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Nubra river

Nubra river

Nubra Valley : Following The Nubra : In Ladakh, it’s easy to run out of superlatives. You see, ‘beautiful’ is nowhere near adequate to describe the vistas here. The only way to know what it looks and feels like is to actually be there to experience its austere beauty, marked by barren mountain slopes, patches of green that cradle villages, deep gorges matched by towering, snowy peaks, quietly flowing rivers of the finest blue, dry and braided riverbeds, and two large rivers that meet in this magical place called the Nubra Valley.

We will trace the Nubra circuit, where the places to explore are Sumur, Kygar, Panamik and the remote and ancient Ensa Gompa. Expect pretty villages, abandoned medieval settlements, a hidden lake, hot springs and a remote and ancient monastery. As for the vistas you encounter on the way, well, we said we had run out of superlatives!

The Route : Travel north-west along the valley and you’re shadowing the Shyok River; drive north-east along the valley and you’re following the Nubra River, along the ancient Silk Route. After descending from the Khardung La Pass, you arrive at the confluence of the Shyok and Nubra rivers. To get to Sumur, cross a bridge, and behold the dramatic gorge that runs north along the Nubra River. It’s an arresting sight and you might want to pause before you continue to the largest village on this side of the Nubra River.

Sumur : Sumur is your base for the rest of this circuit. It’s a picturesque village, ablaze with bright yellow mustard fields punctuated by vast stretches of grass and vegetable farms. This picture, bursting with spring, is abruptly edged by sand dunes that mysteriously appear on the western border of the village bordered by the Nubra River.

Some historians believe the name Sumur is derived from ‘Sum-yur’, meaning ‘three irrigation channels’, an assumption borne out by the three sources of water that feed the village. According to the other theory, the name is derived from ‘Sum Yul,’ which means ‘three settlements’. It is believed that the villagers here occupied two other places in the valley before they finally set up home and hearth at the present site. Ruins of old settlements in the upper valley bear credence to this theory. As you ponder both theories, stroll along Sumur’s quaint village roads and paths, and don’t worry about getting lost. The warmth and friendliness of the locals will point the way home!

The star attraction at Sumur is the Samstaling Gompa. Located on an incline above the village, the monastery can be reached in one of two ways. Choose the boring route and drive 2 km along an asphalt road from neighbouring Kygar village or choose the high road to heaven and walk uphill along a crystal-clear stream to reach the shrine.

The monastery looks fresh and recently renovated, its wide, terraced steps inviting visitors into a verandah outside the prayer hall. The renovation clearly stopped at the door to the prayer hall, whose antiquity is obvious. Adorning the walls are ageing murals, silk paintings and idols everywhere.

Samstaling Gompa offers some of the most amazing panoramas you will see on your trip upriver. Make it to the top of the hill and you’re rewarded with a view of the entire central part of the Nubra Valley. Not only is the scale of your canvas breathtaking, the contrast between the towering snow-capped mountains of the Ladakh and Karakoram ranges against the green basin of the Shayok and Nubra rivers is unbelievably beautiful. The area around the monastery is lush and peppered with apple, apricot, poplar, willow and juniper trees. The Sumur stream nearby completes this gorgeous picture.
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Kygar : Not far from Sumur is the village of Kygar, also known as Tegar, or Tiger by the Indian Army. Kygar has a rich historical and cultural past, from the archaeological standpoint, as the village sits atop three earlier settlements. The Nubra Valley was once ruled by medieval chieftains when the valley formed part of the historic Silk Route that travelled from Central Asia and China across parts of India and onward to Pakiatsn.

The main attraction in Kygar is the ancient Zamskhang Palace, once the residence of the kings of Nubra. Obviously majestic in its heyday, the three-storey wooden palace is now in ruins and, apart from a temple inside that is maintained by the village priest, it is clearly abandoned. The palace, located uphill from the village, is surrounded by tiny stupas filled with thousands of clay tablets left here by pilgrims who traversed the Silk Road back in time. If you’re interested either in archaeology or ancient religions, you could visit another medieval gompa a few kilometres north at Pinchimik.
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Terisha Tso, The Hidden Lake : Drive further up the valley from Kygar and, gift-wrapped, is a treasure waiting for you to uncover. It’s called Terisha Tso (‘Tso’ means ