08 Jun - 18 Jun 2011 Leh

South Asia
Republic of Incredible India, the world's biggest democrazy
Jammu & Kashmir
Leh (c. 3,500 m above sea level)
Kailash Guest House +919906999135 omtara_ya@yahoo.com
Spacious and clean double room (the Zanskar-named first-floor "sun room" of this khangpa, a traditional Ladakhi house), with shared bathrooms and with stunning views of the white six-thousand-metre giants of the Stok Range smashing up into the sky, for the steal of just INR 300.- or US$ 6.70 per night.
Beer: 650-ml bottles of lukewarm Godfather Super Strong beer (with a whopping 8 % alc./vol.) for INR 100.- or US$ 2.25 per large bottle from the guest house, or for only INR 65.- or US$ 1.45 per large bottle at the local English Wine Shop (no hyphen) in downtown Leh. 

Click below for an interactive road map of the Kailash Guest House in Leh, which we would highly recommend, and for directions:

Taking time to acclimatize to the high altitude of c. 3,500 m above sea level in order to avoid the unpleasant and hated symptoms of acute mountain sickness aka "altitude bends" and, in the meantime, soaking in the touristy atmosphere of bustling Leh, which sits in a fertile side valley of the Indus River, encircled by stark, awe-inspiring mountains with the cold desert beyond: (i) a militarised and rather dusty mountain town with a surplus of inexperienced tour guides and visible shortage of skilled plumbers, packed to the brim with emporiums selling cheapish curios, knick-knacks and pseudo-Tibetan paraphernalia, and (ii) a very busy, sometimes hectic, jumping-off point for overpriced and commercialised Himalaya treks...

Ticking off the touristic must-see sights of Leh, thus (i) visiting the 17th-century CE Sankar Gompa, a traditional Tibetan Buddhist monastery, where we meet the senile Gadan Thripa, the 86-year old senior head lama from Rezong Rimpoche, and his 6-year young precocious cadet Bakula, the future head lama for Spituk and Sankar, and snacking together on traditional das sil (very sweet rice with nuts, almonds and dried fruits) in order to celebrate Buddha Shakyamuni’s Birth-Enlightenment-and-Parinirvana Day on this sunny June 15, 2011 CE, (ii) climbing up the massive 16th-century CE, nine-storey high Leh Palace (admission for non-Indian nationals: INR 100.-), a miniature version of Lhasa’s Potala Palace in a state of advanced disrepair, with sloping buttresses, projecting wooden balconies and narrow passages lined with old thangkas (silk cloth printed with a Tibetan Mahayana deity), paintings and arms, (iii) getting thereafter lost in the dilapidated maze of narrow lanes with cheap local eateries, quaint native beer huts (ice-cold dirty bottles of clean Godfather Super Strong beer with 8 % alc./vol. for just INR 90.- per large 650-ml bottle) and handicraft workshops of the Old Village, east of the Main Bazaar, which once used to accommodate trade caravans, (iv) stopping in the 1436 CE Tsemo Gompa, the Red Monastery, with its colossal two-storey high image of the sitting Maitreya, and (v) paying a sunset visit to the white Shanti Stupa, one of a series of Peace Pagodas built by the Japanese Nipponzan-Myōhōji Buddhist Order around the world.

Sipping luke-warm gurgur chasalted tea with buffalo butter, and listening patiently to the affable Red-Hat monks’ monotone chanting in the remote 16th-century CE Phyang Gompa (c. 3,560 m above sea level; local bus from Leh for INR 20.- per person) which houses hundreds of statues, including some 14th-century CE Kashmiri bronzes, Buddhist thangkas and manuscript copies of the Kangyur/Tengyur prayer books, and hoping for the best (but expecting the worst) that paedophilia is only a Catholic habit; boy, oh boy.

