Monday, 3 October 2016

Ladakh Travelogue Part 4: Nubra Valley

“Of all the valleys in Ladakh, Nubra is the most luxuriant and fertile”, writes Nirmala Bora in her book “Ladakh: Society & Economy”. I had heard both of the beauty of Nubra and the fact that the dark, clear skies at night made it possible to see the Milky Way. But our start for Nubra would be somewhat slow, thanks to the overgenerous army hospitality the previous night (I had had more whisky in one night than I have in a month! Read about it here). We took comfort in the fact that sunsets were so late in Ladakh that it would only be completely dark by 8pm. 


Our car left the chaos of Leh and went around and around mountains and we rose higher and higher above Leh in near total silence. The view was absolutely stunning! The highlight of the day’s journey was Khardung La, 18,379 feet, the world’s highest motorable mountain pass. But before we got there, we hit out first snag…landslide!!! In Ladakh, roads shut down during the winter months due to extreme weather. One must wait for summer, for the snows to melt before one can venture up. But melting snow brings with it the risk of landslides. The Himalayas are described as young fold mountains. Unlike mountains in, say, central India, which look like they are solid rock, here the mountains were mud and pebbles, packed together, and it didn’t take much coaxing to dislodge large chunks of them. Luckily, since this is a border area and motorable roads are critical to defence, response to landslides is quick.

Leh from above
We found a large crew and several bulldozers at work, cleaning away debris. They had already created a path wide enough for cars to pass through one at a time, and traffic was being coordinated by a uniformed man. We reached Khardung La around 1 in the afternoon. I was expecting it to be freezing cold, and it wasn’t, which was a surprise, but what wasn’t surprising was how much of an effort it was to get around, thanks to the low oxygen levels. Even though we were apparently acclimatised, Harsha and I could only manage to walk at a snail’s pace. Our driver, Stanzin, who was a local, was smoking a cigarette. Amazed, I asked him how he managed. He simply smiled. 

Bikers at Khardung La
Khardung La Top (the highest point of the pass), where we had stopped, was a crowded place. Tourists wanted to take photographs next to the sign proclaiming the altitude, bikers on their way into the mountains stopped for refreshment and to relieve themselves. A large restaurant served noodles, momos, and tea; a welcome break from the road. All around us, the mountains were snow-capped. Near the road, the snow was a dirty white – frozen muddy slush. As we left Khardung La, to our left, I saw a chilling sight. Down in the valley were an army truck and a 4X4, crushed and mangled. “Landslide”, remarked our driver in a matter of fact tone. I wonder what had happened to the poor souls in those vehicles. It certainly didn’t look like they had survived. We were here on vacation and would be returning to the safety of our homes in a few days. Army personnel serve in this difficult, dangerous terrain for years at a stretch.


Sand dunes of Nubra
That name is inspired by the 1970 film “White Sun of the Desert”, which is known as the Sholay of the USSR. The name Nubra means green and is a reference to the lush green grass that covers the valley during the summer months. But amidst the greenery, there is also a high altitude desert, with white sand and Bactrian, twin-humped camels. Khardung La had been the highest point in our journey to Nubra. As our car made its way down, we noticed the landscape was slowly changing. The barren mountains were giving way to patches of green. From high up in the hills, we watched rivers and valleys, grasslands and pine trees and it struck me that apart from the geography, there was one other thing that set this place apart from any other place in India – the absence of people. Visitors from Europe are overwhelmed by that one thing when they come to India for the first time – the teeming millions. It is a strangely liberating feeling when you realize that you can sing at the top of your voice without any chance of being overheard. The vast open spaces of America had inspired U2’s music. What would Bono and the gang think of Ladakh?

Tent with toilet
Our home for the night would be Camp Silver Sand in Hunder, the principal town in the Nubra Valley. I had had apprehensions about staying in a “camp”. I had no problems sleeping on the floor, but what I needed was a western style toilet. Ananya had done a great deal of research before making the booking and had assured me that I wouldn’t be squatting behind a bush. But upon reaching our tent, I found things were far better than I could have ever imagined. Inside our tent was a zippered enclosure, which was our bathroom. There was a basin, a western toilet and even a shower! A tent with an attached bathroom! “This is remarkably hotel-like”, remarked Prasenjit, slightly disappointed. I was quite grateful, though. I was even more grateful that we had reached just before a spectacular sunset. Canon’s el-cheapo 50mm, at f/8, can produce some astoundingly crisp and sharp sunset shots, I found. As the sun went down, the lights in the camp came up. There were even sockets in our tents where we could charge our mobile phones; not that we had much use for them in Ladakh, with the terrible network coverage.

Sunset at Camp Silver Sand

After dinner, my friends Sreyashi, Ananya, Harsha and Prasenjit got together in the girls’ tent for a game of cards. I was feeling a bit sleep-deprived and decided to stay back in my tent and get some shut eye. However, it is difficult for me to go to sleep in an unfamiliar place, and I was tossing and turning when the lights outside went out, and a collective moan went up from the entire camp. It was a power-cut. Minutes later, Prasenjit came in and said, “come outside and have a look at the sky”. When I stepped out, I saw a sky that was literally peppered with stars. In Calcutta, with all the pollution, one can count the number of stars one sees in the sky. At this precise moment, a few words I had committed to memory, came rushing back… “the Milky Way can usually be seen in the Southwest corner”. I had figured out Southwest the moment we had got to the camp, and as soon as I turned I saw it. There it was! Exactly how I had seen it in photographs! A line of what looked like purple clouds with clusters of stars within. That was the Milky Way, our galaxy, only partly visible to us because we were inside it.

