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Day 42: Ladakh

Ladakh, India 
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Road safety campaigns have yet to bear fruit in Ladakh.
Michael Palin - HimalayaThe scenery has a spare and minimal beauty and the buildings along the way, though few and far between, are very dramatic. Some ten miles along the highway to Manali, the walls of the old palace of the kings of Leh rear up along a prominent ridge to the north of the road. A king hasn't lived there for 400 years, but the evidence of power and wealth still clings to the place, both in the scale of the ruins and, on a nearby hillside, row upon row of crumbling white monuments. From a distance they resemble lines of half-melted snowmen, with the outlines of once square bases, conical middles and pointed tops now soft and imprecise. These stupas, or chortens, as they're called in Tibetan, contain the remains of lamas and monks from the monastery attached to the palace as well as members of the royal family and their possessions.

They vary in size, the highest being almost 20 feet tall. Usually situated in favourable geomantic locations, their design represents steps to enlightenment. They are constructed on five levels, with the square base symbolizing the earth and the tapering tops the sky and stars. As I wander among them I can see that few are intact. Most are leaning or cracked down the sides and all look as if they may have been opened up at some time. Intriguingly, many seem to have been freshly whitewashed, suggesting someone is still looking after them.

I have the feeling, as I stand in the middle of this field of whited sepulchres with little more than a stand of poplars growing in the valley below, that there was a time when these bare hills on the banks of the Indus must have supported a small empire. What was so different then? More water perhaps, a wider flood plain or perhaps just the power and influence that came from living on the Silk Route.

As we head east more stunning monasteries and temples appear out of nowhere. Thikse straddles an outcrop of rock with the smaller outbuildings that are the monks' quarters wrapped around the steep sides below it. This has been a working monastery (or gompa, in Tibetan) for nearly 1000 years and 60 lamas still live here.

The richest and most striking of the great Indus valley gompas is Hemis, another half-hour's drive along the main road and then by a side track up into a narrow gorge squeezed between walls of striped granite, folded and thrust upwards at 45 degrees to the plain below.
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  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 42: Ladakh
  • Country/sea: India
  • Place: Leh
  • Book page no: 96

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