India

Udaipur

Udaipur is described as the most romantic city in India. We’re not so sure about this. There is a certain Venice-ness to it, with old havelis (mansions) right up against the large lake, but as Lonely Planet so euphemistically puts it, “the romanticism is wearing ever so slightly thin.”

 

Photos by Ben Journee

A group of men playing cards by the lake, and the Rialto-like bridge in the background

A group of men playing cards by the lake, and the Rialto-like bridge in the background

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Lake Pichola at dusk

Lake Pichola at dusk

The large city palace was a pretty large disappointment, despite being impressive from the outside. Room after room of amateur paintings, dodgy dioramas and cardboard cutouts of old rulers were far from impressive. We could also tell that our comparably hefty ticket fare was not going far in to maintaining the complex. A view from one of the palace courtyards gives you an unimpressive and unpleasant view of a large rubbish pile in the middle of a lower courtyard. We were able to get some pretty shots though.

City Palace (which is really a few palaces in one) from the entrance

City Palace (which is really a few palaces in one) from the entrance

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Cardboard cutout (left) to complete the furnishings 

Cardboard cutout (left) to complete the furnishings 

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Anglo-Indian decor

Anglo-Indian decor

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Saheliyon-ki-Bari Gardens (Garden of Maids)

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 Fortunately our disappointments were eased when we visited Bagore ki Haveli, which was a beautifully salvaged and restored mansion on the waters edge, and was once occupied by the royal family. The spaces were presented with some impressive historical treasures and each room told a real story with the dressings and the descriptions.

Bagore ki Haveli courtyard

Bagore ki Haveli courtyard

Royal dressing room

Royal dressing room

Games room 

Games room 

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Royal cenotaphs - impressive, but in a sad state of negligence (the bribe asking guard didn't help the atmosphere either)

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After running out of things to do, and having a day up our sleeve while we waited for our late night train to Agra, we decided to catch a rickshaw to a nearby mall and catch a Bolliwood flick (in Hindi!) It was everything you could imagine it would be. A muddle of genres spread over 3 hours, interspersed with seemingly irrelevant music videos starring the main characters and a suitably dramatic plot diversion in the last 20 minutes. We were really glad we managed to fit this in before we left India.

Pushkar

Wrapped around a holy lake, and constantly heaving with Indian pilgrims who come to bathe in its waters, we were expecting a certain spiritual hum from Pushkar (which is the way it was described by Lonely Planet). For us, we found that the scammers were clever and sneaky, and are apparently good at getting tourists to pay enormous sums in their own currency (thankfully we didn’t fall for this one!) and that experiencing the ghats was more of an endless photo shoot with Indian pilgrims who seemed to be more interested in us than the lake. Fortunately, we found a quieter spot where we could spend time at the lake without too much attention, and we spent some nice hours painting there, as photography is not allowed on the ghats.

 

Photos by Ben Journee

We snuck a photo from a rooftop restaurant

We snuck a photo from a rooftop restaurant

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Another rooftop shot at dusk

Another rooftop shot at dusk

Most of our time was spent cruising the markets, and we bought probably too much because of it. And perhaps the real highlight was finding a beautifully renovated haveli (mansion) that is now a boutique hotel and restaurant. The food was fantastic, and unlike anything we’d had before in India, and even better was the fact that we could enjoy the atmosphere without exceeding our budget!

Buying watercolours at the market

Buying watercolours at the market

Street food for lunch

Street food for lunch

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We were also fortunate to stumble across the Ganesh festival, which had the tiny streets packed with decked out jeeps and trucks. Brass bands introduced trucks holding shrines to Ganesh, but were always followed by utes carrying monstrous speakers playing extremely loud and trashy dance music, loaded and surrounded with young, sweaty men dancing and generally going a bit crazy. It was a strange combination that got rowdier as the night got darker, and it was also somewhat revealing of a generational divide. The sweet young boys throwing flowers into the crowds were rather charming, and the streets littered with marigolds and pink petals were a beautiful trace of the festival.

