I arrived at Likir, Ladakh by chance, planning to go on the "Baby" trek, and had the best experience of my India trip. Homestaying with a wonderful family, eating in the field with the farmers after the harvest, peace, tranquility, beauty.
Mangyal Tsemo Monastery, Leh
Mangyal Tsemo Monastery and Palace - Getting There
Pacing myself in the altitude
I arrived in Leh on August 23rd. Following everybody’s advice, I took the next day off, relaxing in the guesthouse, strolling a bit around town to avoid over-exertion in the altitude. On the 25th I dared myself to climb up the Shanti Stupa as I describe in a separate post, By the 26th I was finally ready to challenge the climb to the iconic palace and monastery on the other side of town.
This pacing of myself plus perhaps height endurance I built in the past (ten years at 2000m in New Mexico, three months in Mexico City, and then ascending various 4000-5000m peaks in Latino America) helped. Still, walking uphill was taxing.
I started the day hectily, running around, packing and organizing for my Nubra trip the following day. I bought water bottles at the grocery store nearby, and nuts from the Muslim shop in the central market, then ran to the travel agency on the other side of town to give the guy my passport, which I had to come back for later. Everybody’s passports were required to get us the needed military permit to travel deeper into Ladakh. I also posted ads in various agencies trying to get a fifth partner. Unfortunately, when people finally called, it was already too late.
You can read about my Nubra Valley trip in an up-and-coming post. Subscribe to keep updated.
On top of all of the abvoe, I needed to run back to the Zula hangout where I was having momos the previous day, as I had forgotten my shawl in there.
It was strange to discover that the lady working there had taken my shawl to her home: “It was cold in the evening”, she explained. Now that I asked for it, she went back to her home to bring it. Honesty? Dishonesty? Whatever it was. Until she came back, I sat at the Zula and had chai for ₹30.
Discovering the Palace
When you have no previous knowledge about a place, except that it is “cool”, everything is a discovery.
On my first day in Leh, I walked around town, trying to get a grip on what’s what and where’s where. I meandered my way to the Old Market, which is mostly Muslim. Above this messy part of town of alleys and small, dark shops, somewhat reminiscent of Jerusalem’s Old City Market, towered an amazing structure. A Muslim shop owner informed me that this was the old City Palace.
At first he tried to entice me into his shop to buy his pashmina scarves and other attractive textiles and memorabilia. I diverted the conversation, asking him about the building on the hill. This was the city palace, he explained, but there was no need for me to get in there. It costs ₹200 and the palace is empty, nothing to it but the smell of piss. I would do better to go to the Gompa instead. By the Gompa he meant the monastery located even further up on the mountain. Only ₹25 and much more to see.
He added: you better use your ₹200R to buy at my store…
The world is clearly painted in rupees.
He introduced himself as “Ish”, meaning “man” in Hebrew. I then remembered that the German girl, Sara, mentioned him at the time in McLoed. He remembered her, and the atmosphere eased up. I told him Adam and Ish are both originally Hebrew names. We laughed wildly about the palace.
After all my running around, I finally made my way back to the Old Market, where the climb to the Palace and the Mangyal Tsemo Monastery started. I stopped by Ish’s store to say “hi” and get his blessing.
First, it was alleys and steps through an old neighborhood built into the mountainside. I asked several locals for directions to make sure I was on the right track.
Wooden door in Leh house on way to Leh’s Palace
Eventually, the town ended and the vista opened.
The climb to the palace from there was mostly steps and pavement. On the outside it was very impressive indeed, but I followed Ish’s advice and did not bother to try and get in. People also told me that the entrance was actually accessible only from the top, requiring fairly complicated climbing and skirting the place from above.
Leh Palace, Ladakh
From the palace onwards, the climb seemed a bit tricky. Multiple foot trails criss-crossed the steep dusty mountainside, on way to the monastery/ancient temple, but lots of people were going up and down, using one path or another. I made it up without problem with the help of my stick.
The climb to Mangyal Tsemo Monastery, Leh
On the road, I met a group of Western devotees of some esoteric spiritual group. They were all decorated with necklaces with a picture of their guru hidden inside their linen shirts, as well as other religious accessories, and were heading to some prodigious secret gathering somewhere in the mountains in a few days. The guy I was talking to wasn’t really willing to let me in on it, but I did not care. I am sure India is full with all kinds of groups like that. I wasn’t looking for it.
Mangyal Tsemo Monastery, Leh
Mangyal Tsemo Monastery - Demons and Buddhas
Past the various monastery structures, I passed by a locked door. I was later told it was the entrance to the huge Buddha figure inside.
All along there were oil lamps and water bowls, candles and small statues in niches and on banco-like shelves.
Demons’ and Buddhas
Once I got inside, my imagination was captivated by the sculptures of the demons with their dark figures, their faces generally covered in cloth, their multiple arms extended, skulls hanging from their bodies.
I know for sure that had I stayed a whole winter in the Himalayas (one of my future dreams…) I would also start seeing demons…
One of the most captivating images was of a totem pole of Buddhas and demons with what should be a thousand eyes and hands. I have seen the same figure at Rinchen’s home and did a little research. The figure is of Avaloketishvara (Guanyin) Bodhisattva, a spiritual seeker, and the story tells us that this Bodhisattva wanted to help all suffering beings. His body broke from the stress, but Amitabha Buddha heard him, became his guru and gave him a new form with 1000 eyes and hands so he could save all sentient beings. For more about him read here.
