By Abhik Dutta
There are many valleys in the Himalayan range that just take your breath away because of their sheer beauty and magnificence. Many of these valleys are, however, on trek routes beyond the reach of many who are unable to walk to these heights. And those that are approachable by road are sometimes, more often than not, one of those tourist attractions that inspite of their beauty are pockmarked with tourists walking all over the place during the “season months. At times don’t we really wish we had a vale all to ourselves?
This wish of mine was granted during my first visit to Nubra Valley in Ladakh a few years back. Crossing the great Khardung La (18380ft), the JKSRTC bus meandered on the endless mountain track till suddenly the Shyok river valley opened up beneath us. Nothing had prepared me for the first sight, which I guess, has remained glued to me like the many monasteries that have for decades clung on to those barren and majestic slopes of the Nubra. There below us to the right the glistening river snaked its way through the wide gorge. Slowly as the entire panorama of the valley opened up ahead of us, the sheer setting, beauty and magnitude of the Nubra left me awestruck.
After the lunch halt at Khalsar (10080ft) at the mouth of the valley, we entered a flat stretch of road with the enormous valley unraveling itself like a plot from a Hitchcock novel. We followed the turbulent and muddy Shyok and as it grew wider, so did the valley. We soon came to a bifurcation, the right fork leading to the villages of Sumur, Tegar and Panamic and onwards to the Siachen glacier; the left fork going to the villages of Diskit and Hundar. We took the left fork.
Over the next few days I stayed with local families and explored the valley on my own, my trusted backpack and camera slung across my back, my worries and moods scattered all over beyond the Saser glaciers..beyond Turtuk..beyond the mighty Siachen hidden behind the mountains to the north.
At Diskit, the little children were a revelation. Five tiny ones, they emerged from the forest. Prancing around me they led me to their school, introduced me to their teachers and little friends with permanently flowing noses that would put the Shyok to shame. Later they ran with me to their waterhole, where the clear stream water collected for a while before slipping over the log into the adjoining fields. Here, they stripped naked and jumped into the pool- their innocent laughter reverberating across the valley and right into my soul. Bidding them a fond farewell, I moved on deeper towards the end of the pasture, past farms hidden from sight by tall thorny shrubs. Suddenly the path opened up and an amazing sight unfolded! A rolling meadow with a stream running through it! Horses and cows grazed peacefully. This was no man’s land really. Here nature danced to the tune of chirping birds, trees swayed in the breeze echoing a haunting whisper across the meadow. Rocks whispered magic words that made the stream water gurgle with laughter. I sat and watched the sun setting gradually over the distant peaks, casting long shadows in the valley and removing some from my mind.
The days came and went and I clung on to each moment, each passing hour hoping against hope that the sun would never set and my long carefree walks would never end. I just didn’t want to arrive anywhere. Each day began early and ended well past the time when the villagers would turn off the lights and go off to sleep. Iâ€™d walk out of the room with a blanket wrapped tightly around me and gaze at the stars that shone so brightly, so close and so gently that I wondered why I searched for my God in a temple when he stared at me all the while from aboveAnd so it went. One hour overlapping the next, one mile extending into another. I hiked to the gompa at Hundar perched high above the bridge with a mesmerizing view of the valley beneath. I saw the monastery at Diskit and the impressive Shamstelling gompa at Sumur, rode across the dunes on the double humped bactrian camel that I hired from Abdul Razzak for a paltry Rs.150, got invited (and later drunk) at the delightfully amateurish Tegar village festival, and devoured the not so tasty “skiu” and the unpalatable “khambhir” served by my new found friends. T. Dorje taught me how easy it is to make friends and how a wonderful friendship can last all of one day. Perched precariously on his Bajaj Chetak, I went all over Panamic village and to his small dwelling where we shared his lunch and his many stories of Ladakh. He walked me to the hot springs, to his workshop where he taught the locals carpentry and introduced me to the locals as “mera Bambe ka dost.”
I left Sumur early one morning at 6am. I kept my money on a makeshift table in my room and slipped out of the house quietly so as not to wake up my wonderful hosts. I walked over to the village bus stand across the road. For an hour I sat there on a culvert watching a remote mountain village wake up to the sounds of a new day. I drifted in and out of moments that made up my days in the valley. The distant drone of an automobile jerked me from my reverie and slowly I stood up, dusted my pants and as the jeep rumbled towards me I stuck my thumb out in the direction of Leh.
Snippets for the traveller:
1. Nubra Valley is best visited in July and August. Situated at an altitude of 10,000ft (the road never going above 10500 ft), it is warm and sunny during the day and pleasantly cold at night. The Nubra winter is harsh and almost unbearable for people not used to the plummeting mercury. Although the road through Khardungla is open throughout the year (as Nubra is also the gateway to Siachen glacier and the border post of Turtuk) it is not advisable to venture in there during the other months without proper arrangements.
2. One should spend a min of 3-4 days at the valley staying 2 nits at Diskit or Hundar and 2 nits at Sumur, Tegar or Tirath. Spend the first 2-3 nights at Leh, get acclimatized and only then venture the 7hr drive to Nubra.
3. One can stay in simple and basic lodges run by the local families. For those who to travel in comfort and style, a jeep safari is recommended with stay in deluxe campsites available at Tegar and Tirath which are open in July and August.
4. Inner line permits are required to visit the valley considering its proximity to the border. Permits can be obtained in Leh from the DM office.
5. Must see in Nubra is the “jheel” between Panamic and Tegar. Ask a local for directions. While going to Panamic, you will have to get off the road to the left, drive to a point after which the sand will not allow the vehicle to go any further. Thereafter, start walking in the direction of the grayish black mountain crossing a 1ft deep brook on the way. The “jheel” or the pond has a religious significance. Sitting on the banks one can see many reflections on the water. Some have seen a monastery, some a deity, some their future and most nothing. I believe the art of seeing something in there is to go with tremendous faith.