It had been a cold and almost sleepless night at the Onpo House in Saspol. Inspite of the many warm blankets provided by the owners, the concrete walls of this annexe had allowed the cold to seep in. I had developed a slight fever overnight and the dim sunlight made matters worse in the morning. Thankfully the family provided us warm water for the morning ablutions. The toilet was the ubiquitous Ladakhi pit toilet in a separate room outside the house.
We were offered milk tea and a lavish breakfast. Thukpa, sattu (barley flour) and churpe was served and the family also ate with us. The sattu mixed with milk tea was especially yummy, we were pleased to eat it mixed with a little sugar as the Ladakhis do. We bade goodbye to the Onpo Family, paid them the agreed sum of money (I think 1000) and started walking towards the main road.
While we were exiting the homestay, there was a little sliver of sunshine which too disappeared. It became very cold indeed even though it was only 8:30 in the morning. There was a mane (chorten or prayer wheel) where the locals were waiting too. We shivered while we waited; the locals went in a NHPC (power project) bus to Alchi that didn’t have space for us. In no time a car ride came, they were going straight on the highway and dropped us on the cut for Alchi from where the monastery was 1.5 kms away. They had also stopped at a functioning SBI ATM and we wasted no time in getting our fill of cash too!
We walked with our 4 bags; two backpacks and two daypacks. Even the basic act of walking was proving to be cumbersome in the aforesaid conditions. I felt a mild fever, with symptoms of breathlessness and the weight of the bags felt like it was increasing every minute! Got lucky with a ride to Alchi monastery only to find out it was closed. Classic and usual occurrences of Ladakh in winters. Most monasteries are closed until you can find the lama with the key!
And we put our bags in one corner and set about finding the caretaker. After much deliberation, the lama with the key finally decided to let us in. On multiple trips to Ladakh, I had visited almost every destination twice. Alchi and Lamayuru had eluded me and on this trip both these destinations were revisited! I was elated since these two monasteries are very old and it had been more than 10 years since I was in Alchi. Entry to Alchi Monastery was 20 Rupees per person. It was quite a task to remove the huge footwear with the winter socks and enter the intricately carved monastery in Alchi.
The frescoes were beautiful and old, and the location of Alchi monastery was magnificent. It was located on the banks of Indus river and the colour of Indus was a gorgeous shade of green. Alchi Monastery is said to be among the finest of the 108 monasteries established by the Great Translator ‘Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo’ and that is why I was especially keen on seeing it properly this time. The wood carvings in Alchi Monastery have been the work of Kashmiri Craftsmen and date to 10-11th Century AD.
The lama opened almost all the different rooms and halls at Alchi and we were very happy. It was still painfully cold with the sun deciding to hide behind the clouds. We thanked the Lama and started walking back toward the main road. A lady in Alchi was curious upon seeing us and asked us if we were looking for a homestay. We had some dry fruits to eat while waiting for a ride at the Alchi cut. A local saw us and asked for INR 100 to drop us at the Alchi bridge. 12 noon.
It was only around 11 am and we decided to not make any fixed plans for the rest of the day. The broad idea was to possibly see Likir Monastery with the huge Maitreya Buddha statue; then perhaps the two ancient temples at Ladakh’s old capital of Basgo (15th-16th Century) and if we got really lucky then reach Leh in the evening and find a homestay. It did seem like an ambitious plan but Basgo was on the highway which was a fabulous road and we would only require a couple of rides to get to Leh.
Back to reality and we could only hitch a ride to Saspol. Very hungry since it was around 12 noon and we had used up all the nutrition that our early breakfast had provided. The dhaba at Saspol that helped us with the homestay last evening was open and made fresh omelettes for us. It did the job for the time being and since no vehicles were stopping in the main town of Saspol, we started walking out of the town to increase our chances of a ride!
It is a basic rule of hitchhiking that one is more likely to find a ride on an open road than in the town.
And to our luck, a camper from Kargil was happy to give us a ride till the diversion for Likir Monastery. There were a couple of dhabas at the Likir cut; one was closed and only a Nepali dhaba was open. Had chai and asked him if he knew someone who would take us to Likir Monastery and bring us back to the same place on the highway. In over half an hour of waiting, not one car had gone or come from Likir and paying someone seemed like the only possible solution.
The Nepali dhaba guy knew a local whose repair shop was adjacent to his dhaba and he also had a car. We made a quick conversation with him to realise that he had seen us earlier. We offered him 200-300 Rupees and he didn’t say no but didn’t say yes too! He was a sweet chap and took us to Likir monastery after finishing his work. He told us to see the monastery quickly and that he will be waiting to pick us up at the parking space in an hour.