 

The start of the Ganesh festival in the afternoon

The start of the Ganesh festival in the afternoon

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Girls watch from a rooftop

Girls watch from a rooftop

Boys throwing flowers from a truck

Boys throwing flowers from a truck

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People grab a good spot as the main chowk starts to get lively

People grab a good spot as the main chowk starts to get lively

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Walking home after the festival

Walking home after the festival

We had a relaxing and enjoyable few days in Pushkar, but certainly didn’t feel the same spiritual energy that we so loved about Rishikesh. The lake just wasn’t quite the same as the river...

 

Delhi (Round Two)

I remember the first time we walked down Main Bazaar...exhausted, a little jet lagged, and seriously groggy, hot, damp, and lost.  

This time, we came from the opposite direction (both literally and metaphorically). This time, we weren't followed, cornered or jumped by 'friends' as we left the train station. I was smiling this time, and I didn't have to feign confidence, because I had it. And I have to admit, I was a little proud of ourselves for our growth in confidence and travel savvy.  

 

We really got out and about in Delhi round two, and filled our three days with goodness. We walked around the narrow, rabbit warren bazaars around Old Delhi, getting almost lost. We enjoyed the impressive collection at the National Museum. We bought and devoured coconut, mango and annona fruit. And we had some flippin delicious food, at the institution that is Karim's with its rich and spicy, carnivorous Mughali fare, and the more light and zesty South Indian dosas at Saravana Bhavan (followed by a perfect Kerala coffee). 

After round two, we feel like we can now give recommendations for Delhi!

 

All photos were taken and edited on our phones

Departing for Delhi - Haridwar train station at dawn

Departing for Delhi - Haridwar train station at dawn

Main Bazaar

Main Bazaar

Chandi Chowk, Old Delhi 

Chandi Chowk, Old Delhi 

A crowded bazaar 

A crowded bazaar 

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School kiddies in a cycle rickshaw

School kiddies in a cycle rickshaw

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Karim's - established in 1913,  the owner's ancestors were chefs for the courts of the Mughal emperors, even once working at Red Fort (which we visited on our first day in Delhi and made our first blog post about!)

Karim's - established in 1913,  the owner's ancestors were chefs for the courts of the Mughal emperors, even once working at Red Fort (which we visited on our first day in Delhi and made our first blog post about!)

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The kebab department at Karim's

The kebab department at Karim's

Our delicious Lamb tikka (second time we've eaten meat in 2 months)

Our delicious Lamb tikka (second time we've eaten meat in 2 months)

Karim's special lamb kebab

Karim's special lamb kebab

May sound weird, but raw red onion doused in lemon juice is delicious, especially as an accompaniment (and palette cleanser) to the rich tikka and curry dishes

May sound weird, but raw red onion doused in lemon juice is delicious, especially as an accompaniment (and palette cleanser) to the rich tikka and curry dishes

Thali at a delightfully air-conditioned restaurant off Main Bazaar

Thali at a delightfully air-conditioned restaurant off Main Bazaar

Coconut Rava Masala Dosa - divine!

Coconut Rava Masala Dosa - divine!

Mikayla really enjoying her dosa!

Mikayla really enjoying her dosa!

Ben really enjoying his dosa!

Ben really enjoying his dosa!

Keralan coffee

Keralan coffee

The cute tea kit on the train to Jaipur, with personal hot water jug

The cute tea kit on the train to Jaipur, with personal hot water jug

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Rishikesh

Rishikesh wasn’t on our to-do-list initially. The destructive flooding in Uttarkhand state in the month or so before we left New Zealand was a deterrent, and we assumed it was going to be an entirely tourist town because of it being a yoga hub. I’m so glad we changed our minds. It was a bit of a toss up between Shimla and Rishikesh when we were planning our next move from Manali. And in fact, it was the higher prices of accommodation in Shimla that lead to our decision to come to Rishikesh. 

There are the regular tourist shops, all selling the same garments, jewellery, crystals and collectables. And there is a row of tourist cafes, all selling the same international menus, though strictly vegetarian and no alcohol (on the menus anyway). And yet, despite this familiar travellers fare, Rishikesh has not been consumed by it, and the city has an energy that the other places we’ve visited have not.

The sadhus, the pilgrims, the songs that reverberate into the streets from the temples, the sunset puja and of course, the river - the fast paced, powerful and yet seductive Mother Ganga. The river that captivated us, like so many others, and pulled us in with her life and spirit. 

