Kyelang–Labchang

Diary

Left town via the new bus stand. The road up the nullah here seems to be used as the local tip. Slightly pongy. There is a building at the bottom, presumably disused as it is slowly filling up with plastic and paper.

Round the next bend a Lahula man is picking his way down a path to the road. Later, from the other side of the valley, I see that this path is the easiest way to Gumrang; not knowing this, I carry on to the next hamlet where a line of goods carriers is parked. Here a set of concrete steps looks promising so I begin the ascent.

The path zig-zags through juniper forest. Juniper only seems to grow on the north side of the valley. Its fragrance is woody, alert.

After a few hundred metres the ground becomes grassy and the juniper is joined by willow pollards. Streams run through the area, either natural or runoff from irrigation above. For a while it's quite lush; then I meet the first field, where some villagers are working.

The path seems to follow the stream for the next section, or I mistook something; either way after a hundred metres the stream/path meets a crossway, where I turn towards the village. On the way are two old brick chortens, then a couple of large homesteads of the Ladakhi fashion (5 windows on the front, 4 on each side, 2 or 3 floors; likely a central stairwell serving 4 apartments on each floor), then a newer concrete chorten, the largest I've seen in the valley and recognizable from Keylong.

There is building work going on here too, refurbishing another homestead. The foreman points out a motorable track running just above the village. The guide book mentions an old gonpa here but I don't spot it. Instead set off along the track towards a yellow roof on the other side of the valley.

The track deteriorates into a path, and past a chorten becomes rather overgrown, but it's easy enough to follow, emerging by the water supply and washrooms of the gonpa. This is Bokor gonpa, about which the guidebook says very little. It seems to be fairly new, but nobody is around to show me the temple. Instead I carry on to the end of the ridge where there are the usual chortens and prayer flags, and an excellent view over Keylong and the Pangi Range behind.

The Karzha valley is ingeniously formed so that any given point is dominated by one of the Pangi Range; Kyarkyogs and the snow peak behind it; or the 'Lady of Keylong', but one can rarely see more than one at a time; either the others are hidden behind a flank, or the peaks are obscured by their own lower slopes. And the summit of Drilburi, the most sacred mountain about which the whole district revolves, is visible from only a few locations.

The pilgrimage guide says the name 'Lady of Keylong', as also the 'Seven Buddhas' up on the skyline, was invented by the wife of one of the Moravian missionaries (perhaps a missionary herself). Hence its not-really-Indian-sounding name. And Buddhas don't often come in sevens. Three maybe. Or five. Or hundreds. The same missionaries, incidentally, planted the poplars just behind my guest house (source: Lahaul and Spiti: a world within a world, Himachal Tourism, undated)

Return the same way, past Gumrang, although another path is visible winding down to the road, and further down the motor track, which hairpins down through shiny shale rocks and juniper forest. A Lahula shepherd wanders by with his flock. He seems rather annoyed with it.

I decide not to take the 1230 bus further up-valley, but instead make for a bridge I'd spotted from further up. The track down peters out in fields but I manage to find the bridge approach with some help from the locals. It's marked by a chorten, naturally. The river here seems very narrow considering there is only one major nullah before the bridge at Kardang. I guess the water must be very deep here.

On the other side, the path is clear until it meets a ravine and the main path veers left to a nearby village. I am making for Labchang so carry on straight, along a less distsinct path which I saw/imagined from the other side of the valley. The steep sides of the valley are very useful: from high up on one side, you can read the other side like an aerial photo. My chosen path is indistinct in places and overgrown in others, but there's never really any doubt which way to go. I pass through colourful meadows and wooded ravines, beside fields ready for harvest and through glades of wild flowers. It's idyllic.

Eventually I meet the first houses of the village, and the local water supply. A calf is milling around, but is a little shy. I coax it to take a drink from the bucket in return for a photo.

The gonpa is only a little further up, beyond the road along the valley. As I'm taking off my shoes (which takes a while) an older resident offers to show me the shrine room with a grunt. This he does, as also the library above, which looks like it's been recently renovated with the books neatly packaged in cloth and stored behind individual glass-fronted doors.

The monk then invites me to take tea in his cell, which is a strained experience owing to our complete lack of common language, but he insists that I eat almost all the biscuits and serves me three helpings of tea. Though he did reserve the larger cup for himself, so there is that. I have the consolation that this time I'd already donated to the temple. The cell is in a traditional Lahauli house, on the first floor, which is cause for much wheezing as he asacends the steep ladder. The other rooms in the building seem to be used for storage. His cell has a sleeping mat, various food-related items scattered around, a central small stove with chimney reaching to the ceiling (essential in winter) and an alcove with glazed doors holding books and whatnot. One pane has a faded headshot of an Indian woman pasted to it. It's a contrast from the lama's quarters in Yurdzong, which although possibly smaller were cheerful, brightly painted or decorated with new thangkas. The lama also had a selection of phones and a laptop. This monk has no such luxuries.

I put my shoes back on (this takes a while) and take my leave. He watches me down the path from beside his house. The hillside around Labchang is vividly green, even where not cultivated, with grassy meadows and flowers everywhere.

At Pasparag there is more construction work. One homestead has clearly been built to replace an older building next door. As the wood-and-cement houses age, families are deciding to move on to the new style. The local stone is still used for the facings, though. The whole thing is done with more care than I've seen in other parts of India at least.

Reach the turn off to Kardang gonpa. Decide that I am not likely to do the Drilbu kora so should vitis the gonpa now. Which means another long tiring ascent up a braided path that seems to be mainly used by goats. By the top I am exhausted, but there is a stream here, so I can quickly make myself a cold draught with the aid of my magic pen.

The track enters the gonpa precincts from above so I have to descend to the temple. This is a much larger and grander affair than any of the gonpas I've visited so far. Concrete stilts have been built into the hillside to afford a flat platform in front of the temple for ceremonial and social purposes.

Inside the temple the walls are completely covered with paintings in various styles. Though the building only dates to 1912 it's clear which patches are older. Between these parts along the frieze runs a new painting of scenes from the life of the Buddha. The older parts are much more traditional, thangka style. One painting has 23 Taras, which is two more than usual. There are three main figures: Avalokiteshvara with crossed dorjes and crown; Buddha; and someone slightly fierce with a staff/sword like Vajjrapani or something like that. But the highlight is an immense and obsessively detailed mandala thangka hanging to the right of the figures. Buddhist painting seems to be alive and well, at least here.

Take the concreted short cut down to the village. At least, it stays concreted for the first 500 m or so, then turns into an overgrown path, then becomes an irrigation ditch. Resigned to being both wet and lost, I carry on downhill until I meet a proper track, yet there is a sign (the first I've seen anywhere on this side of the valley) pointing the way to Kardang Gonpa. So I wasn't wrong, the route really does go along an irrigation ditch.

Schoolchildren are just arriving in Kardang village as I pass through, which means lots of 'Hello', 'Where you come from' and 'Sweets please'. Not entering by the main road the buildings look a lot more traditional in style, built closer together with ladders up to the roof.

Down the track to the bridge an insistent bird with a distinctive call, 'Which way are you?'