29 July – A king and a monastery

Today started the real tour of palaces and monasteries.  The first stop was at the 15thcentury Thikse Monastery, the largest monastery in the region.  It freaks me out a little that some of the buildings here were likely built before Columbus stumbled onto America.  The monastery is supposed to have been modeled by the Yellow Hat Buddhists on the Dalai Lama’s former residence of Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.  There is a 15m tall statue of Maitreya Buddha here.  Although this is half the height of the one in Diskit, this one is no less impressive because it is inside.  We got to climb to the upper stories that surround it to get a close-up look at the face.

Next we had a special visit to the 190 year-old Stok Palace.  This is the traditional residence of the King (Raja) of Ladakh, particularly after the previous palace on the other side of the valley in Leh was sacked in the early 19thcentury.  It now houses a museum but it remains where the King stays when he is in town in the summer months.  Wait…. This is the height of the summer!  Sure enough, we gather in one large dark room, sit around with our backs to the wall and in walked the King himself!  It turned out that Raja Jigmet Namgyal is a pretty nice and normal guy.  He asked each of us about our visit to Ladakh so far, what we planned to do and what we thought of the opportunities for the expansion of tourism without changing the culture.  He was genuinely interested and keen to improve the lot of his people even though his position is mainly ceremonial now.  After meeting with him, we passed by a chart with the family tree of the King that goes back 38 generations to 975.  Kings have better genealogists.  We also headed up to the roof to watch the sun setting over the mountains and enjoy the view across the Indus river valley into Leh.  We could easily pick out the Shanti Stupa there even from almost 12km away.

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