. Petrol was easy enough to find, but we drove the wrong way to Hemis at first because there aren't signs and we got mixed directions from locals. It took about two hours to get there, stopping along the way to take pics of the awesome scenery. This side of the Himalayan mountain range doesn't get much rain, so it looks like a mountainous desert for the most part with green valleys here and there. Temples and palaces sit on hilltops in each small village. I highly recommend riding a motorcycle through the area for the absolute freedom it gives you to stop and take photos, explore side roads, and feel the fresh air. The roads were really good and didn't have much traffic, making the ride even more enjoyable. The gompa and monastery at Hemis were pretty big and neat to see, but there was not much going on. There is a two + story gold Buddha statue in one of the rooms which was pretty awesome. Sarah and I thought we would have been slightly disappointed if we had come via a more expensive jeep and driver like some of the other tourists we saw there. We drove to Thiksey for more photos of monasteries and lunch. Like in other Ladakhi restaurants we'd eaten in, the service was really slow (although the waiters are usually the nicest people ever) and the waiter forgot our food. We ordered a Ladakhi soup which we thought was going to be soup in a bread-bowl, but we got a vegetable soup with some pasta balls in it. It had a fantastic flavor and texture, and we decided it's the best soup of India so far. We took some small side-roads, drove through the countryside, and talked to a sweet local lady and some trekkers on the way back towards the turn for Stok (closer to Leh)
. We missed a turn on the way to Stok and ended up much further away at Stokna Gompa, a neat temple we got to by driving through some rock roads and around and around a hill to the top. There's a sweet view of a patchy green desert valley with a river and a few lakes. By this time (about 3PM) I noticed the back of my hands and forearms where my shirt didn't cover were dark red, my face was getting sore from sun and wind burn, and even my eyeballs felt sunburnt. On the way back to find Stok, I took my shirt off and wrapped it around my head and face, leaving only a slit to see out of. Ladakhi people are pretty conservative about wearing long pants and long sleeves, but my face felt like it was going to start blistering. Stok was a beautiful green oasis with lots of streams, green fields, and trees. We stopped and had a bowl of ramen noodles (the only dish at the little restaurant/shop). After we ordered our food, the cook came out and washed dishes in a muddy stream. Were we about to eat soup from muddy river water? Our hunger and manners preventing us from answering the question, but thankfully we didn't get sick. Back in Leh, we ventured into a small restaurant (I think called Leh Restaurant, it's under the Splash tours office) owned by a really sweet old local lady and had an unexpectedly wonderful dinner. Instead of a pile of sketchy looking chopped vegetables like most "salads" in India, this one had fresh lettuce, and even beets and parsley. Instead of masala ketchup for dressing, it just had a squeeze of lemon juice. The potato and veg curry and Tibetan herbal tea was also delicious and wholesome. The whole meal was also about half the price (about 100 rs) of the touristy restaurants we hadn't enjoyed eating at. After dinner, we discovered that we didn't have the permits we needed to go to the Nubra Valley. There are military checkpoints going into every valley outside of Leh where they check to see if you have a permit to enter and if there are at least four people traveling together
. The permits cost about 100rs each, so I'm not sure it's not just a way to get money from tourists. We were really disappointed and ran to the Splash Adventures office to set up white-water rafting in case we just needed to stall one day while the travel agent got our permits. We went back to the travel office and they made a bunch of excuses not to get us a permit for the next day, saying that it might be a holiday and that I didn't have my driver's license on me and they didn't want to get in trouble. At least they called the motorcycle rental place for us and the guy came back after closing to give us a refund for the two days of rental I paid for in advance (1000 rs/ $25). They told him Sarah didn't feel well, and sent her in to act sick, which she didn't like to do, but it worked. We went back to our hotel exhausted from the day of driving and hassling to change our plans and slept on the roof like rocks.
At about 3:30 AM, the morning call to prayer rang out loudly from the mosque, loud enough to wake up the whole city. A few hours later, the om mediation song blasted out from somewhere near the Gompa and went on repeat for at least 30 minutes. It was really pleasant to lie on the roof in the cool morning air and listen to a Tibetan Buddhist meditation song. We imagined that we were actually in Tibet, which really isn't that far fetched considering that it's really close geographically and all the Leh citizens look Tibetan. We didn't get up early enough to make it to Hemis (an hour or so away + time for fueling the bike) so we tried to catch the morning prayer and butter tea at a gompa in town. We walked up to the palace to see if the royal gompa had a prayer session. It was a pretty nice temple, but the two or three monks that lived there were in their western sleeping clothes still and didn't look like they were going to robe-up and start chanting. We tried the other gompa in town, but there was no chanting or butter tea. We went back to the hotel for an omellete and buttery flatbread before setting out on the Pulsar 150cc bike for the petrol station and Hemis