The Ladakh Reflections - Day 7

I packed some clothes and essentials as Nubra valley would be an overnight stay. I reached the pickup point by 8am. The jeep came a little late and since i was the last to be picked up, i guess it made up the lost time. On the jeep there was a father-daughter duo from Wales and a honeymoon couple from Mumbai. We drove a different route this time, as Nubra lay in the north of Leh. Unlike the other days when we drove a straight road before the ascent, it was straight up from the start. As we moved higher and higher, the Leh valley grew smaller with every turn. In front of us on the mountains, one could see the thin drawn line across the brown slope and extending to the other mountain where it was remarkably more visible because it distinguishable amidst the snowy slopes. That was our way. We jumped from one mountain to another, i guess never quite going around them. We reached a small hamlet of South Pullu, beyond this we could see the high pass (Khardung La) unaided. The thick snow covered the slopes now and the snow melt melted and flowed across the road in million small streams. The road was a little better than yesterday, but still bad enough to constantly make the camera move rigorously during taking pictures. Sitting besides the driver, one could see how close the precipice was, sometimes we drove just by the edge of the road which gave me some heart stopping moments. Some more anxious moments came whenever he seem to change music between those blind turns and razor thing edges. From here the clouds again seem to be working overtime at the Khardung La.

(road down from Khardung La)

Some more long curves and we reached a wide open space which was Khardung La pass (40 km from Leh). It is the highest motor-able pass in the world at altitude of 18380ft on the Ladakh range. This pass had existed for long and was used by travelers and merchants on horses to connect Yarkhand (in Chinese Xingxiang province beyond Karakorum pass) to Leh on the Kashmir leg of the fabled Silk Route. In seventies the Indian Army made it motor-able. This pass is of strategic importance as it is main link for Siachen war theater and beyond that to airfields like DBO (Daulat Beg Oldi) just on the Chinese frontier. The cold was not as severe as yesterday and within 10 minutes of our arriving here another ten jeeps came filled with tourists. It seemed like a highest traffic jam possible anywhere in the world. I took some shots and walked on both sides of the road to see what hidden view lay there. There were only smooth snow covered peaks across patched with shadows from the clouds above. A milestone declared that Siachen base camp was another 164 km from here. I wondered what it would be like there, on the glacier. Standing in the mild sun, i was done with all the photography. On the wall, the daughter from the Welsh duo traveling alongside was doing all kind of antics for the camera. The father told me that she loves snow and goes to Austria every winter for snow boarding. We immediately stuck a conversation on China, on Welsh country side and his experience here. He was on his 10th trip to India and seemed to be a practicing Buddhist. Over our heads the snow like bread crumbs started falling. On the jeep hood, I for the first time saw the actual shape of the snow before it melted quickly on the hood. I had seen snow flakes so many times, but this is the first time i saw it in crystals shape that i had been taught in school. Probably the snow was always crystalline but this time the crystals were so big to be seen clearly. I stood there watching them fall on the warm hood of the jeep and disappearing. The driver was getting impatient as the honeymoon couple was nowhere to be found. I guess it feels good to be newly married, no care in the world. He went out to look for them. At this extreme point in the world, i assure you it won't be easy. It was such a crowd at the top now. After a good 40 minutes at the top, we started our descent downwards towards Khalsar (56 km from the top).

(The river, the sand, the valley and the mountains)

For quite some distance, a wall of snow lined on one side while smooth snow covered slope on the other. We passed by the village of North Pullu uneventfully. Beyond that the snow had gone and we were slowly descending on those long and short curves. We stopped at Khardung village for permit checking. Couple of bikers along the roadside had all possible gear that you can think of on them. From here en-route, we passed some spectacular view of brilliant relief carved on the solid rock by the river. There was a streak of greenery between the all pervading barrenness and brown mountains though numerous were far and wide as if inviting us into their laps. After a sharp descent over a short time, we were traveling besides a large river bed. There was frequent green cover and the river meandered across the vast bed through many paths. The color of dry and wet sand, besides cream colored water created artistic contours and smooth curves as if the artist had used various shades of a simple pencil to capture all this imagery. Occasionally green added to the frame. This was Shyok river, one of the bigger tributaries of Indus which joins it somewhere in Pakistani Kashmir. We drove along side until Khalsar village. Just beyond it, the road splits into two. We continued along side the river though on the higher plane to Hunder village where we are going to stay for the night.The terrain on the side of the road though rough, looked grainy and loose and white with fine chalky powder covering the roadside. On the other beyond the river it was dark brown. A little further it was rocky and solid, a further while it was brittle with layers jutting out. To me this place seemed to be a geologist's paradise. I am sure there must be some mineral wealth hidden underneath this vast expanse. From a distance high in the mountains, a thin sliver of water was flowing majestically down down a sharp crevice in the mountains. Slowly we drove in its direction until we were directly underneath it. The water which came from the snow melt from even bigger mountains behind it was hardy a trickle but it was enough to cut features into the hard rock.The water flowed straight into a water tanker parked at the base. We were now traveling just besides the huge sand river bed of Shyok and passed by Dishket village. The driver informed that we will return to Dishket tomorrow morning. Beyond Disket, one could see sand dunes on the banks of the river bed. These were Nubra sand dunes. A short drive and crossing a bridge guarded by armed army men we entered the dense green village of Hunder. A small but noisy river flowed and merged ahead with the Shyok.

