We had left Leh behind us now. The road traversed towards the Khardung-La. We were proceeding to the Nubra valley which is about 100 kms away from the Siachen glacier. This trip necessitated a night’s stay at Nubra. One reason for this is that it’s a long drive away from Leh and second, cars which cross the Khardung-La cannot return to the pass on the same day. The ongoing road work demands that traffic moves one way in the first half of the day and the other way in the second half.
The beacon like presence of the Shanti Stupa was the only way we could tell where Leh was. This radiant white Stupa disappeared from view only after we reached the Pass. Someone with a lot of imagination has painted a green yellow frog on a huge rock of frog-like proportions. Tourist riding to the Pass can see it on the road side.
It took us a good 2 hours to reach the height of 18,000 ft. The road snaked from one mountain to another, but we never lost sight of the ice laden peak we wanted to reach. But for these signs though, it is easy enough to forget the human sweat that goes into the domestication of this overpowering landscape. And suddenly we were there!
At Khardung-La, the highest motorable road in the world, where travelers dare not linger because of the lack of oxygen and the cold that gets to your heart, we saw small brown men, their snub-noses barely peeping out from their parkas. They were laborers working on maintaining the pass. The majority of them, I think, are brought here by contractors on year-long stints.
The army has a small canteen serving piping hot beverages and biscuits. Of late, they have also started a souvenir shop which sells the usual mugs, pens and tees. Till some time ago, such a venture was unthinkable, but I am glad the set up shop when they did. Yet trust the government machinery to leave its mark. They don’t sell the souvenir mugs singly, you HAVE to buy half a dozen mugs, or none at all. Now what, I wondered, and began making a list of people I could pass some mugs to. As I pondered a possible way out, I saw that an east European couple was stuck in the same predicament. We hit upon an idea and decided to buy 3 mugs each. Just goes to prove that when there is intent language is no barrier. 😛
And so it went. One hour overlapping the next, one mile extending into another. The better part of the journey lay in front of us now. It would lead us through Khalsar and Diskit villages to Hunder. The road sloped steadily towards the valley that opened up before us. A number of small blue ponds appeared on the landscape and we could make out tiny black & white dots high up the mountains. Those would be yaks and pashmina sheep grazing in the vale.
At Khalsar, we stopped for lunch while Mohammed went to fill up the car’s tank. As we were settling at the table, a gaggle of girls came in. They were from the USA, as was apparent by their accent. They spent a long time studying the menu, and ended up ordering flavored sodas for themselves.
Soon the gorge gave way to a flat stretch of road with another enormous valley unraveling itself like a plot from a Hitchcock novel. Perched high above on the ridge it was a mesmerizing view of the Shyok River beneath. We followed the turbulent and muddy Shyok as we climbed down into the valley. As it grew wider, so did the valley. We soon came to a bifurcation – the right fork leading to the villages of Sumur, Tegar and Panamic and onwards to the Siachen glacier; the left fork going to Diskit and Hunder.
We took the left fork. A really straight road leads to the ghat which goes on to Diskit. Saser glaciers, Turtuk and the mighty Siachen were now hidden behind the mountains to the north. We moved in deeper towards the end of the pasture, past farms hidden from sight by tall thorny shrubs. We crossed all mountains there were to cross. Suddenly, the path opened and an amazing sight unfolded! Dunes of white sands greeted our eyes.
Further up the road as we drove towards the Hunder, we encountered a rolling meadow with a stream running through it! Horses and cows grazed peacefully. Here nature danced to the tune of chirping birds, trees swayed in the breeze echoing a haunting whisper across the meadow. Rocks whispered magic words that made the stream gurgle with laughter. We turned to other mortal necessities like finding a hotel for the night.
We found a guest house away from the sand dunes at Hunder. It was a very pretty place and we had a room with a view. By about 4.00 in the noon we were all settled and ready to leave for the sand dunes. This area is famous for the double humped Bactrian camels. These ships of the desert served in caravans taking the Silk Route to Tibet. Since the Route is no longer operational they have been tamed. It has not been easy, and to prove that we saw a sole wild camel rushing about in the wild growth. Sometimes he followed us and other times resisted any attempts to get near him. Oh but they are such furry creatures! I always wanted a puppy, but I’ll settle for a baby Bactrian camel, I think.
Father, on the other had, furiously killed all attempts to get him to ride a camel. For Mother, it was one of her must dos in life. So while Father captured us in print, we braved a camel ride. I had a shaky start with my camel unhappy at being hitched, did a little jig with me on its back. I briefly got the distinct feeling of being hung and left to bob up and down an elastic rope.
My furry ship had loads of attitude. He pushed Ma’s camel away every time the fellow came any nearer. This was a complicated task considering they had been tied together at the saddle. The camel-wallah had cunningly abandoned us to fetch a third camel from the starting point. So our little circus sauntered along, Ma trying to save her feet from the furry mêlée and at the same time shouting for the camel guy to catch up fast and discipline my camel. I was in splits and tried to tell her to simply kick my camel you-know-where, so that they would stay apart. But you just don’t do such things with Ma and get away with it. I got a tirade on how-my-camel-ride–is turning-into-a nightmare. Meanwhile, the camel guy caught up and separated our camels for good. Now the lone wild one put in an appearance and the camel guy was away in flash chasing him. Another outburst from Ma followed. Father, composed as ever, was calmly walking behind us taking snaps. “Well, I consoled her, he did not run away or anything with you on it. And you are still in one piece.”
The eventful ride later we hung around the dunes. I sat and watched the sun setting gradually over the distant peaks, casting long shadows in the valley while removing some from my mind. I managed to capture a beautiful frame of huge mountains looming in the background of a cows returning home for the day.
Back the guest house, the manager-cum-waiter-cum server-cum cook made us nice hot tea which we enjoyed under the twilight.
For dinner we had ordered some Chinese fare and I wolfed it down. I tasted so good. By 9.00 I was all ready to sleep. We would start our journey back to Leh the next morning along the same route and cross the Khardung La for the last time.
Road to Khardung La
View from Khardung La
Shadow Play in the valley
The mighty Shyok
Sand Dunes at Hunder
The Furry one
A Room with a view
The last shot