On the Silk Route to Heaven

Monday, August 25, 2014

Nubra Valley
Whoever you ask about Nubra Valley or wherever you read about Nubra Valley, all would say one common thing about it - "Mountains, Deserts, River - all in one place!" And that's what it is - an unparalleled combo of nature. But before reaching that fairy tale valley, you'll have to brave the Khardung La - the (controversially) Highest Motorable Road in the world

Day 5, July 3rd, 2014, Thursday : It is a bad weather day - predicted AccuWeather. And accurate prediction it was. It started raining as soon as we started from Leh in the morning. We checked out from Hotel Panorama and drove through Yurthung road and then Sankar road to reach the Khardung La road. On the way we passed Sankar Gompa, where we could not stop as it was becoming more and more obvious it was going to be a dangerous journey to Khardung La on this day.

When we reached South Pullu, the first check post, we queued up in a long line of vehicles. At first we assumed it was a routine check, then we realized something is wrong and then the news reached us - The road to Khardung La is closed for the day due to a bad landslide a few hairpin turns ahead. It was devastating. The worst was the disheartened look on the fellow travelers' faces all around. There were many who were on a packed schedule like us. Many would have done non-refundable bookings at Nubra valley.

If there were a 100 cars there, almost 90 turned back and headed back to Leh. We waited, along with a handful of bikers and travelers who were in the remaining cars - people like us, who clinge to 'Hope'. We had maggi at the wet canteen, clicked pictures, spoke with the Siachen Brigade officers, made friends with a dog and a yak and this way spent 4 hours, when the Army finally signaled opening of the road. And road it was not!  

The road to South Pullu was good. From there it's merely a dirt track, good enough to drive by on a normal day probably. On this day it was extremely dangerous. We had just taken 2 turns, when the army stopped us again. In midst of 'what happened's, and 'fir kya ho gaya yaar's, we realized Army has stopped the cars so that one of their trucks can pass from the opposite side. The truck was carrying back dead bodies of 5 Indian Army personnels. That experience was like a blow right on the face. People bowed in respect...

When we started back again, there was pin drop silence in the car, except for the non-stop freaked out chatter of our driver who kept saying - 'Madamji, aise weather me gaadi aage nahi lete hai' (you don't drive ahead in such a weather). But I am someone who never turns back, come what may.   

Seeing the above pictures, a friend had commented it looked like Oreo shake. Now that's what happens if you keep the child in you alive - throughout! Our spirits rose and rose as we drove towards Khardung La. There were prayer flags, even in the Oreo landscape, fluttering and sending prayers to the far off heaven. And the view of the snowy valley from above - unmatched! 

Khardung La is the gateway to Siachen Glacier - the highest battlefield in the world.
So we were finally at Khardung La!!! What a feat to achieve! 18380 feet - that's not a joke! Even the number of  prayer flags increased - may be because the distance to heaven was closer? During the brief time we stayed there, we had a snow fight, clicked proud '18,380 feet' pictures and well... used the military toilets - now can I call it one of the highest toilets in the world? :P Also, our French friend Jeremy told us if we made it to the Nubra Valley from there, he'll learn the Indian National Anthem (provided I teach him of course).

The way down was also slushy - all thanks to the rain! But all the way from South Pullu till here, we have been waving and shouting Thank You to the BRO road workers who were working hard in these harsh conditions so that people can pass. These people are great men - only that they are not appreciated enough, nor is their name scripted anywhere for people to remember.

By 5 p.m. we descended to North Pullu and stopped for maggi and tea there. I had observed the roads were very good from here and we were short of time. I ordered double maggi for our driver Dorjay. Once he was full and happy, I asked him what's the speed limit here (I know many of you wouldn't approve of it!). He understood and just gave me a wicked grin! And so he sped, and he sped so much that within minutes, ours was the only car in vicinity.

