Ladakh road trip 1 – Nubra Valley

To the north of Leh lies another large valley called Nubra, where an Indus tributary drains the Karakoram and other high mountains. Lying close to the disputed borders with China and Pakistan, this area can only be visited with a special permit, which is easy to obtain through agents in Leh. Only the Indian military can go right to the Line of Control, however, which in this area crosses the 6300-meter (21,000 foot) Siachen glacier. Why India and Pakistan would want to fight wars over this alpine wasteland is anyone's guess.

The roads throughout Ladakh and other Himalayan regions are built and maintained by the military-funded Border Roads Organization (BRO), which is famous for its concrete signposts every few hundred meters. These English messages vary from pride (“God created Ladakh, we connect it to the world”) to road safety (“After whiskey driving risky”) to bizarre (“Peep peep don't sleep”). But we took comfort in the thought that Big BRO was watching.

The road crosses what BRO claims is the “highest motorable road in the world” at 5600 meters (18,380 feet). Actually, my GPS read somewhat lower and some sources now seem to be admitting it's only the second highest road.

But it was definitely the world's highest traffic jam. With the one-lane road still snow-covered from the winter and an added dusting from the night before, the police were only allowing traffic in convoys. So although we started at 7am, we were blocked until they opened the road at 10. At that point, several hundred trucks, buses and cars started up the hill, horns blaring in attempts to pass on every wide spot in the road. Of course, several cars stalled from the high altitude and had to be pushed off to the side. Worse, scores of Indian tourists were making one-way trips to the summit to take pictures of the signs and to discover snow is cold. As a result, numerous cars were trying to make U-turns in the worst icy conditions at the pass. To round things out, a couple of buses were defying the one-way traffic climbing the icy road from the other side. The Indian army looked on in amusement and did nothing to sort out the mess, which might have been fatal to travelers less acclimatized than ourselves. In all, it took us seven hours to cross the pass from the time we started in Leh.

The Nubra valley was well worth it, though. Although the marginal weather obscured the most spectacular views of the Karakoram mountains, here higher than the Himalaya, the valleys had plenty of sights lower down.

Our favorite was the monastery of Disket, the largest town in the valley. Built on a hill, the monastery is visually spectacular and gives fines views from the top. Inside, we were able to visit two fine chapels. The lower one, called the Gongkang, was like a storage room for the statues of the ten fierce protective deities that are the dark side off Tibetan Buddhism. Strong and mean enough to fight and kill evil spirits, these gods are treated with great respect. Their faces are so fierce that they must be keep covered for all but one festival day each year. Ladakhi monasteries seem to be particularly interested in this practice, almost always having a separate protectors' chapel uniquely painted red.

Nubra is on one of the branches of the Silk Road over the Karakoram Pass from China, now closed. It contains some areas of sand dunes and a population of Bactrian camels brought before the era of national borders. We skipped the tourist rides, since we'll no doubt have another chance in Central Asia.

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