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.