Mystic rituals at amazing monasteries, golden Buddha statues, secret magical temples and sleeping on the swampy wet ground before Sisir La Pass


Views from Kashmir


After some intense cooking and a freezing bath in the river (it is absolutely necessary to wash oneself even in the cold water – 4-5 degrees Celsius (39-40 Fahrenheit) where I almost got hypothermic) we are ready to start hitchhiking. We go to see the monastery for one last time and we find a room with some very old writings on the wall which up to now was always closed.

The main road to Leh is 5 km away but a boy takes us with his car. We enter Karu village and we are flabbergasted by the various goods and shops which we haven’t seen for ten days. We sit down in a small restaurant and like total cavemen start buying chips and coca colas.

We go out of Karu and a mini-bus passes us by while we are hitchhiking. We take it to Thiksey Village that is 20 km. away – it costs us 30 eurocents. We take it mainly because it is hot and we want to see as many monasteries as we can and to start the next trek as soon as possible.

At Thiksey is situated the most impressive monastery in whole of Ladakh – people often compare it to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. We see tens of white houses where the monks live and the main monastery building of the complex that are rising on a massive rock with a view towards the whole valley. The monastery was built 15-th century and belonged to the Gelug Pa sect (or the yellow hats). There are four main orders (or sects): Kagyupa, Sakyapa, Ningmapa, Gelugpa. Most monasteries in Ladakh belong to the Kagyupa Order – the Dragon Order Drukpa.


Thiksey Gompa (Monastery)

Our camera’s battery is totally dead so we first leave our rucksacks at some luxurious local hotel next to the monastery, we put the phone and the camera on charge and go out to look for something to eat. There are no restaurants or shops in the area but we somehow manage to find a small shop where we buy yoghurt and bananas.

After some time we finally see a local restaurant where they prepared us some potato pan-cakes (allo paratha) and noodles. Suddenly a large group of pupils rushes in after school. It is strange that the girls have exactly the same uniforms as the boys – with shirt and a tie.

We go back, take the already charged camera and go hurriedly to the temple. I don’t know how this happened again but we entered some narrow streets and stairs and we unintentionally appeared inside the temple without passing through the main gate and paying entrance ticket (the same thing had happened also in Hemis).

The central building has many different rooms with some ominous figures, stairs going up and down, corridors and terraces. In some of the rooms there are ancient libraries, in one of them we see gigantic statues of the next Buddha – Maitreya, in another there are tens of statues of the female bodhisattva – Tara. In other room we see enormous figures of daemons-protectors (it was named Temple of the Protectors) with hidden faces that are uncovered only at festivals. On the roof there is the fortune-teller room but women aren’t allowed to enter. We are very impressed by this monastery.


Giant Buddha statue

We take the rucksacks from the hotel and find an awesome place for the tent – at the foot of the monastery – the only downer is that it is at outskirts of some old cemetery.


We wake up at 5:30 a.m. in order to arrive on time for the morning puja (prayer) which we heard will be special. Still sleepy we start climbing towards the temple and we are pretty surprised to that there are more white tourists than monk in the main room. The monks started singing (rather saying rapidly the words twanging) the sutras and we find the atmosphere in the dark room very pleasant.

After finishing certain part of the prayer the monks start blowing pipes, and drumming. The ceremony goes on for hours so the monks are given some kind of soup and tea and later little noodles for breakfast. Most of the tourists endure for merely an hour (probably one of the reasons is that they are not accustomed to sitting on the floor for hours without moving) so at the end there are only 4-5 people left.

Later in the day we meet a Taiwanese guy who was there at the puja and said it continued until 3 p.m. We are very impressed by the monastery – it feels like one is in Hogwarts (the school for wizardry in Harry Potter) – so full of magical rooms and corridors.

Few kilometers after Thiksey is Shey Palace where the royal family lived during 18-th century. At the moment it is being restored so there is nothing to see in it but the place looks well maintained and there is a gigantic two-storey statue of Buddha. In front of it there is a sign saying: “don’t take photos with Lord Buddha”. The ticket to enter costs 30 rupees (40 eurocents).


Shey Palace



Buddha Maitreya – the future Buddha

We sit in the patio to read a book about the Drukpa Order and then we go to eat breakfast at the restaurant in front of the monastery. Then we hitchhike a truck to Leh which is just 15 km. away. We are well familiar with Leh already and start doing the things we have to do in order to get away from here as soon as possible.

There is no Internet at the city so we leave our rucksacks in our already favorite Internet café and we go on a quest to buy a map for the coming treks. There is only one that serves us. All the other don’t even have the topography marked and our previous one is printed sometime in the 80-s and is quite messed up and wrong. We spend 500 rupees (8 euro) for it but we do all the treks without a local guide or GPS so we really need it.

