Apricot blooms in Ladakh

Ladakh is a magical place known for its gorgeous mountains, crystal-clear lakes, and rich cultural traditions. This is my second visit to the land of passes. This time Mani and I came a month early to capture the Apricot Blossom Festival in Ladakh that celebrates the region’s natural beauty and cultural heritage. The festival takes place in April when the trees start blooming, covering the hills and valleys in a blanket of pink and white.

Very less people know that they also host the Apricot Blossom Festival. You might have heard of Japan’s Cherry Blossom Festival, but what about the apricot one in Ladakh? Apricot was first introduced when Ladakh was a famous Silk route and this event was organized to celebrate such exclusive beauty of nature. Organized across various places in Ladakh, the festival is held in collaboration with the local communities to make tourism more eco-friendly and to find ways for local people to benefit from the event.

Apricot blooms refer to the beautiful and delicate flowers that blossom on apricot trees during the spring season. These blooms are known for their pale pink to white petals and are a stunning sight when they blanket apricot orchards in a sea of soft colors. Apricot trees typically produce these blossoms before they bear fruit, making them a welcome sign of the changing seasons and the promise of a fruitful harvest to come. Enjoying apricot blooms in Ladakh is a delightful experience, as the region’s landscape is transformed into a sea of pink and white during the blooming season.

Apricots, called “Chuli/Halmann” in Ladakhi, were brought to the dry area of Ladakh by Chinese traders who passed through the area along the Silk Road more than a hundred years ago. Now, in the 21st century, the fruit is an integral part of Ladakh’s culture, history, and economy. Due to its cold climate, Ladakh is a great place to grow apricots and apples.

Apricot trees thrive in cooler climates, with an average maximum temperature of 18-19 degrees Celsius during the crop-growing season. These trees go dormant during severe winters and bloom in the spring. Another vital climatic factor is aridity, as drier conditions lead to higher-quality apricots.

It usually takes five to six years for the fruiting of the apricot plant. Typically, the fruit ripens in Ladakh in July, August and September. The productive life of an apricot tree is 80-100 years. So, while it takes five years for the fruit to come, you will get quality fruits on an apricot tree for a long time. On average, a tree produces about 30-50 kg of apricots every year.

The flowering of apricot trees is not only visually pleasing but also plays a crucial role in the pollination process, as it attracts bees and other pollinators, ensuring the development of apricot fruit. Apricot blooms are celebrated in various cultures and have even inspired festivals in regions where apricot cultivation is prominent.

The event celebrates the delicate pink flowers which come into full bloom throughout Ladakh’s two districts – Leh and Kargil. The flowers, just like the Japanese Sakura, do not last long and thus attract huge numbers of tourists when they bloom.

Vibrant cultural programmes, local handicraft stalls and Ladakhi food are generally part of this festival. Visitors are also able to enjoy locally produced items such as apricot jam, dried apricots, apricot wine, and other products made using the fruit.

This year’s festival, the theme of which is Chuli Mentok 2023, offers visitors the chance to stock up on locally made goods, including apricot jellies, dried fruit, juices, and even wine. The festival includes various activities, such as traditional music and dance performances, local food and craft exhibitions, and guided tours of the apricot orchards. The festival is also a great place to buy handicrafts made in the area, which is always a fun part of the Apricot Blossom Festival.

Researchers have also found that the sweetness of apricots increases with the rise in altitude.

If you are fond of apricot you might also know about apricot blossom flower from which blooms the apricot. The season for apricot blossom flower in Ladakh is from the beginning of April till May. Apricot blossom has the charisma to catch the attention of your eyes.

By the month of July – September they start producing yellow, orange rounded or oval-shaped apricot fruits. The oil extracted from the Raktsey Karpo seed is used for edible purposes either in pure form or mixed with walnut oil. A spoonful of oil is mixed with finely ground roasted barley flour, salted tea, and sugar to prepare a local dish called Phemar which is served during festive occasions.

There are varieties of apricots grown in Ladakh that differ from one another in taste (sweet, bitter and sour) and that also differ in size. The varieties include Halman, Laktse-Karpo, Safaida and Khanteh etc. Halman and Laktse-Karpo are the most preferred ones for commercial purposes. Apricot products such as apricot juice, apricot jam, apricot etc. are made. The apricots are even exported in the international market as well as within India.

Both the fruit and kernel of apricot are believed to be highly nutritive and consumed as either fresh or dried. It has become an essential part of the traditional culture of people in Ladakh. Local people serve dry or fresh apricots as dessert. It also has health benefits.

Rakstep Karpo is a unique variant of Apricot that consuming only in Ladakh. That is why locals celebrate the day as Apricot Blossom Festival. The Ladakhi apricot Raktsey Karpo received its first-ever Geographical Indication (GI) in 2022. This highly sought-after GI tag accreditation is granted for 20 years. Along with nine other items, Raktsey Karpo Apricot has recently been registered in the GI tag lists. Despite growing more than thirty different varieties of apricots, the Raktsey Karpo variety is exclusive to the Ladakh region. This unique apricot type from Ladakh is unparalleled in flavour and vibrant with white Kernel. Raktsey Karpo variety is primarily concentrated in and around Sham, Leh, Nubra and Kargil.

We did not visit Nubra this time but I hear it is renowned for its apricot orchards. The entire valley is a sight to behold during the blooming season. Consider staying in a local homestay in a village like Diskit or Hunder. This not only provides an authentic experience but also allows you to be closer to the orchards.

Raktsey Karpo is also rich in sorbitol – a natural glucose substitute that can be consumed by diabetics. And that’s not all. The oil from its seed is known to relieve back aches and joint pain!

Ladakh is one of the most popular places for tourist destinations and tourists can also celebrate the festivals of Apricot blossom. As a part of the festival, visitors can enjoy the local cultural programs, and different exhibitions and experience apricot trees blossoming. Moreover, they can purchase the products of apricots as a souvenir.

Remember that Ladakh is a high-altitude region, so it’s important to acclimatize properly, stay hydrated, and take precautions for altitude sickness.

