Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Nubra - In the Valley

This is 'that' article  - the one that does not want to get itself written but also does not let me move on to write or post more before getting this out of the way. This article is like that annoying itch that keeps on irritating but doesn’t go away when you try soooo hard not to think about it. So the only thing I could think of to get this out of the way is…. To get it out of the way :P. Of course it is also a test of the memory of my 22 year 'young' brain to recall things that happened four…. No, five years ago. Of course, the bonus I get is also that it takes to me to a more majestic landscape than the one I am in right now - definitely a much cooler one :D - aka Singapore. Don’t get me wrong, this world has its own marvels to count not the least of which is giving me a temporary home to launch my 'research' career but Nature's timeless beauty cannot be compared to any manmade one however technologically advanced! With that said, lets take a small step back in time to where I left Pangong behind and the next vista which Ladakh had to offer me was the Valley! I am squeezing the whole timeline leaving Pangong upto Nubra into this one post so bear with me so I can… of course… get it out of the way :)

Leaving Pangong behind, all I could do was glance back for the last-est (Yes, I know that's not a word!) glimpse of its blue - a blue I don't think I can find again except at its shores. Putting in good time on the way back, it was all but uneventful (now at least in my memory) except at Chang La! Approaching this pass, we were hard pressed not to notice the sudden mistiness and threatening clouds towering over us and making me forget the blues of the sky and Lake. Anticipation turned to uncontainable delight however, when nearing the pass, the clouds turned into a very mild snowfall with the  smallest flakes floating effortlessly around us! Gifts do come in funny parcels and even our driver could not help but comment on the fact that we finally got the snowfall we were pestering him about :D! The wide eyed wonder could not last forever though as we can stay at such altitudes for a little while and so onward went the travelers leaving behind the dreamy white carpeted world nestled around lofty mountains. Leh was soon in sight, and Pangong was left as another addition to memory. 

To reach Nubra, we had to retrace our steps over Khardung La and move more northwards. We even stopped by the roadside to pay a visit to Indus - India's namesake - and spent a quiet moment there. Unlike the splendor seen in Uttarakhand with the ferocity of her rivers, Indus seemed tame in comparison flowing along the valleys and plains amidst towering giants. But neither was she as clean and could blend in with the hues of brown in the plains of her banks. We also crossed Zangskar which had me wanting to come back and walk on her frozen waters in the winters which is a popular trek. Another item on the 'to do' list. Somehow those don't get shorter no 
 matter how many items get crossed off!! 

  And then there was Khardung La - the highest motorable pass in the world standing at 18380 feet above sea level. We were sure hitting new highs on this trip! We ventured to climb a snow covered hillock on top of which there was a small temple to pray to the Gods to protect the people passing by and those stationed there from the army. At that altitude, you would be well advised to proceed cautiously not least because of the slippery snow covered steps as the lack of oxygen and air becoming starkly apparent. Also found was a wall in tribute to the 18 men of the 201 Enginneer Regiment - the Madras Sappers - of the Indian army who lost their lives foraging the road to Khardung La. The glaciers on the roadsides here were larger than what Chang La had to offer and the drop more steep and we found more than one car and even bulldozer victim to the unforgiving slopes.

 The scenery on this route is much more greener - as though teasing what the valley has to offer. There is even a small gurgling stream accompanying the road merrily for quite a distance till you start rising on the mountains again. The lunch stop was at a small village along the roadside with a few shops for food and tea, a few households with their own small gardens growing a few necessities and a canal which diverted some water into the village. Interestingly, in many of the villages on the slopes, one could find this canal running alongside the road or the farms where water would be diverted from a nearby stream/the river below  and some of the more gentler slopes of the mountains were invariably terraced and domesticated. One was greeted with flowing greens of cultivated lands growing wheat, barley, peas, apricots, apples, and many more - veritably a treasure trove of crops in a barren cold dessert. The splash of colour from the irrigated fertile lands definitely makes for a pleasing change.

The approach to the valley itself is impressive to say the least. There is a point where one can see the expanse of the valley - wide enough to be considered flat land and not just a valley - with the Shyok river flowing at the centre almost blends with the surrounding sand. Yes, actual sand like you can find in Rajasthan but that can come later. A steep set of hairpins take you to the valley quickly enough and from there on the roads are on relatively flat lands. 

Before going to our pitstop for the night, we took a detour to the Samstaling Gompa in the Sumur village of Nubra. After a quiet respite at the gompa, we were just climbing into the vehicle when our driver switched off the vehicle suddenly, jumped down and ran across the road to a monk and a small boy standing with him. As we looked on curiously, our driver bows down not to the monk but to the little boy who regards him with an intelligent eye and pats his head as though blessing him. It was the most unexpected thing to happen, so much that it didn’t strike us to get down and meet the little boy too. As our vehicle passed the boy, all we thought to do was to wave at him and we were rewarded with a wave in return! Then we learnt that this precocious individual was touted to be the next Lama of Ladhakh (Bakula) and has been anointed as a reincarnation of the Venerable Kushok Bakula Rinpoche - you can check it out at http://www.buddhachannel.tv/portail/spip.php?article1844. This land could not cease to amaze me!