We were finally in Nubra Valley - the high altitude cold desert that was once a part of the Silk Route from South to Central Asia. At Khalsar, the road forks into two. The left leads to Diskit/Hunder/Turtuk and the right to Sumur and Panamik and also Siachen base camp (where tourists cannot go due to obvious reasons). We decided to skip Sumur (which has the Sumur Monastery) and Panamik (which has a hot sulphur spring) and turned left.

As we drove by the Shyok river, we could already see the 106 foot tall Maitreya Buddha on top of a hill, although we were still a quite few kilometers away from Diskit. This is the landmark of Nubra Valley.

Diskit Monastery is the largest and oldest monastery in Nubra Valley. Apart from that fact, the main reason why people visit Diskit is because of this tall and mesmerizing statue of Maitreya Buddha. The statue which was consecrated by Dalai Lama in 2010, faces towards Pakistan and was built to promote world peace and to prevent further war with the neighboring country.

We could see the entire Shyok valley from top as we stopped there to unwind after a day of crazy travel. The next stop was the Snow Leopard guest house at Hunder. We asked the manager to arrange for a bonfire after dinner, which the friendly guy was happy to arrange, in spite of lack of dry firewood after the day long rain.

Day 6, July 4th 2014, Friday : Imagine waking up to the above view - Heavenly! If I quit my corporate job - this would be the inspiration. Setting aside the ramblings of my mad mind, I finished breakfast with the others, checked out and soon we were driving on a plain leading to the Hunder Sand Dunes. It was a sight to behold as we crossed a stream, walked on the desert sand and wherever we turned our head, we could see towering mountains.

Just for experience's sake, we took the Bactrian camel ride. The camels moved in a line one after another (of course they were tied in that manner) and the last one kept chewing on Akarshan's shoes, who was riding the second last camel. The shoes were Woodland camel leather ones and we don't know if that had anything to do with the live camel's interest in the shoe, Akarshan did believe that theory of mine.

Nubra is the only place in India where you'll find double humped camels. That doesn't mean you have to ride between those humps. The camels are under fed and poorly treated and if you feel as bad as I did, head for the sand dunes instead. You can have immense amount of fun there, as we did. By the time we were back in the car, we were all calling each other Sandy.

All the cars heading back to Leh were stopped once again by the Army at a place before Khalsar. It was here that I met a handsome Indian Army guy. I had thought such kinds appear only in J.P. Dutta's movie. 

The block was only for 30 minutes - unfortunate for my probable love story with the Army guy whose name I forgot to ask. When the roads were opened, it was again like a race - a race to the top of the mountain! And we won again, thanks to Dorjay, who had by now become infected by our infectious madness. 

There was hardly any trace of snow at Khardung La and we saw some bikers posing bare-chested in front of the highest motorable road sign post. It made us think is it the same place we passed yesterday teeth chattering, breathing hard for oxygen and risking our lives??

Left : Spot the cars to feel the magnitude of the mountains; Middle : A straight road in the Nubra Valley
Right Top : The Indian Army dude; Right Bottom : And that's me clicking you :)
For your Information - 
  1. Permits are not required for Indian tourists effective from May 1, 2014. Foreign tourists still require an inner line permit which can be arranged by any travel agent in Leh.
  2. Weather is highly unstable at Khardung La. Keep food and water in car. It would help in case you get stranded. 
  3. Turtuk is a picturesque village ahead of Hunder, very near to the Pakistan border. Do visit it if you can. We could not as we ran short of time and I really repent it.
This is the 3rd in a series of 7 posts documenting 14 days of our travel to Ladakh. You can also read:

Day 1 to Day 3: NH 1D - From Srinagar to Leh 

Day 4: How I Got Leh'd
Day 7 & 8: Speechless at Pangong
Day 9: 3 Reasons You Should Skip Hemis Festival 
Day 10: 
'Dolce Far Niente'... A Buffer day spent in Leh.
Day 11: Tso Moriri - The Road Less Traveled

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