|Leh Tour Guide
|Location: Ladakh, J&K
Significance: Capital Of Ladakh.
Main Attractions: Bazaar, Old Town, The Leh Palace, Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, Shanti Stupa, Ecology Centre, Sankar Gompa
Best Time To Visit: June To September
As one approaches Leh for the first time, via the sloping seep of dust and pebbles that divide if from the floor of the Indus Valley, one will have little difficulty imagining ho w the old trans -Himalayan traders must have felt as they plodded in on the caravan routes from Yarkhand and Tibet: a mixture of relief at having crossed the mountains in one piece, and anticipation of a relaxing spell in one of central Asia's most scenic and atmospheric towns.
Spilling out of a side valley that tapers north towards eroded snow-capped peaks, the Ladakhi capital sprawls from the foot of a ruined Tibetan style palace - a maze of mud-mud brick and concrete flanked on one side by cream-coloured desert, and on the other by a swathe of lush irrigated farmland.
History of Leh
Leh only became regio nal capital in the 17th century, when Sengge Namgyal shifted his court here from Shey, 15-km southeast, to be closer to the head of the Khardung La-Karakoram corridor into China. The move paid off: with in a generation, the town had blossomed into one of the busiest markets on the Silk Road. During the 1920s and 1930s, the broad bazaar that broad bazaar that still forms its heart received more than a dozen pony- and camel-trains each day.
Leh's prosperity, managed mainly by the Sunni Muslim merchants whose descendants live in its labyrinthine old quarter, came to an abrupt end with the closure of the Chinese border in the 1950's. One after the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971, when India rediscovered the hitherto forgotten capital's strategic value, did its fortunes begin to look up. Today, Khaki-clad Jawans (soldiers) and their families from the nearby military and air force bases are the mainstay of the local economy in winter, when foreign visitors are few and far between.
Undoubtedly the most radical shake-up, however, ensued from the Indian government's decision in 1974 to open Ladakh to foreign tourists. From the start, Leh bore the brunt of the annual invasion, as busloads of backpackers poured up the road Srinagar. Twenty or so years on, though the main approach is now via Himachal Pradesh rather than Kashmir, the summer influx shows no sign of abating.
Leh is doubled in size and is a far cry from the sleepy Himalayan town of the early 1970's. During July and August tourists stroll shoulder to shoulder down its main street, most of whose old style outfitters and provision stores have been squeezed out by Kashmiri handicraft shops, art emporiums and Tibetan restaurants.
The Town Attractions
Leh has nonetheless retained a more tranquil side, and is a pleasant place to unwind after a long bus journey. Attractions in and around the town itself include the former Palace and Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, perched amid strings of prayer flags above the narrow dusty streets of the Old Quarter.
A short walk north across the fields, the small monastery of Sankar harbours accomplished modern Tantric murals and a thousand beaded Avalokitesvara (also spelt as Avalokiteshvara) deity.
Leh is also a good base for longer day trips out into the Indus Valley. Among the string of picturesque villages and Gompas within reach by bus are Shey, site of a derelict 17th century palace, and the Spectacular Tikse Gompa. Until one has adjusted to the altitude, however, the Only sightseeing one will probably feel up to will be from a guesthouse roof terrace or garden, from where the snowy summits of the majestic Stok-Kangri massif (6,120m), magnified in the crystal clear Ladakhi sunshine, look close enough to touch.
This is small but more interesting place to visit than the Leh Gompa and can easily be visited on foot. The Sankar Gompa is an under Gompa of Spitok Gompa. At the most only 20 monks live here and few are permanently in residence although the monastery itself is fairly active. Thus the Gompa is only open to the public from 7.00 am to 10.00 am and from 5.00 to 7.00 pm. It is, however, well lit, so an evening visit is worthwhile. At these times the monks will welcome the visitors and may offer one yak butter tea, 'Tsampa' and boiled and spiced mustard plant.
When one had enough of the bazaar, head past the new green and white painted Jami Masjid at the top of the street, and follow one of the lanes that lead into the old town. Apart from the odd electric cable, nothing much has changed here since the warren of flat roofed houses, crumbling 'Chortens', 'Mani' Walls and narrow sandy streets was laid down late in the 16th century - least of all the plumbing.
One place definitely worth walking through the putrid smelling puddles to visit, however, is the Chamba temple. It's not easy to find on your own; ask at the second row of shops on the left after the big arch for the key keeper (gonyer), who will show you the way. Hemmed in by dilapidated medieval mansions, the one roomed shrine houses a colossal image of Maitreya, the Buddha to come, and some wonderful old wall paintings.
The old palace of the kings of Ladakh overlooks the town from the southwest slope of the Tsemo hill. It has eight storeys and was built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 16th century, at much the same time as the famed Potala of Lhasa - which it resembles. The damage to the palace, one side is gaping open, stems from the Kashmiri invasions of the last century. Like the Shey palace the Leh palace still belongs to the Ladakhi royal family, who now live in their palace in Stok.
The Leh Gompa stands high above the palace and also overlooks the ruins of the older palace of the King of Tagpebums. The Red Gompa also known as Namgyal Tsemo Gompa was built in 1430 by King Gvags-Pa-Bum-Ide and has a fine three-storey high seated Buddha figure flanked by Avalokitesvara on the right and Manjushri on the left. In all there are three Gompas at the top of the hill, the topmost one is in a very ruined condition but offers extremely fine views over Leh and the surrounding countryside. To the right of the palace one can see a Buddha painted on the rocks, a remnant of an earlier monastery.
