Shey Bhumi is the kind of place that sends the “panorama” feature on smartphones into overdrive. To be fair, that could also double as an accurate general assessment of Ladakh’s beaten-down and barren magnificence, which seems to evoke inexhaustible astonishment from any vantage point. Shey, in particular though, is unlike many of the other stay options available in Leh, Ladakh’s focal city nestled in the Himalayas. Most hotels or guest houses here are located in and around the central shopping square, and as is wont in so many hinterland towns of India, they strive for urbanity. I, however, was headed to an escape removed from all the hubbub.
The communal dining space at Shey Bhumi. Photo Courtesy: Kaya Dorje
From the airport, it took nearly 30 minutes for my pick-up to drive past the property’s unfussy iron gates on a narrow road in the tiny hamlet of Chuchot-Yokma. My arrival here had coincided with truant weather. It was supposed to be summertime in Leh—usually a vibrant visual palette of crystal-blue skies and icy peaks bleeding into a landscape of dusty brown slopes and willowy plains. But as I scampered out of my vehicle, I met my worst fear: the steady drizzle of rain and the lashing force of the wind.
Shey’s manager Rupesh Sawant, a cheery and gregarious host, was at hand to greet me. Without missing a beat, he glanced up at the skies and chided, “Looks like you brought the Mumbai monsoon with you.” I did not have time to register my disappointment or my surroundings. I was quickly ushered up the steps to the terrace of a traditional Ladakhi structure. Sawant ducked his head to enter a small wooden door and I stepped in behind him.
The place I found myself in, located centrally in the property, was once the ruin of an old Ladakhi home, as per Sawant’s recounting. Now restored, it served as Shey’s communal dining area with a kitchen downstairs. I took in some of the newer decorative touches, like the bright red wooden columns hand-painted by local monks and the comfortable floor-seating flanked by antique dining tables. They were adequate as adornments without diminishing from the house’s ancient provenance.
Cosy rooms are done up using traditional Tibetan and Ladakhi furniture. Photo Courtesy: Kaya Dorje
Breakfast wrapped up, I then made my way to my private cottage, a little farther from the dining hall. Standing in the doorway of what would be my home for the next two days,Shey Bhumi finally came into sharp focus. I was struck by how nature had been allowed to take its own course here with bare minimum interference, even for a property that advertises its rustic bona fides.
The six-acre property included 10 cottages, in the local folk mode of a white-stoned square facade with a flat roof, lined with red beams on its borders. As opposed to a manicured landscape neatly designed for a postcard, each cottage was separated by wild grass and uneven bushes of sea buckthorn. Through the grassy outgrowth, there were makeshift wooden paths to each cottage, lined with lanterns intermittently.
Inside the cottages, wooden floors, vintage chests, spacious beds with dragon motifs and carvings, subtly reinforced the theme of elegant outback comfort. Still, I imagine what visitors must come to SheyBhumi for was the money shot: a stunning and expansive view of the mountains, which flanked the retreat on all sides. My private cottage opened out to the Zanskar range while from the dining hall, you could spot the Ladakh range. To my dismay, a gloomy, grey filter had been pulled over both these scenes.
It was only a day and a half later that I got my photo finish. Sawant had asked me to look out for a trifecta of colours—the azure blue sky, punctuated with snow-capped tips, and muddy tan slopes, sometimes with a hint of purple. Walking out onto my front porch, there it was: the multi-coloured swatch that had eluded me so far. Panorama shot, check.
From atop the dining hall terrace, you can spy Thiksay Monastery. Photo by: ~Usergi15632539/Istock
There is, of course, more to Shey Bhumi than mountain-gazing. Intermittent rain had played spoiler on my itinerary with the entry by road from Leh to Nubra Valley and Pangon Lake blocked. But I gleaned some cultural enrichment, devoting an entire day to Ladakh’s famed monasteries—Hemis, Thiksay and Spituk—all at a 20-30 minute ride from the property.
In retrospect, I am glad because the seclusion only heightened Shey’s faraway appeal. I remember chancing upon Ancient Futures, a treatise on the Ladakhi people by Helena Norberg-Hodge, in the dining hall book collection. Norberg-Hodge celebrated the resilience of Ladakhi people, hoping that the modern life didn’t edge out a simple culture that cherished contentment. During my visit, everything had not gone as I had wanted but in the end, I was certain I left contented.
Updated in March 2018.
Leh market is 20 minutes away from Shey. Photo by: Alexeys/Istock
Shey Bhumi is nearly 18 km/30 min from Leh airport. Each cottage on the property offers a down-home Ladakhi experience (www.sheybhumi.com; open Apr-Oct; doubles from Rs15,000, package tariffs customised). The retreat also offers three different (3-day, 5-day and 7-day) itineraries to visitors. Longer packages include a picnic to Pangong Lake (212 km/4 hr) and a visit to Nubra Valley. During your stay, you can feast on hearty Indian and continental fare. Spare one evening for a visit to The Blue Lotus, the property’s fine-dining restaurant in Leh market.
fantasizes about a bucket-list journey to witness the aurora borealis someday. Editor in Chief at National Geographic Traveller India, she will also gladly follow a captivating tune to the end of this world.
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