Drive from Leh to Khardung La
Today we are starting our trip from Leh to Khardung La and will be moving to Nubra valley onwards. This is another popular trip but difficult to do in one day. Some people return from Khardung La (18,380 ft), which is claimed to be the highest motorable pass in the world. It provides excellent views of Ladakh Range as well as Karakoram Range on the other side. Accommodation is available along the way and in Nubra Valley at various places.
This region comprises the valley of the Nubra and Shyok rivers, both above and below their confluence. The two rivers meander lazily in this broad and fertile valley, often shifting channels in their sandy bed, flowing northwest to join the Indus in Baltistan. The altitude of this valley is a little less than that if Leh, between 10,000ft/3050m at Hunder and 10,600ft/3230m at Panamik and with summer temperatures ranging between 15-28°C. The terrain here is different to the one you have grown familiar with on your journey up to this point and if the awesome bareness so far is getting a trifle overpowering, Nubra valley with its gentler contours is a welcome change.
Another challenge is traversing the Khardung La, which at 18,380ft/5600m, was till 2003 the highest motorable road in the world. (Apparently it has now been pipped by an insignificant, 200ft higher pass, Marmik La, near Pangong Tso Lake). The view from Khardung La is amazing as you can see all the way over the Indus valley while seemingly endless peaks of the Zanskar range spread out before you and the gigantic Saser massif looms overhead in the North.
Nubra means green and this lovely fertile valley was originally part of the trade route between Tibet and Turkistan. It was the envy of the rulers of Turkistan who tried to capture it several times. With the best climate in Ladakh, fruits such as apple, apricots, walnuts and even grapes are grown here and there is also ample grain and mustard cultivated.
This picturesque region, dotted with small hamlets, is only 130km (4 hours), from Leh and the drive here is reasonably easy and definitely a memorable one.
The impressive Khardung La pass is approximately 35km away and the road surface is reasonably good, except for small sections on either end near the pass and the flat valley section starting at Khalsar. A completely contrasting vista awaits you as you descend from the snowy heights, with lush green valleys, rushing rivers and actual forests this is an oasis on a grand scale in this otherwise barren region. Just ahead of Khalsar there is a bifurcation into the twin valleys of the Shyok and Nubra rivers.
Take the bridge across the river and head up the Nubra valley of the villages of Sumur and Tigre. The 150 year old Samtanling Gompa is easily accessed by road pr by foot from Tigre village. The gompa has been renovated and the Dalai Lama inaugurated the modernized version in 1962. There are several interesting, restored frescoes and beautiful tangkhas on view here.
A pleasant drive further up the road brings you to the village of Panamik, famous for its hot water springs.
You can then head back over the bridge and take a 3km drive, along an impressively wide river bed, to Diskit. Located above the Shyok River, this village boasts the largest and most ancient gompa in the Nubra valley. It is over 350 years old and houses around 70 monks. The Diskit Gompa is particularly renowned for its exquisite murals and the view from the roof is spectacular. One of the statues in the gompa is believed to hold the skull and skeletal arm of an invader who was slain 500 years ago!! The drive to the base of the gompa is a sharply ascending road, lined with chortens, and you have to negotiate a steep flight of stairs to reach the inner sanctum. Just 7km beyond Diskit lies the village of Hunder and it is on this section that you come across sand dunes and thorny scrub akin to the Sahara desert – if you land here the snowcapped background to the familiar sand dunes would certainly make you wonder if you had lost your sanity! You can spot the double humped Bactrian camel here – they were probably abandoned here centuries ago by passing caravans and have since flourished in this terrain. Tourists can organize to take a ride on these creatures and are often seen doing so for the novelty. Just ahead of Hunder is the last point for civilians – the road beyond leads to the army base for the Siachen Glacier.
It is possible to spend one night in the Nubra valley and be back in Leh next evening, well in time for dinner or even a late tea.
Accommodation of the more basic kind is available at Tigre/Sumur/Diskit and Hunder and can be arranged from Leh.
Day 12 & 13: Drive from Nubra to Leh & stay at Leh
You can make a leisurely start for your drive back to Leh. As suggested earlier, its best to break up your visits to the gompas so they don’t end up in a big blur and it would probably be good to intersperse these with some local sightseeing. We suggest one day for monasteries out of Days 9 & 10 spent at Leh and the next round of visits on Day 13 – not forgetting to take time off to soak in the delightful atmosphere of this town and do some shopping.