Because we are all feeling tired we decide on a gentler day today, foregoing the Khardang La pass in favour of a trip to the palace at Shey and some time in Leh – it may be our last chance for this. Shey Palace, 15 km east of Leh, was a royal palace until the 16th century but is now home to just one monk, who looks after the shrine. We park at the bottom of the hill and manage the slope and steps up to the monastery but still need frequent breathers on the way – taking photos provides an excellent excuse!
The wall paintings in the shrine, dating from the 16th Century, are very interesting – many of the characters feature haloes and have distinct resemblances to Christian iconography of the time.
Tashi, John and I climb a little higher to look at the oldest part of the palace – ruins dating back to the 11th Century. These are perched right on top of the hill and seem incredibly inaccessible by modern standards but the views from the top are superb. We look down on the remains of an ancient lake bed, now covered in chortens containing the ashes of important monks. Its easy to see where sediments have washed down from the mountains above and infilled the lake.
The view from Stok Palace
All that remains of it now is the holy fish pond attached to the monastery. This is home to large numbers of carp, as well plenty of water fowl.
The holy fish pond at Stok
Tashi drives us a short distance along a bumpy track opposite the monastery to a lovely picnic spot, complete with shady canopies. We have a wander in scrubby woodland there looking for plants but it is a pretty hostile environment – very sandy, albeit with water not far below the surface – and we find mostly thistles, buckthorn and the ubiquitous pollarded willows. There are some obvious pioneer species too, including a grass which looks very much like a recumbent marram grass, helping to stabilise the sand.
Lunch is yet another new experience. This time an insulated tiffin carrier comes out of the car and, as well as more tasty soup, we are treated to rice, chapatis, chicken and dal – we are certainly picnicking in style. Helen and I feel perhaps we should be wearing floaty dresses and carrying parasols!
After lunch, Tashi drops us in Leh town to do some browsing. Our first impression is how unlike Delhi it is – we can wander the streets freely and people may invite us into their shops, but otherwise folk are just going about their business. The main market street is currently in the process of being beautified, according to a large signboard, but for now that just means that the middle of it has been completely dug up.
Leh, present and future
There are plenty of shops selling all manner of beautiful fabric items and Tibetan jewellery and we browse in a few, though John is really more interested in the plethora of outdoor gear for sale. Western tourists and trekkers are very obvious in the town. When we find a bookshop, I am very pleased to pick up a copy of Flowers of the Himalya, by Polunin and Stainton.
Not long after we leave the bookshop we bump into Tashi, who has come to find John and me and take us to an earlier than expected meeting with Mr Takpa, the chief forest conservation officer for Ladakh. We leave Helen shopping and Tashi takes us to Mr Takpa’s office. It turns out to be an interesting meeting. He is a very dynamic man, responsible for significantly increasing the snow leopard population in Ladakh by helping local people benefit from their presence. He assures us that, if we come back in February, he can guarantee we will see a snow leopard – I like that idea! Mr Takpa is also very helpful in telling us who to contact to take a group into the region’s nature reserves. Afterwards, Tashi drops John and I back up the hill into Leh. We reckon Helen has probably finished her shopping by now but I need to go to the bank and buy a few gifts. John nobly accompanies me – above and beyond the call of duty – but I reckon he probably has it easier than if he was accompanying both Helen and me!
CP Dorjay has invited us out for dinner at a local restaurant, The Tibetan Kitchen, but before we meet him Danish calls in to talk to us about our plans for next week. It looks like the best option may be to spend an extra night in Sonamarg and then a couple of nights on the outskirts of Srinagar, before heading to the airport. We’ll make a final decision on our return from Panng Lake on Friday. We have a really lovely evening with CP. The food is excellent; chicken tikka mossala and Afghani kebabs, for our benefit, as well as Tibetan thukpe soup and mo mo (dumplings). The conversation is equally good and we learn a lot about the history and politics of the relationship between Ladakh and Kashmir and about family life and the education, as well as how climate change is affecting the already-fragile relationship between man and his environment in Ladakh. CP is such a warm and friendly host and we look forward to seeing him again next year.