Thanks for reading. Please leave your comments if you enjoyed my story or follow me on my journey as we visit the Kargil War Memorial to pay respect at the memorial dedicated to the martyred soldiers.

What is the best time to see the Apricot Blossom Festival?

When: April 4 to 17, 2023
Where: Lhardo (April 4), Saspol (April 5), Udmaroo (April 10), Garkone (April 8), Sumoor (April 11), Hardass/Shilichiy (April 16), Karkitchoo/Chanigound (April 17)

Stok Palace

Nestled in the picturesque landscape of Ladakh, the Stok Palace & Monastery stands as a profound reflection of the rich cultural heritage of this remote Himalayan region. Located approximately 15 kilometers from the bustling town of Leh, Stok Palace serves as the residential palace of the royal family of King Sengge Namgyal. Today, we will explore the fascinating history, architecture, and cultural significance of this magnificent palace and the adjacent monastery.

We had booked a cab for the entirety of the trip that would pick us up every day in the morning, right from our hotel. It was a great help as it helped us save time looking for rides on a daily basis. From Leh, Stok Palace can also be reached by local jeeps or through shared taxis. However, please note that you should make sure that you have some method of transportation to get back as well. It will be very difficult to get one-way transport back to Leh from Stok.

Brief History of Stok Palace

Commissioned in 1820 CE by King Tsepal Tondup Namgyal (1790-1841), the Stok Palace is situated opposite Leh on the other side of the river Indus. Tsepal Namgyal, the last independent Gyalpo (King) of Ladakh, inherited the throne when his elder brother died without any children. Tsepal was in every way opposite in character to his brother. He loved an easy life and was lazy in every respect. Despite his nuances, Ladakh flourished during his time, and the people enjoyed peace and happiness. He never went to battle throughout his reign until the Dogra army threatened the very existence of the Ladakhi way of life.

During his reign, the royal treasury had increased so much that the king decided to use it for building a new palace at Stok, also pronounced as “Stog” by locals. Stok, as people would describe was always a “dress colder” than Leh. While Leh Palace was the main seat of power, Stok Palace was built as a retreat for the ruling family. It was ironic that when the Dogra army arrived, led by Zorawar Singh around 1834, the king escaped and took shelter in this very palace he had commissioned.

Historically, Ladakh was an independent kingdom from about 950 CE until 1834, when Dogras from Jammu invaded it. The wool trade has held a significant position in the political history of Ladakh as was the primary interest of the Dogras. Although Ladakh was conquered by the Dogras in 1834, the state was not annexed until 1842. On his first assault on Leh, Zorawar Singh stayed in Leh for four months at the end of which he restored the kingdom of Ladakh back to Tsepal with an agreement that the kingdom would henceforth become a vassal state of the Dogra kingdom of Jammu.

But it was not long before Tsepal revolted against Zorawar. When the gyalpo learned of Zorawar Singh’s quick arrival at Chumri it was too late for him to do anything about it and he thought it wiser to receive the Dogra General outside Leh in all humility, expressing regret at what had happened. Besides extracting the installments of the war indemnity from Tsepal, he deposed him and installed Morupa Tadzi, the minister of Leh, as the gyalpo of Ladakh. Tsepal Namgyal, however, was allowed the village of Stok in Jagir. Tsepal Namgyal was the last independent king of Ladakh and remains much admired in the memories of the people of Leh.

The palace still serves as a summer home for the royalty of Ladakh from the Namgyal Dynasty. It is the only inhabited palace with more than 80 rooms, of which 5 are open to the public. The other two – Leh and Shey Palace are not liveable. While Leh Palace has been converted into a museum, the Shey Palace is in ruins.

A part of the building has been renovated and restored and turned into a heritage hotel. It offers discerning visitors a selection of four suites, a royal suite, and the queen’s bed­room. This magnificent four-story structure sits atop a vast hill surrounded by pebbles that descend from the peak. The palace seamlessly combines elements of both ancient and contemporary architectural styles, set amidst enchanting gardens and breathtaking panoramic vistas. The rooms are decorated in red, creme, and lapis lazuli blue adorned with Ladakhi motifs, rugs, and woodcarvings, with balconies overlooking the beautiful Indus Valley.

The central courtyard is dominated by an open space with a huge tarchen (flagpole). A staircase brings us to a smaller inner courtyard with a smaller tarchen, rooms on different sides, and a smaller staircase leading off to the vari­ous wings of the palace.

The Royal Palace comprises a four-story structure with a fine blend of architecture. The royal family is limited to top floors.

Guests staying at the Stok Palace Heritage Hotel have privileged access to the museum.

Although it is not as imposing as other palaces I have witnessed in India, it does command respect when compared to other surrounding structures. The site is famous for its well-laid gardens and visitors can also enjoy the amazing views of sunrise and sunset.

The palace organizes an annual festival of dance-mask (Cham) that enjoys huge participation by the locals. Visitors can also get to see some of the unique collection of crowns, royal attires, and other significant materials inside the palace. These lower floors were used as stables.

The mask dance known as Cham is a Buddhist dance performed by monks on the rythm of the dungchen(longhorn), gyaling(oboes), ngai(drums) and dung(conch shells), while wearing masks, some of which are fearsome while others are benign. The dance is religious in nature and it symbolizes the destruction of evil spirits.

Stok Palace also houses a must-see museum that has a collection of artifacts and relics related to Ladakh’s old monarchy. It offers a stunning collection of royal outfits, the crown, and other royal articles. One can see ancient coins, royal seals & costumes, jewelry, and photographs along with the royal family’s collection of thangkas, some of which are over 400 years old.

Royal Museum of Stok

Some of the major highlights of the Stok Palace museum are the Queen’s ancient yub-jhur or perak, which is a headpiece encrusted with 401 lumps of uncut turquoise, coral, gold nuggets and other precious stones; a 1,000 years old crown, and an actual knotted sword. The palace also has a temple where the guests are welcome to pay a visit. There are gold and silver teapots; and 35 ancient thangkas telling the Buddha’s story. Visitors can also see wooden blocks used to print prayer flags, and drums and trumpets made of human bone for use in tantric rituals. In one of the rooms is a sword whose blade has been twisted into a knot.

