Gone to Gompa
Well, we opted out of the nubra valley trek because of the traffic-causing presence of H. H. Dalai Lama. He will be speaking at the Diksit gompa on the 6th, and every guesthouse in the area is booked. Instead, we’ve taken up the bus habit with an attitude. The bus station in Leh must be similar to all of its species around India – there seems to be a concerted effort to deny any attempt at organization! The office, which we managed to find today, consisted of two plastic chairs and a desk in a shack with a dirt floor. There was no clerk, though his name was proudly listed just below the office director’s name on a piece of construction paper pinned to the wall. Anyway, we managed without – traversing the parking lot three or four times asking for Thikse until someone got tired of listening to us and pointed us to a bus.
The ride was uneventful – a series of brief stops to allow locals to hop on and off – and we were in Thikse in a half hour or so. The gompa is stunning, as most of them are in these parts. It is part of the Galugpa order, to which the Dalai Lama belongs, and this order was the one that pioneered building on mountain tops. It’s been there since the 15th century and houses somewhere around 60 monks. The complex has 10 temples within it, most of which were not open to the public, which was sad, but not unexpected. The temple of the protectors, nearest the top, was double bolted, but I managed to peek through the loose-fit doors and get a glimpse of the demon statues inside lit by oil lamps. Tibetan Buddhism fought long and hard to establish itself over the older animist tradition in Tibet known as Bon, and it wasn’t until the 7th or 8th century that a tantric monk from India managed to appease the Tibetan gods and get them to “work for” Buddha. The gods live on as protector deities or demons, which are usually decked out with greusome skulls and evil faces. Some say these are the faces you’ll see when you die, so the Tibetans want you to get a look at them early so as to avoid shameful shock and a degraded re-incarnation. Although closed, the view from the top of the gompa was spectacular.
We spent nearly half the day there, then walked back to Shay and caught the bus in to town. Catching the bus out of town is as easy as waving it down on the road – no bus stops, easy 😉
The prayer wheels here were donated by the Dalai Lama a few years back. The following is a view of the gompa from the approach road.
Today we went to Spituk Gompa, which is much closer to town but offered a much more interesting experience. After wrangling the bus, we arrived just as prayers were starting, but rather than kick us out, the monks invited us to have some Tibetan tea! This tea is, to be fair, an acquired taste. It’s black tea steeped and churned in thick, salty butter. Hearty in the winter, a few cups are all you need in summertime! We listened for about an hour, and then the monks brought in lunch! We were the only two tourist types in the place, and I guess they were impressed with how quiet we were. Lunch was basic wheat dumplings in (you guessed it) butter, with sugar added. It was delicious, and very filling. Unfortunately, no photography was permitted inside any of these temples.
Spituk was founded in the 11th century, and the crown jewel of it is the Mahakal temple, at the very top of the hill. This was truly creepy, and one of the strongest examples of the BOn/animist tradition of old Ladakh and Tibet. The paintings decorating the middle temple where we had lunch are also well known, being the work of Kashmiri monks of a very specific school. THe details and colors were distinctive, most notably for me the background details. Streams flowed into rivers, and the way the waves and ripples were drawn made me feel vertigo, as though I was floating through the stories told by the thanka. I have some video of this stuff, because it was too dark and flash photography was forbidden.
After Spituk, we wandered over the river Indus and took a nice 12 km walk up the valley in peace. The opposite side of the river is like another world – small, clean houses spread out over fertile fields and rimmed by steep cliffs and desert. Sadly, the camera crapped out at this point, but again, I have video. On the Choglamsar road we met a few Ladakhi kids hanging out in a nice new jeep listening to music (Ming Choou – the soundtrack to a Ladakhi film recently released) and giggling. It was a nice contrast to the two villagers driving their train of horses up into the hills to graze.
We are enjoying Leh very much, and not too upset about the missed opportunity to go to Kargyak. More on that later, and more gompas to come!