Today was going to be the beginning of our sightseeing. We had spoken to our driver Rigzin a few months ago, and fixed up a detailed program of all the places that we wanted to visit. However, Rigzin was a little bit difficult do deal with. He is apparently very famous, and regularly gets mentioned on various popular forums and blogs like Devil on Wheels and BCMTouring. Hence, he is always inundated with requests and calls from lots and lots of tourists from across India. He was quite difficult to get hold of and his plans kept changing all the time. Firstly, he informed us at the last minute (literally on the day we were leaving for Leh) that he will not be able to drive us for the first 2 days of our trip as he will be going to Tso Moriri. He sent his cousin to pick us up from the airport when we landed in Leh. Then apparently his plans changed later on and after being very persistent with him, he finally agreed to meet us in the evening of Day 1 of our trip. But come Day 1, he did not show up in the evening because he was stuck on Khardungla Pass with another touring party. He had even agreed to get our permits, but that did not happen and I had to ask my homestay host to help me out. After speaking with him late on Day 1 and insisting that he show up early morning on Day 2, he finally agreed to show up at 8:30 am on Day 2. With so many flip flops, we were unsure as to whether he would show up at all, but we decided to trust him and not look for a new driver just yet.
Being in the Himalayas and on the eastern end of India, Ladakh gets bright quite early. Sunrise happens about half an hour earlier than in west India. So, we woke up quite early during most days of our trip. On Day 2, we finished breakfast by 8:15 am and we were ready to leave for our sightseeing. Our plan for the day was to visit Hall of Fame, head to Gurudwara Pathar Sahib for langar, and then drive to Lamayuru post lunch. All our plans now depended on Rigzin showing up on time. The clock hit 8:30, then it went to 9, then 9:15… he still had not showed up! Even our homestay host was getting skeptical by then, and he asked us if we needed another driver. I called up Rigzin at that point, and he said he was on the way and would be there is another 10 mins. He finally showed up at 9:30am.
(Ladakhi bread called Khambir for breakfast)
(Ladakhi sattu, another very healthy breakfast item)
We were all expecting that Rigzin would perhaps acknowledge the inconvenience that he had made us go through, and change the mood by driving us to all the wonderful places that we were looking forward to visit today. But to our surprise, he refused to go to our planned locations! His excuse was that he had to take some registration slip from the taxi union and that was not possible for some reason. He could only do local sightseeing, as otherwise the taxi union checkposts located on all highways outside Leh city limits would stop him. He said that if we still wanted to stick to our original plan, then we would have to go to the city center and hire a new driver for the whole 7 day trip, and pay the taxi union listed prices. Apparently, since he was bypassing the taxi union, he was able to give us a discounted price which I had negotiated with him earlier. We were a bit stunned by all this and did not know what to do. We definitely did not want to renegotiate all over with a new driver. So, we decided to stick to Rigzin. We reluctantly agreed to his suggested plan of local sightseeing on Day 2, and visiting Lamayuru and Gurudwara on the last day of our trip. Before we began our journey for the day, he stunned us once more by asking us to be ready by 5:30 am the next morning to go to Nubra Valley. The reason was the same as before, he wanted to avoid the taxi union and sneak through the checkpost while it was unmanned, as they were generally manned by 6am. While all this seemed ridiculous, sticking to Rigzin ended up being the right decision and leaving for Nubra Valley at 5:30 am also turned out to be an excellent decision, as we would find out later on during our trip.
Our first stop was the Hall of Fame. There was no power when we reached there at about 9:45 am, so the ticket machine was not operational. We were asked to wait for a few minutes, which we spent taking pictures along the highway outside the Hall of Fame. When the power did come back on, we managed to get our tickets and walked through this really interesting museum. It had lots of artifacts about the local area: dresses, vessels, food, and a whole bunch of things that give you a rich insight into the life of the mountain people of Ladakh. Then there was the main section which was dedicated to the Indian army. Various artifacts such as weapons, snow tools, tents, snow mobiles, etc. gave a very good idea of why the Indian army is perhaps one of the best in the world for carrying out its duties in the most inhospitable environments that one can find on planet earth. There were stories about the history of Ladakh, of battles fought to protect Ladakh and much more. It is a must visit and gives you a good idea of what life is like serving on the border posts of Kashmir and Ladakh. We must have spent a good 90 minutes inside the museum. But for someone who is really interested in all of this and wants to go in detail, one can easily spend a solid 3-4 hours in the Hall of Fame. There is just so much information in there.
(Hall of Fame entrance)
Next, we visited an Army store located across the highway on the other side of the Hall of Fame. The army store had good quality stuff at reasonable prices. There were hats, gloves, jackets, shirts, backpacks, socks, and a bunch of other things. They even had saffron from Srinagar for sale. We bought a few items for our family and friends back home. With the shopping all done, our next destination was the Shey Palace located in the town of Shey. The palace is basically a classic Ladakhi structure with a monastery on top. One can get good views from the top and it is a good place for taking some pictures. But other than that, there is nothing too special about Shey Palace. That is precisely the reason why I did not include it in my original plan. But thanks to the unexpected changes from our driver, we ended up visiting Shey Palace.