After grabbing some photos, we proceeded towards the Stok monastery, situated atop the hill about 2 kilometers away from the palace.

Hike to Stok Buddha

As we hiked towards the monastery, we could see dozens of chortens scattered all along the mountains. Among the most iconic and spiritually significant architectural elements in Ladakh are the white chortens, also known as stupas. Chortens are powerful symbols of the Buddhist faith. These distinctive structures are not only remarkable for their aesthetic beauty but also for their deep religious and cultural significance in the lives of the Ladakhi people.

Chortens have a long and storied history in Buddhism, dating back to the time of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha himself. They were originally built to house sacred relics and scriptures and to commemorate important events and figures in Buddhist history.

Over time, chortens spread across Buddhist regions, each incorporating unique local styles and traditions. In Ladakh, these chortens evolved into the beautiful white structures that grace the landscape today.

On the way, you can also catch this beautiful view of the Stok Palace standing mesmerizingly amidst the serene and awe-inspiring backdrop of the Stok Range of Mountains.

Stok Buddha

The history of Stok Monastery dates back to the 14th century CE when it was founded by Lama Lhawang Lotus. This historical connection adds an air of regal grandeur to the monastery, making it a site of cultural significance. The gompa is affiliated with Gelugpa or the Yellow Hat sect of Buddhism. One of the major attractions of the monastery is its impressive library which has 108 volumes of Buddha’s own discourses known as Kangyur.

The most striking feature of Stok Monastery is its architecture. Like most monasteries in Ladakh, Stok follows the traditional Tibetan architectural style. The main assembly hall or prayer hall, known as the Dukhang, is adorned with colorful murals, intricate woodwork, and statues of Buddhist deities. These artistic embellishments not only showcase the skill of local artisans but also provide visitors with a vivid glimpse into the world of Tibetan Buddhism.

It has various deities that are pictured inside along with 2 thrones that are for the Dalai Lama and his Lama. The central image that is seen here is of Avalokitesvara who has 11 heads and some 1,000 arms.

One of the highlights of the Stok Monastery is its impressive collection of Thangkas. Thangkas are intricately painted scrolls that depict various aspects of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, cosmology, and religious figures. These Thangkas, some of which are centuries old, are a testament to the monastery’s commitment to preserving its cultural heritage.

The monastery serves as a center for religious rituals, festivals, and meditation practices. Monks residing at Stok Monastery follow the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and their daily routines include prayers, chanting, and studying Buddhist scriptures. The monastery also plays a pivotal role in the cultural life of the region by hosting annual festivals, including the Stok Guru Tsechu, which draws crowds of devotees and tourists alike.

Beyond its religious and cultural significance, Stok Monastery offers visitors a serene escape from the chaos of modern life. Surrounded by breathtaking Himalayan vistas, the monastery exudes an aura of peace and serenity that makes it an ideal place for meditation and introspection. The tranquil environment, coupled with the spiritual ambiance, attracts travelers seeking solace and a deeper connection with themselves.

The history of the Golden Buddha Statue at Stok is deeply intertwined with the history of the Namgyal dynasty, the royal family of Ladakh. The Stok Monastery, where the statue resides, was founded in the 14th century and has been the residence of the Namgyal dynasty ever since. The statue itself, also known as the Sakyamuni Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha, is believed to have been consecrated by King Sengge Namgyal in the 16th century, making it an invaluable relic that connects the royalty of Ladakh with their spiritual heritage.

The most striking aspect of the Golden Buddha Statue is, of course, its striking appearance. This statue which was started in 2012 and finished in 2015 was dedicated on August 8, 2016, by Tenzin Gyatso, who is the 14th Dalai Lama. Standing at an impressive height, the statue is crafted from gilded copper and is adorned with intricate ornamentation, jewels, and an aura of serenity that immediately captures the attention of anyone who beholds it. The golden hue of the statue not only represents the richness of the Buddhist faith but also symbolizes the illumination and enlightenment sought by Buddhist practitioners.

The craftsmanship and attention to detail displayed in the Golden Buddha Statue are nothing short of breathtaking. The statue’s facial features are finely chiseled, radiating compassion and wisdom. Its serene countenance, framed by an elaborate headdress, is a testament to the skill and dedication of the artisans who created it. The intricate designs adorning the statue’s robe and the precious jewels set into it add to its splendor, making it a true masterpiece of Tibetan Buddhist art.

Beyond its physical beauty, the Golden Buddha Statue holds profound spiritual significance. It is an embodiment of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and dedicated his life to teaching the path to liberation from suffering. The statue’s presence in Stok Monastery serves as a constant reminder of the Buddha’s teachings and the path towards spiritual awakening.

For devotees and pilgrims who visit Stok Monastery, the Golden Buddha Statue is not just a work of art; it is a source of inspiration and a focal point for meditation and prayer. The statue’s serene expression and the aura of tranquility that surrounds it create an environment conducive to inner reflection and spiritual growth. Pilgrims often offer butter lamps, flowers, and prayers to the statue, seeking blessings, guidance, and inner peace.

A day trip from Leh is good enough to explore Stok Palace and the monastery. If you wish for a special experience you can also try to stay at the palace for a night. Spend the day soaking in the tranquility of the place – stroll around the palace, listening to the soothing sound of monks deep in prayers. Later you can enjoy the family museum with jewels, armor, and ‘thangka‘ collection of painted, embroidered ceremonial scrolls found in Buddhist monasteries.

Best Time to Visit Stok Monastery

The ideal months to visit the Stok is between May to October. However, if you wish to witness the local festivals you can try visiting in February.

Stok Guru Tsechu, the festival of Stok Monastery held in February/March, is a major crowd-puller. It is held on the 9th and 10th days of the first month of the Tibetan calendar.

