Ladakh III – Nubra -Thoise (2009)

Ladakh III – Nubra -Thoise (2009)

After eight days spent exploring the remote Zanskar valley we, a group of three women, retrace our footsteps through the same route by which we came – Rangdum, Parkachik, Panikhar, Suru and Sankhoo to get back to Kargil to begin the second leg of our journey lasting a week. This leg would take us from Kargil to Leh via Lamayuru, from Leh to Pangong Tso via Changla Pass and from Leh to Siachen Base Camp through Khardungla Pass and Nubra valley.  That would mean making Leh the base. Although Leh itself is a dusty town with little to commend itself, there are some gorgeous gompas – Thikse, Hemis, Spituk, Stakna and Shey all within a day’s drive, not to mention the busy Leh market where one can find very interesting Buddhist and Central Asian artefacts and the  most authentic Tibetan food outside of Tibet.

After a short detour to Post 43 where an Indian army post faces off a Pakistani post just a few hundred meters away, we reach Kargil. En route we also stop at Shingo-in where Shingo river, coming from Pakistan joins Drass river in Indian territory to enjoy the splash of colours and the spray of mist thrown up by the confluence. After a short distance through India, Shingo re-enters Pakistan  below Post 43 and this point is called Shingo-out.

We have a few hours of daylight left to help us explore Kargil town, a narrow strip of land wedged between the river and the mountain, its slopes clothed in orchards laden with peaches and apricots and the highway running right through the town’s high street. After a night’s halt in Kargil we hit the tarmac once again.  There are two routes to Leh, a new road through Batalik and an old one through Mulbek, Lamayuru and Khaltse. The last time I travelled to Batalik in 2001, there was no road, just a dirt track on dynamited slopes. The promise of a smooth ride through newly-paved macadam on some of the highest mountains in the world is indeed difficult resist, but we decide to take the other fork, one that would take us through a mind-blowing moonscape of desolate and unforgiving barrenness.

That Ladakh sports a landscape of infinite variety becomes increasingly evident as we drive out of Kargil.   The road first takes us to Mulbek, a landmark gompa with a huge Maitreya statue carved on a rock. Just a few kilometres past Mulbek, the scenery becomes starker.  For every few hundred meters you ascend or descend, the transformation in the landscape is nothing less than dramatic.  The shape, size and texture of the mountains are constantly changing. Rocky surfaces yield to crumbly dust and eventually, the road becomes so dusty that every passing vehicle raises a cloud of dust that obscures the view and makes driving even more difficult.

In tune with the changing landscape, the ecology also changes.  The green pastures of Kargil are long gone to be replaced by reluctant turf which in turn gives way to spiky tamarisk and eventually, all vegetation bows out, ceding ground to the creeping desert.  Mormots have ceded turf, literally, to ibex and other mountain goats.  After a while, all you can spot are occasional rodents and sand lizards. Every few hundred meters we come across labourers from Bihar and Jharkand toiling away to repair the road. Hired by Border Roads Organization which builds and maintains roads in this sector, these workers are the life-line of these roads, making passage possible and safe not only for us occasional travellers, but also for the army to move its men and equipment to border areas.

The overwhelmingly earthy hues of the majestic mountains are leavened periodically by patches of brilliant emerald of villages en route, testifying to man’s tenacity, persistence and ingenuity in turning dust to grain by harnessing whatever little water that might be available in this rain-shadow region.  Janet Rizvi, a scholar who has authored well-researched and authentic books on Ladakh believes that this part of Ladakh was once under water. “Ladakh is a land from which, geological ages ago, upheavals of a violence beyond anything we can conceive, drained off the abundance water of the rivers and lakes”.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the road leading to Namika La, (meaning Pillar of the sky) towering upto 3700 meters and reached through hairpin bends. This is followed by another pass, Fotu la where we meet a group of bikers from Europe. In fact, this route is a favourite biking trail for those in quest of the ultimate in adventure biking.  We pose for the regulation photograph against the fluttering prayer flags before we reach the fantastic wall of mud sculpture that forms the stunning setting for another village and monastery of the same name – Lamayuru.

The primordial shapes of earth painstakingly sculpted by nature over millennia stretch for miles while a limp Wanle river meanders sinuously at the bottom, a slip of a blue ribbon glimpsed at the turn of the road, but otherwise invisible from the majestic heights through which we cruise for hours.  The mountains sport every hue in an artist’s palette – from all shades of grey and brown to blue, pink and russet.  The road twists and turns tortuously into loops and whorls prompting the rather apt appellation ‘jalebi bends’ by which they are known in these parts. Then it begins its descent, a steady plunge through hairpin bends until we level with the gorge at Khaltse.   At Khaltse, the Indus has already travelled 800 kilometers from its source in Lake Manasarovar in Tibet.  The valley is fairly thickly inhabited with frequent villages. The road itself runs along the banks of the Indus until you cross it to visit Alchi, a monastery with exquisite murals and a very beautiful statue of Maitreya.   At Nimmu,  Zanskar river meets Indus, each retaining its distinctive colour at the sangam point, but merge soon after to a pale blue as the river now wends its way towards Leh.  The vistas offered by the landscape as you near Leh town are breathtakingly panoramic.

