Mystic Andrew Harvey once spent five solitary days in the Himalayan village of Alchi, after which he declared in his book, A Journey in Ladakh, “The things that ignore us save us in the end.” Perhaps epiphanies came more easily in those days — those were the 1980s. But as I journey the 70-odd kilometres from Leh there’s hope yet — the Himank road project declares at every turn, ‘Better Late Than Never.''
We come upon Alchi as if upon a forgotten oasis, hidden in a valley of stone. From Buddhism and Islam to Dogra ascendancy, it has bypassed many influences by means of its isolation. Here is a place of contrasts, lush green valleys against rugged ochre and brown mountains. Yet, with a population of 1,000, Alchi has long been little more than a stopover. Today though, its famous monastery, a World Heritage Site, combined with its location by the Indus and Bollywood-worthy barley fields, are making it a popular draw. Alchi’s idyllic appearance and invitation to solitude are difficult to resist.
The first day we walk gingerly, careful not to strain our bodies as they acclimatise. In the evening, over mutton mok mok (Ladakhi momos) and tea at one of the town’s little thukpa dhabas, we watch the serene thoroughfare of locals on the village’s main drag.
A trio of indefatigable Alchi lovelies crowd around as tourists take their pictures, strong matriarchs who wear thick woollen goncha robes and carry huge bundles of grass or baskets on their backs. Ladakhi women have the most beatific faces, written over with cold and wind, yet calm. One offers an Indian tourist her rustic hat, a humbler cousin of the ceremonial perak, and giggles break out. Thonduk, a young woman who works for a medical company in Nurla, gives me her cell number so we can continue our chat later — she’s on her way to meet a friend, for whom she’s carrying what looks like a bottle of rum.
We meet several foreigners who are biking through, plus the requisite elderly German couple, and a family of intrepid Gujaratis who have decided to spend two days here en route to Kargil and Srinagar. We choose a brand-new trekkers’ haven: Summer Camp Alchi, a mini-resort with imported tents the brochure dubiously terms ‘Swiss cottages’. The tents are cosy and carpeted, the river nearby, and at night the winds make the folds of my temporary home flap about quite wonderfully. The manager is an enterprising young Sindhi from Bangalore, Harish Nagpal. Harish is one of those seasonal migrants Indian tourism has produced, working four months here and eight in a restaurant in Goa. He’s gotten more of a tan in Alchi than in Goa—people forget to tell you that the Ladakh sun can be unrelenting in summer. By 4pm I’m breaking into a sweat. Afternoons are best spent reading, I decide. My tent open to view snow-tipped mountains, I turn to Henry James.
Later, I visit the Alchi gompa, or monastery. Spirits are on my list of things I’m looking for. My best friend from high school, the daughter of a Tibetan rinpoche, had exclaimed earlier, “Make sure you’re not alone in Alchi — it’s haunted!” I’m not a big believer myself, but I’m watchful as I seek out solitude in picnics by the river, sojourns in the barley fields, early morning mynah-watching expeditions.
The renowned Alchi monastery complex, also known as the Choskor, was built in the 11th century by translator Lotsava Rinchen Zangpo. Said to house some of India’s most exquisite Tibetan art, it contains three temples and two chortens (reliquary shrines) unique to Alchi: the main temple, Rinchen Lhakhang, is flanked by Jamyang Lhakhang (Manjusri Temple) and the Sumtsag Lhakhang, as well as Vairogana and Sumstrek. We get a hurried tour of the great murals, time-worn depictions of the Buddha in Maitreya form — the Choskor’s one lama is an unwitting docent-cum-watchman who unlocks and locks each temple and protects its interiors from camera flashes. Above all, he’s intent on getting us to do darshan, not take pictures.
Inside the simple structures: the familiar aroma of butter and pungent Tibetan incense, an antique, comforting smell that reconciles me with the almost uncomfortably dark feel of these stone rooms of worship. Clustered around each idol are countless bottles of oil, small witnesses of faith as touching as the lama’s stern gaze.
You’ll sleep soundly in Alchi after lights out (power runs only from 7am to 11pm). By 5am the next morning, I’m up for the voyeur’s view of Alchi from a rooftop above the main settlement — I can see women tending goats in their backyards, grass-topped terraces of homes whose occupants sleep in the open. I had huddled under a blanket the previous night, but this is apparently good weather for them!
After a breakfast of khambir (Ladakhi bread), butter, jam and eggs, we set off for nearby Likir, but explore a waterfall in Saspol instead, just across the river. It’s a restful hour that we spend at the waterfall by rambling bushes of wild pink roses, gompas overhead. When we finally get to Likir, the monastery which has taken over ministration of the Alchi Choskor, it’s mid-morning. The young lamas we meet dance around just like any other 10-year-olds, so quick to run out of class they’re wiping their noses on the run.
In the evening, Sonam Wangchuk, possibly the shyest guide in the world, invites us home. His sister Rinzen serves us gur gur chai in a traditional kitchen that is also communal living room. Large brass and copper vessels and samovars line the shelves like ornaments, and a traditional stove claims centre stage as we discuss the foods they eat — spinach, mooli, sorghum, apricot or chuli. Then, Rinzen opens up the family’s musty cellar to get out the chang (barley beer). Again, like in the cool stone preserve of the temple, is that elemental quiet and comfort.
