The Dance, The Trek, & the Chanting monks

India Part 3 | Padum To Phuktal Gompa | Day 58

Villagers gather round to cleanse their spirits while crimson threads bounce to the booming of a leather drum. Bells ringing and masked figures mime ancient tales. A ribbon of a trail leads us down, down, down the emerald river to a mystical gompa where a lone tree umbrellas the founder's grave. Rhythmic words murmured, chanting an incomprehensible prayer, rings throughout the cave at the end of the Zanskar Valley.

The Dance

Everyone from the surrounding villages and deepest nooks of the Zanskar valley gathers for music, prayer, and masked dancing in Sani, a humble village just outside of Padum. Monks wandering about, merchants lining the roads, Ladakhi women and children crowding around for the best seat to hear the Lamas words. Sani is all the rage in these parts, and we just happened to be cycling through as the most famous festival of the year was taking place.


363 days out of the year the statues sit untouched in prayer halls with covered faces, but for two days during that monasteries festival, their faces are uncovered and shown to the world in celebration. People come to Sani to get a glimpse of the unveiled statue of Naropa and for their annual blessing. Sani is one of the 8 most important Buddhist sites of the world. A stupa, located in the backyard of the monastery, dates back to the second century and is the earliest evidence of Buddhism in the area. Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, is said to have lived for 5 years in the building next to the stupa, and meditated for many years in the cave across the river. 


The Trek

We ride down the valley, a steep gorge carved out by the rushing Tsarap River, in search of the end of the road. The further we travel toward Anmo car traffic is replaced with ponies, and the sound of horns replaced with the roaring of the river below. This underdeveloped road is rougher and the climbs steeper than anything we have come across in India so far. 



“Tea? You must have a cup of tea.” 

We are stopped by a road worker who insists we join them for tea. The camp of four tents and a mud brick building is occupied by just a handful of people who are extending the paved dead end road further down the Zanskar Valley. Road work is done by hand; the groomed dirt road is lined with people heating buckets of asphalt and spreading it by hand, it seems like slow backbreaking work compared to the massive road building operations in the States. During our two cups of tea we managed to have one of the most unproductive conversations, our host did not speak any English and we did not speak any Hindi. We all laughed a lot, shrugged our shoulders and enjoyed each others company before we continued cycling towards Anmo, the village at end of the road.



Francois is a French explorer living in Hong Kong who has been cycling Ladakh three months at a time for the last ten years. He lays down his fat bike and jubilantly starts ranting about this pass, that trail, ten years ago this, two years ago that. Francois has a passion for finding trails that are remote and unconventional for cycling. At least a handful of times, he tried to convince us to change our route in order to strap our bikes to a horse and climb 18,000 ft over a glacier in south eastern Ladakh. 



“You can bike around Ladakh, but trekking takes you through its' heart. Just because you are biking does not mean you can not trek. The more I cycle the more my adventures bring me to rougher roads and trails.” 



In Anmo we experienced one of our most charming home stays, a 100 year old home. Generation after generation had been brought up in this same home and although antiquated in it's luxurious, no pluming, it was one of the cleaner places we have stayed. The doorways are only four feet tall, the winding stair case is made of stones polished smooth with a centuries worth of use, and an entire wall was woven like a wicker basket. The hallways are dusty with small rooms and balconies attached at every direction, like it was designed out of a child’s imagination. 



We planned on leaving our bikes at Anmo while we trek for two days to get to Phuktal gompa and back, Drew on the other hand, would not be returning. Drew needed to get to Darcha, by which he would strap his bike to a horse while trekking for five days over Shingo La Pass. At every stop we would enquire about this endeavor. Everyone had different advice on how and when Drew should get a horse, most say the later villages will give a better price. Drew must bring his bike on the way to Phuktal to enquire at each village along the way, but as we pass they point to the next and the next until there are no more villages on this side of the river. We begin to worry as the trail becomes treacherous, we take turns helping push his bike over ledges, around rock outcroppings and to the top of climbs. 



“Just don’t look down, just follow the trail and don’t think about whats to your right.” 

The ribbon of trail suspended hundreds of feet over the Tsap river is narrow, and surrounded by gigantic, barren land masses. The small marks we see on the maps, “villages,” turn out to be just a collection of a few huts surrounded by patches of green, dotting the brown rocky hillsides. The harvest is in full swing and we can see across the river people in long wool gowns on hands and knees tending to the land. 



The Chanting Monks

Turning the corner we pass a row of stupas and get our first glimpse of Phuktal Gompa, an ancient monastery only accessible by foot, built in and around a cave, perched on a side of a cliff. When you envision a Buddhist monastery in the middle of nowhere Himalayas, this is it. The monastery is said to be one to two thousand years old and one of the sixteen original disciples of Buddha once meditated and blessed the cave. The age of things in these areas are always vague, a monk told us the timeline of Phuktal in this way: 1,500 years ago one of the deities came a blessed this cave. 900 years ago three brothers came and prayed in this cave and split the valley in three, each residing in their own area. 500 years ago the founder of this gompa came and created what it is today- his body lies beneath the stupa inside the cave in the middle of the gompa. Now when and what of the actual gompa was built, we still can't be sure.  



We approach the picturesque gompa with awe, buildings seamlessly blend together with the side of the mountain, little windows wedged in the side to view the river below and… there is no one in sight. Meandering up staircases and through hallways, we explore the little rooms and outcroppings of the monastery. There is ringing and chanting as we grow closer to the center of the cave, we approach the prayer hall and the monks permits us to enter. We remove our shoes and enter the smokey vibrant hall, there are around 40 monks all with shaved heads wearing maroon robes ranging from ages 6 to 75. The elders sit in front chanting and rhythmically rocking from side to side, while the little monks goof off and fall asleep in the back corners until the head monk comes around to straighten them out. The head monk sits at the front of the hall burning sage brush and a salty butter milk tea is served, ugh the salty butter milk tea is the worst, but we drink it. Ancient murals decorate the walls and our senses our overwhelmed by the whole experience.  

The gompa is one of the few with a school, so there are many children. There seems to be little order, but they all take care of one another. In the surrounding villages every second born son is destined for monkhood. The children can arrive at the monastery as young as 5 to begin their life of prayer and study. 

"What is emptiness?"
"How do you determine what is good and what is bad?" 
"How often do you meditate?" 

A lot of what we have seen has gone unexplained due to the language barrier. We were very fortunate that a well educated local who could speak Tibetan and English translated with a group of us and the second head monk of the gompa about the monastic life for close to an hour. There had been English teachers there for weeks that did not get to have these kinds of in-depth conversations 

We were very fortunate and grateful to have such a unique experience at Phuktal, the memories will last a lifetime. 



At the bridge over the shimmering, aqua colored Tsap River we said good bye to Drew after riding together almost ten days. Drew would try his luck on the other side of the river to find a pony and we trekked back to Anmo, making it back in 3 hours and score a taxi ride all the way to Leh. We arrive in Padum that evening and the next day are informed our taxi driver would like to make it all the way to Leh. After a 20 hour drive, one brake down, and  more Ladakhi music than our brains can handle, we arrive in Leh at 2:00 AM.  



Walking to the market in Leh, Eric trips and sprains his ankle, blacks out, and awakes to a handful of locals all wanting to help. Not wanting any further injury we decide to go to the hospital and cringe at the thought of dealing with insurance and unexpected expenses. We taxi to the hospital, see the doctor, get X-Rays, bandages, medicine, and taxi back to the guest house, all for just $12! Can you imagine what that would have cost in the states?! We are now bunkered down in Leh until his ankle heals, thankfully we were in a larger town when this all happened.  


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