In the evening there is Internet connection and we manage to connect with the outside world for first time in 10 days. Later we find a nice glade with trees around it up the river which we consider very lucky knowing the situation in Leh. The glade is private property but we pitch the tent anyway.


In the morning we go to the Internet café again. At lunch we go to our favorite restaurant called Chinese Bowl and spend 200 rupees (around 3 euro – which is a lot for India) but tomorrow we start walking and will cook on fire so it is good to treat ourselves now. We share our table with a Nepalese and a German who told us about some cave people in Nepal and warmly recommend to visit them if we pass through the mountains they live in.

Later we spend 3-4 hours shopping for food (I don’t know why it took us so long). There are many gypsies on the streets. The women are dressed with long skirts and behind each there are 5-6 snotty kids. They are begging for money everyone that passes by them. Others are performing – the father is beating a big drum and the children are contorting their bodies around him. Other typical for Leh are the homeless dogs that sleep on every corner of the city – they are covered with dreadlocks and sleep all day.


Thiksey Village

We start hitchhiking at 5:30 p.m. After half an hour a very nice guy with a jeep stops and takes us. We just have to pass by his house to take his niece and three of his children. We pack ourselves tight in the car and we are off. One of the children is a little monk with a little red robe.

We arrive at Nimu which is 30 km. from Leh and instantly a truck full of Kashmir people stops and takes us directly to Lamayuru – the starting point for the next trek. We pass 90 km. of sharp bends and we arrive at night despite the efforts of the driver who was driving pretty fast and we almost crashed two times.

On the road we stopped at a small village and the driver bought all the turnips of the local vendors and we bought a kilo of dried apricots for 50 rupees (75 eurocents). Exactly the same apricots cost 360 rupees per kilo (5 euro) in the bigger cities and the tourists do not even know their real price. Later the driver and Mr. Shushtari went somewhere to drink tea and I felt asleep on the sack full of fragrant turnips : )

We manage to orient ourselves in Lamayuru in the dark and find a nice spot to sleep – a small grazing pasture next to the river.


Today we plan to cook and do the laundry. We have tons of dirty clothes left from the previous trek and it takes us two hours to wash everything. At lunchtime we decide to stay one more day here and to see the local landmarks. The monastery is old (11-th century) and looks quite interesting. We enter through some back door and we see the monk reading sutras in the main room.

We listen for a while and then we go around the temple. The cave where Naropa (Hymalayan yogi and grat Buddhist mystic who lived around 11-th century) is still here and well kept inside the temple. At the upper floors there are two-three more rooms with bodhisattvas and ancient writings on the wall. Next to the monastery there was another temple – of Avalokitshevara ( the bodhisattva of compassion).

We climb a hill above the monastery which had some monk houses on it where the monks stay to meditate for months and sometimes years. They receive food thorough a small window in the wall. We heard rumors that at certain monasteries there are monks who have supernatural mental powers that they develop after years of meditation. Some people say that monks have been seen running on some high narrow wall and cutting their bodies without any scars or whatsoever left on their skin the next day.


Monks’ houses

While we are going around the hill we see fragments of human skulls next to one of the houses (maybe to remind the inhabitants of the only inevitable thing in live – death?).

The monastery and the monks’ houses are situated on a high cliff and the village is below on another rock. Most of the houses in the village are abandoned because people moved closer to the road. We walk around and we are impressed by the architecture, the streets are very narrow, like labyrinth and often pass under the houses.



While we are walking we meet a Swiss couple who are here with a friend who lives in the city. They had asked their friend to unlock the doors to a secret temple that they wanted to visit. There are no tourists in this part of the city and the doors to the temple are hidden in the street labyrinth, so it is a true miracle we found ourselves here at exactly this time with the Swiss couple whose son by the way turned out to be some famous archeologist who explored Ladakh for the last 30 years.


The door of the temple

The temple is very small and dark and most of the writings on the walls are destroyed, It is older than the monastery – dates back to 11-th century. In a side room we see statue of the protectors who look quite ominous – in fact more like daemons than protectors, and in addition there is a skeleton painting on the wall.

After the walk we go down the city and buy some stuff. Then we go back to our tent.


In the morning an old lady comes to us and says this is her land and we have to pay for the tent. It caught our attention in a not so good way that the Tibetans (or Ladakh people) are very mercantile and when they see a foreigner the only thing they think about is money. This is even more relevant for the small villages where people are extremely greedy.

We pack our stuff rapidly and started climbing. In the morning we saw a few foreigner but they were all going to a one-day walk in the close-by village or to do one other trek in the region. There was only one Belgian with a heavy rucksack who was planning to walk for several days. We drank tea together and he gave us a few useful tips for the trek.