Other Leh Gompas
There are a number of lesser Gompas in the old town of Leh - such as the Guru Lakhang to the left of the palace, beneath the large Chorten. The Chamba Lakhang, south of the palace, and the Chenrezig Lakhang, to the southeast, are similarly less famous since they contain little of interest compared to other more splendid Gompas around Leh. In the centre of Leh the Buddhist association of Ladakh in 1957 built the new monastery or Gompa Soma or Jokhang. It contains an image of the Buddha Sakyamuni that was brought form Tibet. Meetings of the Buddhist association are held in this monastery.
The Leh fort, built by Zorawar Singh, contains three temples but cannot be visited because it is within the military camp area.
A relatively new addition to the rocky skyline around Leh is the toothpaste white Shanti Stupa above Changspa village, 3-km west of the bazaar. Inaugurated in 1983 by the Dalai Lama, the "Peace Pagoda", whose sides are decorated with gilt panels depicting episodes from the life of the Buddha, is one of several such monuments erected around India by a "Peace Sect" of Japanese Buddhists.
The Ecology Centre
Five minutes' walk north of the main bazaar, the Ecology centre (Monday-Saturday 10.00 am - 5.00 pm) is the headquarters of LEDeG (the Ladakh Ecological Development Group) - a local non governmental organization that aims to counter the negative impact of western style "development" by fostering economic independence and respect for traditional culture. This involves promoting "appropriate" technologies such as solar energy, encouraging organic farming and cottage industries, and providing education on environmental and social issues through village drama, workshops and seminars.
The garden hosts an open-air exhibition of solar gadgets, hydraulic pumps, water mills and other ingenious energy saving devices that have proved successful throughout Ladakh. There's also a small library, and a handicraft shop, selling locally made clothes, 'Thangkas', T-shirts, books and postcards.
Try to catch a screening of LEDEG's short video Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh (Monday-Saturday 4.00 pm), shown to a minimum of ten people, which gives an insightful account of Ladakhi culture and the sweeping changes of the past thirty years, many of them direct results of tourism. The film is an excellent introduction to the civilization, traditions and serves ecological and cultural problems facing Ladakh.
Secmol (The Student's Educational And Cultural Movement Of Ladakh) was founded in 1988 by Ladakhi university students through a problematic educational system. At present the curriculum, devised in Srinagar and taught in Urdu and English, does not cover subjects of local relevance. In the hope of maintaining pride in Ladakh's traditions, SECMOL teaches local history and runs workshops on handicrafts, agriculture and technology. Volunteer help from TEFL qualified visitors is appreciated at the summer schools run just outside Leh. If one likes to help, or want to meet members of SECMOL, write in advance (To - SECMOL, Chubi Katpa, Leh), or drop into their office on the northern outskirts of town (Monday-Saturday 2.00-6.00 pm), ten minutes' walk up the hill from Ali Shah's Postcard Shop.
The Bazaar And Old Town
After settling into a hotel or guesthouse, most visitors spend their first day in Leh soaking up the atmosphere of the bazaar. Sixty or so years ago, this bustling tree lined boulevard was the busiest market between Yarkhand and Kashmir. Merchants from Srinagar and the Punjab would gather to barter for Pashmina wool brought down by nomadic herdsmen from western Tibet, or for raw silk hauled across the Karakorams on Bactrian camels. These days, though the street is awash with kitsch curio shops and handicraft emporiums, it retains a distinctly central Asian feel. Clean shaven Ladakhi Lamas in sneakers and shades rub shoulders with half bearded Baltis from the Karakoram and elderly Tibetan refugees whirring prayer wheels, while now and again, snatches of Chinese music crackle out of the shopkeepers transistor radios. At the bottom of the bazaar, women from nearby villages, stovepipe hats perched jauntily on their heads, sit behind piles of vegetables, spinning wool and chatting as they appraise the passers by.
Atmosphere Of Shopping
Even if one is not hopping for trekking supplies, check out the provision stores along the street, where bright pink, turquoise, and wine-red silk cummerbunds hang in the windows. Inside, sacks of aromatic spices, dried pulses, herbs and tea are stacked beside boxes of license, soap and spare parts for kerosene stoves.
Accommodation in Leh
Leh is absolutely glutted with accommodation, most of it refreshingly neat, clean and excellent value. Budget travellers in particular are in for a treat. Most of the town's reasonable guesthouses are immaculately whitewashed traditional houses, set on the leafy outskirts, with sociable garden terraces that look onto green fields. Rooms in Leh's mid range hotels come with en suite shower toilets and piped hot water, while upmarket accommodation is limited. Off-season, prices can be slashed by as much as sixty percent.
Rooms in family houses, grouped in three main areas, account for the bulk of Leh's plentiful budget accommodation. Karzoo and Suku, northwest of the main street, are very central but become tourist ghettos during high season; if one is after peace, quite, idyllic countryside and mountain views, head for Changspa village, fifteen minutes' walk west of the Bazaar. More in the thick of things are the mainly Muslim houses of the old town. Crouched in the shadow of Leh palace, these are inexpensive and full of atmosphere.