Leh is the biggest city and the capital of the newly formed Union territory of Ladakh. It was also the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Ladakh or Maryul. This high-altitude (3,524 m or 11,562 ft) cold desert city is located by the bank of the river Indus and is surrounded by lofty mountain ranges. Leh is the only base for anyone travelling to Ladakh as it is well connected by road (to Srinagar and Manali) and by air to the other major cities nearby. As a continuation of my Ladakh series, today I will share my first day of touring experience in Leh.
With my general introduction to Ladakh and my tour itinerary in my previous post, I have started my series of blog posts (read it here.) So here I share my day one trip details. Our flight to Leh from Delhi was delayed due to bad weather in Leh. From the beginning of the trip, there was a feeling of uncertainty. Even after the flight took off there were announcements from the cockpit that there was a strong tailwind and landing could be difficult or in the worst case, the flight may be diverted. There was a lot of turbulence while flying through the dense clouds. As we approached for landing, we got some veiled and some clear images of the land below. It was the first sight of my much-desired land and I was highly thrilled. Finally, I made it to Leh.
From the air, it was vast barrenness with occasional patches of vegetation here and there and the beautiful green Indus snaking through the valley. The city is very close to the airport and we soon reached the hotel. The view from the balcony was breathtaking – lines of Poplar trees in front curtaining the snow-capped mountains at a distance. Everything was shining bright with the backdrop of the sparkling blue sky. The weather seemed to have improved after we reached Leh. Then it was a day of complete rest to get acclimatised. The next day we started touring Leh which required no significant gain in altitude.
For our initial couple of days in Leh, we hired a bike. Setting the locations on Google Maps we started for our first destination which was the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame museum is located on the Leh-Kargil highway. This museum is built and maintained by the Indian Army in memory of the soldiers who bravely fought for India in the Indo-Pak wars and laid down their lives. The displays of the museum include various pictures of the soldiers in different conditions defending the nation; many ammunitions that have been captured during the war; pictures of the army posts on high glaciers, accommodations and the highly modified clothes of the soldiers.
The Hall of Fame was immensely crowded, but we got the tickets and entered the museum within a very short time. After paying our tribute to the great heroes of the country, the martyrs of the nation we moved ahead to our next destination. I was in complete awe of the landscapes, I could not believe I was finally in Leh – my long long-time dream destination – Yes, I was Leh’d as they say :). With this amazement and a strange excitement within, we reached the Shanti Stupa winding through the hills. The sun was shining bright and the crisp thin air had a bit of chill in it. We climbed to this freshly painted monument high up on the hill overlooking the vast valley ahead with the Leh palace and Tsemo palace located on their respective hills.
The construction of Shanti Stupa was done with the mission of a Japanese Buddhist, Nichidatsu Fujii. He ideated the construction of Buddhist peace pagodas and temples all over the world in 1914 to restore the Buddhist faith. Following his idea, the Japanese Buddhist monk Bhikshu Gyomyo Nakamura and Kushok Bakula, a lama from Ladakh started building the project with the financial and physical help from other Buddhist members of Ladakh. The construction began in 1983 and was completed in 1991. It was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama.
The two-level Shanti Stupa has the relic of Buddha at the base. The first level has the relief of Dharmachakra with two deer on either side and the central golden Buddha sitting on a platform. The second level depicts the stories from various stages of his life – birth to death. The Shanti Stupa offers a panoramic view of the valley and the city with the Namgyal Tsemo and the Leh Palace, all of these are surrounded by snow-capped mountain ranges at a distance.
From here we stared for the Leh Palace with the help of Google Maps. This time it took us to some narrow lane within a locality. We were doubtful about the direction shown to us so we decided to ask for help. The friendly people of the locality eagerly came ahead to guide us the way to Leh Palace. They said that Google Maps should not be trusted when you are finding any place in Ladakh. I was told this for the second time. The first time was even before reaching Leh. It was when I was looking for vehicles after making my itinerary (getting the idea of the distance between the places of interest from Google Maps). That time I was reproached and very distinctly told by some vehicle rental service, that ‘you just cannot rely on Google Maps when touring Ladakh’. After that I changed my itinerary with the guidance of Master Photographer Manish Lakhani (who travels to Ladakh very frequently).
By that time it was clear that even if we take the help of Google Maps, it is always better to have a bit of human advice here. So the helpful people of the locality guided us the way to Leh Palace and we took the twists and turns as per our understanding and reached a different hill than that of the Leh Palace. This was the Tsemo Namgyal, the white structure on another hill that we saw from the Shanti Stupa. The Tsemo Monastery was built by King Tashi Namgyal in 1430 and is considered one of the significant Buddhist shrines in Ladakh.
Again some magnificent views of the city below and the surrounding landscapes. It is located at the highest point within Leh. We were quite comfortable while we were stationary but a little walk and a little climb to these monuments kept us panting heavily. We realised that our bodies need some more rest. We decided to return back to our hotel after having a late lunch. But again we took some wrong turn and reached some different place and it was just behind the Leh Palace. So we changed our decision and asked people for the road to the entrance of the Palace.
Now we were in Leh Palace, the nine-storeyed structure that was once the royal residence. The palace was built during 1612-1642 by king Sengge Namgyal. The upper floor of this nine-storeyed structure was used as the accommodation of the royal family while the lower floors were used as stables and storerooms. The palace is maintained by the Archeological Survey of India. The museum within the palace has a collection of Thangkas, paintings, Jewellery, ceremonial dresses and crowns. The Namgyal stupa, the colourful Chandazik Gompa and the Chamba Lakhang are located at the base of the palace.
Again climbing the stairs to reach the top of the palace made us catch our breath. We understood we must not exert ourselves too much and must return to rest for the day. So we returned back to the hotel to end our day. But the beautiful weather and the long daylight pulled us outside for a gentle stroll to the nearby Leh market. The market like any touristy place market has anything and everything that can attract a tourist. There were souvenir stores, warm garments stores, some traditional jewellery stores, a small Tibetan refugee market, eateries and also medicine stores.
There was also the beautiful and intricately built Jama Masjid within the heart of the market. Today what stands is the renovated and restored version of the mosque. This mosque was constructed by Singe Namgyal in 1666-67 as a tribute to his Muslim mother. While this mosque was a symbolic seal of agreement between the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and the king of Ladakh Deldan Namgyal. As per the agreement, the Mughals would provide protection to the Ladakhi rulers in return for a fee. With the daylight fading and the chill in the air increasing, we finally returned back to end our first day of touring in Ladakh. We travelled far on our second day. Stay tuned to my blog to know where we went on our second day of touring. Follow my blog to get updates on my new posts.