Apitse–Lamayuru

Diary

The Chigtan bus leaves early on Tuesday morning, at the same time as the Alchi minibus, which we end up following the whole way, but once past the turnoff to Alchi it's new territory at least for this year. The road follows the river downstream until after Khalatse, where it turns off into an improbably narrow ravine. In '95 the road soon left this gorge and climbed a series of switchbacks up to Lamayuru, but since then a route has been blasted straight up the stream, with the advantage that now a connection can be made to Wanla and Lingshed. At the confluence a couple of road workers get off the bus and start their walk up towards Wanla. I'm taking a slightly more roundabout route to the same place.

The road wiggles through Lamayuru but I stay on until Apitse, which everyone calls Atitse. Not sure why Editions Olizane differs, but I've taken them as authoritative, possibly unwisely. Fortunately another passenger is getting off too, as the village isn't visible from the main road: the bus stops at a bridge over a dry stream bed with only a flagpole to denote the presence of (Buddhist) society.

A jeepable track wiggles up the valley, but there are short cuts avoiding the extra distance, and I make my way up past one or two farmsteads until the gonpa comes into view. In fact these, plus a couple of houses immediately beneath the gonpa, comprise the entirety of Apitse village. A steep climb up the stream bed brings me to the front of the gonpa, which turns out to be the side, as the main door faces east in keeping with tradition.

Also in keeping with tradition I walk round to the door in clockwise direction, which involves going round the back. Two villagers are harvesting grain in a field below. There is a large prayer wheel, but it's not very well oiled and it only manages two or three turns after I let go.

The gonpa is all locked up, but beside the main entrance, instead of the normal wall paintings of the four directional deities, there are large photographs of the same deities rendered in torma form, rather well done. I sit by the door for a rest, while two white cars come up the track towards the village.

Rather than Indian tourists, the cars turn out to contain a party of Ladakhi women on some kind of gonpa tour. Their arrival coincides with the appearance of a woman in marron clothing with a key, who proceeds to let us all into the gonpa. There is an upper entrance, which leads to a tiny courtyard with shrine rooms around. We have to form an orderly procession to allow everyone to fit in the necessary devotions. From the courtyard a few steps provide access to a kind of basement, where a series of increasingly tiny doorways lead to a dark cave containing a statue of a bearded fellow. He doesn't look at all like your regular Buddhist sculpture, much more like a medieval European king. This room can only accommodate two people at once, and there isn't space for a prostration, but we manage to file past. He turns out to be Naropa, who is said to have spent time meditating in this cave---the reason for the gonpa's presence on this rock.

Back outside, the maroon lady opens up the lower, main entrance, which is in a clearly newer part of the building. Inside, thw walls are covered with floor-to-ceiling fitted glass-fronted cupboards containing hundreds of bronze bodhisattva figures, all the same but for variations in colour and clothing. In one section, comprising about eighty figures, each one has a small plaque with the name of a donor, all Italian.

Having completed their tour of the gonpa, the Ladakhi party return to their cars and play loud music while having lunch. The maroon lady invites me down to her house immediately below for tea. She turns out not to be a monk, but a nursing student who has had to come back home owing to flooding in Srinagar. Apparently the whole place is inundated. This puts the week of light rain at Leh into perspective. I end up being fed rice and vegetables, in addition to the tea, as an incentive to stay and chat. There is a book of pictures of New Zealand in the room, left by the woman who has been staying in the room next to mine back in Leh---a Slovenian-New-Zealander who came up here for a period of meditation and recommended it. Maroon lady is clearly very bored up here, but conversation dries up before very long and I make my excuses about needing to get to Lamayuru before dark, and leave with some measure of guilt at not being able to get her to accept payment for the food. My donation to the gonpa will have to suffice.

I return down the valley to the main road, but then carry on down the dry stream bed to where it joins the main stream of the valley, also dry here. Monsieur Errances En Sacados had recommended a visit to Apitse from Lamayuru and I'm following his route, though there doesn't seem to be a path. I find a way down the low cliffs bordering the main stream and walk down the stream bed for a few hundred yards: eventually a path of sorts appears on the right side, becoming more distinct as I follow it down past increasingly tall fairy towers. The path negotiates a side stream, then follows a terrace. High above the fairy towers the perimeter wall of the army camp can just be seen.

The path comes to a large flat area with a walled enclosure of unknown significance, beneath a fortress-like cliff, but instead of crossing it, drops down to the stream, now with some water in it, beside a short mani wall. The stream bed is wide and the path across it indistinct, but a large brown chorten some way down on the opposite bank shows the way. This proves to be attached to a much longer mani wall, with occasional breaches in it which don't look deliberate: past flooding perhaps. Soon there are signs of greenery, an irrigation channel hives off from the stream, and the path begins to climb steeply up towards a collection of chortens and lhathos; but only at the crest of the shoulder does Lamayuru village come into view, with its fields, surprisingly close by. Mani walls and chortens accompany the path all the way into the village: clearly there have been a number of monks at work here. I am unable to patronize the Moonland Hotel as it is on the right hand side of the mani wall and I am obliged to pass by on the left.

Finally the path reaches the main road and I descend, looking for a place to stay and avoiding children asking for pens. I find the place recommended by the trekking guide, which is unlocked but deserted. Giving up on them, I end up further down the valley at the Lion's Den guest house which offers a simple but clean room for Rs250, plus Rs100 in-house veg momos, not bad at all.

After dumping my pack in the room I visit the monastery, but the clouds have come in and the light is failing. There is another Naropa cave attached to the main prayer hall, visible through a glass door, but it's too dark to make out the figures within: there seem to be two, adorned with white scarves. Further up the hill is a large prayer wheel attached to a windmill, which turns without any human intervention. I try to find the place the festival was held in '95 but none of the buildings are familiar. My best guess is that one range of buildings has since been demolished and replaced with the monastery's newish-looking guest house.