Thanks for reading. Please leave your comments if you enjoyed my story or follow me on my journey as we drive to Kargil with Apricot blooms along the way.

Namgyal Tsemo

Mani and I were back in Leh. After a memorable experience in 2018, we had been thinking about going back to the “land of high passes” for some time. The tourist season in Ladakh starts around early May. This time, to escape the crowds, we came a month early in April itself. As we deplaned, the air was brisker and the Sun was softer. After settling in at the Hotel Kesaar Palace, which I totally recommend, we set out to revisit the Namgyal Tsemo Gompa.

The Namgyal Tsemo Monastery, also known as Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, is perched atop a hill overlooking the charming town of Leh. “Namgyal” translates to “victorious” in Tibetan, while “Tsemo” means “red hill.” It forms a part of the Leh palace complex and is maintained by monks from the Sankar Gompa.

When you meet locals in Leh, it is rewarding to wave, smile, and say “joo-lay”

Nestled amidst the awe-inspiring landscapes of the Himalayas, Leh, the capital of Ladakh, stands as a testament to the region’s rich cultural heritage and historical significance. Among its many treasures, the Namgyal Tsemo Monastery holds a special place, offering a glimpse into the vibrant history and spiritual essence of the area.

King Tashi Namgyal

Built in 1430 CE by King Tashi Namgyal, the founder of the Namgyal dynasty, the monastery serves as a historical repository, offering a window into the past of this remote region. The Namgyal Tsemo is a testament to the flourishing cultural and artistic expressions of the time, as well as a reflection of the king’s commitment to Buddhism.

King Tashi Namgyal was a prominent historical figure in the region of Ladakh. He was the founder of the Namgyal dynasty, which ruled Ladakh for several centuries. He is credited with unifying the fragmented regions of Ladakh and establishing a stable and organized administration. His reign marked a significant period of political consolidation and cultural development. This monastery not only served as a place of worship but also as a symbol of his dynasty’s rule.

The typical ascent route to the Namgyal Tsemo Gompa is from the Leh Palace road near the entrance to the Leh Palace. However, we had booked a cab for the day and he drove us right to the top of the hill and drpped us off at the entrance of the gompa.

The skies were sunny and blue as we walked up the stairs of the gompa. Indide the monastery one can find a large collection of scriptures, murals, and artifacts that offer insights into the spiritual practices and artistic achievements of Ladakh’s people. The intricate thangkas, vibrant murals, and meticulously handwritten manuscripts speak volumes about the dedication of the artisans and the reverence for Buddhist teachings. The monastery also hosts a three-story high solid gold idol of Maitreya Buddha.

Because we were ahead of the tourist season, the halls of the monastery were closed.

Even without the ancient artifacts, you can still enjoy the amazing view. The environment around Namgyal Tsemo Gompa looks very attractive surrounded by snowcapped peaks of the Zanskar range. The city, with towering edifices of granite and gravel mountains encompassing them, look frail and inconsequential.

Beyond its artistic treasures, Namgyal Tsemo Monastery is a living testament to the resilience of Ladakh’s people. Throughout its history, the region faced numerous challenges, including political upheavals and environmental adversities. The monastery’s continued existence amidst these challenges echoes the unwavering determination of the Ladakhi people to preserve their heritage and way of life.

Namgyal Tsemo also plays a crucial role in the spiritual life of the locals. The monastery serves as a place of worship, meditation, and reflection, offering an escape from the demands of daily life. The panoramic views from the monastery’s vantage point further enhance its spiritual ambiance, providing a sense of elevation both physically and spiritually.

In recent times, with increased tourism to Ladakh, Namgyal Tsemo Monastery has gained much recognition. Visitors from around the world are drawn not only to its historical significance but also to the ethereal beauty of its surroundings.

Views from the summit are spectacular – the town of Leh and the Indus Valley lies to the north and west at the foot of the hill. The smaller hill of the Shanti Stupa lies across town to the north. Leh rests in the “Trans-Himalayan” region of India — dividing the India Great Himalayan Range in the west from the Tibetan plateau to the east. Two smaller ranges surround the valley and are visible as distant snow-covered giants — the Ladakh Range to the east and the Zanskar range to the west.

We sat there for some time in silence watching the snowfall slowly engulf the far away mountains. It is exciting that such exquisite beauty can emerge from such simplicity. Even though the gomoa is ond if the mist important landmarks of the city of Leh, very few tourists visit the heritage site on a regular day. As we lay there, a breathtaking spectacle unfolded over the majestic Himalayas.

Leh is surrounded by some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes. The town is nestled amidst the mighty Himalayas and the Karakoram Range, offering awe-inspiring views of snow-capped peaks, deep valleys, and serene lakes. The faraway mountains are generally veiled in thick snow. The town’s high altitude lends a rarefied quality to the air and offers panoramic views that are unlike those found in most other places. The clear skies and vibrant colors of the landscape add to the allure. It offers photographers a treasure trove of subjects, from stunning landscapes to intricate architecture and vibrant cultural celebrations.

Thanks for reading! Please leave your comments if you enjoyed my story or follow me on my journey as I visit the Stok Monastery on the outskirts of Leh.

Blue waters of Pangong Tso

The journey to Pangong Tso starts from Nubra Valley. We had a lovely day among the sand dunes of Nubra.

Drive from Nubra to Pangong Lake

The drive from Nubra to Pangong takes you through a wide varied landscape. The Shyok river stays with us for most part of the ride.

Once the river leaves us and goes on its own way near Durbuk, the road too becomes quite bad. In fact, at certain points, it was almost impossible to make out where the road was.

After a few hours we reached the Changthang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary. This is the only place where you can see some vegetation. I caought some Pashmina goats grazing happily in the meadows

This little guy almost head butted me… he was probably taking care of the herd.

You can also find some horses lazying around in the cool breeze.

The roads near the santuary are well maintaned. The landscape also changes to a more pleasant view.

And then we see the first views of the Pangong Lake.

