge) just outside the village of Tegar (close to Sumur), along the Nubra River. It offers clean accommodations with attached Western bathrooms and a fairly lovely setting (rooms 105, 107, and 110 are best for views); the sitting room is particularly lovely, and feels just like a Ladakhi family lounge. In mid-2009, the owner was promising an imminent makeover of all the rooms (which have been feeling a bit run-down for some time now), so you can expect proper mattresses and fresh linens. Nearby, the newer (and somewhat more professional) option is Hotel Rimo (tel. 94-1934-0747; firstname.lastname@example.org) at the edge of Tegar village. It has more of a hotel feel to it and (besides being a very nasty-looking bit of construction), is unfortunately slap bang against the main road (which, of course, doesn't see too much traffic). Bedrooms have attached bathrooms and rather better mattresses than most places, not to mention proper linens. Bookings can be made through Rimo Expeditions; ask for a corner unit (which has more windows and better views) and expect to pay Rs 2,900 for a double room with all meals (Rs 1,200 without food).
A good deal better than both of these, and with more than a glimmer of charm, would be to stay at Silk Route Bamboo Cottages, in a lush section of Sumur Village. They offer 14 cozy en suite cottages and five "Swiss" tents (a plush version of the basic canvas tent: spacious, carpeted, with good beds and bedding). A double room costs Rs 3,300 (plus 10% service charge) with all meals included (Rs 2,200 for just the room). Like most half-decent places in the Valley, it's geared up for tour groups, so best to secure your cottage in advance -- they're bookable through The Mogol Hotel in Leh (tel. 99-9009-4107, 94-1965-7333, or 99-9911-9435; www.hotelmogol.com; email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).
Ladakh's Jewel-Like Lakes
East of Leh are two stunning high-altitude lakes that can be visited on a 2- to 3-day jeep safari. The only way to visit these lakes, close to the sensitive border with Tibet, is to book though an agent who can organize everything, including travel, guides, basic accommodations in tents or a village, and special permits. Pangong Tso is a huge lake, a large chunk of which lies across the border in China (Note: There are practically no accommodations at the lake itself, so many prefer to return the same day -- start, say by 5am for the 5- to 6-hr. one-way drive and return after a 3- to 4-hr. stay; back by late evening); farther south, surrounded by some of Ladakh's highest peaks, is Tso Moriri -- "mountain lake" -- where the colors of the water are as lovely as the birds you'll spot. On the shores of the lake, you'll often see herds of wild ass -- or kiang -- grazing, and cheeky-looking marmots (yellow furry creatures resembling beavers) perch upon the rocks. Nestled in a valley of nomads, the lake is a summer migration stop for bar-headed geese (or nangpa), not to mention the Khampa, among the original people of Ladakh. Korzok village, on the northern tip of Tso Moriri, is the only place that has basic accommodation, in tents and guesthouses.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.