First sight of the milky way
All thoughts of sleep deprivation were quickly cast aside as Prasenjit and I rushed in to get our cameras and tripods. I had gone through multiple tutorials about how to photograph the Milky Way. I had even hired a lens for this specific kind of photography – a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8. Unfortunately, the lights came back on only moments after our first shot, but we continued shooting for almost an hour after that. Admittedly, the photographs aren’t brilliant, but still, it was our first time seeing the Milky Way, and our first time shooting it. It is an experience neither of us will forget, especially not me, since, in my excitement, I had rushed out in my underwear!


Bactrian camels of Nubra
We  woke up the next morning to a sumptuous breakfast consisting of poori, sabzi, cereals, fruits and tea. The next item on the itinerary was a camel ride. Nubra is home to the Bactrian camel, which has two humps, as opposed to the single hump of the dromedary camel seen in Rajasthan. In the middle of Nubra valley is a desert famous for its white sand, so camels would make sense. But how did these camels get here? As it turns out, they were brought here from Central Asia for transportation along the old silk route. They withstood the freezing winters of Nubra quite well and have survived here for centuries, feeding on thorns and bushes. We drove outside Hunder to find a pack of camels being led out for their morning feed. Prasenjit and Ananya chose to take a camel ride. One whiff of the camels was enough to convince me to decline. I couldn’t stand the smell from 20 feet away. Getting on top on them, that too on a full stomach, was absolutely out of the question. Instead, Harsha and I chose to walk around and explore. On my way to the camel ride, I had spotted a pond which had a terrific reflection of the adjacent mountain. We decided to walk to it. It was a spectacularly bad decision. It was roasting hot, the air had almost no humidity and very little oxygen. Walking a couple of hundred metres nearly killed us. But I did manage to get the photo I wanted and was rescued by the car returning to the camp just in time.


Maitreya Buddha of Diskit Monastery
We  checked out of the hotel pretty early, but before we drove out of Nubra for Leh, we would be paying a visit to the Diskit Buddhist Monastery. Pioneering nineteenth-century explorer Isabella Lucy Bird had visited Nubra and had written about it in 1894 in her book “Among The Tibetans”. Diskit (which she spells Deskyid), she writes, has the most picturesque and imposing monastery in Nubra. Diskit Monastery was founded in the 14th century by Changzem Tserab Zangpo, who was of the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. By this time, many Hindu tantric influences had crept into Buddhism, and as a result of this, Diskit Monastery contains a temple to the Hindu Goddess Kali to this day. Inside the monastery, in the Mahakala temple, there is also a mummified arm and skull of a Mongol invader who had raided Diskit. The monastery also contains a number of ancient thangkas, ancient Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton or silk, but the biggest draw, by far, is the gigantic statue of the seated Maitreya Buddha. At 105 feet or 32 metres, it is the tallest statue in the world in this style. The Maitreya’s seat is actually a building, housing prayer halls. Diskit, along with Likir and Shachukul Monasteries celebrates the Dosmochhey Festival which involves masked dances and attracts large crowds.

Diskit from above
We  didn’t explore the interiors of Diskit Monastery, although we did climb up and were rewarded with a spectacular view. But before we quit Nubra for good, we had one last adventure to complete. In the desert was a vast open area that reminded me of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA. Here, one could have a ride on an All-Terrain Vehicle or ATV, also known as a “Quad Bike”. ATVs did not have a smell problem, so there was no reason for me to say no. Two people were assigned to each bike. I drove our bike out, and Harsha brought us back in, with a small stop for photos. Adventure done, we drove out of Nubra Valley. Our next stop would be the town of Khardung for lunch. As we rose high into the desolate mountains once again, a different sight greeted us - bitterly cold wind, rain and a skittish cloud cover that was letting through patches of light. When we passed Khardung La again, it was completely white. The clouds had settled right on top of the pass. 

Rain clouds move in as we leave Nubra
The rain, thankfully, wasn’t heavy and had stopped by the time we were within sight of Leh. With the setting sun once again casting long shadows on the mountains, we drove into town. The next day, we would be travelling to one of the most famous monasteries of Ladakh, Hemis.

- By Deepanjan Ghosh

( be continued...)


  • Tour planning and bookings by Pathikrit Travels. Contact them at
  • Transport handled by Mountain Trails Adventures & Expeditions. Check out their website

Bera, Dr Tilak Ranjan - Ladakh: A Glimpse of the Roof of the World
Osmaston, Henry/Tsering Nawang - Recent Research on Ladakh
Chen, Joseph J. F. - Maitreya Buddha in I-Kuan Tao
Sharma, Usha - Festivals In Indian Society
Bird, Isabella L. - Among the Tibetans
Bora, Nirmala - Ladakh: Society and Economy
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