A thousand arms Avaloketishvara, Tsemo Monastery, Leh
Very similar images were placed at Rinchen and Tsering’s home shrine in Likir village.
Somebody was selling talismans inside the temple. I almost bought one, but lost my cultural courage for unknown reasons…
At this point in the day, I started getting dehydrated, a combination of the desert climate and the altitude. I decided to pick up a water bottle which was placed next to a Buddha figure and left ₹10 coin in exchange.
Demons and old paintings in Mangyal Tsemo Monastery, Leh
When I was climbing uphill I saw an Indian guy in his early thirties sitting at a pivotal viewpoint. He asked me if I saw the gilded Buddha and said I must have missed it. He said he would show me where it was located when I got back down, but then it was locked. The monks must have locked it when they left, he said. But it was locked when they were here too, I said, that’s why I missed it in the first place.
Mangyal Tsemo Monastery - Views Over Leh
Mangyal Tsemo Monastery - Flags and Flute
On the way out, I located a good vantage point, and sat down with my recorder to play, inspired by the energy of the place. A friendly monk who chanced to be listening, complimented me in good English. He also took my picture on my cellphone.
Being highly dehidrated still, I asked him for water. He poured me enough to fill my bottle, but said there wasn’t much water at the place generally.
We had a lively conversation. He told about the monks. Right now he was actually on vacation here. They, the Buddhist monks, are moved from one monastery to another around the country, and now he was kind of serving, kind of vacationing over here. His permanent base was in a very large monastery down in the south of India, hosting about 5000 monks. He told me its name, which I forgot, and showed me pictures of happy monks and beautiful structures. There are 10,000 monks in the south of India in total, he informed me…
From this ramp, there was a back path to where all the ubiquitous Buddhist flags were flying. There is no beautiful spot in the Himalaya where you will not find them. I climbed up there, but not to the highest ledge, where a couple of more daring French were perched.
Prayer flags flying between mountains, Mangyal Tsemo Monastery, Leh
The Climb Down - Interesting Exchange With a Local Ecumenical Seeker
I met the Indian guy once again at the viewpoint with the flags, and we continued the walk down together. He was a very interesting conversational partner. In similarity to me, he took the best from all religions and droppped the rest (see my post about my personal spiritual salad).
With a preference for Buddhism
Buddhism was his favorite religion, though, for several reasons. According to him, the Dalai Lama was “practical”. By that he meant, for example, that the Tibetan Buddhist leader dropped the idea that Mount Meru was the center of the world in light of current scientific understandings about the structure of the cosmos.
Another reason he preferred Buddhist teachings was because you could improve yourself by your own efforts. I agreed. There is a vast difference between religions which command you to obey a higher being and “His” representatives on Earth, and religions which outline for you a path to improve yourself so you can potentially become enlightened just like the masters, even if that takes multiple reincarnations.
He explained to me that the gilded Buddha in the monastery is the Maitrea Buddha, the 10th incarnation of the Lord. He wasn’t sure about the identitites of the other nine, but one was Rama, another Krishna, then there was another Buddha and several others. I asked about goddesses and he said there were many, but it did not seem that any of them was on this list.
To my question about tensions between the religions in India, he said that sometimes there were problems, but not much.
We both agreed Modi had a tough job managing such a diverse huge country with multiple regions, religions and cultures and with such a vast population. He said that educated people appreciated him, but not the simpler folk, since he raised taxes. They don’t understand the money they pay comes back.
Israel not the center of the world here, thank goodness
Regarding Israel, he said the first time he learnt about it was from some Indian magazine which published an article about the Mossad… He thought the largets number of tourists was French, not Israeli. I thought he was wrong on that one, but we, indeed, met a couple of French-speaking Belgians by the flags.
Challenging the mountains, enjoying the peace
He comes here every summer from Gujarat, near Mumbai. This year he was planning to take the local bus to villages in the Leh area and visit all ten of them. Then he would do a one-day marathon.
This seemed to be a common exploit people undertake in the area. In the morning, the Ladakhi guy at the Zula restaurant told me people regulary do 333 km marathons around here, including over the highest passes (see my post about the Ladakhi passes). People run from Leh to Manali… A 10-year-old girl did a marathon on bicycle and got a Guinness record.
Neither India, nor Indus
He also told me that the real name for India was Pata (???). India was a British name… and the original name of the river was Sindhu, not Indus. My search did not find a Pata, but another name for India was Barata. Probably the same. Maybe the accent…
The Bonfire Restaurant
All in all, an inspiring and exhausting day. Once we got down, he took his leave, and I went to the Bonfire Restaurant and had a very spicy, but delicious, Tibetan soup.
(More about the Bonfire restaurant here).
Eventually I got back to my room to get organized for the trip to the Nubra Valley (post in preparation) the next day.
These and other posts about the Himalaya are published on the page: The Indian Himalaya – Glimpse of the Infinite under the general section of Traveling India within the even larger section: Incredible India, which also includes the following sections: The Israeli Phenomenon in India and Point your Finger at Polluter – Who Cleans India
More posts about the Himalaya and about other regions of India are in preparation. Keep updated.
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