Thiksey Monastery: A Ladakh Adventure

“Let us do a test drive out to the local monastery” Niall suggested. Niall was an Irish gentleman who my wife Jackie and I had become rather friendly with during the two-day journey through the treacherous Leh-Manali pass. We surveyed our motorcycles for existing damage before proceeding with the rental. The Royal Enfield is a remarkable machine with a timeless vintage design. As I kick started the bike and engaged the throttle, several roaring revs sent an explosion of goosebumps up my arms.

The entire region of Ladakh now seemed ripe for exploration. We set off south-east toward our destination of Thiksey monastery. Along the way, we got acquainted with our bikes and the local traffic etiquette to which there seemed little. We cruised through the cool-dry air of the late afternoon, elated by the open plains stretching far and wide. Upon arrival, we stood in awe of the prominent structure before us. Thiksey is just one of many monasteries that dot the barren landscape of Ladakh reflecting the spiritual and cultural significance of Buddhism in the local region.

Exploring Thiksey Monastery and Beyond

Niall and I outside Thiksey monastery

After walking through the layered monastery grounds exploring narrow passages, we came to an open courtyard where several monks were sitting engaged in scripture. To avoid disturbing them, we slipped into the interior of the main hall which was decorated with vibrant frescoes and thangka paintings. After admiring the sheer beauty of these artworks, we returned to our bikes and made our way back to Leh proper.

Twilight was upon us; thus, the return trip was taken with more caution. We were eager for what tomorrow would bring, but had little idea of where to explore first, when a flyer caught Jackie’s eyes. Gesturing to it, she read “Aryan Festival, August 28 2019”. After perusing the flyer, we all agreed we had to go. Upon further inquiry, we found out that the festival is held in the isolated mountain village of Garkon, and there are several military check points on route. We were informed by the matriarch of the local family hosting us that we would need to apply for special permits to pass through these checkpoints unhindered.

Venturing Further into the Mountains

The following day, we let our bikes warm up as we sipped masala chai and strategized how best to affix our bags to our bikes. We had no trouble obtaining our permits. The local issuing officer expressed her delight that we had taken an interest in attending the festival, informing us that we would be witnessing one of the last remaining Indian-Iranian ethnic groups who migrated to the Indian subcontinent some 3 500 years ago. Immediately upon obtain our permits, we filled our tanks at a petrol station on the outskirts of town and set off along the Leh-Srinagar highway. Being at altitude, the air was cool, but the sun made its presence felt as its rays pieced down warming our skin as we rode.

Challenges Along the Journey

Vast stretches of open arid plains, alive with vibrant warm colors swept on by as we cruised comfortably in fifth gear. Eventually, we stopped in the tiny township of Khalsi where we enjoyed the regional staple of dal bhat (lentils with rice). Of course, our meal was accompanied by several cups of chai and some conversation with the local inn keep. We fueled up again and set off. This time, deviating off the highway and up into the mountains. This stretch of road was less forgiving as it was loose gravel, thus we navigated it with the respect it demanded.

Now mid-afternoon, we approached our first military checkpoint. We presented our papers and were permitted to proceed. The officer warned that the village was still quite far and that we were losing daylight. We picked up the pace agreeing to limit our stops. Unexpectedly, I felt a wet menthol like sensation on my lower left leg. I glanced down to see a thin mist of liquid spraying out from the bike. I alerted Niall and stopped immediately. Upon inspection, it was apparent that there was a small hairline fracture in the fuel line. Scanning our surroundings, daylight was fading and we were suddenly struck with the sobering feeling of being the only signs of life in sight.

Overcoming Adversity and Arriving at the Destination

 Unsure of what to do, we knew that it was unwise to proceed as there was no assurance that there was help ahead. We decided to stay put and flag down the next passing vehicle. Luckily, a small utility vehicle approach within half hour and stopped to assist us. This must not have been their first rodeo, as they swiftly produced a toolbox that had a random assortment of tools and loose parts. It was not an easy fix, yet within an hour these kind men patiently finessed a joiner hose on with some hose clamps. The most humbling part was that they refused to accept any form of payment, both hard currency and cigarettes. We shook hands, thanked them and parted ways. Suffice to say, this was not the only mechanical mishap to be had, but that is a story for another time.

Reflecting on the Journey and the People Met Along the Way

Bush mechanics

Our next hurdle became time. We were back on route, yet had about two hours of driving to cover with only twenty minutes of daylight left. The roads became steep and narrow. In time, pitch-black darkness set in. The next couple of hours were some of the most nerve wreaking of our entire lives.

We passed through another military checkpoint. The soldier on duty appeared alarmed to encounter us at such an hour. Yet, he let us pass without issue, assured as we were on route and urged us to proceed with caution. Soon after, we reached our destination unscathed. The fuel line had ruptured again. We scoffed down a bowl of millet and slept on the seating set up for the visiting officials. We had no idea until we could see the next day, but had we made one miscalculation the night before, we would have surely plunged to a swift death in the chasms below.

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Locals preparing roti for breakfast
Jackie with some local men sporting their traditional garbs

An expat with over a decade living and working in China. My passions include education and travel. When I am not in the classroom imparting knowledge, I am out trying to find it. At times, I get lost and even need to find myself.

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