Tuesday 24 July. Tak Tok Festival. Camp at Gya

Back: Leh Fort

Next Gya, Chatsang La, Sumdo

We leave Leh at 8.30 , sad to say goodbye to the family at the Guest House, and especially Diskit, who’s starting her first lecturing job, teaching history, at a remote posting in Changtang, near Pangong Tso. 

Our trek starts south of Leh on the Leh - Manali highway, one of the two roads that connect Leh with the rest of India. Before the trek we’re planning a detour east along a side valley and the road to Pangong Tso to visit Tak Tok gompa for the Cham (masked dance) festival. The road takes us past Chemre, a large monastery on the opposite hillside beyond the green fields of the valley bottom. Tak Tok means cave and the small gompa is constructed around a cave in the rocks where Padmasambhava is said to have meditated. Padmasambhava brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century and is a major figure in Tibetan Buddhism and the whole history of Tibet, regarded by some as second only in importance to the Buddha. Known to the Tibetans as Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava is an actual historic person but is a he is also surrounded by legends and myths.

Stalls selling prayer wheels and Tibetan things line the path leading up to the new  gompa and the festival courtyard which has a temporary roof of appliqued cloth. The festival is based around the legends and life of Padmasambhava. At a halfway point there’s a break for food and toilet and we walk across to the old gompa and Padmasambhava’s cave but the most supposedly interesting room is closed. In the afternoon we break ranks from the folding chairs set up for the tourists and mix with the locals to get better views and a sense of being more involved. An unusual feature of this festival are the lifelike giant masks of the historic figures. Their size is almost as disturbing as the more typical demonic Cham masks. 

Green masked comic characters periodically roam the crowd, especially the tourist section, with a begging bowl for donations. A large German woman in front of me waves them away - a bad karma, I’d say! Padmasambhava is normally shown holding a staff with human heads and skulls in varying states of decomposition; the costumes and masks at this festival are generously decorated with images of skulls. Watching, and listening to the sounds of chanting, conch shells, cymbals, drums and Tibetan horns, we try to come to terms with the reality of impermanence that they represent. 

We need to get to our campsite in daylight and there is still some distance to drive, we leave the festival in mid afternoon and retrace our route past Chemre before rejoining the road to Manali and heading south. The road enters steep gorges of deep maroon rock and patches of bright green cultivated fields. Just past the houses of Rong we stop and get our first view of our tents and crew. We have trouble identifying the starting point of our trek on the map - it’s a place called either Gya or Latho so we’ll call it Gya Latho. 

Stenzin is our guide, Dawa our cook and Thinless a helper. Thinless is from a village near Pangong Tso, Dawa and Stenzin come from Zanskar. They both grin a lot but have very different faces, Dawa looking more Tibetan. Sonam and Tushi are our two ponymen from the village of Rumtse, about 5 miles to the south. We wander around the fields and walk gingerly up the valley, wondering whether we’re acclimatised, tonight’s camp is just below 4000 metres.

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