Rishikesh is centered on this holy body of water, and people are drawn here for the spiritual practices and lifestyle that the mother goddess has engendered. There is a yoga studio and/or ashram every couple of buildings, and the sadhus line the road between the two major bridges, Laxman and Ram Jhula(s).

The monsoon meant the air has been thick, as the clouds hang heavily on the mountains. But the rain brings such a calm, and the evening breeze that comes down the river brings such good air.

 

Photos by Ben Journee

The Ganges just before sunset

The Ganges just before sunset

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Laxman Jhula bridge 

Laxman Jhula bridge 

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Mikayla made a friend at the ghats

Mikayla made a friend at the ghats

A woman with her prayer book on the ghats

A woman with her prayer book on the ghats

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Krishna Cafe, over looking the Ganges - a typical evening in Rishikesh

Krishna Cafe, over looking the Ganges - a typical evening in Rishikesh

The four main cafes, which all overlook the Ganga

The four main cafes, which all overlook the Ganga

A man meditates in the evening by the river

A man meditates in the evening by the river

Images from our 6 hour walk through rural Rishikesh, crossing through bush, rice paddies and waterfalls. It was a beautiful time spent in the Himalayan foothills.

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Moshmi (large, sweet lime)

Moshmi (large, sweet lime)

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Walking around the totally abandoned ashram where the Beatles spent time in 1968 was like walking through time. The forest is claiming back the impressive and beautifully detailed structures of the ashram.

There are enormous meditation domes with incredible acoustics, overgrown paths and living spaces, and an impressive collection of images and words in the Beatles Cathedral Gallery. These walls are evidence of a community of visitors, both passers by and sincere seekers of life’s meaning, who have left their marks and thoughts in pens and paint, and filled the deserted environment with a sense of spirit. 

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In sanskrit, the word aarti means complete love, and thus the Ganga Aarti is the expression of devotion towards God in the form of puja, or religious worship. More specifically, the ritual involves circulating an ‘aarti lamp’ around a person (or deity, depending on the version), and in an act of purification or blessing, one’s down-turned hands are held over the flames of the lamp before pressing the transferred heat and energy to one’s forehead.

The Aarti is accompanied with songs of praise each evening with the setting of the sun, on the edge of the Ganga, and worshippers face, what was once, the massive statue of Shiva. During the destructive floods in June this year, the goddess Ganga took Shiva back, and so all that remains is the massive plinth that once supported the deity figure.

The Ganga Aarti signs off each day with an sense of community, giving thanks and liberation, with the waters of Mother Ganga feeding people’s hearts and souls with a divine energy.

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On the ghats at Parmath Niketan ashram, awaiting the start of the Aarti

On the ghats at Parmath Niketan ashram, awaiting the start of the Aarti

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Aarti lamp

Aarti lamp

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Mother and daughter drinking the purifying waters of the Ganga

Mother and daughter drinking the purifying waters of the Ganga

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Leh

We didn’t realise the significance of Old Town when we booked our guest house from Manali. And even when we walked our first exploratory steps around the crumbling, dilapidated buildings and lanes, we didn’t fully appreciate yet how important this area of Leh was. In fact, it may well have been our last day in Leh, two weeks later, that we came to understand the significance of Old Town, and how this once central point amidst the hustle and bustle of the ancient trans-Himalayan trade routes, needs continued attention and support.

 

Photos by Ben Journee

Old Town with Leh Palace on the ridge above

Old Town with Leh Palace on the ridge above

It would be a fib to say we weren’t a little disappointed with Leh town itself. Our expectations had been high before arriving, and we’d done enough research about Ladakh to recognize a lacking sense of Ladakhi identity within the city of Leh. The homogenising effects of globalisation seemed to fill our vision. 

There was a struggling underbelly of resistance to this though - Women’s Alliance Ladakh for instance, the LAMO centre and the work being done by Tibetan Heritage Fund in recent years. And yet, after two weeks in Leh, we saw that the voice of these organisations were drowned by the, literally, countless pashmina stores and numerous and equally average ‘international’ restaurants. Equally, though somewhat understandably, as Tibetan Buddhism is the religion of Ladakh, the Tibetan Refugee market stalls, which stand every couple of hundred metres around Leh, and Tibetan restaurants, seem to drown out the far smaller and weaker voice of a specific Ladakhi culture, heritage and history. Where are the Ladakhi restaurants? Where are the Ladakhi craft stalls? Where and what is Ladakh?

