Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Basgo Ruins Of A Bygone Era!

Among the many stunning stops on the Kargil Leh highway Basgo ruins was like a crown of jewels. Just a small detour off the highway took us to these ancient ruins where once stood a massive clay castle and Maitreya temple. This is one of the most treasured monuments of Ladakh. The views from the highway were so captivating that we were attracted towards it. The most unbelievable fact is that this monument was built using clay, stones and wood. These colossal ruins are such treasures not just of Ladakh but the whole World. It is a must visit while on a trip to Ladakh.

Basgo, once capital of Lower Ladakh, was a political and cultural center and now overlooks the ruins of an ancient town. The Basgo Monastery was built by Namgyal rulers in 1680 on top of a clay hill. Later on a castle, also known as Basgo Rabtan Lhartsekhar, was built by the father-son rulers Dharamraja Jamyang Namgyal and Singay Namgyal.

The entire castle is now in ruins and only two temples stand today. Of what remains the massive Maitreya Buddha statue, natural color paintings on the walls, centuries old thankas paint a beautiful tale even today. The folks inside the temple were making miniatures religious offering using clay and butter and some of the offerings were getting a fresh coat of bright red paint.

This historic monument offers breathtaking views of the surrounding hills with different shades of colors. It was really disheartening to see that there are not many visitors to this spectacular sight providing an insight into a bygone era. Soaking in the views for one last time, we continued our journey to Leh

The road to Basgo ruins adds on a dash of adventure. En-route on the highway, very close to saspol we really enjoyed our breakfast. We had one of the best maggie thanks to the homemade masala they added. Also, we had "Maiyas" fresh badam milk that was free off any preservatives, artificial flavor and color and had plenty of real crunchy badam flakes. 

One thing we consistently noticed and were in awe with across Ladakh and Ladakhi business was their absence for greed. At every purchase, no matter how remote the village was or how small the business was, we were charged only on MRP every single time especially "In remote corners such as Diskit, Suru just to name a few." In such locations, we totally understand if they would charge us a few more rupees. We were so impressed by their ethics when it comes to running a business. This was in stark contrast to what we come across in the city where from milk packet to bottle water "Cooling Charge" and other dismal reasons are given to charge customers more than MRP. It is not about a rupee or two but the cheapness that most of the businessman in the city go to to make a few extra bucks. Ladakh truly left a brilliant image in our minds.

The entire stretch of highway is adventurous and memorable. Our deepest gratitude to BRO and several hundred others who have toiled real hard to build and maintain such amazing highway so people like us can have an adventure of a lifetime. It was such a joy to ride on these roads that we did the Kargil - Leh stretch not nice but twice and of the 230 km highway the best part in our opinion was the amazing stretch between Likir and Nimmo. The entire stretch had absolute stunning views of the hills and the lengthy stretch is free of any obstacles hindering our view. We simply stood there soaking the views and forever etching them in our memory. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Soak In Views Of Mesmerizing Moonland From Lamayuru Monastery!

Leh to Srinagar highway is one of the best National highways in India. Apart from the stunning Natural beauty, massive perennial rivers that form deep gorges, high altitude passes, indomitable Buddhist monasteries and sculptures beautify the highway. We rode on this beautiful highway and were on our way to another amazing monastery- Lamayuru Monastery crossing the two awesome passes on the way- Namika La and Fotu La. The highest point on the Srinagar-Leh highway is Fotu la pass and the most challenging one being Zojila Pass while Namika La offers grander views of the surrounding valley.

After crossing Namika La enroute Fotu La, we were stuck for a very long time. A mourning procession was being carried out by the followers of Islam. It was a religious event for which the followers had occupied the entire National highway for quite some time. Vehicles had piled up on either sides for a considerable amount of time. While it is perfectly right to celebrate or moan any religious/ historic event, it is nuisance to occupy a National highway and bring traffic to a standstill in the name of Religious freedom. If any religious ceremony has to be taken out on the streets then why do we have exclusive places of Worship? This was the only sour part of the entire ride as there was no need to occupy a National highway.

