There is only one way for a person to visit the unbelievably located Phugthal/Phuktal Monastery. On foot. If you have visited Phuktal, or intend to visit Phuktal, count yourself among the intrepid who have reached this extremely remote monastery. We set off from Khangsar at 7:00a for the hike there and back to Phuktal. Phuktal is a 5 kilometer/3.1 mile hike in each direction and took us a little less than 4 hours.
However, it was more difficult than we had anticipated with many ups and downs. We also had no idea that the elevation of Phuktal is 3,970 meters/13,024 feet. I forget to bring my Garmin Foretrex GPS with me that makes life a lot simpler; not to waymark but to change meters into feet effortlessly. Multiplying meters x three is my usual method of getting an idea what the altitude is and Stanzin #1 wasn’t much help. Whenever we’d ask what the elevation was, he’d answer, “Just like Leh. Between 11-12,000 feet.” No… it wasn’t. One thousand feet is a significant difference at altitude.
Leaving the small fields of Purne behind, it was on. And on. And on. Up. Down. Up. Down. Along a small, rocky trail following the Lungnak River through narrow valleys. It wasn’t until we finally crossed a good bridge, and continued the upward climb that we got our first look at Phuktal. Exclamations of, “Oh my God” rapidly followed by, “We have to climb up there?” Yes, we did.
One slow step after another, the monastery grew closer. Stupas, the Phuktal Guesthouse/Campsite where Lobsang thought we would camp, and the trail continued. Quite a few tourists were staying at this campground including a group from Hungary.
Phuktal or Phughtal, however you choose to spell it, is the most spectacularly located monastic establishment anywhere in Ladakh. The complex spills out of the mouth of a huge cave high up in a sheer mountain face of a gorge. it is perhaps the most isolated monastery in Zanskar and dates back to the early 12th century.
The monastery itself is set inside the mouth of a cave accessed by incredibly high steps. As if we weren’t exhausted enough, the big sets of steps took all oue remaining energy. A puja was taking place in the courtyard and the inside rooms of Phuktal were closed until the puja was over.
Phuk is Ladakhi for “end of cave” while tal means “too much.” Only remains of the original monastery deep inside the mouth of the cave remain. It was founded by Gangsem Sherap Sampo in the early 12th century and home to about 70 monks, the monastery had a library and prayer rooms. We passed the kitchen where one monk was making chapatis, and stood on the roof overlooking the valley with village opposite the monastery, taking pictures.
The puja was still going on, no one knew when it would end, and Stanzin #1 said the frescoes inside the newer monastery were also new. With that information in mind, we decided to walk down and back to Khangsar. Unfortunately, patience is not one of my strong points.
Awfully tired, the trek back was even more difficult because of the heat even this early in the day. I think the photograph below gives a really good idea of how exposed the hike was with intense sun just radiating off granite and gravel.
What was worse, Stanzin #2 came along for the hike and offered to carry Steve’s backpack. Nice gesture but his backpack had the water bottles. Stanzin #1 asked along the trail, “Do you need water?” Duh… Stanzin #2 was already a good mile ahead of us with the water. Stanzin #1 kept whistling for him to stop but Stanzin #2 never heard him. Completely dehydrated and pissed off, it took forever before Stanzin #2 hunkered down along the trail to wait. Not happy!!
I really thought that this was it. One of us was going to pass out from either heat stroke or exhaustion. It took bottles of water back at camp to rehydrate but we can now count ourselves among, “The proud, the few” who made it to extremely remote Phuktal Monastery.