Mikayla on the path up to Leh Palace

Mikayla on the path up to Leh Palace

Leh Palace is a nine-story stone structure, bearing similarities in style to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, and was built in the 17th century by the Ladakhi King, Sengge Namgyal, who decided to make Leh the capital of his Ladakhi Kingdom.

The palace is open to the public, but exists as little more than a shell. Visitors really need a torch to explore the narrow, dark and dank passages inside the building, as there is no additional lighting to support the little that comes in through the tiny windows. 

Though compelling in its dereliction, the building that physically dominates over the city, impressing us as we arrived, loses its magnitude and sense of strength as one walks through the neglected structure.

 

The quiet and dark passageways inside Leh Palace

The quiet and dark passageways inside Leh Palace

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It seemed at times as though Leh had taken a year off from its tourist trade. All of the temples around Leh Palace were ‘closed for maintenance’ and when we enquired at tourist agencies about where to find information on the culture and history of Leh, we were met with confused looks and a reply of “there’s nothing like that.” 

Tourist agencies only offered trekking, rafting, and shared jeep trips to see the landscape of Ladakh. We didn’t come on this trip to trek, and our budget limited us in terms of day trips to visit the lakes and valleys (and we’d experienced some of the landscape on our journey up to Leh, which you’d miss if you flew in). 

We wanted to see the traditional dance and music performances that were held every night in summer outside the palace, but we were to learn that these were stopped two years ago after audience numbers dropped and someone in the group passed away. We wanted to see the Women’s Alliance Ladakh festival, but only saw one small flier after it had finished. And when we went to their building the following day, we were largely ignored and found the shop all but empty of stock. There were certainly no signs of a bustling festival the day before. 

The lack of internet in Leh didn’t help our situation (as sad as this sounds), as it was only after we left the city that we found where the Central Asian Museum was. We didn’t know it existed, let alone where it was when we were there. No signage, and no promotion, even the extremely helpful guy who worked at our guesthouse never mentioned it. And, it was our last day in Leh that we found the LAMO centre, where there was a brilliant exhibition on Old Town. 

In several ways, I think we didn’t help ourselves in finding what we wanted. There is real irony that the online information about the LAMO centre, the THF (Tibetan Heritage Fund) and even the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh is so rich and accessible, when the internet in Leh itself is so poor. We were lucky to get a dial up speed connection each day, and it cost too much and was such a nuisance that it made it difficult to browse the web to find these resources whilst we were there. There was little on the ground information, and I think that in hindsight (and what we have learnt from our time there) is to be more proactive about finding out what is there, and what is going on. 

Of course, it didn’t help matters that a large proportion of our time in Leh was spent in reasonable discomfort, being unwell on and off the entire time, which was certainly enough to hold us back. We didn’t know the internet was going to be so poor, and therefore we didn’t pre-plan. We didn’t make a list of things to do/things we wanted to do while we were there, and more preplanning (and pre-internet browsing) would have been better. 

However, all this been said, it was not as though our time in Leh was completely wasted with nothing positive to share! Unlike McLeod Ganj, we don’t have a special Altaf, or Meena experience. But we did, for example, get offered a lift by monks back to Leh after our visit to the stunning Thikse monastery. And we do, of course, have our experience at Diskit gompa. We enjoyed our time at Nubra valley, even though most of it was driving. We loved visiting Stok Palace (where the Ladakhi royal family resettled after being dethroned and exiled in 1834) and exploring the museum there. And I so enjoyed buying and eating the sweet, soft apricots off the Ladakhi women who would sit on Main Bazaar and sell their vegetables and fruit. We later saw photos (in the LAMO centre) of Ladakhi women doing the exact same thing in the 70s, as if nothing had changed over the course of that time. We found solace in Lala’s Cafe and, on our final day in Leh, found a freshness and positivity for Leh in the exhibition about Old Town at the LAMO centre.

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The last trans-Karakoram caravan crossed to Leh in 1953. And the days of Leh as a bustling town and centre for the trans-Himalayan trade route, where caravans would arrive and depart, from and to the perilous and demanding mountain passes with their goods, were over.

