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Published: October 1st 2017
Geo: 34.1803, 77.5801
Paul and I both woke early again, to the sound of dogs barking and the call to prayers from the distant mosque. The mosque is lovely; the dogs are annoying. Eventually, it became light so we felt okay about getting up. Had breakfast and were ready for the road by 9:30am.
Our drive took us up the Indus River Valley: a thin stretch of green between dry, desolate mountains and sandy plains. The snow-covered peaks of the Himalaya were barely visible through the clouds, giving a sense of mystery to the region. It was a beautiful drive, although the photographs are all a little flat.
The monastery of Hemis was our first stop: the buildings sit at the end of a box canyon, with views of the opposite canyon walls rather than the valley below. We entered first into a large courtyard, widened in recent years in order to allow more people to attend the temple festival, when they display the richest thangka found in the region. This thangka is massive and covered in precious stones, but it is only displayed once during the Year of the Monkey (so once every twelve years). Mostly, it sits wrapped up dangling from the ceiling in the main assembly hall.
At Hemis, we learned a bit more about the "correct" way to make offerings. Making an offering should make you happy, not make you feel that you have lost something. You also need to think about the offering itself, not necessarily whether it is used as intended … it is the act of offering, not the act of providing, that is critical. So, when starting to make offerings, you begin with something that does not require sacrifice, such as water, which is widely available in the trans-Himalaya. You might make an effort to bring water in a jug, but the act of giving a small bit of water in an offering bowl requires little sacrifice. From there, you move to small amounts of money, or chocolate bars, or cookies. Then, you begin to make offerings of the things you desire, so that you can begin to lose your sense of attachment to those objects. If you are an alcoholic, you might offer some wine. If you're addicted to buying jewelry, you might offer a small bangle or other piece. Eventually, you are ready for great sacrifice: giving an organ, which you are willing to do freely, and without a sense of loss.
Although we visited a few rooms in Hemis, we were particularly drawn to the room they are restoring. We could see the mural in all stages of restoration: not touched, newly plastered, stenciled, being painted, and fully restored. Several people were working on the fresco, and it was interesting to watch it come to life.
Hemis also has an extensive museum: not well-lit, not well-signed, but full of really interesting pieces, such as a certification of reincarnation, painted on silk, approved by the Dalai Lama.
After visiting Hemis, we had a picnic lunch near the stream on the hillside, then drove to our next destination: Thiksey. Along the way, we passed a large wall full of thousands and thousands of stones, carved with mantras. Our guide explained that the stones are to give good karma to all living things around the area. He also said that they are getting more and more domestic tourists in the last 5-6 years, but that many have not learned the fine art of traveling somewhere outside of ones comfort zone. We all agreed it was probably a matter of time, and that there would always be “good” tourists and “bad”. Too bad we can't all have the Blonde Dog Experience attitude.
Thiksey is a large collection of buildings, situated on top of a promontory. Again, we visited several rooms, but the most interesting was the oldest room, which had very unusual murals. The murals depict animals and humans dangling from the ceiling, with organs or veins exposed. They are supposed to demonstrate that the self is separate from the body and encourage the viewer to extend the idea of ego beyond physical self. We also talked a lot about tantric practice; our guide says that the common view of the tantra is misguided and focused on sex … but that true enlightenment through orgasm is not easy to achieve and requires decades of study.
We made a relatively brief stop at Palace Shey, the 17<sup>th</sup> century residence of the royal family. Most of the building is abandoned (and looks very unsafe), but we were able to enter the private temple at the very top (once our guide found a monk to open the door). It was dark inside and hard to see the mural. But the views were good, and we watched a group working to restore the Nepalese stupa at the base of the hill.
Our final stop was the current “palace” at Stok. I asked our guide if the royal family is still recognized, and he responded, “They recognize themselves. I know about them, because I have to for my job, because people always ask me about them, but I think I'm the only one in my family that knows about them.” Which is, of course, very amusing. We drove up into a tributary canyon, where the palace sits at the base of television tower. We visited a few rooms that have been converted to a museum – most interesting was the discussion of trade, since many of the jewels contained coral. The coral came through the old silk road trade, as did the conch shells and other non-Himalayan stones.
When we returned to the hotel, we took coffee in the garden, as the weather was perfect. We had Indian food for dinner. The power kept going out, and the generator would not come on … we ended up dining by candlelight. As I write a 9pm, things seem to be resolved, but we've pulled out our torches, just in case.
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