We have heard so much about this spot called Nubra Valley, at the northern tip of India which borders the sensitive frontiers with Pakistan and China — especially of its rivers, mountains, wild animals, etc, and sand dunes, yes, sand dunes. There should be camels too, right? It’s a long mountainous drive so we start early out of Leh, and soon we are saying good-bye to the Indus Valley.
The morning convoy of hired vehicles carrying visitors slowly snakes its way along the rocky mountains, with sheer drop of hundreds of meters on the other side. Not for the faint-hearted.
Drive cautiously, if a rock avalanche falls on you, you’d be a goner.
Drive cautiously, if you fall off the side of the mountain, you’d be a goner too.
In order to gain altitude fast, the narrow road zig-zags upwards along the face of the mean-looking mountains. Loose rocks are everywhere, which could roll down at any time, maybe causing an avalanche. Spot the cars here.
Our first break for a gaze at the valley of Leh, so far away now.
Then a security checkpoint. Everybody — Indians and foreigners — must have a permit to proceed further. We are entering a high security zone, which is heavily militarised due to territorial problems with Pakistan and China.
It’s already 15,300 feet above sea level here, and we are feeling the main symptom of high altitude sickness — incessant light headache due to lack of oxygen. We have already spent three days in Leh at 10,500 feet to get used to low oxygen. If we did not do that, we could be suffering worse.
More winding road to contend with, with the usual danger of rockfalls and steep slopes.
We finally make it to Khardung Pass, one of the world’s highest motorable passes, though the real altitude is said to be 17,580ft, not 18,380ft as shown. At this height oxygen is only half of what is at sea level (that’s the altitude where we live in Kuala Lumpur), so we didn’t hang around for too long for fear of high altitude sickness. The driver tells us we should leave after 20 minutes. I can feel my headache intensify, and the feet getting wobbly.
This pass was built in 1976, and opened to the public in 1988. It’s an important pass for the army to supply their camps guarding the sensitive border areas with Pakistan and China. It was also used by caravans plying the popular Leh – Kashgar route during the old Silk Road days. Descendants of the Bactrian camels used back then can still be found in Hunder in the Nubra Valley.
People just mill around taking photos and admiring the view. Nobody stays for long due to discomfort from altitude sickness.
On the other side of Khardung Pass, a daunting sight. A huge glacial valley all the way down to our destination, Nubra, via an unpaved winding road.
Hours on narrow, dusty, bumpy, winding, rough, unpaved, rocky mountain roads up to 18,000 feet altitude, the awesome Toyota Innova with turbodiesel 2.5 engine could take it all, no problem. It’s like a Hilux pick-up truck put inside an Innova.
Ours carries prayer flags at the back …
… and with a little lama (monk of the yellow sect) on the dashboard. What could go wrong?
As comfy as it could be! The fine dust can easily seep into the car.
Suddenly the road is paved again, which is heavenly! Road maintenance by our BRO (Border Roads Organisation, a unit of the Indian Army) is a never-ending task. Rockfalls and landslides happen all the time, and their task is simply to make the mountain roads passable, especially for army vehicles since this part of Ladakh requires heavy military presence.
This is one the numerous army camps in this area of Ladakh, with the vital task of maintaining the borderlands with Pakistan and China.
A quick stop in a rocky valley, with yaks in the background. These are reared animals, not wild ones. Yaks are tempestuous animals, do not approach unnecessaily, that I learnt in Tibet.
The boulders on the floor of the valley make a good pee stop. I hear water gurgling underneath the rocks – a stream, which I’m sure would have been a river at peak glacier melting season.
We also spot some rare wild creatures — the Himalayan Musk Deer or White-bellied Musk Deer – an endangered species.
The terrain is barren but once in a whole there is an oasis, and people make full use of the available water. I think this is Khardung village, the pass is named after it.
A lunch stop at Khalsar, and that’s the main road which was washed away during a recent flash flood due to melting glaciers. They haven’t fixed it yet.
I ordered some noodles and then that furry fella joins me, and gets some left-over. We are at 11,000 feet altitude, that’s similar to Leh.
As we enter Nubra Valley proper, we get some orientation. We are now about 100km north of Leh. First stop is Diskit to find a room for the night, then straight to Hunder for some cool stuff before sundown. Note the BRO thingy.
What a huge glacial valley this is, one of the biggest I have ever seen! The valley is actually part of the famous Karakoram Mountains, which goes northwest to become the natural border between Pakistan and China, and ends at the southern tip of Tajikistan. That’s the Shyok River, a tributary of the Indus River. A wide rocky valley, which I’m sure is full of water during the peak melting time of the many glaciers around it.