The Sanskar Labrang monastery owned a house in Old Town, that was used by monks as offices in which to organise the many trade-caravans passing through the town. The house was originally built around five ancient Buddha stone carvings, which remain on the ground floor of the building as a cave-like vestry. In 2006, THF and LOTI (Leh Old Town Initiative), saved the house from demolition, as it was in a state of serious decay much like the rest of Old Town, and converted it into Lala’s, a tiny cafe and exhibition space in the heart of this historical borough.

Outside Lala’s is a large stone Buddha that was found partly buried in the yard of the Tak family, who agreed to have the stone conserved and moved outside Lala’s, only 40m away, which serves as a placemaker for the edge of the historic town. 

 

Lala's Cafe 

Lala's Cafe 

The ancient Buddha sculptures in the basement of Lala's

The ancient Buddha sculptures in the basement of Lala's

The decay that THF and LOTI found at Lala’s is mirrored around the whole of Old Town, where around 200 stone, mud and timber houses are sandwiched between fragments of the once massive rammed earth walls that enclosed the town. 50% of the buildings, many probably as old as Leh Palace that was built in the 17th century, are in poor condition, and many are still inhabited. Old Town has water supply problems, with only five public water taps in the area. And further to this, the area has problems/no real infrastructure for waste water drainage, or sewage. On top of this, the boom in tourism and subsequent commercialisation of Leh, has meant a severe and damaging increase in non-degradable waste, in a city that has little ability to deal with it and a fragile ecosystem. 

The thousands of tourists who come to Leh each year in summer, wanting regular showers and flush toilets adds to the strain on the natural environment. The lack of water supply and sanitation in Old Town has caused some people, those who are able, to leave and abandon their homes. 

As the Tibet Heritage Fund worded, “the former centre of the country has, in effect, become a slum.” Initially, we assumed the majority of Old Town was deserted, based on our assessment of the condition of the buildings, and were a little surprised to learn they are still inhabited. 

Coupled with the poor quality of living conditions for residents of Old Town, there is also an increasing loss of cultural identity and sense of community due to migration and the rapid changes in economy.

View of Leh, with deteriorating structures of Old Town in the foreground

View of Leh, with deteriorating structures of Old Town in the foreground

The streets of Old Town

The streets of Old Town

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For these reasons, it was such a thrill to find the LAMO centre (The Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation), and their exhibition called Mapping Old Town. The exhibition included local community projects, where local residents, including children, shared their experiences of where they live. There was also a collection of historical photographs showing Leh pre-tourism, and exhibitions of contemporary artists’ works, displayed amongst the centuries-old rooms and walls. As well, there were personal collections of traditional Ladakhi ephemera that have been saved by a younger generation of locals, and shared for the exhibition.

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Community art projects at the LAMO centre

Community art projects at the LAMO centre

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The other marvel of the LAMO centre was the building itself, and the magnificent restoration of two large Old Town houses, the Munshi and Gyaoo houses, that are now the best remaining examples of domestic vernacular architecture of the 17th century, in what was once the political, commercial and cultural nerve-centre of Leh. And because of the recent changes in Lhasa, Old Town is now the best preserved area of urban Tibetan architecture in the world.

Most people that lived in Old Town were there by virtue of their affinity to the King - his ministers, secretary, horsemen, tailors, jewellers, musicians and cooks - and their accommodation varied, in both proximity to the palace, size and style, according to their rank. The Munshi house was the residence of the secretary to the King, and the Gyaoo house was residence of the upper rank of artisans who performed for the royals. The two houses have been restored, and physically connected. And the LAMO centre inhabits both places and the interesting web of rooms that once served various purposes.

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There has been an impressive amount of initiatives and steps taken to preserve Old Town. Though it really needs a government-funded plan to develop basic amenities, THF and LOTI have successfully managed smaller projects to restore historical buildings, and rehabilitate one of the main roads in Old Town to model a drainage system of slate stone pathways which slope toward a central channel covered by grates. It was also exciting to see so many buildings around Leh harnessing renewable resources, with water tanks (no doubt a necessity) and solar panels on roof tops. And further, an impressive step was taken by Women’s Alliance Ladakh in getting plastic bags banned in Leh in 1998.