Pangong Viewpoint

We were staying in Spangmik village, but we first hit the popular viewing point, so we stopped there for a few minutes. It was around 2 pm and it was perfect to capture the beautiful lake in the brilliant light.

We moved around the edge of the huge lake taking shots of the crystal clear waters of the lake.

You can find Yaks available for rides if you want one.

You can see the changing colors of the water in the lake. It is greening towards the edges and more blue as you move your eyes towards the center.

After capturing some really amazing photos of the lake we moved on towards Spangmik village.

On the way we took more pictures of the mesmerizing lake.

Just before reaching the village, we passed an area with wide open space in front of the lake. Tsering, our chauffeur informed us that he will be taking us there in the evening, which is another wonderful place to enjoy the breathtaking scenery.

By 3 pm we had reached our lodgings at Spangmik.

It was May and still the mountains tops were covered in Snow.

After refreshing ourselves, we were ready for the second round. As promised Tsering took us to this lovely viewpoint from where you could capture the lake in its full beauty.

Mani modeled for me as I captured some amazing potraits. It was only 4 pm but the breeze had picked up and it was lethally cold. I was somewhat safe in my blazer, but Mani was having a tough time in the cold.

I quickly captured a shot of us before the cold really started to hurt.

With the Sun behind the mountains, the lake had turned into a deep blue color.

Shivering from cold, we hurried back to our tents. The tents lie at the edge of the banks. After a warm tea, we walked around in the evening.

The strong chilly breeze drove us inside the comfort of the tent. The night was extremely cold and even though I want to capture the stars over Pangong Tso, my body was too cold to come out.

In hind-sight, I should have stayed back for a day, but with a tight schedule, we had to move back to Leh the next day.

Next Morning…

The light is extremely bright in the mornings, so carry your eye shades.

We passed the lovey viewpoint we stopped at the day before for a few minute, but the light was too strong to capture good photos.

By 10 pm we are back on the road to Leh.

Dunes of Nubra

Nestled amidst the majestic peaks of the Himalayas in the northernmost region of India, Nubra Valley is a surreal and enchanting destination that captivates a photographer’s heart. Situated at an altitude of around 10,000 feet above sea level, this high-altitude cold desert boasts a landscape characterized by sweeping sand dunes and rugged terrains.

The valley lies between the two well-known Himalayan mountain ranges of the Karakoram (on the North), and the Ladakh (on the South). From Leh, we drove to Nubra across the Khardungla pass. The drive to the valley, spans around five hours, through one of the the world’s highest motorable roads.

Each twist and turn on the drive offers a new perspective of the desert’s beauty. At some points, the roads are treacherous but the awe-inspiring mountain vistas makes one ignore all the bumps on the road.

After the captivating drive through the mountains, we stopped at a dhaba near Khardung. The meal comprised steamed rice and dal along with some vegetables. Eateries are separated by long intervals so make sure you carry some biscuits or other beverages for the trip.

Just before we entered the valley, we came across some locals offering services for Quad biking. I have not driven one yet but a ride through this vast expanse of the desert must be an exhilarating adventure for those interested. The powerful hum of the quad bike engine echoed against the sandy dunes as we drove past them. The freedom to traverse the open desert, with its golden hues stretching as far as the eye can see, is an unmatched experience.

Diskit Monastery

Just before reaching Hunder, we took a small detour to Diskit Monastery, also known as Deskit Gompa. The monastery stands as the oldest and largest Buddhist monastery in the enchanting Nubra Valley. Constructed in the 14th century by Changzem Tserab Zangpo, a devoted disciple of Tsong Khapa, the founder of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism, it serves as a sub-gompa to the Thikse gompa in Leh. Poised on the precipitous cliffs, the monastery exemplifies the Tibetan box structure, crafted from a blend of stones, mud, and wood.

Within its sacred walls, ancient scriptures, sculptures, murals, frescoes, brocades, and thangkas are housed, each narrating a tale of spiritual heritage. The Mahakali temple, statues of Tibetan deities, the Sakyamuni Temple, and the prayer hall add an air of mystery to this sacred sanctuary.

Near the historic Diskit monastery, the renowned 106-foot-tall statue of Maitreya Buddha stands as an iconic presence. Inaugurated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2010, the enigmatic statue serves as a profound symbol of global peace and a vision for a future free from warfare.

Positioned on a hilltop, it offers a mesmerizing 360-degree panoramic vista. The bird’s-eye view unveils the picturesque Diskit Village in Nubra Valley, leaving us in awe of the vastness and tranquility of nature.

A quick 20-minute drive from Diskit Village transports us to the extraordinary realm of Hunder. Situated about 10 kilometers from Diskit, Hunder unveils a fascinating juxtaposition of snow-capped mountains and sand dunes, making it the sole location in India where these contrasting landscapes coexist in a single frame.

We were staying at the Hunder Sarai. The camps are surrounded by barren cold mountains and just about a 10-minute drive to the dunes. Hunder does have a mobile tower, but the network connectivity is not good. In between the gardens, outside slows a stream of crystal clear water. After a quick change of clothes, we directly drove to the dunes.

On the way, we noticed some camels making their way towards the dunes as well. The double-humped Bactrian camels are a distinctive feature of Hunder. It is said that Hunder used to be a crucial stop on the ancient Old Silk Route and these camels were brought in from Central Asia. In fact, it was still a trade route between Yarkand (present-day Xinjiang, China) and Leh, the capital of Ladakh, till the closing of borders in 1949 CE.

A camel safari atop these furry, double-humped creatures, navigating the silver or white sand dunes, becomes a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. The panoramic view of colossal mountains against the intensely blue sky, alongside the pristine white dunes will be etched in your memory for life.

The desert’s extremes are felt with the scorching sun in open areas and a sudden chill in the shade, necessitating layered clothing, sunscreen, and of course sunglasses. I would recommend staying in tents as the nights though chilly, promise a spellbinding display of the starry sky over the village.