Likir Monastery has a huge Maitreya statue and is a beautiful and old monastery. Better weather and almost sunny now. One lama shows us around. Recently restored and freshly painted frescoes. Likir village in the far distance is seen from Likir Monastery.
Since we had more probable plans in mind; the guy waiting in the parking lot seemed like the best proposition and we got done in less than 45 minutes and sat in the car. We thanked him profusely, paid him 300 Rupees and got down on the highway. Inspite of what felt already like a long day, the time was only 2:30. The sun was beaming down now but I felt like fever had already set in. I was quite tired but since this was the highway and there was sizeable traffic, we quickly got a ride to Basgo village.
We were given a ride in a red alto who were going to Leh and asked us if we wanted to come all the way to Leh. We thanked them for their offer and told them we wanted to be in Leh for the night but only after seeing the temples of Basgo.
Basgo village had no activity at all. The temples were located on a high hillock and we thought it was useless to carry our heavy backpacks to the top. Across the road there was a home and we spotted some activity there. The home owners were doing some work in the field; we asked them if the monastery would be open and whether we could our bags there. They gave us the number of the lama who might have the keys. We called him to make sure he was there to avoid us the disappointment of reaching Basgo monastery and it being closed.
The lama sounded drunk and demanded to know if we had brought any offerings with us. I tried to be vague on the phone and told him we are coming up to the monastery. It was quite an uphill climb on the shortcut path from Basgo Village to Basgo Monastery and we huffed and puffed and wondered if it was going to be worth it. As soon as we reached the monastery, we understood that the lama was indeed drunk with red eyes!
He offered us chai; we said yes so as to not offend him. He had the keys to one monastery and opened it, the huge Maitreya statue was majestic. The lama asked about the offering and I slid in a 50 Rupee note and asked him to secure the keys for the more ancient other monastery room. He repeated that the keys are not with him and that the senior lama has those keys. Unconvinced he was speaking the truth, we tried our best to see if a higher offering would make him take out the key but it was not to be.
With a heavy heart, we decided to give up and started descending to Basgo Village. The Basgo citadel towered above the valley and there were glorious views from there. It was indeed at a vantage point and a strategic location to be the capital of Ladakh (once upon a time). The descent on the slender path was even more dangerous and we barely made it to pick our bags from the home in Basgo Village.
It was around 4 pm and we decided to try our luck to get to Leh since the drive would only take about an hour or so since the distance between Basgo to Leh is only 40 kms. We witnessed a heartwarming scene while waiting for the ride. At the Mane (prayer wheel) in Basgo, three old Ladakhi locals were laughing and chatting on the steps. With the bright evening sunshine, it turned out to be a lasting memory.
Our ride duly came by; it was a camper with a couple with a small kid. The lady and the man were both keen on us occupying the empty seats in the back but it was a strange ride (as I clearly remember). Apart from asking us where we wanted to go, there was barely any conversation among us. Our exhaustion might also have had something to do with it. The family was very kind but perhaps wasn’t keen on talking even when I made repeated attempts to make them feel welcome after giving us the ride.
They dropped us at Skalzangling at around 445 pm. I remembered the name of my Leh winter homestay from an earlier winter trip to Ladakh and we paid 100 Rupees for a Omni Van ride to Jamspal Homestay on Old Fort road. The concrete walls had made Jamspal Homestay very cold indeed. I was quite disappointed when it turned out that Jamspal uncle was not there and it was only his son managing the homestay this winter. The furry dog was there but didn’t seem to recognise me from January 2015!
We agreed for a room for 600 Rupees (January 2015 was 300 Rs). I wasn’t very happy with the facilities when he mentioned that there was no water available and that dinner was not available too and no service as well. We were famished having not had the chance of a proper meal since morning. We left our bags in the room and started walking to the mall road. I am in dire straits with the fever and the cold but have no option but to go and eat out.
Feel very weak and notice a high pulse rate. Understand that it is all mostly because of the hunger. Go to a nice eatery on the main road. Yummy food. We eat like hungry beasts. Walked back to Jamspal Guest House in darkness. Its a little scary to walk amidst the barking of dogs and my past experience tells me that dogs in Ladakh are quite scary, especially when they operate as a pack in the winter months.
Silence at the homestay. Went to our room and ask for more blankets. Try to lie down. Very cold room since the sunshine only comes in the room before noon. I struggle with breathing and feel very very cold. Take an ORS mixed with water. It has been a momentous day with almost everything going right but it looks like the homestay choice has been wrong.
I say this mostly because of Jamspal uncle not being there and the absence of a family meaning the coziness, food and warmth is missing as well. We convince ourselves that there wasn’t much choice given the circumstances. I take a tablet for fever, shiver in the cold and try to sleep at 9:30 pm.