The first village on the road is Wanla and it is actually connected with an asphalt road passing thorough the next valley but there is also a pathway passing through some picturesque areas. So instead of hitchhiking we decide to walk. In order to reach the valley of Wanla one has to cross a pass (3700 m. or 12 140 feet) and then to walk down a dry gully that has sand walls on both sides and it looks like one is in the Wild West. After 3 hours walking we reach the village. We don’t have salt on us so we ask a local woman for some. First she says that we must buy a full package (1 kilo or 2 pounds) which is too much for us, but finally she takes mercy and sells us less. We ask also for water but they give us some soapy liquid. The only thing that really interests these people is whether we will stay at their guest houses.


Indus Valley

It turns out that the asphalt road continues to the next village Phanjila and the local people told us that the dirt road continues in the mountains for two-three days walking distance. Anyway nobody at the village has a car, the road is brand new, it is not present in most of the maps and respectively there is almost no traffic.

There are some trucks travelling opposite of us and are headed to the building sites. After a while a boy driving a car comes our way and takes us to Phanjila. In the village the local surrounded us and start shouting whether we want to stay so we hastened to go away. After the road was built the number of the tourists coming in the area declined rapidly (most of the tourists drive to the end of the road directly) and people here have become rapacious.

The next village is Hanupata but is several hours away so we plan to sleep somewhere in the middle. It starts raining but we don’t see a place where we can put our tent, only the new road and some rocks like walls. Behind us we see a black, strong river. In addition it looked like any moment a rock could fall on our heads because the road was in construction.


On the dirt road

We enter a very narrow and high canyon and the rain gets stronger. The sky is even darker now and the atmosphere becomes depressing. Suddenly after the next bend we see a small building with a quite big parking space in font of it. There is no one in sight and it is getting dark. We hasten to pitch our tent and when we do it starts raining even stronger but we are safe now.

We are exhausted by the seven hours walk, prepare two enormous sandwiches and faint into sleep.


When we wake up in the morning the weather is still bad. We prepare our breakfast and see a local woman hurrying our way, exalted by the sight of two foreigners. She of course says we have to pay for the tent. She is coming from a village situated 5-10 min. away in another branch of the canyon. We refused to pay (the place is a parking lot, there is no potable water and it is obviously public space) and she starts shouting at us. We shout back and start preparing to leave in so good mood.

We feel very week and our bodies hurt. After 2-3 hours we reach Hanupata Village and right before it the canyon got wider. The people in the village start asking if we plan to stay or whether we want to hire horse and are disappointed when we say no.


Inside the tremendous canoyn

In fact people here don’t have any bad intentions just there are tourists only 2-3 months a year and this is the only season they can make money. The living conditions are harsh and the people in this remote valleys are very poor. Their sometimes bad manners are also fueled by the western tourists who give as much as they are asked the moment the word “money” is said. But I don’t excuse them because we have seen other very poor people who were very hospitable and don’t only think how to take your money.

The other thing that western tourists brought with them are the brutally high prices which they pay without questioning. For example here they charge 800 rupees (10 euro) for bed and breakfast which is extremely high for India, not to mention one is accommodated in poor, mountain huts; noodles cost 1 euro and in all the other places are 15 eurocents. The same thing happens with the tent – you have to pay regardless of the place you pitched it, whether it is in a camping site with all the commodities or into the wilderness. And they want to charge 150 rupees (2.50 euro).

When we exit the village it starts raining again and we feel faint. Suddenly, as if by magic, a small abandoned house appears. It obviously has been built when there were many tourists here. After the road was built nobody comes here anymore – all the tourists go directly to the end of the asphalt road.

The camp sites are abandoned too. To be honest we really like this because there are no cars on the road and the truck go just to the building site where they construct and maintain the road. For the whole day only five cars passed – two going to the close by village and three filled with tourists going somewhere up the mountain.

This house is our salvation. We go inside and we take a long rest with lunch and tea. The rain stops and we decide to continue walking for two more hours – well five as it turns out but I’ll speak about this later. Up the road we meet the first trekkers – a boy and a girl.

We are replenished after the long rest and we reach the foot of the first pass – Sisir La (4700 m. or 15 420 feet). We head up and start looking for a flat place to pitch the tent but we almost reach the top, it is getting dark and we still don’t see anything acceptable. Finally we climb a hill and reach a place that looks level enough. The only problem is that the soil is very strange – it is swampy, soaked with water and very soft.


Our tent on the swampy ground

We don’t have a choice so we decide to stay here. My gloves are soaked and I cannot move my fingers because they are frozen. The temperatures fall down rapidly and it is around 0 degrees Celsius now (32 Fahrenheit), our clothes are all wet and we are shivering.

When we lay down the cold penetrates from below and our jackets are wet so we can’t sleep with them. It was going to be a tough night. We went to bed immediately without even having dinner.


Right before Sisir La Pass

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