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We think the guide books need some revision with regards to Leh. A little less romanticism, and some serious support and more promotion for LAMO (Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation), Lala’s Cafe, Woman’s Alliance Ladakh and the Central Asian Museum (that we so sadly didn’t know existed until we left). These real, life-changing treasures, we feel, deserve more than the back alley of Leh’s tourism. And perhaps with a boost in promotion, there will be a boost in tourist attention, and these small scale initiatives can thrive. 

The highlights of Leh for us were spending time reading and drinking tea at Lala’s cafe, the awesome exhibition at the LAMO centre, right beneath the impressive structure that is Leh Palace, our trip to Nubra Valley and the special time we spent at Diskit monastery, visiting the museum at Stok Palace, and, finally, the stunning and peaceful Thikse monastery.

 

Thikse Gompa

Thikse Gompa

Thikse is the largest gompa in central Ladakh and bears incredible similarity to the Potala Palace in Lhasa (Tibet) with regards to its style. We jumped on a local bus to get there, which was an experience in itself, with passengers playing musical chairs and seemingly sharing children. We arrived (with the help of our fellow passengers who told us when to get off) and the gompa complex was incredibly still and silent. We chose a route to start the climb up to the temples, and wove our way through a warren of monks’ living quarters. 

Once we got up to the temple, there were a handful of tourists, but we hadn’t seen a single one during our ascent. We realised later that we’d come up an alternative route (because most visitors were dropped off by taxis as part of tour groups). We much preferred our way!

Two novice monks 

Two novice monks 

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The first temple was dark and quiet, with visitors struck silent upon entering. There was barely a butter lamp to illuminate the space. As we were entered the temple, a sand storm rolled up the Indus Valley. And so the temple became a kind of bunker, a temporary sanctuary for a few visitors, with a monk manning the door, holding it closed while the wind and sand howled outside. 

The walls were covered in murals, with surprisingly grotesque imagery, and the little light had a rather eerie and unearthly effect as you circumambulate the sacred space. A narrow space extending from the rear of the temple housed three statues, with a Buddha in the centre, again barely illuminated by the tiny windows.

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 In 1980, a two story high statue of the Maitreya (Future) Buddha was made to commemorate the visit of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, which he consecrated on his visit. It took three years to complete, and is made of clay, gold and copper. And the deity is unusually depicted in the lotus position, compared to the more typical depiction in a standing or sitting posture.

Maitreya Buddha

Maitreya Buddha

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 We adored Thikse. It was the peaceful buddhist sanctuary that we were expecting from Leh and a place I had been dreaming about for several months. The views over the valley from the temple were beautiful, and the cool wind ensured the prayers and mantras on the prayer flags were cast into the world.

View of the Indus Valley from the top of Thikse, with the sandstorm rolling in

View of the Indus Valley from the top of Thikse, with the sandstorm rolling in

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The final story of Leh is yet to be written. We hope that the infrastructure of Old Town is developed to ensure this historical treasure is allowed to survive. And we hope that the history and culture of Ladakh, and Leh, is similarly preserved and promoted. Although there were aspects of the city of Leh that were disappointing for us, we made some special memories during our two weeks on the roof of the world.

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The ladder-like stairs leading to Shanti Stupa

The ladder-like stairs leading to Shanti Stupa

Shanti Stupa, built in 1991 by the Japanese Buddhist, Bhikshu Gyomyo Nakamura

Shanti Stupa, built in 1991 by the Japanese Buddhist, Bhikshu Gyomyo Nakamura

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Soma Gompa behind Main Bazaar in Leh

Soma Gompa behind Main Bazaar in Leh

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Final day of Ramadan on Main Bazaar

Final day of Ramadan on Main Bazaar

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The route to our guesthouse

The route to our guesthouse

A house in Old Town

A house in Old Town

Large prayer wheel near our guest house. We made sure it was kept spinning every time we passed.

Large prayer wheel near our guest house. We made sure it was kept spinning every time we passed.

The walk up to Tsemo Gompa and Fort

The walk up to Tsemo Gompa and Fort

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View of Leh from the top of Tsemo ridge

View of Leh from the top of Tsemo ridge

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Leh Palace by night

Leh Palace by night

The roof tops of Old Town and lights of Leh at night

The roof tops of Old Town and lights of Leh at night

The Milky Way

The Milky Way

Star trails behind Tsemo Gompa

Star trails behind Tsemo Gompa

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