India Memories, Part Eight.

14. Epic Road Trip to the Nubra and Shayok Valleys

After a day of rest to recover from our Indus Valley sight-seeing we set out on a four day trip across the Khar-dung La Pass to the neighbouring valleys of the Nubra and Shayok rivers. At 5,602 metres this pass is claimed to be the world’s highest motorable pass. As a comparison, Australia’s highest mountain is a measly 2,228 metres high. We made an early start but before we reached the top we were stopped at a checkpoint and sat for more than an hour while numerous other vehicles also arrived and waited. Light snow was falling and gradually other vehicles were allowed to continue but we still waited. We never worked out quite why we were delayed, several reasons were advanced but as our driver had limited English we were just glad to finally get moving. By now our early start to avoid the worst of the traffic had back-fired and there were streams of vehicles in front of us.

The snow thickened and the road which started as a good bitumen road deteriorated to one muddy lane so soon we were stuck in a traffic jam as oncoming vehicles caused everybody to move to the edge until they had passed. It was cold and what should have been a one hour trip up and over the pass turned into four hours but the view was worth it. Simply stunning.

The road snaked back down below the snow line and then we were back on bitumen and driving into the Nubra Valley.

As we were late and we still had a lot of distance to cover we made only a very short stop for lunch and saved our sight seeing in this valley for the return journey. We left the Nubra Valley behind and headed further west into the Shayok Valley which leads toward the border with Pakistan. Apart from patches of green around tiny villages, the towering mountains are stark and awe inspiring. 

Just seven kilometres before the border we stopped at the village of Turtuk. By now we had passed the western limit of Ladakhi-Buddhist culture and were in an area which is culturally and linguistically Muslim Balti. In fact Turtuk used to part of Pakistan until the 1971 war and the towering mountains to the west are across the current border. The growing season here is short and we arrived when the new growth of the buckwheat grass was vibrant. The main part of the village is set on a plateau above the river and water from a permanent stream which tumbles down from the mountains is diverted through channels which flow alongside path ways and underneath cool rooms which are used as refrigerators. Everywhere you go in the village you hear the sound of running water and coming directly from the mountains it is safe and delicious to drink.

We found a guest house to stay for two nights, a lovely room but as with all the places here the bed was rock hard. Hot water was available for bucket washes and the lovely people who owned the house also had a small restaurant next door. The food is very different to the rest of India and even very different to the rest of Ladakh. The Buckwheat pancakes with walnut sauce were delicious and unlike anything we have tried before. After the long drive it was nice to spend the next day just wandering around the village and along the paths at the edge of the fields.

From the end of the plateau the view back over the village was vibrant green and in the other direction we saw stark arid mountains.

The next morning we only had a short drive so we made a late start (after early morning photos by Paul of course) and we retraced our road to Hunder. Hunder village is Nubra’s top attraction for Indian visitors, who settle into relatively comfy guesthouses and tent camps, and then spend the late afternoon riding Bactrian camels through a series of sand dunes. We found the sand dunes to be less than impressive but the setting with the soaring mountains made up for them. We had no desire to ride the camels and the tented camp we were tentatively booked into was in the centre of the old village with no views so we were very happy to find a slightly more luxurious camp with a fantastic outlook and the owner was happy to match the rate for the luxury tent and included a buffet dinner and breakfast. They even sent somebody into town to get us some cold beers to drink as we sat outside our tent and watched the sun set over the magnificent scene. Far more comfortable than sitting on the back of a camel!

After a great night’s rest in our tent, on the most comfortable bed we had in our entire trip, we began our return journey to Leh. Just above the next village of Diskit is the very impressive Diskit Gompa (buddhist place of learning) and a gigantic (32m) statue of Buddha. 

By late morning we were ready to make our return journey back through the Nubra Valley and over the pass to Leh. Once again we encountered stunning scenery but while the snow was still thick it wasn’t actually snowing as we travelled and we also managed to avoid the traffic jams we encountered on our previous journey. Before too long we were back at the top of the pass looking down to the green patch which is the city of Leh, 2,200 metres below and roughly 30km away by road.

India Memories, Part Seven.

Ladakh Road Trips

After the heat of Rajasthan we retreated to a much cooler climate in the state of Ladakh nestled in the Himalaya Range. Even in summer the snow tops the mountains and roads over the passes are only open for a few months of the year. In the two weeks we spent in Ladakh we based ourselves in the provincial capital Leh in the heart of the Indus Valley. We spent a couple of days in town when we first arrived to acclimatise to the altitude and the lower oxygen levels. We then took a series of road trips through some of the amazing country-side in Ladakh with another two single days in Leh between trips to rest and enjoy wandering around the picturesque town.

13. The Indus Valley, Wonderful Temples and Monasteries 

For our first road trips in Ladakh we stayed within the Indus Valley as we didn’t want to tackle the very high mountain passes to neighbouring valleys until we were confident we had fully adjusted to the altitude. There are temples all over India but there is a concentration of very scenic Buddhist temples and monasteries along the Indus Valley. 

On a one day trip to the south east we travelled along the river to the monasteries at Shey, Thiksey, Matho, Chemry and Hemis. The monasteries crown rocky outcrops and prayer flags flutter in the mountain breeze. Prayer wheels spun clockwise release merit making mantras. All were impressive and at Chemrey, being off the main road, we could enjoy it in peace as we were the only visitors, Hemis providing the best tourist experience and Matho the best picture postcard view across the river as we approached it. 

The next day we set off on a two day trip west from Leh with an overnight stop in Lamaruyu before we returned to Leh. For most of the trip we travelled right next to the Indus River. The landscape was stunning; pockets of green irrigated land with lush trees and fields around the occasional villages in an otherwise dry and barren landscape and all surrounded by snow capped mountains.

Along the way we passed abundant military bases. This area is close to disputed territory with Pakistan and also provides the opportunity to train troops at high altitude so they can operate anywhere. Apart from banning photography in their areas there was no impact on our travels but we could not escape their presence for more than a short while. Colourful trucks use the winding road as it the only road linking Ladakh to Jammu and Kashmir. We passed the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar Rivers, a good place for kayaking apparently. It was great to be able to ask the driver to stop whenever we wanted to enjoy the views or take photographs.

We took a side road to the Likir monastery where we admired the gleaming, gold-painted 20th century Maitreya statue, the ancient well-used prayer wheels and the extensive views over the valley below.

In Lamaruyu a picturesque monastery tops an eroded hill and the landscape is pitted and aptly named the ‘moonland’. We had magnificent views from our room in the nearby guesthouse.

On our return trip we called into a couple of monasteries including the 11th century Choskhor Temple Complex in Alchi. Each temple in the complex is small and unobtrusive from outside but their design and millennium-old murals are rare archetypes of Ladakh’s Indo-Tibetan Buddhist art. The interiors of the temples were darkened and quite small but the artwork was magnificent; but unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photographs.