Despite its arid and challenging conditions, Nubra’s cold desert boasts a unique ecosystem adapted to the harsh environment. Nomadic communities, such as the Changpas, have traditionally herded livestock in this challenging landscape, showcasing the resilience of life in the cold desert.

The Nubra region is the northernmost of Ladakh and in fact of all of India. It is fed by two main rivers: the Shyok and the Siachen. Both originate from the Siachen glacier but are on either side of the western Karakoram Range.

The climate of the regions is extremely harsh with scanty rainfall along with less moisture contained in the air. The minimum temperature in winter drops to -30 °C, and the maximum temperature is around 25 °C in the summer. In Nubra valley, the source and supply of water from glaciers is the only option for irrigation purposes, and portable water which is flowing through the two main rivers such as Nubraand Shayok, originates from the Siachen glacier and Remo glacier, respectively.

As the day passes, the winds pick up and create a kind of sandstorm. The sand dunes of Nubra are situated at the confluence of the Nubra and Shyok Rivers, creating a surreal desert landscape surrounded by majestic mountains. The dunes, predominantly composed of fine-grained sand, are sculpted by the relentless forces of wind, carrying sand particles from the riverbeds and depositing them in the valley. This continuous process shapes the dunes into undulating patterns, creating an ever-changing canvas of nature’s artistry.

The evening was cloudy and the sand kept blowing into our eyes. The weather is not friendly here and it gets pretty cold once the Sun hides behind the clouds. With every hour, the strong breeze keeps blowing the fine sand, reshaping them into new shapes. Even though the sand was harsh, we did get some wonderful photos. The wind whistles past, carrying the essence of the arid wilderness, while the rhythmic dance of the dunes creates a visually captivating spectacle.

Time passed quickly and soon the Sun was setting behind the mountains. The Nubra region is well known for its role as a gateway between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia in modern times.

The voyage to Diskit Village in Nubra Valley is an exceptional experience, both literally and metaphorically placing me on top of the world. Traversing through Khardung La, the pass that once held the distinction of being the world’s highest motorable road at 18,380 feet, I found myself amidst unparalleled beauty. Presently, Umling La claims the title as the world’s highest motorable road, reaching an elevation of 19,300 feet in Ladakh.

The clear and unpolluted skies of Nubra Valley offer breathtaking views of the night sky, making it an ideal location for stargazing amid the tranquil desert setting.

Ladakh stands as one of the most stunning yet environmentally delicate regions in our country, emphasizing the need for tourists to be mindful of their impact on the area. The Ladakh region boasts breathtaking beauty with its cold desert landscape, yet it remains sparsely populated. It welcomes tourists from April to September, primarily during the summer months. While the improved infrastructure has brought economic benefits to the locals, the surge in tourism has raised concerns among environmental experts. Many argue that unregulated tourism poses a potential threat to the ecologically sensitive region.

Next, we move on to Pangong Tso, renowned for its stunning natural beauty. Surrounded by towering snow-capped peaks, the lake’s crystal-clear blue waters create a mesmerizing and picturesque landscape that is said to be a photographer’s dream. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog! Your interest and engagement mean the world to me. If you have any thoughts, comments, or questions, I’d love to hear from you.

Tourist Information

An Inner Line Permit (ILP), which can be acquired at the District Commissioner’s office in Leh, is required for tourists, Indians, and foreigners alike. People are required to check in en route and must provide photocopies of the permits to be deposited at each checkpoint.

Altitude sickness is a serious health concern for people not previously used to high altitudes. Prophylactic altitude-sickness medication such as Diamox may be necessary for some as there are no emergency medical facilities to treat altitude sickness along the route.

The road is closed from approximately October to May due to snow and is often subject to long delays due to traffic congestion on narrow one-lane sections, washouts, landslides and road accidents.

Road to Khardungla Pass

Ladakh is the highest altitude plateau in India. It is situated in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, bound by two of the world’s highest mountain ranges, the Karakoram in the north and the Himalayas in the south.

Khardung La is a mountain pass in Ladakh that serves as the gateway to the Shyok and Nubra valleys from the city of Leh. Though we write it as Khardung La, the local pronunciation is more like “Khardong La” or “Khardzong La.” The word La means pass while Kharzong means castle. I am not sure how the combination of these words were used to name this mountain pass.

Ride to Khardungla Pass

We were staying at the Shaolin Guest House in Leh. Leh is the largest settlement in Ladakh. It is a town of modest bazaars and winding streets, hemmed by rugged hills. A few of the main attractions are the Shanti Stupa, Namgyal Tsemo Gompa and Leh Palace. These places lie quite close to each other and can be visited in a single day.

We were leaving for Nubra Valley. Tsering, who was our designated chauffeur for the trip was at the gate exactly on time to pick us up for the long ride to Nubra Valley via Khardung La. The 150-km journey from Leh to the Nubra Valley includes some of the most diverse and exhilarating topography in the world, and its high point (both literally and metaphorically) is the Khardung La.

As we drove into the mountains, the air began to feel chilly. Due to the high altitude of Ladakh, the climate is very cold and the air is very thin, which in turn makes the heat of the sun extremely harsh. I don’t think I ever saw Tsering without a thick layer of sunscreen on his cheeks.

The geographical location of Ladakh ranges from 2,750 m high at Kargil to 7,672 m high at Saser Kangri in the Karakoram Range. The average height of the plateau is around 3,000m, and the numerous motor-able high altitude passes, such as Khardung La, Changa La, and Thaglang La allow for the region to be connected albeit during the summer months.

The motorway was built in 1976. It was opened to public vehicles much later in 1988. But the history of this road is much more ancient. Traders of the Silk Route, which developed in the pre-Christian era used the pass to travel between Leh and Kashgar in Xinjiang province of China. The 2000 meter climb to the pass provides thrilling panoramic views of the Zanskar Range beyond the Indus Valley and towards the Karakoram.

Khardung La is about 40 km by road from Leh. There are two bases on either side of Khardung La – North Pullu and South Pullu. The first 24 km, as far as the South Pullu check point, are paved. From there to the North Pullu checkpoint about 15 km beyond the pass the roadway is primarily loose rock and dirt.

