Journeys in Ladakh - Auspicious Days at Photoksar

Ladakh Zanskar

We arrive on the day of the inauguration of the old Gompa at Photoksar.

Celebrations as the old gompa is inaugurated after restoration, 2022.Inauguration of the Restored Monastery at Photoksar

Photoksar is a beautiful village in Ladakh on the classic route to Zanskar. We've been there three times and our visits have coincided with auspicious events. In 2008 we camped at Photoksar on the second night of our eight day trek from Lamayuru to Padum. The days were long and the route crossed six high passes, or Las, of almost 5000 metres - the name Ladakh means the Land of High Passes.

Views of Photoksar, 2008.Photoksar July 2008

View of Photoksar village, Ladakh

Photoksar nestles precariously on a steep hillside above a deep ravine. On the hilltop approaches to the village are two gateway stupas and on the day we spent there the women of the village and a visiting lama from Lingshed monastery were consecrating one of the stupas, an event that happened once a year. We were warmly welcomed and took photos of the celebrations - whitewashing the stupa, stretching up to stick Rs50 notes on the wet paint; burning incense and the strange custom of sticking incense into piles of smouldering tsampa, barley flour, the staple food of the Himalayas; circumnambulations of the stupa, chanting mantras and picnicking.

Consecrating the gateway stupa, 2008.Photoksar 2008 Consecrating the Stupa

In 2016 we returned to Photoksar and met some of the women from 2008. We brought photos and many stories emerged: the three young women in one photo had all been married and moved to other villages; the young school teacher had been injured in an accident with a bus. One woman who's mother had died had never seen a photograph of her. Eight years had aged people somewhat but faces and expressions hadn't really changed.

Three young women, Photoksar, 2008.Young women at Photoksar 2008

Women at Photoksar, 2008.Women of Photoksar 2008In 2008, before we got to Photoksar we camped at Hanupatta, another delightful village where we watched the goats being brought down from the mountains as the sun set through a dusty haze. They're herded into the safety of a walled enclosure at night to protect them from wolves, foxes and maybe bears and snow leopards. It was at Hanupatta where I first felt that profound sense of being at home in Ladakh and we've returned many times.

Bringing in the goats, Hanupatta, 2008.Bringing in the goats at Hanupatta 2008

We formed a friendship there with a young woman called Tsering Dolkar; it's her aunty in the photo with the goats. We've kept in touch with her, met her family, seen her children grow from tiny babies, and this year we visited her again in the new house she built during lockdown and saw the village school where she now teaches. This year we're staying with another Tsering who we also met in 2008, Tsering Dolma, and her family just outside Leh. Tsering's a popular name, it means long life. 

Tsering Dolkar and her middle child in the first house she built about 8 years ago; upstairs it's the Hanupatta village shop. Below, her in-laws. 2016.

Tsering, Hanupatta, 2016

Tsering's in laws, Hanupatta, 2016

From Tsering's old house at Hanupatta in 2008 we saw early attempts to carve an improbable road through the mountains with the aim to connect a motorable road from Ladakh to Zanskar. We looked at these roadworks on the cliffs above and thought, how ridiculous, its impossible. We were wrong.

As the road extended further the trekking routes became less viable. For the local people, why walk when you can get a lift in the odd passing truck? Tsering could get to see her parents in another valley within a couple of hours rather than two days. The paths became less maintained and harder to find.

We watched the road creeping further, over the Sirsir La to Photoksar, over the 5000 metre Sengge La and down to the village of Yulchung and then down to the Zanskar river near Nierak. The road is basic, a bumpy, dusty compressed earth track that performs miracles of switchbacks as it climbs the passes.

View of the final climb to the Sengge La in 2008.Approaching the Singge La 2008

The same view in 2022.Sengge La, Ladakh 2022

The next stage from Yulchung to Lingshed monastery took years to complete and it was only in 2021 that a final stage linking the pass above Lingshed with the Zanskar river gorge to Zanskar and Padum was completed. I kept asking my friends where the road went but no-one could describe the route. The only people we knew who'd actually been on included Stanzin, our Zanskari guide, who described it as a little bit dangerous. If a Zanskari guide thinks it's dangerous...

In September our time in Ladakh was drawing to a close so rather than a three day drive via Kargil we took the new road. From the pass above Lingshed it drops steeply for 1500 metres in a series of improbable switchbacks until it reaches the Zanskar river, then runs beside the river along undercut sheer mountainsides before climbing across a long 45 degree scree slope. Although it's a relief to be out of the canyon, the scree traverse is probably the worst part, the wheels are perilously close to the drop.

The mountains are largely ancient dried mud containing boulders, in size anything from a cricket ball to a small house. When glacial streams turn to springtime rivers, when it freezes and thaws, things move. Rocks litter the road; resident road workers and bulldozers clear them away. Road building equipment crushed by a falling rock in the canyon hasn't been cleared away.

Dramatic and not for the back seat driver - but where you walked for 8 days you can now drive in 8 hours, both an advantage and not. Driving up the hairpins is quicker than driving down and on the way back we arrived at Photoksar sooner than expected.

We arrived at Photoksar, September 2022, on the day the village inaugurated the restored gompa.Inaugurating the restored gompa at Photoksar

On the way back, just before Photoksar we encountered a white yak - a good omen; we had arrived on another auspicious day. In 2008 the path to the old monastery on the hillside high above the village had been obliterated by the falling scree but today it seemed the whole village was walking up the path dressed in their best clothes.

Halfway up the path I spoke to an Englishman, John Harrison, and learned that the Achi Association - a Swiss charity that restores old Buddhist temples in the Himalayas - had spent several years restoring the monastery and today was the inauguration. John is a retired architect and made scale drawings of the temple and documented the frescoes 20 years ago not knowing that one day a restoration idea would become a reality.

Waiting to welcome two members of the Achi trust.Inaugurating the restored gompa at Photoksar

After expressions of gratitude to the two members of the Achi trust, a cake is cut and dancing begins, Ladakhi style.Inaugurating the restored gompa at Photoksar

Inaugurating the restored gompa at Photoksar

Inaugurating the restored gompa at Photoksar

I ask John about some wonderful temples in the monasteries at Kanji, Wanla and Skurbuchan and learn that the Achi Trust also restored them. Concrete is king these days but although it's quick it doesn't last and doesn't work well in these environments. Often the challenge is to persuade the village that traditional methods are the only decent way to maintain a precious old building. To get some idea of the work and skill involved you can read a report on the Wanla restoration here

Talking with John while Tsering (who's family we live with in Leh), Stanzin (our Zanskari guide since 2007) and Phuntsog (our wonderful driver) smile as they watch me drinking chang with John.With John and a tumbler of chang at Photoksar

Chang is offered profusively from small metal teapots decorated with plastic flowers. It's the local home brewed beer; it's delicious and tastes more like cider.

Moderation is wise, a hand covering the cup is the only way to effectively stop the endless supply of chang.Declining more chang at Photoksar.

The frescoes have been carefully restored; they've been cleaned and cracks in have been infilled with the material of the wall - a much better method than repainting the missing parts with colours that are hard to match. The frescoes are hard to see in the darker recesses.

Padmasambhava and his consorts in the shadows at tte restored gompa.Padmasambhava fresco, Photoksar, Ladakh

A social evening is about to start in the hall lower down in the village but we have to go. There are stupas in the village; in the base of one I remember a small niche filled with printed paper prayers. Today there is a message from the Dalai Lama.

There is a oneness of humanity. Whether we are black or white, yellow or green or red, we are all the same.Message from the Dalai Lama

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