Driving into the Nubra Valley in Ladakh at sunset is like flying on a magic carpet, with the glacial cement blue waters of the Shyok river meeting the Nubra river, glistening like liquid mercury and the sun a molten yellow, painting the formidable Karakorams. The Shyok is also called the ‘river of death’ because of its treacherous currents. Blame it on the lack of oxygen, but the entire scene looks otherworldly.
Like the rest of Ladakh, Nubra is a high-altitude cold desert with patches of vegetation of willows and poplars, and fields irrigated with the water from the melting glaciers and the rich alluvial deposits of the rivers.
Carved by ancient glaciers which receded long ago, huge boulders that are sometimes the size of a house litter the valley and are witness to the tumultuous past. What really stands out is the human love and spirit that emanates from whitewashed chortens that house Buddhist relics, and bedraggled prayer flags that set free mantras into the wind.Passing through the winding roads with wafer thin air, one reaches the Khardung La pass, one of the highest motorable roads, at 18,000 feet. Though it’s obvious that one will have to deal with the narrow potholed roads, bowls of Maggi and cardamom tea available at small stalls on the way are what keep one going.
Nubra Valley is special—it’s one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems. It is Ladakh’s valley of flowers and orchards. Thorny Sea buckthorn bushes act as hedges, the fragrance of wild lavender fills the air and tamarisk bushes and wild roses called Sia (after which the famous Siachen glacier is named) give colour to this otherwise monotone landscape.
Headquarters of Nubra Valley, Diskit village, located 150 km from Leh, is beautiful in its own way. Built in 1420 AD, Diskit Monastery, with a humongous statue of the Maitreya Buddha on a stage, looks like it emerges almost organically from the rock. One can rent a tent from the Chamba Camp at Thiksey.The limpid Yarab Tso Lake situated nearby lies completely out of sight buried deep within a hillock. One has to walk up a steep slope littered with rock fragments and little mounds of pebbles and rocks placed by locals to placate the spirits to reach there. But the serene landscape is worth the steep climb.
Located a little ahead is Sumur, a small village ringed by barley fields and chortens. It has a 400-year-old farmhouse, built with mud bricks and wooden brackets. The show piece of the home is the dimly lit kitchen with copper dishes and metal ladles made in the town of Chilling (known for its metal craft).
One of the biggest surprises in the valley is the Hunder sand dunes. Miles and miles of undulating sand dunes with Bactrian camels against the backdrop of the craggy mountains; this is a surreal sight. Once these camels served the Silk route between Ladakh and Central Asia. Today the desert and the camels are the playground for tourists.
From Hunder, one can drive to Turtuk, the last village before the border with Pakistan, a region called Baltistan. As one enters, one can see the region, lush green with trees and barley fields, waterfalls spraying rock faces and henna-dyed bearded men walking along to their villages. Apricots dry on rooftops, donkeys and pashmina goats are tethered in backyards.
And there is the wood and stone home of Mohamad Khan Kacho, the descendant of the last king of Turtuk. The tiny home-museum is a time capsule of nostalgia—old armours, bows and arrows, wooden butter containers, a walking stick with a handle carved from the bone of an ibex and old coins from different ages.And with many small but wonderful places and things, this valley keeps on enthralling people with its beauty.