A major portion of the Srinagar-Leh highway meanders through the region known as Sham Valley. Tourists travelling from Srinagar to Leh by road can enjoy the sites enroute while travelling to Leh. Apart from Sham Valley Ladakh there is another scenic route in Ladakh along Leh-Manali highway dotted with several monasteries and sites, you can check out its guide here. If you are searching for a more comprehensive guide to Ladakh then check it here. In 2012 when I visited Ladakh, I missed exploring Sham Valley so on my latest trip to Leh, I made sure my Ladakh itinerary covers Sham Valley as well.
Motorcyclists call this route the best in Ladakh mainly because of the excellent road conditions. The fluffy clouds hanging in the blue sky look like artwork by an expert painter. The tar road runs through the centre of the valley and vanishes in the horizon. On both sides of it are kilometres of denuded scrublands which rise into barren high mountains, their crests a canvas for the shadows of the clouds.
There are many interesting sites along this route. I have tried to compile a list of places to visit on the Sham Valley route in Ladakh. Due to time constraint we haven’t been able to visit all of these ourselves.
Places to visit in Sham Valley Ladakh in a day
6.6 kilometres away from Leh, Spituk monastery rarely finds a place on tourist maps. The Buddhist monastery started under the red hat sect of Budhhism but was later taken over by the yellow hat sect. The monastery houses a lifelike statute of Kali— a goddess worshipped by both the Hindus and the Tibetan Budhhists. Spituk monastery hosts the annual Spituk Gustor festival around January; a 2 days religious festival where Buddhist masked dances known as ‘Chaam dances’ takes place.
Duration – 30 minutes
Gurudwara Pathar Sahib
A distance of 17.9 kilometres away from Spituk monastery on the Srinagar-Leh highway is Gurudwara Pathar Sahib — a Sikh pilgrimage site. The main sanctum of the temple is presided over by a stone with an impression of a footprint. Guru Nanak is well respected by the Tibetan Buddhists and they revere him as Nanak Lama. According to legend, Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikh religion, had travelled to Tibet via this route and meditated in this spot. While he was meditating, a demon tried to distract and kill him by kicking on a stone. However, the stone melted and it captured the footprint of the demon. Eventually, the demon understood Guru Nanak’s powers and asked him for forgiveness.
Duration – 15-30 minutes
3.5 kilometres away from Gurudwara Pathar Sahib at magnetic hill cars are observed to be going uphill on their own with engines shut. However, it is actually nothing more than an optical illusion. The surrounding landscape makes the road ahead appear ‘uphill’ when actually it is a downhill slope. The best way to test the slope is by dropping a ball or spilling water on the road.
Our experience was, unfortunately, very unsatisfactory. The first day we crossed the magnetic hill it was raining cats and dogs. We got out of the car even under the heavy downpour to see what the car does with the engine turned off. To our utter dismay, we saw it moving downhill, just the way it is supposed to do. No illusion for us. Later, we realised that the downhill slope appears uphill only from certain points on the road. Either that or the heavy rain prevented the illusion from happening. While returning, the weather was beautiful and sunny but we were too tired to try our luck yet again.
Duration – 10 minutes
Very near to the Magnetic Hill is the ‘Sangam point’. It provides a nice vantage point to view the confluence of the two rivers Indus and Zanskar. The emerald green waters of the Indus from the south-east meet the muddy brown waters of the Zanskar from the south-west and they proceed north as Indus with gray waters and a fierce speed. It is a scenic place with loads of photo opportunities.
Duration – 10 minutes
Basgo monastery and castle
In the erstwhile era Basgo used to be a thriving town. The towering Basgo castle was constructed by the Namgyal dynasty. Much of the castle is in ruins now. The three temples within the fortress— the Chamchung, Chamba Lakhang and Serzang temple stood the test of time. A two storeyed tall statue of Maitreya Buddha rules the main sanctum. The wall murals within the temples make the experience to Basgo more interesting. There is an entrance fee to the main sanctum of the temple. Unfortunately Basgo receives insufficient financial aid to fulfil its restoration goals.