(double humped camel sitting at the floor of Nubra valley)

(Nubra sand dunes besides river Shyok)

It was beyond 2pm by the time i checked into the home stay called Goba. The rates were okay and room though big was minimal. We had fried rice for lunch seated under the apple trees outside along with the duo from Wales. It was decided that all would rejoin at 4 for the camel ride. I had an hour to rest even though i was hardly tired. In my room a very detailed map of Ladakh kept me very busy. Geography and maps were my favorite subject in my school days. I still felt like a kid with eager eyes. We were joined by an Italian lady for our short drive to the sand dunes. She was a working for Italian travel operator company and based in Delhi for 3 years. On the valley floor a herd of camels squatted looking visibly bored. I wonder what these camels did in the frigid winters. These are the Bactrian double humped camel from Central Asia. They are the left over of the flourishing trade that existed on the silk route between Leh and Yarkhand. For a large animal like camel they had astonishingly small ears. Their going rate was Rs 150 for a short 15 minute ride and though some were debating the virtues of it, i had no intention of missing it. There was no point in coming all the way to Nubra and not doing it. Meanwhile I and the Italian broke out into a nice little conversation on places worth seeing in nearby and Kashmir. The camel guide helped us on the camel and we took off to a flagged point out on the sand dunes. The ride though good and comfortable seemed like a bit overrated and the 15 minutes pitifully small. I had some shots taken riding on the camel and then besides the camel. An attempt to stroke them on their head would make them wiggle their head with irritation. I guess they don't like it here. In another half an hour all were done and we drove back to Hunder. En-route i tried getting a consensus to go to Panamik village (not part of the initial travel plan) as well the next day which was beyond Sumur and though initially everyone agreed, the plan fell through as the couple from Mumbai had to reach Leh early to do last minute shopping before their flight. Panamik village (20 km from Sumur) is known for its hot springs. I was back in my room 5:30 and disappointed that there was nothing else to see today even though we had time. I took off with my camera alone and not sit in my room. I found my way to the bridge between the stupas, the dense trees and various irrigation streams that branched out of noisy river nearby. On the bridge, i had a conversation with the soldier holding an INSAS rifle guarding the entry to the bridge. He asked where i was from and what i did and seemed to relate to Dehra Dun. He told that the road went to Thoise air force base (15 km from here) and Turtuk (another 75 km). Just for trivia, Thoise is airfield that supplies to Siachen and Turtuk (made it in news during Kargil war) was Pakistan territory until '71 war when it was absorbed into India. Just besides the bridge perched up midway in the mountain were two temples (Hunder temple) and a dilapidated castle on the very top overlooking the Hunder village. I inquired a local if there was a way up and he nodded in agreement. I decided to go for it. I started walking up briskly mindful of the fact that it was getting late and soon it may be dark, but then after a while i had to stop to catch my breath. It is so hard up here, even a little effort seems laborious. The trek up to the two temples was relatively easy as the path was well trodden and used. One of the temples was locked and other had a small prayer chamber with three figures of Buddha. I continued my way up to the castle though the gravel. The climb was more difficult now and the treks occasionally bifurcated into multiple smaller path leading to confusion as to which one would lead to where. Couple of places were real nasty, i looked down and could see the bridge far out. I wondered if the army man were watching me. After 35 minutes of near steep ascent i was finally at the castle which was locked. I rested to catch my breath. From here, one could see the complete village of Hunder and the small river merging into Shyok and the mountains behind lighted in the evening sun. Behind the castle, on a even higher hill, i saw another square mud structure. I debated with myself whether to go for it or not, especially as it was going to sunset soon and descending back could be tough on a ill-formed path even if it visible. I decided to go for it and in another 15 minutes i was besides the abandoned mud house after some very treacherous moments and double thoughts. I photographed at the same time as i grasped for breath hoping not to lose vital minutes. After staying for 5 minutes at the top, i started my descent down. Occasionally you could feel the weakness in your knees, but the descent was surprisingly fast and gentle except some corner where i had to use my all four limbs. By the time i reached the temple, i realized that i had ample time and it is not going to be dark anytime soon.I leisurely strolled down. There were maybe thousands of randomly laid out heap of plane stones arranged one over the another maybe as a symbolic image of a Stupa or meditating Buddha. I also made couple of them on my way down. Since it was still not dark i went to the river (Hunder Dok) under the bridge. It seemed like a perfect place for a small picnic, the one we used to have in our school days. The whole trek up and down took me around 90 minutes and i was drained to the core.

(Hunder village with perfectly lit mountains in the background)

(View of the castle and Hunder village from the mud house)

(Hunder village and Shyok river)

I returned back to the home-stay, where the dinner (veg thali) was ready. We had a long conversation over dinner, before the tiredness caught on with me and I took leave. I must say, the trek up to the castle (and to the mud house beyond it) was the high point of the day and i felt elated that i actually did it and not sit easy in the confines of my big room.

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