Nubra Valley: Shadowing The Shyok :
Where on earth can you find spectacularly beautiful mountains, sweeping blue-green valleys, crystal-clear rivers, gurgling springs, a salt desert, sand dunes, even camels – all in one place? Throw into that impossibly beautiful mix, a tribe believed to have descended either from the followers of Jesus or the ‘pure' Aryan race and you come up with just one name on the planet – The Nubra Valley in Northern Ladakh.
The Route : The Shyok circuit in the Nubra Valley travels north-west from confluence of the Shyok and Nubra Rivers. The three places we will be visiting are Diskit, Hunder and Turtuk.
After your exciting journey across the Khardung La Pass, you’re likely looking to plant your feet on terra firma. Accommodation is available in Diskit, the administrative headquarters of the Nubra Valley and 118 km from Leh.
Diskit is nothing more than an overgrown village, charming but definitely nothing more than your base for the next few days. But the 14th century, Diskit Monastery with its signature appearance, perched on a rocky spur above the flood plains of the Shyok River. From a distance, the monastery looks like a series of white matchboxes placed on the edge of a hill. Venture closer and its expanse becomes visible, not to mention the many lanes and pathways leading to its different quarters and halls, some of which are decorated with impressive murals and frescos. It’s worth the walk because, from the back of the monastery, the scenic views of the Shyok Valley are nothing short of stunning. Nearby, there’s a 32-mt-high statue of Maitreya Buddha looking down on the valley, which is a good photo-op.
Tip: You can explore the Diskit Monastery in the evening on the day you arrive from Leh. There is a variety of accommodation to suit your needs and budget.
Just 10 km from Diskit is a beautiful and remote place forgotten by time. A piece of an ancient jigsaw that broke up a long time ago, Hunder is noted for its white sand dunes and double-humped camels, also called Bactrian camels, found nowhere else in India.
These shaggy, rather odd-looking camels, that once drew caravans between Central Asia and India on the Silk Route, originally came from a region that now lies between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. After the caravan trade broke up, these camels remained in Hunder, trapped in this cold, rather small sandy desert, with nowhere to go. Now out of work, they please their masters by offering tourists rides in the dunes, at a price. If you do take a ride on a Bactrian camel in the dunes of
Hunder, remember, you’re privy to a critically-endangered species.
But let the term ‘desert’ not fool you. The sand dunes here are merely coincidental. Unlike its sandy counterpart, Ladakh’s cold desert is a barren but stunningly-beautiful rocky expanse. And here, at Hunder, it’s bursting with life. On the periphery of the dunes, dunes, an abundance of trees and sea-bukthorn bushes laden with the ‘Leh Berry’ paint a contrasting picture. A short distance beyond the town orchards of apple and apricot and fields of barley complete the tapestry. It’s also very quiet, the silence broken only by the twittering of birds or a rabbit scurrying away in the underbrush. The homes of the villagers are simple, scattered and only partially visible among the trees, giving the impression of an almost abandoned village. Far from it. Hunder is a perfect example
of human life adapting to the landscape rather than warping it to suit one’s needs. Tip: You can spend a night in the sand dunes under the stars at a desert safari camp or in simple home stays in the village.
Turtuk is 80 km from Hunder and the road is, thankfully, in good shape. As you drive north-west, the Shyok River is a constant companion, its turquoise blue water gleaming in the sunlight as if happy for the company. You’re headed for the very tip of India, just 7 km from its border with Pakistan, and as you descend, the landscape changes dramatically, from a muscular and boulder-strewn canvas to one that has swathes of emerald green.
Turtuk lies in the Baltistan region which straddles both Pakistan and India. The village was itself a part of Pakistan till 1971, when along with a handful of others, it was included on the Indian side of the border. You are now in a region that is close not only to Pakistan but, across the Indian border, also lies Afghanistan and, just beyond, Tajikistan – all Islamic countries. Consequently, the villages en route to Turtuk are now Islamic, markedly different from the native Buddhists who populate the rest of Ladakh. Many of the men, women and children have light eyes, dark brown hair and their features are distinctly Central Asian. Since the village was opened to tourists only in 2010, the locals are relatively untainted by modern civilisation. How’s that for a ‘wow’ factor?
Since Turtuk is situated at a relatively lower altitude and enjoys an abundance of water thanks to the generous Shyok, you are welcomed by lush green pastures and fields of wheat and barley spreading like a billowing skirt all around. Why, the villagers will proudly tell you they enjoy two crops of wheat every season.
But the mascot and pride of this little village is the apricot, and they are everywhere – in trees, drying on rooftops, heaped in the corners of their rought-and-ready courtyards, bundled into sacks and generously offered to you wherever you go! They grow seven varieties and are ‘the best in the country’. Taste them and you’re tempted to believe that this is no tall claim.
If you’re lucky, you will meet Yagbo Mohammad Khan, a ‘descendant’ of the King of Western Turkmenistan, who once ruled Baltistan. He lives in a 300-year-old wooden ‘palace’ and will escort you around his museum, where he has preserved family heirlooms and artefacts. He will tell you of the Yagbo Dynasty, regale you with the history of his village and trace his illustrious lineage over a cup of tea.
In Ladakh, the land of endless discovery, it doesn’t get more exotic than this.