To climb a 6000m peak you need to acclimatise and to do this you need to spend a substantial amount of time at high altitude so another acclimatisation day was required to firstly get used to already being at 3,524m above sea-level and secondly to prepare us for the much harder task ahead. Today it had been scheduled that we were going to take a walking tour around the ancient city of Leh in which we were staying to help with this ongoing process.
Leh is the main town in the North West Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and sits at a high altitude along the Indus Valley. In years gone by it had been the old capital of the Himalayan Kingdom of Ladakh and we were here for the next three days.
Today we would start our acclimation process by walking up to the famous Shanti Stupa which sits upon a prominent hilltop in Chanspa overlooking Leh. At first glance the structure appears to be ancient but upon further inspection in fact it was built quite recently in 1991 and by a Japanese Buddhist named Bhikshu, Gyomyo Nakamura as part of a peace mission to the country.
Rumour has it that the stupa holds the relics of the Buddha at its base! An intriguing thought, but our primary reason for visiting was far less cultural. We wanted to climb the 500 steep steps ascending the Stupa and gain the altitude of 3,609m at the top. We all huffed and puffed our way up the broken and rocky steps which were definitely not your standard western riser and tread dimensions.
Having eventually laboured our way to the top we were finally greeted by the milk-white structure of the stupa. Buddhist stupas serve as a marker for a sacred space and represent the great Buddha’s burial mound. At this moment I felt like I could have been buried alongside the Buddha’s himself totally exhausted from my exertions to reach the plateaux.
Having gained some composure we wandered around the structure with our guide for the day a local known only as ‘LT’ and enjoyed the painted walls around the stupa with their colourful reliefs that depict the milestones in the life of the Buddha – his birth, his fight against various devils, his victories over injustice and his eventual death etc, etc.
Below us the whole of Ladakh appeared to be sprawled out as far as the eye could see and it would have been great to have lingered for longer, but there was no time to rest and relax because we were now deeply into our acclimatisation routine and we needed to trek over to our next destination, the Tisserru Stupa.
The Tisserru Stupa is a strange structure to visit! Ladakh’s largest stupa is unique in the region – a giant, mud brick structure that looks like a half-built ziggurat. This 15th-century monument could be one of Leh’s largest attractions but for the fact that you can’t actually get into it, so other than walking around its perimeter and snapping of the obligatory photos there’s not a lot to do and see once you get there.
Disappointed with the underwhelming mud brick stupa we instead began to climb up to Tsemo Fort which sits in a commanding position above the town. The fort had once served as the royal residence of the Namgyal dynasty (Royal Family). There’s little to see inside apart from a tiny Buddhist shrine. Today it is basically a ruin but the views from the wooden machicolations were sublime.
After the fort I decided to go AWOL from the group as I wanted to investigate Leh Palace. The palace resembles the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. It is nine storeys high and I’m sure I climbed up every single step and then down again through every single floor to push my lungs in the thin air.
The roof of this 16th century structure provides panoramic views of Leh and the surrounding area, including Stok Kangri itself, so I just had to get up as high as I could to glimpse the peak one last time before we would be leaving the city.
All in all a pretty tiring day by the end of it but this was all good preparation that we badly needed to prep us for our climb which was now edging nearer and nearer.
Follow along with the expedition updates being posted over the coming weeks.