I walk along the river afterwards, noting the many unusual stones — light-coloured and scored by lines of green, purple, red — cut up and carved by man’s encroachment, the wind, the Indus as it rushes past. A steepish climb upwards takes us to the Alchi dukhang and I encounter the lama who fiercely guards it in a more relaxed mood. He turns out to have a toothy smile.
The lama explains the significance of mane walls to me, as well as the rationale behind the little piles of stones we saw on the way to Alchi, offerings of faith and belief in a Dubai-like desert land. Another lama and a cheeky young local lad, home for the holidays from Chandigarh, sit and laugh with us as we talk. Together, the jolly trio give me gossip — the real story behind the accidental death of a lama in a mining accident — and local folklore and legend.
An hour later, I am standing amongst the undulations of the barley fields as the sun moves lower in the sky, being treated to an impromptu concert. Thendup Wangyal is Alchi’s last Mon musician and he is playing after 11 years. A weather-beaten carpenter, he is 65 and no longer has the breath to keep his harib, a kind of horn, going. Once he played at four or five weddings a year, in the September/October wedding season — grand affairs, Wangyal’s daughter tells us. Young men danced the buchases to the beat of special drums for two days.
The dagang, a function held to commemorate the first month after a baby’s birth, was another occasion for a performance by Thendup, who has since been replaced by professional Mon musicians from Leh. Today, I can tell, is a special day for Thendup’s grandchildren, gathered around in their little backyard to hear the music of their forefathers. As the harib, mournful and folky, plays on and on, Thendup’s wife of 40 years looks out smilingly from inside the house.
The next morning I meet the man locals half-jokingly refer to as the Raja of Alchi. Namgyal Wangchuk is the local Lonpo, a kind of leader appointed by the king in ancient times. Today he acts chiefly to settle disputes over land and family. He is the son of the former king of Alchi, and lives near the Choskor by a hotel owned by his eldest son. When you enter the village, you can see the old seat of his ancestors, an abandoned palace and fort that once served as a summer residence.
Lonpo Wangchuk is a surprisingly accessible man, and within a few minutes we are sipping chai by his hearth, talking about the good old days in rapid-fire Hindi. He tells me about the old Rani and alliances with Tibetan royalty; about his father, the last king, who collaborated with All India Radio. Names and dates trip off his tongue — Zorawar Singh, Kashmiri maharaja; the War of 1972; Siachen and Chinese expansionism; the Losar celebrations that used to mark New Year but discontinued of late. The first generation of royalty, Singye Namgyal, married a Muslim, I learn.
The Lonpo takes us to his dilapidated yet striking former home, the house where he was born. Handsome in traditional clothes, he strikes a pose. At once, we’re back in the glory days. For time is tricky in Alchi. When it flooded last year, the bridge that connects the village to the rest of the world collapsed and no fresh meat and food was to be had. But when the village’s big electricity project gains momentum very soon, this place will be a gold mine, say local hoteliers. Indeed, in the next five years Alchi will grow increasingly popular. The seekers on the spiritual trail will search for greater revelations. And every month, Alchi’s Raja will continue to visit his old summer home, perhaps the only place that will ignore him now.
Indian Airlines, Jet Airways and Air Deccan operate regular early morning flights to Leh from Delhi (the last is cheapest, around Rs 10,000 return, depending on when you book). From here, most travellers hire Scorpios, Safaris or regular jeeps to get to Alchi. Alternatively, you can drive up from Delhi via the Manali-Rohtang Pass route and continue to use your car as Likir, Saspol, Sumda, Mangyu, Uleytopko (all within an hour’s drive or day’s hike) and even Lamayuru (2hr) are worth visiting.
Where to stay
Alchi Resort (Rs 3,000 double; 01982-252520) is the village’s upmarket option, with all modern conveniences and a restful gazebo at its centre. Though the huts are pretty standard on the inside, they are built in the rustic Ladakhi style. Summer Camp Alchi (227129, 9419269499) is a great outdoors alternative, if you don’t want to be sleeping within four walls; there are around 10 double tents available for Rs 2,700 a night, breakfast and one full meal included. You’ll share eight very clean bathrooms plus a dining room with other guests. Zimskhang Guesthouse (227086) and Samdupling Guesthouse (227104) are reasonable options, right near the temple complex, and Choskor Guesthouse (9419372628) will be a good budget option once set up.
Where and what to eat
Most resorts and hotels in town have their own restaurants, cafés or meal plan. The eateries in town are mostly nameless shanties with basic staples, dubious signage and names like ‘Dil Dil Café’. We’d suggest asking your waiter for authentic Ladakhi cuisine, like we did, or you’ll get served the usual Continental-Indian menu — though the one North Indian meal we did have was infused with a smoky flavour that was distinctly Ladakhi. Savour skyu, a sustaining dumpling stew, as well as paba and khambir, wholesome local breads.
What to take
In summer, the maximum temperature can rise to 25°C and go down to a minimum of around 12°C. Take light cottons to wear during the daytime, along with warm clothing. Also, sunblock, and sunglasses, slippers for the afternoon, to relax in. Swimming gear if you are planning to get into the river or go rafting in one of the camps nearby.
For more information, call Leh Tourist Office, Main Bazaar Road, Leh (01982-253462) or Tourist Reception Centre, Leh, Airport Road (01982-252094, 252297).