Khardung La Viewpoint

The journey unfolded along perilous yet picturesque routes, with glacial snow flanking the roads and majestic, snow-covered mountains reaching towards the enchanting blue sky. The sheer ecstasy I felt during the drive is a sentiment shared by travelers globally who dream of navigating Ladakh’s roads by car or motorcycle. Gratitude extends to the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) and the Indian Army for their unwavering dedication to maintaining these roads, turning the dreams of many, including ours, into reality.

The elevation of Khardung La is claimed to be 5,359 m (17,582 ft). Earlier it was miscalculated to be around 18380 ft, which has now been corrected using measures from various other GPS surveys including SRTM data and ASTER GDEM data.

Maintained by the Border Roads Organization (BRO), the road is open to tourists all year round, but even now in the summer months, we could see icicles hanging along the sides from the rock faces. We stayed at the viewpoint for about 20 minutes and towards the end of the stay I could feel the dizzyness coming over me. We left soon afterwards. In fact a signboard nearby discourages tourists from staying beyond half an hour at this place.

A few minutes after the viewpoint, the roadsides were completely covered in snow. It was biting cold outside. In olden times the Ladhakis used to refer to India as Gyagar (gar or kar: white, ‘where people wear white clothes’). Here ‘white’ signifies the difficulties of living. For them life appeared more grim on the Tibetan plateau while they had always heard of warm and pleasant life in the Indian plains. Experiencing this level of snow in summer I can totally understand their hardship living in these cold mountains.

Towards Nubra Valley

From North Pullu into the Nubra Valley, the road was very well maintained.

As we descended we witnessed the first views of the Shyok river emerging from the eastern side of the Karakoram and flowing north– south before it takes a westerly course to join the Nubra river. In contrasting terms Nubra Valley means a valley of flowers while the Shyok river that flows into it means the ‘River of death’

An hour’s drive downhill from Khardung La leads to the first stop in Nubra called Khardung, a small village in a sandy flatland. We took our lunch at the village. Nearby some wild asses were busy munching on the rare green grass. This was our first view of any greens since leaving Leh.

Soon after, at Tirit, the road bifurcates: one takes you to the valley of the Shyok river which has the towns of Diskit and Hunder, with a magnificent high-altitude desert between them; and the other to the green valley of the Nubra river, towards Sumur and Panamik.

As we got closer to Hunder, the weather changed drastically and we were surrounded by sand from the cold desert. The skies had turned ominously gray, but we moved on excited and looking forward to our next stop: Sand dunes of Nubra.

Tourist Information

An Inner Line Permit (ILP), which can be acquired at the District Commissioner’s office in Leh, is required for tourists, Indians, and foreigners alike. People are required to check in en route and must provide photocopies of the permits to be deposited at each checkpoint.

Altitude sickness is a serious health concern for people not previously used to high altitudes. Prophylactic altitude-sickness medication such as Diamox may be necessary for some as there are no emergency medical facilities to treat altitude sickness along the route.

The road is closed from approximately October to May due to snow and is often subject to long delays due to traffic congestion on narrow one-lane sections, washouts, landslides and road accidents.

Finding peace at Shanti Stupa

The unique beauty of Ladakh lures visitors from all across the globe. The union territory is geographically located in the westernmost extension of the Tibet plateau. Its name ‘Ladakh’ literally means “the land of passes.” The capital city, Leh, hosts the only airport. During the winter months, Ladakh is completely cut off from the rest of the country.

As summer approaches, tourists queue up in hoards to lose themselves in the serenity, tranquility, and spirituality of this desolate world. Also known as “Little Tibet” the city is known for its colorful culture and rich traditions of Mahayana Buddhism that still flourishes in the purest form in this region.

Shanti Stupa is one of several must-visit destinations in Leh. Surrounded by lofty mountains it has a special place in the cultural history of Ladakh. This white-domed Stupa on a hilltop in Leh was conceived by Japanese Buddhist Bhikshu, Gyomyo Nakamura as part of the Peace Pagoda mission.

Walk to Shanti Stupa

We had spent the earlier part of the day exploring Namgyal Tsemo Gompa and Leh Palace. All the walking had left us tired. We took a brief rest at the Shaolin Guest House, and then towards early evening, left for the peace pagoda.

Shaolin Guest House lies a couple of kilometers east of the Shanti Stupa. We walked down Sankar Road and then onto the Shanti Stupa Road. The walk is not difficult but it is not recommended for tourists coming from the plains as they might experience breathlessness because of the high altitude.

It is advisable that you take the first day off and just relax. It will help your body to acclimatise to the thin air in Leh.

Midway through the walk we were greeted by the picturesque Poplar trees. With its towering height, the Poplars stand distinctly in the landscape of Leh. These Poplar trees are said to mature very quickly growing up to 8 feet in the very first year. In the barren desert with almost no vegetation, the brilliant green trees are a sight for sore eyes. On the way, we passed by many small single-floor houses, some made of bricks and some of mud. The boundary of these dwellings are marked with medium-height ash-colored brick walls.

As we reach the outskirts of the city, the road starts to go uphill and the houses gradually disappear. The evening was breezy and we didn’t feel any discomfort hiking up the hill.

The Shanti Stupa road would be the easiest way to reach the Stupa. The motorable road leads right up to the gates of the Stupa. One can also reach here by climbing near-500 steps from the opposite side of the hill but in my opinion, it is not a recommended route for the unfit.

It was 7 pm by the time we reached the entrance of the Stupa. The Sun had hid behind the mountains but the light was still great. Situated on the hilltop at Changspa at a height of 4267 meters, the Stupa provides wonderful panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.

Buddhism in Ladakh

It is said Buddhism penetrated Ladakh during the time of Emperor Ashoka in around 204 BC. But even before the reign of Ashoka, the Arhat Majhantika blessed these lands with his visit and prophesied this region becoming a stronghold for the Buddhist religion in the Himalayas. Ladakh was in those times known as Mar-yul (Red Land).

