Phuktal Monastery is, without question, Zanskar’s most spectacularly situated gompa. Built around a sacred spring high above the turquoise Tsarap River, the monastery’s prayer chapels and white-washed monk’s cells cling to the sheer cliffs underneath a large cave blackened by the soot from centuries of smoke.
But it’s not just the setting. Adding to the attraction is how mass tourism hasn’t made it here. You can’t fly in and there are no tour buses coming to Phuktal, with the nearest access road a multi-day walk away. This leaves only serious hikers, Buddhists, historians and architecture nuts to make it to this isolated spot.
Needless to say, we were the only tourists staying in the gompa. The hospitable monks put us up in a small room just off the kitchen. Our own little space with colorful Tibetan carpets and stacks of thick woolen blankets definitely beat our undersized tent. In addition, the proximity to the stove just outside our low wooden door guaranteed a steady flow of chai.
After we were shown around, and had had time to explore some of the gompa’s dark passages scrambling over crudely hewn slabs of stone, we joined the monks for their evening meal in the outside common area. Sitting under a large blue plastic tarp, we waited silently while the monks did their pre-dinner chanting.
Monasteries are not necessarily known for their cuisine so I wasn’t surprised when a young monk served us dinner, a very bland noodle soup, out of a tin bucket. What came as a shocker the next morning, though, was the breakfast gruel. We are not talking oat porridge, but real gruel – a greasy brew flavored only with sour bits of dried cheese. I’m still shaking thinking about it. Despite the taste, I tried to smile between gulps – a truly grueling effort.
Of course, who am I to complain? One day of discomfort is nothing in exchange for a glimpse of real traditional monastic life.