Nubra Valley was formed by glaciers between 50,000 and 150,000 years ago. It is Y-shaped — in the photo below the valley splits, one arm goes to the north (Nubra River), while the other goes left northwest (Shyok River). The northern arm ends at the famous Siachen Glacier (said to be longest in the world outside polar regions) where there’s an Indian army base which witnessed skirmishes with the Pakistan army — the highest battlefield in the world at more than 20,000 feet! (Read about it HERE.)
We stumble upon a mirror lake, fed by water from melting glaciers further up this immense valley, water from Shyok River. As still as the waters in the fjords of Norway (as told HERE).
In Diskit we found a nice hotel and our room virtually opens into the awesome valley.
Out the window, splendid views all around. There’s the fork in the Y-shaped valley, the brighter mountains are on the far side, with Tibet just 50km beyond them. The darker hill splits the valley into two — Nubra River the other side, Shyok River this side. Nubra is a tributary to Shyok, which flows to the left all the way to Pakistan, some 70km away. Over there it empties into the mighty Indus River.
I’m not an easy person to be impressed but I must admit, this bit of the Nubra Valley is among my top 5 scenic spots of the world. A huge ancient glacial valley, the scale is insane, and this spot near Hunder is tops. I thought I was looking at a dry version of the Norwegian fjords! We are 130km north of Leh, about 6 hours by road.
I notice people walking towards the dunes, yes, this is one of the very few cold, high altitude glacial valleys with real sand dunes. Well, it is a desert really, but at more than 10,000 feet high.
Camel-riding, I’d have guessed that, these are double-hump Bactrian camels, only found in Central Asia. Biggest camel species, very hairy to withstand the extreme cold, these beasts were the reliable trains of the old Silk Road. Nubra Valley was part of the trans-Himalayan Silk Road, linking Xianjiang in present-day China, and India.
Good for the local economy, this very popular camel ride, with a long queue at the base. Of course animal-lovers would disapprove, but then animal-lovers don’t really live here and would not understand the context.
I gaze at the valley just as a lone sun ray illuminates the huge statue of the Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha of the Future, who will appear to save mankind as the world ends. To the right of the Buddha, that’s the 14th century Diskit Monastery, the oldest in Nubra.
The Maitreya in God’s spotlight! Our hotel should be in the trees below him. Note the row of stupas leading to the monastery on the right.
Never miss a great selfie, especially at a great spot.
A lone Bactrian calf, a descendant of those camels used in the Silk Road caravans centuries ago, is bleating for mom. Noisy fella.
It’s getting dark and we have to leave, but the lone horse is still here at the Shyok River. What a pretty spot.
We have had a cold night with stars filling up the clear night sky, but alas, today we are saying good-bye to beautiful Nubra Valley, with its brown, grey and ochre mountains, ornamented with autumn colours and turquoise rivers flowing with pure water from melting glaciers. By the way, the Moslems travelled via this valley from as far away as Xinjiang in China to settle in Ladakh, many hundreds of years ago. What a journey it must have been.
But first a quick visit to 14th century Diskit Monastery, which overlooks Nubra Valley.
Grand entrance to the monastery complex. The monastery has about 100 monks who also run a school for Tibetan refugee kids, teaching English and computer skills.
The facade of the Tibetan temple is always impressive.
The spire of the temple has the best view of this fantastic valley.
From the temple, I can clearly see the Maitreya statue, 32m high, purposely built facing Pakistan. Consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 2010, it was built to serve three purposes: protection of Diskit, everlasting peace with Pakistan, promotion of world peace. At the other side of the valley, note the Y-junction where Nubra River empties into the Shyok River.
Soon we are on our way back to Leh, with the Shyok River to our left.
The turquoise colour of the river is due to leached minerals contained in melted glacier water. The river flows against us, to eventually meet the Indus downstream, which is way behind us in Pakistan.
As usual, BRO hard at work making the road passable. Imagine how it is in winter.
Remnants of rockslide after BRO has had a go. I don’t know how they’d move that huge boulder, maybe just leave it there.
That glacier is the landmark for good old Khardung Pass.
We drive through 18000-feet-high Khardung Pass again at noon. It is business as usual at K-Top as they call it. I can’t imagine riding a bike here, especially with head-pounding headache due to lack of oxygen at high altitude.
That’s actually the highest bit of Khardung Pass. There’s an army camp here, toilets, and a cafe too.
On the other side of the pass, another rockfall. Look at those loose rocks littering the slope. They could slide down at any time, so drivers must have their eyes peeled — ours says he uses one eye to watch the slope above, with the other to watch the road ahead … yeah, right!
Much debris lie on the road still, and these are manually pushed away by workers on duty along the way. Again we have to keep watching the slope above us in case more rocks are rolling down. It could start a dangerous avalanche.
We got out of the danger zone and soon passes this froggie — a suitably-shaped rock painted like one by the great BRO folks.
Yes, we are almost home, back to our Leh guesthouse, somewhere behind those barren hills! Tomorrow another mountain day-trip — to Pangong Lake. The climax of our Ladakh journey.
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