West of Lamayuru, the main road crawls to the top of Fatu-la
(4,091m), the highest pass between
, and then ascends Namika-la ("Sky Pillar"), so called because
of the jagged pinnacle of rock that looms above it to the south.
Once across the windswept ridge, it drops through an Arizona-esque landscape of disintegrating desert cliffs and pebbly ravines to the wayside village of Mulbekh. The last sizeable Buddhist settlement along the road before the Muslim Purki settlements around Kargil is scattered around the banks of the river Wakha, whose glacial waters flow through a lush carpet of barley fields peppered with poplars and orchards of walnut and apricot trees.
A Former Royal Colony
Formerly an outpost of the Zangla kingdom of western Ladakh (the deposed monarchs, King Nyima Norbu Namgyal Dey and his queen, Tashi Deskit Angmo, still live in a four -storeyed mansion on the western outskirts of the village), Mulbekh would be a sleepy hamlet were it not for the endless convoys of trucks and tourist buses that thunder through while the passes are open.
Those visitors who stop at all tend only to stay long enough to grab a Chai (Tea) at a roadside Dhaba, and to have a quick look at the 7m-high Maitreya ("Chamba" in Tibetan) statue carved from the face of a gigantic boulder nearby. The figure is thought to date from the Kushan period, around the time of the birth of Christ. Inscriptions found on the side of the rock are in the Kharoshti script. A new small temple, which partly obscures the figure, was built in 1975.
The best place from which to view the bas-relief is the flat roof of the small Gompa that partially obscures it. The single chambered Gompa dedicated to the 1,000-armed Chenrazig, is decorated with particularly beautiful murals. No entrance fee is charged, but the lamas appreciate a small donation for showing you their twenty-year-old shrine.
Another incentive to prolong one's stay in Mulbekh is the two village Gompas, perched atop a smooth 200 metre rock 1-km west of the Chamba Statue. A steep flight of steps winds up to the whitewashed temples, one of which is occupied by a small community of young nuns. Neither houses any great treasures, but the views down the Warkha valley from their terraces make the climb well worthwhile.
If one wishes to make more than a short pause at Mulbekh and to experience a little of the local way of life then visit the village of Gel. The small village, picturesquely situated
On a steep slope above the Wakha River, still lives in a bygone era. Although it is only a few km from the surfaced road Indian soldiers rarely come here and during a visit there time seems to stand still. With the construction of the new jeep road to the Namika-la, the modern world is now encroaching upon Gel.
Around 4-km to the east of Mulbekh on the road to Leh, lies the small and relatively new nunnery of Jangchup Choeling governed by Rhidzong which has a school and pleasant garden courtyard, and where rooms are available for women visitors.