Leh is nested in a side valley
just to the north of the Indus Valley. Until 1947 it had close trading
relations with Central Asia yak trains would set off from the Leh Bazaar to
complete the stages over the Kaakoam Pass to Yarkand and Kashgar.
As you approach LEH for the
first time, via the sloping sweep of dust and pebbles that divide it from
the floor of the Indus Valley, youíll have little difficulty imagining how
the old trains 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 Asiaís most scenic towns. Spiling 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 place-a maze of mud brick and
concrete flanked on one side by cream coloured desert, and on the other by a
swathe of lush irrigated farmland.
Leh only became regional capital in
the seventeenth century, when Sengee Namgyal shifted his court here from
shey, 15km southeast, to be closer to the head of the Khardung La-Karakoram
corridor in to China. The move paid off: within generation the town had
blossomed into one of the busiest markets on the Silk Road. During the 1920s
and 1930s, broad bazaar that still forms its heart received more than a
dozen pony- and camel-trains each day. Lehís prosperity, managed mainly by
the Sunni Muslim merchants whose descendants live in its
labyrinthine old quarters, came to an abrupt end the closure of the
Chinese border in the 1950s. Only after the indo-pak wars of 1965 and 1971,
when India rediscovered the hitherto forgotten capitalís strategic value,
did its fortunes begin to look up. Today, khaki-clad jawans
(soldiers) and their families from the nearby military and air force based
are the mainstay of the local economy in winter, when foreign visitors are
few and far between.
Leh has nonetheless retained a tranquil
side, and is a pleasant place to unwind after a long bus journey. Attraction
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 at Sankar harbours
accomplished modern Tantric murals and a thousand-headed Avalokitesvara
deity. Leh is also good base for longer day-trip out into the Indus
valley. Among the string of picturesque villages and
within reach by bus are shey, site of a derelict seventeenth-century
palace, and the spectacular Tikse gompa. Until you have adjusted to
the altitude, however, the only sightseeing youíll probably feel up to will
be from a guesthouse roof terrace or garden, from where the snowy summits of
the majestic Stock-Kangri massif (6120m), magnified in the
crystal-clear ladakhi sunshine, look close enough to touch.
With the mighty hulk of the palace
looming to the north, itís virtually impossible to lose your bearing in leh.
The broad main bazaar runs north to south through the heart of town,
dividing the labyrinthine old quarter and nearby polo ground from the
greener and more spacious residential district of Karzoo and suku
to the west. Fort Road, the other principal thoroughfare, turns
west off the main street and then winds downhill past the taxi rank, the
Hotel Dreamland, and the arrival and departure point for Manali buses,
towards the Indian Airlines office on the southern outskirts.
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
three-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 swash with kitsch curio shops and handicraft emporiums, it retains
a distinctly central Asian feel. Even if youíre not shopping for trekking
supplies, check out the provision stores along the street, where
bright pink, turquoise, and wine-red silk cummerbunds hang in the windows.
When youíve 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 old electric cable, nothing much has changed here since the
warren of flat- roofed house, crumbling
chortens, many walls and narrow
sandy streets was laid down late in the sixteenth century Ė least of all the
plumbing. On palace definitely worth walking through the putrid-smelling
puddles to visit, however, is the Chamba temple. Itís not easy to
find on your own; ask at the second row of shop on the left after the big
arch for the key-keeper (gonyer),
who will show you the way. Hammed in by dilapidated medieval mansion, the
one-roomed shrine houses a colossal image of Maitreya, the Buddha to come,
and some wonderful old wall paintings.
Lording it over the old town from the top of a craggy granite ridge is the
derelict palace of the sixteenth-century ruler sengge namgyal. A
scaled-down version of the potala in Lhasa, it is a textbook example of
medieval Tibetan architecture, with gigantic sloping buttressed walls and
projecting wooden balconies that tower nine stories above the surrounding
houses. Since the ladakhi royal family left the palace in the 1940s, damage
inflicted by ninteenth century Kashmiri cannons has caused large chunks of
it to collapse. Take a torch and watch where you walk in spite of
restoration work holes gape in the floors and dark staircases.
Southeast of Leh, the Indus Valley broadens to form a fertile river basin.
Among the spectacular Buddhist monuments lining the edges of the flat valley
floor are Shey site of a ruined palace and giant brass Budda, and the
stunning monastery of Tikse. Both overlook the main highway and are thus
served by regular buses.
Gompa is more famous for its winter oracle festival than its art
treasures but is well worth a visit if only for the superb vies from its
roof terrace. Further south still, either cross the Indus and rejoin the
highway calling in at Stakna gompa en route or continue down the left
band of Hemis Ladakh's wealthiest monastery and the venue for one of the few
religious festivals held in summer. To side sted your fellow tourists
without spending a Night without spending a night away from Leh head up the
austerely beautiful tributary valley opposite Hemis to the gompas of Chemrey
and Thak Thok, the latter built arount a fabled meditation cave.