Exploring the Yellow-Hat lamas’ 15th-century CE Spituk Gompa near Leh (c. 3,190 m high; local bus from Leh for INR 10.- per person), speculating how Vajrabhairava’s allegedly extremely terrifying, but luckily veil-covered face might look like (unveiled only once a year, some day in January), and, in order to stay on the safe side, giving all the prayer wheels in this monastery a brisk clockwise spin for good luck.

Meeting sweet Sister Angmo and formidable Sister Sonam from the Ladakh Nuns Association +911982255521 at their well-run and neat Mahayana Buddhist nunnery, admiring the neat crochet tablecloths over the donated personal computers and learning about the association’s respectable vision statement: “… for the nuns of Ladakh to act (i) as devout Buddha Dharma teachers, (ii) as active social workers and (iii) as skilled Amchis (Tibetan Medicine Practitioners).”

Chuckling in moderation about the often negated this-worldly aspects of Buddhism (e.g. power and might, status and prestige, food and comfort) when we meet a travelling, fund-raising head lama from Dharamsala Head Quarter, who temporarily resides, together with his sexy female entourage, in the room right below us, redecorates his room into a cosy and plushy make-shift temple (without removing the king-size bed), and tries to entertain us old sinners, unbudging believers in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and professed agnostics, with his mumbo-jumbo about karma, meditation and an alleged suffering/rebirth cycle for each living being in the universe.
“Aaah ... when two Neptunes appear in the sky it is a sure sign that a midget in glasses is being born, Harry...”
Enjoying the two drawing cards of the annual Singhey Khababs Sindhu Festival: (i) the colourful and lively folk-dance/music show (although heavily politicised with patriotic overtones and quite dragging with seemingly never-ending propaganda speeches by some regional big wigs, all this under a heavy-handed police/military presence, but still authentic enough) with time-honoured songs, dances and costumes which have been passed on as oral and practical tradition from one generation to another, at the Sindhu Ghat near Choglamser, and (ii) the exciting and distinctively Himalayan version of a polo match (Ladakh’s national sport, popular for centuries in the rugged mountain valleys of the Karakoram Range), which is fast, harsh and appeared to follow no visible rules, on Leh’s dusty and very rough polo ground.

Listening to the jazzy sound of surnas (short horns), ga-lings (long Tibetan horns similar to alpenhorns) and damans (large standing drums) in the 15th-century CE Tiekse Gompa (c. 3,580 m above sea level; local bus from Leh for INR 20.- per person), watching one of the Yellow-Hat lamas’ religious fire ceremonies where they burn all sorts of grains on a bonfire made from dried cow dung, later on having a glimpse at an elaborate sand mandala (and being seriously told that it was nothing less than “…a revelatory symbol of cosmic truths and instructional charts of the spiritual aspect of human experience...”, and, nonetheless, regardless of this new-age bafflegab, still enjoying their hour-long, somewhat otherworldly and rather monotone, but always entertaining Buddhist chants: om ... om ... om ... om ... om ... om ... om ... om...

Buying two “Protected Area Permits In Favour Of Foreign Tourists”, issued from the office of the District Magistrate in Leh within one day (principally free of charge, except for the compulsory donation of only INR 10.- per person for a nebulous Red Cross Fund and for the fee of only INR 120.- per person for a compulsory sponsoring agency, in our case Gyatso’s reliable Vajra Voyages +911982251839), taking the biweekly J.K.S.R.T.C. (Jammu & Kashmir State Road Transport Corporation) bus through a barren, rocky, nearly colourless landscape of neutral tans and grays over the 5,360-m high Chang-La Pass, thus traversing the Ladakh Range, to the remote village of Lukung, situated on the shore of the 4,267-m high Pangong Lake near the Chinese border (146 km, 8 hours, INR 170.- per person) and walking together with our friends Alex (from the Ukraine) and Julian (from Colombia) along the lake shore through thin air to the village of Spangmik (7 km, 1 ½ hours).

Click below for a summary of this year's travels 

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