Leaving this mystical monastery behind, we sped on towards our destination at Hundar - which was also the erstwhile capital of the Nubra region in the 17th Century. Enroute we also crossed the Diskit village and between Diskit and Hundar, our companions were rolling sand dunes which looked like they had been transported from western India! These dunes were - we were informed - home to a small tribe of Bactrian camels and their keepers who had stayed behind from the days when the Silk Road passed through this area. Unfortunately, we could not get a glimpse of them or get a ride, but walking on the sand dunes the next morning in itself was a fun experience. The long drive was coming to an end at the Nubra Organic Retreat at Hundar where a sweet smelling small camp hidden amongst thickets with charming gardens and tents awaited our inspection.

It is not without reason that Nubra is also called Ldumra (the valley of flowers) of this region. It was a treat to see little birds chirping, bees and insects busily flitting from plant to plant and going about their business in this small orchard. Walking around the camp we were delighted to find a host of vegetables, fruits, and nuts being grown here and used to serve the guests. They were pretty self sufficient even having a natural refrigerator to store food throughout their long winter. One of the keepers of the camp in conversation showed us a large mound that looked like a covered well which was about 2 feet off the ground but 6 feet below and once locked could keep food fresh and protected in the winter - all made with the earth! Also, in winter, no one stepped out of the house before 11-12 in the morning and would all be in by 5pm at the latest as it would grow cold and dark then!

We found potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, apples and many more calling this garden home not to mention flowers galore lining every path in the camp and a small rivulet running along the camp border which even had a delightful bridge to jump over. Our roaming around the camp ended in a quaint little pavilion sheltered beneath a large tree where we had tea and caught up with a little bit of holiday reading. One does wish such times never end! But soon it was dark and before we knew it, it was time for dinner in the 'big tent'. We were served food made with the in house produce and the dishes tasted the better for it! Hot food in a cold night after which the bed was a welcome end to a long day!

Interestingly, this is among the last outposts for tourists to visit before security tightens as the LoC is not very far off. In as sensitive a location as this, the beauty and the lay of the land can almost make one forget how hard fought the peace is for the people living here everyday! There was a village a little ways down the road where one could look into a Pakistani village from one of our own as it was located lower on the mountains opposite. And also, Nubra as a valley separates the Ladakh and Karakoram ranges of the Himalayas. Seeing as how this area was also part of the silk road, one notes that the Shyok river is also called the Siachan river and the Glacier itself was just about 80km from the Sumur village. If we had known earlier, we could have looked to gain permission to visit this important place and pay a little respect to the brave men defending our land everyday!

Breakfast on the morrow was followed by a visit to the Diskit monastery on the way back to Leh and a walk among the sand dunes of Nubra. It is important to the region especially as in the winter, other parts of Ladakh are very much inaccessible to people of this area with snowed in passes and roads. The army manages to fly in supplies for its own people over the winter but the local people do find it hard to find sustenance and manage only with careful planning and rationing of supplies.

The ride back was uneventful except for the impending end to the holiday which loomed ever closer and an unexpected guardian of the road from Kahrdung La to Leh - the Khardungla Frog (see right). Soon Leh was in sight again and all we had was an evening in Leh to do some shopping before saying goodbye to this magical land. All too soon the next day dawned for us to take the flight back to Delhi and the interesting part here was the extremely high security and crowd found in the airport. There was a large army regiment transferring and flying out around the same time as us civilians and tourists and it made for a super busy airport! Also, there is strict checking to ensure that even hand baggage is limited to the bare minimum excluding even video cameras for security precautions. After satisfying the security there, we finally boarded the plane back to reality and headed home, feeling rejuvenated, amazed at what Nature had to offer, proud to call this land my own, albeit a but sad to bit it an adieu. However, the silver lining is, it lets me dream of going back there someday for a serious trekking trip scaling some of the mountains and walking over some more of the vistas Ladakh has in store!

Some special mentions along the way:
Thanks to the Indian army for all their hardwork, sweat and blood which still keeps the peace albeit on a knife edge.
Kudos to the BRO (Border Road Organisation) and Project HIMANK for making and maintaining this road in an area where connecting even a few kilometres is like connecting new worlds together! And not the least for all the entertaining, thoughtful and witty captions along the roadside to make the roads safer :)! Check out 'Peep Peep Don’t Sleep' by Ajay Jain at http://peeppeepdontsleep.com/ for some of the pearls of wisdom found in the wilderness thanks to the BRO :D.
Last but not least: These posts about Ladakh are dedicated to the memory of a friend of my parents who was lost on the slopes of these majestic mountains in a landslide at Chang La some years back. May he rest in peace.

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