After the traffic was cleared, we headed to Fotu La. It was a pleasure riding on these roads and was brilliant to see sheep graze on these steep mountains and at the same time balance themselves. The roads are beautiful and its a sheer delight to ride on these perfect hairpin bend curves and we beamed with pride when we saw an old bajaj scooter turn on these sharp curves with as much ease as our bullet. It was such a beautiful moment.

We finally reached the celebrated 11 century Lamayuru Monastery. Lamayuru is also known as Moonland for it's lunar like landscape. One of the oldest and largest monasteries in Ladakh, Lamayuru means eternal in Tibetan. Also know as Yung Drung, the monastery is home to more than 150 monks and is 127 km from Leh. Legend has it that area was once a lake that dried up and is believed to have been home to around 400 monks earlier.

With most of the structure in ruins, it also houses a cave and is known as cave monastery. Naropa a Buddhist Indian scholar spent years meditating in the cave here. In the 16th century the monastery was declared a holy site where even criminals could seek sanctuary.

The mighty Indus makes this barren land fertile and there are several wooden bridges that connect the highway to the other side of the hill across the river. Like several monasteries in Ladakh region, this centuries old amazing monastery has extensive places of worship, stunning natural color wall paintings, beautiful thankas.

This was the first monastery that we saw which was more like a maze. Narrow pathways led to many chambers and alleys. All religious instruments in this monastery seemed to be covered in gold or silver including the conch. One of the highlights of the monastery is the stunning views of Moonland from here. The entry fee is Rs.50 per person. The highly commercialized monastery has plenty of stay options around.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Alchi- The only Monastery Built In Kashmiri Style Architecture!

On the banks of Indus river, some 65 km from Leh lies the beautiful village of Alchi. We took a small detour on the Leh-Kargil highway and a massive bridge along with a series of small chortens lined across the road welcoming us to the village of Alchi. It is renowned as the oldest Buddhist learning center in Ladakh.

The monastery in Alchi is one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh and is famous for its Kashmiri style architecture. Another interesting aspect about Alchi monastery is that it is the only monastery that we have been to and know of that is built on plains/low ground unlike others that are usually atop a hill. Administered by Likir Monastery there are several temples within the monastery complex and the Kashmiri style architecture is very evident in the the assembly hall and the main temple which is a three storeyed structure.

The main temple has a stupa in the center surrounded by three gigantic incarnations of Buddha. It is known for its age old paintings that are very well preserved. The wall of the monastery have elaborate paintings depicting teachings of both Buddhist and Hindu kings of that time. These paintings date back to nearly a thousand years and this is one of the reasons that has made the village famous as these paintings have been well preserved. There are elaborate carvings on the wooden doors and pillars of the temples. We were left spellbound by the attention to detail on these paintings and massive carvings. The temple is surrounded by chortens as they were given equal importance during that period.

There is a Tibetan handicraft market that has engulfed the monastery. The massive entry door of Alchi monastery seemed tiny in front of the hundreds of shops around that sell souvenirs. The array of shops selling souvenirs reminded us of many famous Places Of Worship where the stall owners try to sell their products and make you feel guilty for not offering anything to the Gods. While this kind of put us off, the simple and stunning monastery was worth it.

Alchi was not just home to an age old monastery but was also home to a palace which now is in absolute ruins. This palace compound was strikingly similar to that of Leh palace. The views from atop the palace ruins of the surrounding hills would be captivating to say the least. It would be a perfect place to watch the sun go down behind the hills.

The Alchi monastery is mobbed by several guest houses and stay options and you would be spoilt for choice. The village is super commercialized with many fancy restaurants and posh hotels catering to different budgets.

Home stays always give us an amazing comfortable experience that no posh hotel can match up. We strategically chose our home stay a kilometer away from the monastery- "Chhoskar Homestay." The distance made sure that we had a very pleasant and serene stay experience. We picked a room at the top most floor that offered us amazing views of the abandoned palace compound and the hills. The best part about the home stay is the magical lawn that has amazing seating arrangements and a hammock which made it the ideal place to sip mint tea and enjoy lovely evenings. Their garden has several apricot and apple trees.

The comfortable rooms had clean sheets, geyser fitted attached bath and wifi. The hosts were very nice and kind people. They treated us with fresh apricots right from their garden and amazing mint tea. We got a steal deal of Rs.800 per day. The icing on the cake was we had an open terrace all for ourselves and at nightfall we had amazing views of starlit sky.

