I must say that the whole Ladakh is off the beaten path. But, when you go trekking you can have a real end-of-the-world feeling.
I went trekking along the Markha river, it took us 9 days (it can be done faster, but while in such a beautifulk area, is there any need to hurry?)
We hired a few Tibetans with mules in a local agency in Leh.
When on a trek you start quite low at 3500m near Leh, then in the mountains you up to some passes at 5200m. The highest campground, Nimaling at 4800m, is in fact the greatest Himalayan pasture in Ladakh.
At night different kinds animals with their shephards come there ( e.g.yaks, donkeys, sheep). At 5 o'clock in the morning two donkeys chose a place very near my tent to discuss something loudly till 7am, and there was no way to persuade them to go somewhere else................... :-(
Chemrey gompa is a less visited gompa not far from Leh. If driving to Taktok it's the eagle's nest you see on your left, when the roads passes some white stupas. This little Drugpa gompa was founded in 1664 as a memorial to King Sengge Namgyal, and today houses about 20 monks and novices. The view from the monastery is among the finest I have seen in Ladakh, and inside there's an interesting collection of illuminated Tibetan books, a huge brass statue of Padmasambhava encrusted with semi precious stones and interesting murals, painted about 20 years ago by a local artist. A word of warning: the road leading to the gompa is very narrow and windy, and unsurfaced - at every turn you feel you're dropping into the abyss
Taktok gompa is a small gompa about 5 kilometres from Chemrey gompa, and it's also the only gompa in Ladakh belonging to the ancient Nyingmapa order . The name Taktok means "top of the rocks", which is a very accurate descritpion of the place where it's located. Access is from the village at the foot of the monastery. The main temple or prayer hall, here, is not a "building" but a cave - legends wants that Padmasambhava stopped here to meditate in the 8th century while on his way to Tibet. Aside from the cave you can admire some beautiful wall paintings
and a collection of multicoloured yak butter candle sculptures made by the head lama.
This desert is something unreal - since it lies at above 3000 metres above sea level. It's located between the villages of Hunder and Diskit in the Nubra Valley, and it's surrounded by towering snow-capped peaks. There are even semi-wild camels, which were left behind by some caravan a long time ago: strangely they adapted to their new location and prospered - if you're lucky you can see them by the side of the road. And then again: the sand dunes are incredibly warm, Saharan-like I would say, although the day was quite cloudy and cool
Likri gompa will stay forever in my heart - I had the most touching gompa experience there. It's a large gompa complex with a huge "buddha of the future" statue before its entrance (it's the one sitting as if on a chair, with its legs down). However it's not the statue nor the rich decorations that captured me: we arrived in the middle of a ceremony - monks chanting/praying and playing music, and wearing those half-crescent distinctive hats. When the chanting was over we followed them inside the prayer hall, and here the miracle happened. It was the were inauguration of a mandala - a huge wonderful colourful mandala which we were invited to photograph. It would have remained on display for 2 days, then on day 3 it would have been destroyed. Unexpected perfect timing.
Phyang gompa is a lovely gompa - not particularly for the monastery itself, but for its spectacular surroundings - green and lush - fileds of I don't know which cereal or vegetable. The other thing that captivated me was the mumbling/chanting I heard from a building: I went there to see what was going on, and found a lovely class of novices studying English. Then I looked at the blackboard - spotted some spelling mistakes, and the teacher of me couldn't resist: I grabbed one novice, took him to the blackboard, pointed out the mistakes and asked them to correct them. At that moment the monk/english teacher arrived.. and burst out laughing!