It cannot be denied however that it was during Ashoka’s reign that Buddhism spread rapidly and took a stronghold in this part of the world. The indigenous community which were mostly nomadic and lived off meat at that time, gradually absorbed the concept of vegetarianism that is still followed today.

The reign of Ashoka also introduced the religion in Japan. The teachings of Buddha aroused new consciousness in the people of Japan and thus rose Todaiji, the greatest of the Buddhist temples in the world. And this brings us to the Shanti Stupa which stands for Leh as a mark of the friendship between two countries connected by a religion of peace.

History of Shanti Stupa

The idea of Shanti Stupa has its roots in a vision conceived many years before by Nichidatsu Fujii. Nichidatsu Fujii [1885-1985] more commonly known as Guruji, was the founder of the Buddhist religious order, Nipponzan Myohoji, which is dedicated to working for world peace through Peace Walks and the construction of Peace Pagodas across the world.

Around 1842, repeated invasions of Ladakh by the Kashmiri rulers shook Buddhism at its roots. Led by Maharaj Gulab Singh, the Dogra rulers undermined the aristocracy of Ladakh and brought about what is regarded as the darkest hour in the history of Buddhism in Ladakh. Alien to the local culture, they did considerable damage to the gompas and the stupas in the region. As a part of his mission to resurrect Buddhism back in Ladakh Bhikshu Gyomyo Nakamura conceived the idea of building the Shanti Stupa in Leh.

Shanti Stupa in Leh

Construction of the Shanti Stupa began in April 1983 under the supervision of Bhikshu Gyomyo Nakamura and Kushok Bakula, a lama from Ladakh. The project was built with the help of Ladakhi Buddhists, who offered voluntary labor, and Japanese Buddhists, who consider India as the “sacred” birthplace of the Buddha.

The Shanti Stupa holds the relics of the Buddha at its base, enshrined by the 14th Dalai Lama. The 14th and current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso inaugurated the Shanti Stupa in August 1991 celebrating 2500 years of Buddhism.

The beautiful Stupa today stands as a symbol of the friendly ties between the people of Japan and India. Since its inauguration, Shanti Stupa has become a popular tourist attraction. The Stupa overlooks the city of Leh, providing panoramic views of the city, the village of Changspa, Namgyal Tsemo in the distance, and the surrounding mountains.

Depictions of Buddha at Shanti Stupa

We waited for the dusk to arrive hoping the tourists would clear by then. Far away we could see the sun set over the lovely city of Leh. Mountains are the crowning glory of the region, as they stand tall, overpowering, and majestic in myriad colors.

The Shanti Stupa features a photograph of the current Dalai Lama with the relics of the Buddha at its base. The Stupa is built as a two-level structure. The first level features the central relief of Dharmachakra with deer on each side.

As we move up the stairs we face the central structure that features an image of Lord Buddha in golden color sitting on a platform turning the Dharmchakra wheel.

On the same level, as you walk around the circular path, we can find three other images depicting the birth of Buddha, the defeating of devils in meditation and the death of Buddha along with many small images of meditating Buddha, embossed in vibrant colors.

Both levels feature a series of smaller meditating Buddha reliefs along the walls of the central structure.

And the most important of all the Nirvana tablet that features the Buddha lying on his right side with his head supported by a pillow or his propped-up hand and elbow. Though this representation of the Buddha can indicate sleeping or resting, it is most commonly a representation of the final moments at the end of the life of the Buddha.

Parinirvana is a Mahayana Buddhist festival that marks the death of the Buddha.

Called maha parinirvana, this transitional state occurs only to those who have reached enlightenment, or nirvana, during their lifetime. Those who achieve nirvana are released from samsara, the cycle of rebirth, and karma. Instead, when they die, they reach nirvana-after-death or the eternal Self. It is also known as Nirvana Day and is celebrated on February 15th. Buddhists celebrate the death of the Buddha because they believe that having attained Enlightenment, he achieved freedom from physical existence and its sufferings.

Evening at Shanti Stupa

Dusk was upon us and the lights along the Stupa were gradually lighting up one by one. The crowd had dispersed by the evening, allowing for a more tranquil experience in this remote yet captivating locale. The white-colored domed-shaped structure looked extremely beautiful during the night when it was illuminated.

It was dark soon and the sky was lit with a billion stars. The moon was nowhere to be seen even though the Amavasya (New Moon) had passed a couple of days back. On the way downhill a cafe was still open where we gathered some warmth with a hot tea and a bag of chips. It was late and we were the only guests at the dimly lit cafe.

The walk downhill was relatively easy. Although by that time it was pitch dark. The area is devoid of any street lights. Holding hands and armed with a torch we slowly made our way back to the Hotel. It was a walk that I will always remember.

In 1974, when Ladakh was first opened for tourism, around 400 to 500 tourists used to visit a year, and with time the numbers rose every year. Today in 2018, around 6 to 7 Lakh tourists visit Ladakh every year. Tourism can be a double-edged sword. It can bring economic benefits but can also harm the environment and local communities. As a tourist, we must try to respect the local culture and not be disruptive to the environment.

Our upcoming schedule takes us to Nubra valley where if I am fortunate, I look forward to capturing some nice dunes. Your interest and interaction are incredibly valuable to me. Feel free to share your thoughts, comments, or questions – I would love to hear from you.

Visitor Information


The Stupa is open for tourists between 5:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m

How to reach Shanti Stupa?

The Stupa can be reached by a drivable road or on foot using a series of 500 steep steps to the hilltop.

What is the most delicious food in Leh?

The most popular ladakhi foods are Thukpa (noodle soup) and Tsingmo (steamed buns).
When in Ladakh also enjoy the buckthorn juice which is indigenous to the union territory

What are the best restaurants in Leh?

Tibetan Kitchen and Gesmo are two of my favorite restaurants in Leh. If you are up for a coffee, you must try Lehvenda in the main market area. It is amazing.