The following day, we head towards Pangong Tso (tso means lake), yes the very same one that has been in the news recently for alleged incursions by Chinese patrol boats.  More than half of the 130 km long lake stretches into Tibet and like elsewhere in Ladakh, the international border is more notional than real.  It is often a rock, a peak, a nullah or a flowing river or as in this case, a lake with a rippling surface. We fail to understand how it is possible to strictly adhere to your side of the border when the border itself is literally fluid!

Anyway, the ride to Pangong is as mesmerising as the lake itself. It takes you through some very steep climb across snow strewn slopes. In fact, in just a couple of hours you ascend as much as three to four thousand feet that you begin to feel giddy, not to say scared at the teetering edge over which your vehicle puffs its way up often in first gear. After you crest the perpetually snow-carpeted Chang La pass at a height of 5360 meters, you begin the steep descent to the lake where in some stretches the road has been washed away by a stream and your wheels try to negotiate a pebbly bed.  Long before you reach the lake, it tantalizes you with a flash of blue framed by peaks.

Aloof and disdainful at a height of 4350 meters, Pangong Tso draws travellers like a magnet, not just for its location, but for its immense beauty and tranquillity.  Beyond the lake is primordial looking Changchenmo range which eventually melds into the Aksai Chin, the bridge between Xinjiang and Tibet. In 1962, the Chinese had not only taken Aksai Chin, but had even advanced as far as Chushul, an Indian border village on the southern margins of the lake.

The lake and its serene environs are truly surreal, the imposing mountains surrounding the lake assuming moulded shapes, like the limbs of a giant mammal. But it is the lake itself that shimmers like a jewel, sporting over a dozen shades of blue at any given time and constantly changing colour with the changing light. At its deepest, the lake is cobalt blue, at other places it subsides into sapphire and aquamarine and in some spots it is a light topaz.  On my trip to Lake Manasarovar more than a decade ago, I had witnessed similar shades of blue. Perhaps it is a characteristic of high-altitude lakes.

The water is brackish and the lake is said to harbour no life. Thanks to our friends in the Indian army, we are taken for a motorboat ride across the blue expanse framed by some of the grandest mountains in this part of the world. The lake is patrolled by the Indian and Chinese armies, in their respective territorial waters, although it would have been in the fitness of things if motor boats had not rent the silence nor sliced through the ripples of the lake!  Mercifully, civilians are not allowed to camp anywhere near the lake and there are no business establishments except those run by the army out of temporary shelters and tents. In fact, this cafeteria offers Punjabi Thali at Pangongtso!  Opposite the lake is the garnet hill strewn with rough pieces of garnet for anyone to pick and take home.

No one goes to Leh without cresting Khardungla Pass, (you can even get T-shirts inscribed with “I crossed the Khardungla”)which, at 18380 feet, is claimed to be the highest motorable pass in the world.  But apart from that, Khardung la is the gateway to Nubra valley, the barley bowl of Ladakh.  There are fibre glass huts of the Indian Army at the pass serving sugary tea to every visitor.  The views from Khardungla are mind-blowing. On one side you can see the Zanskar range and on the other, the Ladakh range and yonder, the Karakoram which is in Pakistan. Some day, hopefully, one would be able to travel right through to Gilgit as traders and merchants of yore did, on their ponies. The mountain slopes are strewn with carcasses of vehicles that tumbled over the side, giving you a creepy fear as your vehicle wheezes up the slope.

Nubra Valley is a narrow strip of land wedged at the foot of the Ladakh range.  Nubra river originates in the Siachen glacier, travels south along a pebbly and picturesque valley dotted with villages perched on the alluvial ledges for a distance of about 70 km and then takes an abrupt U-turn at an expansive sandy flat where it meets Shyok river.  Shyok means death perhaps to underline the dangers faced by traders who ventured out this far all the way from Yarkand and Khotan in eastern China.  Actually, Nubra is separated from China by three formidable ranges – the Ladakh range, the Karakorams and Kun Lun range, but they did not deter the intrepid merchants of yore undertaking this arduous trek persuaded by the compulsions of commerce.

Nubra irrigates a dense growth of seabuckthorn or Leh Berry which in recent times, has found its way to urban markets in the plains in the form of packaged juice rich in Vitamin C. After the confluence the stream meanders in a maze of channels before it picks up force as a torrent to flow in a northwesterly direction.

(Published in Frontline dated Nov 21, 2009)





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