Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 5 – Thiskey Monastery to Shang Sumdo (3,800m)

Thiskey MonasteryFrom Leh, we drove along the Indus Valley to the ancient monastery at Thiksey. After that the plan was to continue our journey, turning off the highway to follow a rough road up into the mountains as far as Shang Sumdo (3,800m) where we’d spend our first night under canvas.

Thiskey MonasteryThiksey monastery is a Tibetan-style monastery affiliated with the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It is located on top of a small hill in Thiksey around 12 miles east of Leh. It is the largest gompa in central Ladakh and resembles the Potala Palace in Lhasa.

Prayer Wheels - Thiskey MonasteryThe monastery was a fascinating place to visit. Monks walking around in yellow renunciation robes with their New Balance trainers on using the latest iPhones while incense quietly smouldered away in the background. Horns bellowed and drums were banged all played out to the cacophony of prayer mantras echoing off the ancient walls.

We slowly climbed the steep stone steps in the ever increasing heat of the day. Finally we’d ascended to the main Assembly Hall. This hall is also the prayer hall with murals on the entrance wall depicting the Tibetan calendar via the Bhavacakra (Wheel of Life).

Bhavacakra (Wheel of Life)We took off our boots to enter the inner sanctum where we sat and listened to the chanting monks. Their chanting was interspersed with manic blowing through long horns and crazy beating upon ramshackle drums.

Thiskey Monastery interiorOnce the crescendo became too much I crept out into daylight and up onto the flat rooftop of the monastery for what must be one of the best views of the Indus Valley and surrounding mountains.

Stok Kangri could now be clearly seen in the distance, its white dome shimmering in the hazy sunlight. I took a few brief moments to contemplate what might lay ahead of me on this adventure before joining the other expedition team members in making our way back down to the minibus.

Indus Valley ViewBack on the road we headed still further down the dusty Indus Valley until we eventually turned off the main road and rattled across a small iron bridge spanning the gushing Indus River below. The bridge was bedecked with prayer flags all tattered and fluttering in the wind.

The rough unmetalled road led deep into the mountains following the sides of a tight valley. After twenty minutes of dirt track the valley suddenly opened up and we arrived at Shang Sumdo.

Shang Sumdo sits at the confluence of two rivers. It’s just a small village with a few houses and a tea tent. Our tents had already been pitched by our team of hard working porters who we were now introduced to. Their Nepalese names where almost impossible to remember at first but as the week drew on we gradually came to get to know them. Our names to them must have been just as much a mystery in return.

The campsite was pleasant enough with some greenery and a small river running through the field. Our tents were pitched strategically to give just enough privacy from one another.

Shang Sumdo CampAfter settling in we were invited to take another acclimatisation walk up to a rocky outcrop above the campsite. The slope was a mass of shaley red scree flake like in appearance. As we trudged up the steep slope the weather gods decreed that we should be given a jolly good soaking and so the rain clouds closed in on us and we all got drenched.

Ladakh MountainsAt around the 4,500m mark we halted suddenly on a flat plateaux and then turned around to come back down. Inspiring the climb wasn’t, but it was an exercise in getting us match fit and so needed to be performed.

Acclimatisation Climb KernWet and a bit chilled we piled back into out tents and changed into some dry clothes before tea was served in the mess tent. We ate the first of what would be a series of amazing meals by the expedition chef and settled in for what was going to be our new routine for the next week. The adventure really felt like it was now getting underway.

Follow along with the expedition updates being posted over the coming weeks.

Check out more photos from my adventures at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/albums

 

Stok Kangri Expedition Day 2 – Alchi Monastery

We drove for hours across a dusty and barren landscape which made up the Indus Valley. Our minibus was headed for Alchi Monastery a few hours up river and deeper into the Ladakh countryside. The Monastery consists of a small collection of monastic temples dating from between A.D.958 and 1055.

alchi monastery prayer wheelsAccording to local tradition the complex was founded by the revered guru Rinchen Zangpo famous for translating Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan. It is therefore both a very old and a very important monastery and we were headed there as part of our acclimatisation and cultural discovery programme in Ladakh.

According to ancient texts the tree outside the monastery is of a species not native to the land thereabouts and folklore dictates that it grew as a result of Rinchen Zangpo having an epiphany that he’d found the right spot to build a monastery and so he proceeded to plant his walking stick firmly and permanently in the ground to mark the spot from which the tree we see today grew.

A great story, highly improbable of course but I’d have bought into it in all probability had I been around in the early 11th century and it still pulls in the punters a thousand years later.

Maitreya-SculptureThe monastery today has three major shrines: the Dukhang (Assembly hall), the Sumtsek and the Temple of Manjushri, all dating from between the early 12th and early 13th centuries. Several small Chortens litter the complex that all appear to have seen much better days. 

Manjushri-SculptureDisappointingly the monastery itself was rather underwhelming. Although interesting it was very easily seen within an hour and all too soon thoughts turned to the rather uninteresting two hour dusty and bumpy drive back to Leh.

The resident monks seemed jaded by pilgrims and tourists and the whole visit was rather hasty. But the old carved deities to the Gods were undoubtedly impressive and once inside the dark confines of the sacred halls it was not hard to imagine that little had changed in a thousand years.

Manjushri-Sculpture

Interior Monastery shots used in this blog post are all sourced online and not my own due to cultural sensibilities and to preserve the interiors of the ancient buildings.

Check out more photos from my adventures at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/albums