Taking a stroll around the village, we were surprised to see so many apricots not just in the locals' homes but strewn around the streets and it looked like an apricot village. This beautiful sight continued on the Kargil- Leh highway as well. We were way too tempted and decided to stop on the highway and treated ourselves to these yummy fruits. Most of the highways have trees that are not fruit bearing and the fruit bearing ones are usually a part of a farm. This was our first time spotting such yummy fruit bearing trees on the highway for all to enjoy.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Mulbekh- Where Buddha and Lord Shiva Blend In.

The entire stretch of Kargil- Leh highway is any riders dream with spotless blacktop. While most of the highway provides massive views of brown mountains, Mulbekh Village on the highway surely was appeasing to our eyes. Some 45 km from Kargil, we were particularly blown away by the beautiful greenery surrounding Mulbekh Village. Their farmlands, friendly villagers and the famous Gompa right on the highway made us halt in Mulbekh for a night.

The Gompa also called as Chamba Gompa is famous for it's Chamba statue. This structure is carved out of a single rock face and the striking feature of this sculpture is it's sheer gigantic size and absolute picture perfect carving. Towering 9 meters or 30 feet, the carving is believed to be of Maitreya Buddha. However, many scholars believe that it bears strong resemblance to Lord Shiva. This structure is believed to be carved in 1st century however, documented proof dates it back to 8th century. It is also home to ancient relics and inscriptions.

We took a leisure walk around the gompa in the evening and it was magical with the gompa embraced by sunflowers. The evening winds were pretty cold and we saw a farmer take a break in his farmland, light a cigarette to keep himself warm after a long and tiring day's hard work.

We checked into a home stay, "Paradise Guest House and Restaurant," right opposite the gompa. Our room opened up to amazing views of the Maitreya's sculpture. It was so soothing to hear the brass bell ring every time the prayer wheel completed a round. The amazing perks of slow travel - we get to spend extensive time at the destinations we want. The food served here was simply lip smacking. There was lot of flavor, good taste and value for money. Among many things, the egg kathi roll and mathri are a must try here. The family running the home stay were very kind and rendered great service.

The next day we continued our ride on this brilliant highway and headed to another amazing monastery- Lamayuru Monastery crossing the two awesome passes on the way- Namika La and Fotu La. The highest point on the Srinagar-Leh highway is Fotu la pass and the most challenging one being Zojila Pass while Namika La offers grander views of the surrounding valley.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Taking The Off beaten path to Parkachik Village in Zanskar Valley

It's more often the off beaten paths and tough roads that lead to the most beautiful and non commercialized stunning destinations. The quintessential Parkachik Village is one such destination en route Zanskar Valley. Just 80 km from Kargil, it is home to stunning glaciers, perennial rivers and colossal snowy mountain peaks. The closest that you can get to Nature.

Unending views of snow clad peaks greeted us right from the start of the ride. Some 25 km into the ride, we reached a check post where the vehicle details were entered and from there on the roads were deserted with our bike the only vehicle on the road. There is absolutely no signage to this wonderland with several deviations that lead to nearby villages and absolutely deserted streets posed us a big challenge. For kilometers, we were not able to find any settlement or locals to ask directions and we had to rely on guess work. A very interesting encounter was when we saw a local woman collecting firewood just a little off the road. We were glad to have seen her as we could confirm if we were heading in the right direction. She was curiously looking at us and we stopped our bike to check with her but to our surprise the minute we stopped our bike she took a sprint. It looked as if she was running for her dear life from us, occasionally turning around to see if we were in pursuit. It was funny, embarrassing and shocking at the same time to know that we looked that scary. This made us realize how less of outside human interaction the locals have.

Half way into the ride, the road condition deteriorated and it turned to be one of the most treacherous roads that we have been on. It was an adventure riding on steep narrow slopes with absolutely no tarmac and to add on to the excitement, many water streams running across the non existent road were a delight to cross over. It was like riding on a dry riverbed with many muddy patches that would sway our bike. The brilliant and stunning landscapes and the Suru river made us feel like we were in our own fantasy land and the remoteness of this place made us experience it's virgin beauty. The long dusty and gravel roads led us to Parkachik which is the base to Parkachik glacier. The weather had in no time changed to gloomy and with that it started to rain a little.