(Shey Palace entrance)
(view from Shey Palace)
(looking up to Shey Palace)
(steps at Shey Palace)
(Shey Palace view from top)
(prayer wheel at Shey Palace)
From Shey, we drove to another town called Thiksey. Thiksey is home to the famous Thiksey monastery which we did have in our original plan, and it is one of the few monasteries that one must visit when in Leh. It is very colourful from the outside and the inside. It is also one of the better maintained monasteries. Ladakh has a lot of monasteries. So, for people who have limited time on their hands and aren’t too interested in visiting lots of religious places, it is important to prioritize which monasteries you want to see on your trip to Leh. Thiksey is defintely a go in that regard. When we reached there, the monastery prayer hall was closed and it would open in about 20 mins. So, we decided to get lunch while we waited. There was a restaurant inside the monastery complex. There was no one in there when we entered. But, we saw a couple of staff workers as we walked further inside. They handed us a menu, but most items on the menu were unavailable. The reason for this was the lack of supplies. Ladakh is connected to the rest of India by only 2 highways, Srinagar-Leh and Manali-Leh. Both get snowed out in the winters and do not open till mid-May (Manali highway opens even later than May). So, by the end of winter and in spring, there is a major shortage of food supplies in Ladakh. There are no fresh veggies, and even milk is difficult to find. We ended up ordering some noodles and fried rice for lunch. The restaurant had yogurt packets too, and so we ordered some salted buttermilk. The food was quite good, and the buttermilk was one of the best we had on our trip. The restaurant at Thiksey is therefore highly recommended in our opinion.
(the beautiful Thiksey Monastery)
(Thiksey Monastery from side view)
(Thiksey Monastery entrance)
(restaurant at Thiksey Monastery)
(these mannequins were at the entrance of the restaurant)
(this one said “don’t touch my wife)
(this one said “don’t touch my husband”)
After lunch, we went into the monastery. The courtyard was adorned with colourful paintings and statues. There were 3 temples as well, and we had to climb some really steep steps to reach them. Inside these temples, it was interesting to see the range of different things and currencies that visitors had offered to the gods. We saw biscuits, orange juice cartons, Hajmola (a famous Indian candy), and some other items kept near the statues of various gods. A lot of those items were 5 – 6 years old, way past their sell-by dates. It seems like no one clears them, and they stay there for years and years. We saw currencies from countries like US, UK, Thailand, China, Japan, and many others. There was also a place near the top of the monastery where we got some great views of the surrounding area. Overall, Thiksey monastery was time well spent.
(prayer wheels at Thiksey Monastery)
(looking up the Thiksey Monastery)
(prayer wheels at Thiksey Monastery)
(stupa at Thiksey Monastery)
(colourful door at Thiksey Monastery)
(beautiful courtyard at Thiksey Monastery)
(inside a temple at Thiksey Monastery)
(view from top of Thiksey Monastery)
(various gods at Thiksey Monastery)
(statue of Buddha at Thiksey Monastery)
(colourful and beautiful Thiksey Monastery)
(a painting outside one of the temples at Thiksey)
(“Prashad” at Thiksey included Hajmola candies, but they were way too old)
(some spring blossoms at Thiksey Monastery)
Next, we headed to Leh Palace. Having visited palaces across India in places like Udaipur, Jaipur and Vadodara, we were expecting to see something grand and beautiful. Instead, when we reached Leh Palace, we were very disappointed. Leh Palace felt like a dungeon. There was no lighting inside, the place was not maintained or cleaned at all, and there was hardly anything that would interest us. We forced ourselves to do a quick walk of the structure, and we were literally done in less than 20 minutes. We were out so fast that even our driver was amazed. Again Leh Palace was not something we had in our original plan, and it was with good reason why we had not included it. But due to the circumstances, we still ended up visiting it. The only good thing about Leh Palace was the nice view that we got of the main city area. Other than that, this place is definitely a miss in our opinion.
(view of the city area from Leh Palace)
Being so close to the city center, we asked our driver to take us there for some shopping and walking around. Having gone through Leh Palace so quickly, we had some spare time on our hands. Ladakh is quite well-known for its apricots. As we were walking along the shopping street, we met some apricot vendors who were visiting from Khaltse. They showed us some apricots which looked pretty good, and we bought some. As we were buying, the weather changed in a flash and out of nowhere it started snowing. The air got really cold and windy. We were not too keen to spend time in the freezing weather and so we decided to go back to our homestay and call it a day. But before that, we made a quick stop at Gesmo restaurant and picked up some yak cheese pizza. I had read about them online and was quite eager to try them out. The location of Gesmo is quite tricky, it is located on a narrow road and one has to go through some confusing narrow roads to get to the restaurant. There was no parking anywhere nearby and so the driver was not very happy to stop there. We somehow convinced him to wait there for 10 mins while we picked up the pizza as parcel, as we did not have enough time to eat it at the restaurant. Instead, we took it to our homestay and ate it there. The yak cheese pizza was quite good indeed and is very much recommended if you like trying out unique food.
(Leh market area)
(yak cheese pizza from Gesmo)
Our hosts had prepared momo’s for dinner, and a couple of ladies from our group decided to join the cooking session. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the preparation process, which involved stuffing a flour based layer with some minced veggies (the non-veg ones had meat, but we were all vegetarian) and then folding them in a certain way. The folded stuffings were them steamed for a few minutes. If the preparation was fun, the eating part was even better as they were quite delicious. Our homestay host was known for their momo’s and we found out why so many reviewers raved about them. After a wonderful dinner, we went to sleep early as we had to leave at 5:30 am the next morning. Thus, we ended Day 2 of our trip. Next up was Nubra Valley!
(delicious momo’s at Tukchu homestay)