Ladakh… Wild taxi rides snaking over passes through snow-capped mountains to monasteries perched on the edges of cliffs. Young monks playing with matchbox cars and trading candy during prayers – later one runs up to our table during dinner, grabs the tea bag out of my cup and swings it around his head. His sister scolds him and he gives her the finger. Old monks laugh at him as he tries to play a conch horn during prayers. Tea, sweets, chants, prayer wheels, a monk from a rural area dancing for tourists, rooms set into the cliffs, crumbling old city below the monastery wall, milky way rising above it all. I leave with bed bug bites.

Milky Way Rising Above the Lama Yuru Monastery

Monks in Lama Yuru… [nggallery id=4]

We’ve taken some time off from Kashmir to explore a bit of Ladakh, the northwestern most region of India in the Himalayas – peaks over twenty thousand feet, high desert, and lakes so blue that they look like wedges of sky caught between the high peaks and left behind as the day rotated away from them.

Oil candles

Here the 11,500 foot high valley of the Indus winds green, lush, and wide between monasteries that are still rich in art and tightly wound into the communities they once guarded, prayed for and lorded over. The kingdom of Ladakh was made wealthy by silk road trade, fought over, conquered and flourished in a land of brutal extremes. Ladakh is a culture of it’s own – much like Tibet and entirely different from it’s Islamic neighbor Kashmir who it asked for help from in the past when Tibet tried to invade.

Motorcycling across the Himalayas – descending into a dry salt basin

When we arrived in Leh, we rented Royal Enfield motorcycles – a classic bike built by the oldest motorcycle company in the world. I had never driven a motorcycle before. After a twenty minute lesson from Alex and a day of motoring around Leh valley, we took off east across the Himalayas. In four days I drove through most of the on and off road hazards you can imagine – gravel, mud, streams, deep sand, and narrow roads edged with steep drop-offs.

Monk at the festival in Tsomoriri
Self portrait with villagers in Tsomoriri

We stopped for two nights in a town on the edge of Tsomoriri, a massive lake at fifteen thousand feet. The local monastery was having a festival and the town was crowded with tourists pointing their cameras inches from the faces of locals as who were packed into the courtyard of the monastery. I took a few photos of the festival and one self portrait with a couple of curious villagers. Then we shied away from the scene and hiked around and above the lake. I found peace in one of my obsessions – balancing stones.

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The ride back took us over the second highest pass in the world. Scores and scores of manual laborers walked past us, heading back to their tent camps perched on the edges of cliff hugging “highway” that they are building with shovels and spades. I stopped briefly to take photographs with a few of them. They were excited and curious – wish I had had some beer with me. The road down from the pass is ribbon of recently laid pavement that drops four thousand feet through switchback after switchback. We glided the first thousand vertical feet of road in just over a minute – no traffic, beautiful, heady, stunning.

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Tsomoriri Lake is ringed with walls topped with prayer stones…

Prayer stones around Tsomoriri Lake

Tso Kar – a large salt lake and wetlands…

Tso Kar, “Salt Lake”

I couldn’t resist.  I had to swim in Tsomoriri – three times.  It was frickin cold.

Swimming in Tsomoriri Lake