Friday, 15 July 2011

Exploring Nubra Valley in Ladakh

My fellow travelers had warned me enough about Khardung La. They told me stories about the heights, the headaches, the dizziness and the dry toilets. Even Dorjee, my cab driver and guide cautioned me. ”Just 20 mins ok,” he said, as we reached the summit of the pass at 17580 feet. But no one prepared me for the carnival that I saw out there.

Khardung La was a tourist’s hangout. The small patch of land out there was teeming with people from all over the world, who were just simply hanging around sipping chai, taking in the landscape and having a conversation with the local army men. Some adventurous lot were seen climbing higher vistas.

It was bright and sunny with patches of snow covering the dry mountains, but the wind blew us away.  The shutter bugs were around, clicking photographs of themselves against screaming milestones that announced their presence at the pass. An American tourist gushed with excitement as she requested me to take her picture against the “You have reached Khardung La.” board along with her teddy bear in tow. Another lone German lady exchanged notes on her trip so far.

Embrace the spellbounding beauty of Ladakh.
Embrace the spellbounding beauty of Ladakh.

I looked down to see the serpentine roads carrying a beeline line of bikers trudging uphill. Dorjee’s warning rang aloud in my head, as the crowds eventually got to me. I had other pressing matters to attend, like finding a dry toilet. My destination, I was told was another six hours away. 

It is probably a cliché to use the word breathless when you are referring to Ladakh. But it is not everyday that you drive up the towering mountains beyond 17000 feet, amidst stunning landscape and then plunge down to 10000 feet to rest in a picturesque valley.” The starkness of the landscape became more pronounced as we drove down one of the ancient trading routes. However as we plunged downhill, the landscape changed dramatically. We looked around and saw the Karakoram range around us, the Siachen glacier in the distance and the river Shyok flowing beside us with itswhite sands. Some desert flowers carpeted the dry slopes of mountains adding a dash of colour. 

Our destination was at the confluence of the Shyok or the Nubra or Siachen rivers, an oasis in this cold desert called Nubra valley, filled with apple and apricot orchards Dorjee called it Ldumra or his valley of flowers. The altitude dropped suddenly and we were amidst sand dunes.  Bactrian camels made a surreal appearance here against the setting sun, as we stopped by to take in the moment. Some tourists hopped on to the camels for rides as we sat on the dunes and soaked in the moment.

We drove to little towns and visited many monasteries and lazed around in many orchards, treating ourselves to delicious apricots .Our journey took us to Diskit where a 14th century monastery awaited us with a story of a demon. 

Dorjee played the guide to the hilt.  Most monasteries, he explained were either founded by the Drug-pa or the red hats or the Gelug-pa or the yellow hats. Diskit monastery he added was founded by Changzem Tserab Zangpo, a disciple of Tsong Khapa, founder of Gelug-pa order. We climbed up the stairs, a bit breathless and saw a statue of the mighty Maitreya , the future Buddha,  some fierce guardian deities and a wonderful fresco of the Tashilhunpo Gompa of Tibet. A huge drum caught our attention. Dorjee explained that the monastery celebrated the Festival of the Scapegoat or Desmochhey with a mask dance that depicted the victory of good over evil. He then narrated the story of a demon who haunted this Gompa even after he was killed. Locals believe that the Gonkhang or the temple of the guardians still housed his wrinkled head and arm. 

I shivered a bit, more out of the cold and headed to Hundar, a charming hamlet by the river side with mani walls and chortens scattered all around the hills. They looked lost in the hills as small rivulets flowed through the village.  I followed the streams and saw more chortens and gompas surrounded by trees. The capital of the ancient Nubra kingdom, Hundar housed the Chamba Gompa and is probably one of the last few Indian villages before the Pakistan border..A bridge separated locals from tourists as the army allowed access only to the locals to proceed beyond Hundar.  I walked up to a prayer wheel, probably the last in the Indian border and wished for peace. Given a chance I would probably settle here forever.

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