10/03/2009

Nubra Valley



Joining up with three young Ukrainian travelers and a local driver named Tenzin, we set out the next morning to cross the Khardung La, the "highest motorable pass in the world" at 18,380 ft. Just a few hours after leaving Leh we looked down from the top of the pass at snow-capped peaks and the arching Indus Valley to the south. An Indian army post cluttered the roadside with tents and trash, and some passing dignitary brought out all the officers and their coolpix cameras to steal photos of His Eminence, a smily guy in the sweat pants and a baggy t-shirt. I chatted with a couple soldiers from Mumbai and Chennai about life at the Khardung La. Both had been stationed over a year in this windswept, bitingly cold piece of army hell, and were absolutely loving it. The winters are difficult, one admitted.



I walked to the other side of the pass and got my first glimpse of the Nubra Valley extending to the northwest and southeast at a fork far ahead: at least as barren and rugged as the Indus, which dipped behind us as we made out descent. Bouncing down the mountain in our jeep we passed scattered villages living off patches of snowmelt high on mountainsides, tiny grids of green and yellow farmland against an enormity of brown heaping wasteland. A couple hours on, a tiny strip of turquoise appeared at the sandy base of the valley below, the Shyok River, ribboning its way southeast. A giant bowl of deep blue sky cupped the stark expanse of mountainscape while we stood on a cliff edge right in the center of it all, tossing rocks into the river and taking photos. I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of everything. The photos really are nothing.




Towards the end of our road and just outside the isolated town of Hundar, Tenzin pointed out a small herd of Bactrian camels on dunes below. We made right for them and parked just short of the sand. Since chances to test-drive two-humped camels don't come along very often, I rode for a few minutes in the dunes and found my beast slightly more comfortable than Lucky's spitting friend from the Thar. But only slightly; a camel is still a camel.



We all headed for Hundar and settled on Habib Guest House for the night, sharing the carpeted floor of the living room at a good discount. Playing a good mix of Ladakhi and Ukrainian card games late into the night, I learned some useful phrases for my upcoming trip to Eastern Europe, the best being "akhter sujka" in case any of my three readers happen to speak Ukrainian. Apparently it's the right thing to say when you lose a card game.

I stood on the mud roof as the sun rose the next morning staring across the sleeping valley, a bit over-eager to reach Diskit. I could barely make out the white walls of the complex, about 5km from Habib, against the shadowed rock face to which it clung. We broke some fresh buttered chapati and piled back into the jeep, winding another narrow track to the base of the old monastery. As I seem to do in most Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, I shuffled up endless steps and around smoky meeting halls, checking out framed photos of deceased lamas that died just after the advent of film, and creepy statues of protector dieties, some on display and others locked in cupboards for being "too powerful." Out of respect, I kept clockwise as often as the monks were looking. One monk showed off a thangka painting of Tibet's Tashil Hunpo, and I thought back to age 15, standing beneath a giant thangka at the foot of the great monastery itself. That day the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama had been paraded through the streets of Shigatze, to the frustration and fury of the Tibetan monks, who could do nothing but bow in fear and silently wonder where the real Panchen, the world's youngest political prisoner at the time, was being held. These yellow hats in Nubra had no such worries, but a centrally placed photo of the Dalai Lama, smiling as usual, echoed solidarity for their brothers just a few hundred miles to the north across a roadless border.



We retraced our winding track along the Shyok and over the Khardung La, past dozens of clever BRO signs. Much like the ones from Himachal and Sikkim, the list included "better late than late Mr.," "easy on my curves," "horse power not rum power" and my favorite, "don't be a gama in the land of the lama." We arrived back to Leh just before evening. The next night I'd take the road west from Leh to Kargil by night, passing ancient Lamayuru by moonlight and beginning a dawn descent into India/Pakistan's supposed valley of paradise, Kashmir.










1 comment:

Nat said...

I'm sure it was much more amazing to see these places in person. Such a huge area of land that hardly anyone gets to see! Love the photos :)