Duration –1 hour
The idyllic village of Likir, 16.7 kilometres ahead of Basgo on the Srinagar-Leh route, is home to the Likir monastery. The monastery belongs to the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism. Within the monastery courtyard, a 25 feet tall statue of Budhha overlooks the sleepy Likir village. The monastery is well maintained with two assembly halls and bright murals painted over the walls of the veranda and the temples. The terraces offer sweeping vistas of the valley below. During Dosmoche, a festival in Ladakh, sacred dances known as Chaam dances are arranged with much gaiety at Likir Monastery around every February.
Apart from the monastery, we also visited the potter of Likir. Likir is effectively a very small village and you can ask any local to guide you till Rigzin’s home. If you are an art and handicrafts nerd then visiting the traditional potter of Ladakh would be a compelling experience for you. You can read about my experience with the pottery in Likir here.
Duration – 1-2 hours
Alchi monastery is not a standalone monastery but an entire monastic complex dotted with imposing white chortens consisting of 6 temples, designated monk cells and a circumambulation path. The ancient monastery stands 21 kilometres away from Likir village. Unlike other monasteries, it is not built on a hilltop but rather by the shore of Indus river. There is some uncertainty regarding the constructor of the monastery— some attribute it to Guru Rinchen Zangpo, a noteworthy figure who contributed to spreading Buddhism in Ladakh, others say it was constructed by a Tibetan aristocrat Khan-dan Shes-rab. The date of construction is also a matter of debate among many, the Zangpo subscribers believe it was built around 958-1055 AD whereas the Khan-dan Shes-rab subscribers believe it was constructed in late 11th century AD.
We walked along a line of shops selling souvenirs through a narrow white painted alley to reach the Alchi monastery. There is an entrance fee to enter the temple. Inside the temple we found rich wood artistry and imposing statues of Lord Budhha. Some temple walls were adorned by vibrant murals and frescoes, all telling tales from the Buddhist pantheon.
Duration- 1 hour
A distance of 56.8 kilometres ahead from the Alchi monastery, Lamayuru monastery is one of the most ancient monasteries in the Ladakh region with a very interesting history. According to legend, there was a big lake around the Lamayuru hillock where the divine Nagas resided.Arahant Madhyantika pleased the Nagas and drained the water out of the lake. Later Around 1016-1100 AD Mahasiddha Naropa visited the place, meditated inside a cave and promoted Lamayuru into a sacred land. Simultaneously, Rinchen Zangpo established five temples on the hillock. In the 16th century AD, Denma Kunga Drakpa constructed a monastery and named it Yungdrung— the present Lamayuru monastery. The monastery was revered by Budhhist and Muslim rulers alike. However, Lamayuru faced massive violence, cruelty and plunder when it was attacked by Hindu King Gulab Singh of Jammu. Only the monks who fled to the nearby mountains lived and they returned once Gulab Singh left Lamayuru. Kyabje Bakula Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche from Dhomkar village helped in resurrection of the Lamayuru monastery and gave it a second life.
The Yuru Kabgyat, a two days festival is held annually at Lamayuru monastery around June each year. The festival is dedicated to Yama (Lord of death) and Padmasambhava (second Buddha). Monks perform tantric masked dances during the festival.
Duration – 2 hours
Hall of Fame
Located just 4 kilometres away from Leh city, the Hall of Fame is a museum dedicated to the brave martyrs of the Indo-Pak wars. Visiting the museum would be a very intense and moving experience for any Indian national. There are many displays like weapons, photographs and letters written by the soldiers to their loved ones moments before they sacrificed their life defending the country. The museum also houses Ladakhi artefacts and souvenirs.
Evening is the best time to visit the Hall of Fame given its proximity to Leh city, hence it is suggested at the end of the itinerary list.
Duration – 2 hours
Additional tips for Sham Valley Ladakh tour
Have your breakfast and set off early morning from Leh preferably within 9 AM to complete the itinerary within a day. Almost all the monasteries charge a fee for admittance to their main sanctum. The Hall of Fame also has an entry fee. Personally we visited only Magnetic Hill, Sangam, Likir and Alchi. Due to lack to time (and money) we had to miss some of the spots mentioned in the list.
Please feel free to add a comment if you think the article missed including any vital points. I will love to incorporate your voice and keep the article updated and error-free.