All the major monasteries on the gompa trail can be covered in two days, with Leh as your base.
Day 1 Leh-Hemis-Thiksey-Matho-Chemerey-Leh
Hemis is the best known, richest and largest monastery in Ladakh, an easy 40km drive from Leh. Share taxis and buses are easy to get, especially during its annual two-day festival which usually happens in June. The festival is a visual treat, and the monastery even unfurls a &lsquoduplicate&rsquo thangka every year to please visitors (the original thangka is only unveiled every 12 years). The monastery is rumoured to have in its possession a parchment which mentions a boy named Issa who stayed there for several years. Hemis is also one of the few monasteries built not atop a hill but on its flank, probably to keep its location secret and its riches safe.
Thiksey is a bit smaller than Hemis but much more impressive, rising tier by tier on an open crag next to the Indus. The views from its terrace are superlative. Try and reach Thiksey at first light and you can witness the higher lamas begin their day with ritual conch blowing.
The only gompa belonging to the Saskya-pa sect in Ladakh, Matho is situated close to a gorge opposite Thiksey. The highlight is its museum, which has a rich collection of thangkas.
Just far enough and small enough to escape the attention of most tourists, Chemerey is 45km from Leh on the way to Chang-la (and onwards to Pangong Tso). The strikingly beautiful monastery is perched on a bare hillock, with the monks&rsquo quarters flowing down in steps on one side.
Day 2 Leh-Basgo-Alchi-Leh
Basgo, once the capital of lower Ladakh, is a fortified complex that lies in ruins today, 60km from Leh. Within the ruins is a gompa whose murals date to the 16th century. The presiding deity, a Maitreya Buddha, is said to have a very beautiful face, though it is not very easily viewed from the courtyard, and you&rsquoll have to climb a flight of rickety steps to an alcove to view it.
The 11th-century Alchi monastery was once a great seat of learning. Today, it boasts the most beautiful frescoes in all of Ladakh. For visitors, carrying a torch is a must if they wish to appreciate the craftsmanship on display.
The Sankar Gompa, an easy 2.5km walk from town, houses the Kandshur, a complete repository&mdashin 108 volumes&mdashof Buddhist teachings. Around 13km from town, the Shey palace and gompa is noted for a Sakyamuni Buddha touted to be the second-largest Buddha in Ladakh. Though the second storey of the monastery is usually locked, a monk should be able to show you the prayer room here&mdashits walls are adorned with beautiful murals.
And Don't Miss
Ladakh's most popular attraction is, of course, the 17th-century Leh Palace, modelled on the Potala in Lhasa. The palace, which now has a motorable road running to the entrance, offers sweeping vistas of the town. But for nicer views of Leh climb up to the Shanti Stupa. Once you&rsquove descended and had your fill of the bazaars in the Old Town, head into one of the vein-like lanes that dart into its recesses, replete with crumbling chortens, faded manis and mud houses washed with lime. The historic Munshi House, erstwhile residence of the king&rsquos secretary, boasts sumptuous interiors and delicate wooden balconies. After a remarkable bit of restoration, it is now the LAMO Centre, a resource centre for the arts.
Six kilometres from Leh town (we did say this was a circuit), Choglamsar began as a settlement of Tibetans fleeing China across the border, an exodus that continues to this day. The houses are neat, the sewage system works and the houses are filled with warm, welcoming folk.
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