We decided to call it a day and we made the gorgeous J&K tourist bungalow, a little away from the Parkachik Village, our home for the night. The bungalow offers stunning views of the glaciers, mammoth mountains and the thundering Suru river that originates from the colossal Drang Drung glacier which was right behind us. It had super spacious clean rooms with attached bath and was priced at Rs.400 per night. Who says traveling is expensive. It was such a luxury to be surrounded by such amazing natural beauty and have local food. We had just walked in and were not sure if anything would be available for us to have lunch but we were lucky. They already had guests, a French couple who were cycling to Zanskar, and thanks to them lunch was ready. We were treated to a heavy yet simple lunch of dal, aloo curry and rice with very spicy local red chilli powder that was very fiery.

The lovely green meadows of Parkachik seemed to be the most sought after picnic spot for the locals. We saw a lot of school children pitch tents in the open under the deep blue sky, bring their own groceries and cook like one big happy family. The most amazing part was all these were government schools. It was commendable that the management has taken such awesome initiatives to provide a lifetime memorable experience to the children. They were generous and offered us amazing butter tea and it was just perfect for the cold weather. We made some great young friends and discussed a lot about the current political situation, their views and vision about future.

In the evening, we went for a long walk and had quiet interesting encounters with the locals who were curious and friendly and wanted to get their pictures clicked and they had a joyous moment seeing the clicked pictures. During our leisure village walk, we saw a Yak, a wild horse a cute little marmot and it was such an amazing experience. It was time to head back and we saw most of the school buses pack things and leave. There was just one school that had decided to spend the night camping at the tourist bungalow.

The young girls who had come camping were so excited to spend two good days with their friends. Most of them were in high school but very innocent and naive. They seemed to be happy and contented in their own world and had great knowledge about the entertainment industry. Though curious, they were not well versed with the general scenario of their state or political situation. It was their innocence and also questions around we not having kids despite being married for close to 5 years that threw light on how they are trained to believe that home and family is what their world should revolve around. Talking to them made us realize that how important they thought it was to have a boy child in the house and also how love marriage is still considered a taboo for them and eloping is the only way out. Though shy at first, they opened up and spoke about their likes and preferences. The other beautiful thing about these kids were they were totally cut off from technology. They had no smartphones and they reminded us of our childhood with board games, outdoor games being the source of entertainment. We relived our childhood through them.

The service in the tourist bungalow was just amazing and it gave us a feel of a home stay. The friendly hosts had gone to the village to get fresh spinach for dinner. A fantastic dinner of flavored dal and rice was served with spinach. Lunch and dinner was charged at Rs.100 and 130 respectively. Considering the fact that it is such a remote place and we were at their mercy for food with most of their pulses, cereals and vegetables transported from Kargil, we found the food to be pretty inexpensive. After dinner, we were served a pot full of black tea to keep us warm. Language was not a barrier at all. We all managed to communicate pretty well - we, the French couple and the staff taking care of us. It was a great experience to share travel stories and listen to the advise of experts- the locals.

The mercury level plummets post sunset in Parkachik. It was extremely cold despite wearing thick woolen socks, thermals, clothing, gloves and skull cap. Post midnight, it got even worse and unbearably cold. We wondered how the locals managed during winters in this inhospitable climate and with this literal bone chilling experience our ride to Zanskar valley came to a halt. We decided there is no point in not enjoying and visiting places just to tick them off our bucket list even if it is just 30 km away from were we are. Sense has to prevail and we should know when to call it quits. With a very contented heart, we had out breakfast and decided to head back to Mulbekh.

En route from Parkachik, the weather gods were very kind to us. It was a very clear sky and we had scintillating views of snowy peaks and glaciers. We were very fortunate to spot a massive sheet of ice right on top of the river. The road from Kargil to sankhoo provides amazing views of Suru river and it awesome to see small green patches of island in middle of the river and water gushing down from both sides of the island.

While visiting Parkachik or Zanskar valley, it would be a good idea to stock up snacks as there are absolutely no shopping options. Interesting thing was throughout the day, there was no electricity, however, post sunset it was turned back on.