A visit to Tso Chun lake is a nice way to take a break from the gompa trail, and to wind dowm among great ladscapes. It's located a few kilometres before Panamik - where a dirt road bisects to the left. It's not signposted, so you need someone to take you there. At the end of the track, where you park your jeep, there are some charming sand dunes - where we found a truck stuck - so I guess a good advice is to stay on the track. From there it's about a 30 minutes walk through barren landscape to the lake: once you get there the change of scenery is incredible - it's all lush and green
Basgo... we only stopped there briefly, and I wished we had stayed longer because this village is so much steeped in history. In the 15th century Basgo was the capital of lower Ladakh (Sham + Purig + Baltistan) before it was united and Leh made the "capital". There's a spectacular fortress on top of a hill were the Tibetans were defeated, and a mud-brick gompa. There's also the first Ladakhi mani wall, dating back to the beginning of the17th century
Diskit gompa is another gompa scenically located in the Nubra valley. It's built right by a gorge/canyon, and there's a nice legend attached to it. A Mongolian king came to conquer the gompa but the monks did not quite willingly submit to it, so they threw the king into the canyon. He fell into death and his hand bounced back into the monastery. The monks looked at the hand and threw it back into the canyon; once again the hand flew back - at this point they decided to keep it. Inside the gompa there's a statue with a hand in its arms - to remember the Mongolian King
Rizong gompa is located on the left bank of the Indu river, about 75 kilometres west of Leh. To get there take the right turn after Uletopko. This gompa was built in the 19th century by Tsulrim Nyima, a monk from nearby Saspol. There's a chorten with his ashes somewhere in the monastery. About 50 Gelugpa monks live in the complex, and they are very frendly - if you can, ask them to see their kitchen: it's truly spectacular - a jump back in time.
This gompa is in fact a nunnery, and it's located about 2 kilometres before Rizong gompa. When we walked by, and saw them, we decided something was "wrong", but it took us a few minutes to realize that the red-clothed figures in front of us, with their heads shaved, were actually women and not men. After the initial surprise these nuns turned out to be really friendly - they showed us their gompa and invited us for tea. They were also all very young, at least those we met - they were all aged 16 to 18, and we spotted several younger novices too. Unlike their male counterparts, they seemed to be spending their time being productive: all over the monastery there were apricots laid out under the sun to dry, while in other parts they had stocked almonds which they pressed to obtain massage oil.
This gompa is located in the Nubra Valley, not far from the friendly village of Sumur. It's an old gompa that has been refurbished and now looks more like a modern royal palace than a gompa. There are about 100 monks living there. As i have said, the architecture is quite a disappointment, but the interior is worth visiting: the large prayer room on the left, up the stairs, is very interesting: there are frescos showing hundreds of buddhas in the different positions, as well as some reproductions of the tara. It's worth to ask a monk about the different meanings of the positions: the theory is fascinating
The gompa of Hunder is a small and dirty monastery set in a garden full of white chortens. It's definitely unassuming, and yet it's one of my favourites: some frescos are really extraordinary (but bring a torch because they are badly lit). There are also some interesting wooden carvings, like the head in the picture... in other words everything at Hunder gompa is quite eerie, in a charming away. Above the gompa there are some tomb-like constructions filled with little carved jars, contains votive grains or cereals (I think), and further up again, following a narrow trail, a large white stupa from where you can have wonderful views over the area
The Moon Land is a geological phenomenon that can be see just before Lamayuru. Amid grey barren mountains you can see some patches of creamy rocks: they are shaped to remind you of dried-up waterfalls. From close-up they make you think of Pamukkale in Turkey, but if you look closely you'll see that the material is not limestone. Which rock it is, I don't know... what I know is that the scenery is very suggestive and unreal-looking - it really feels as if you can find yourself on the Moon
Stakna gompa was a beautiful gompa... a gompa that will never be the same. I managed to catch a last glimpse of its former splendour. It is now being restored, and the old beautiful frescos are being covered to make place to newer and very garish murals. Of the Stakna that once was, there's a single monk - he looks after he place and shows you the last original remain of the gompa: a wonderful old kitchen! Stakna gompa is located near Leh, not far from Tikse gompa and Shey palace, but on the other side of the Indu river.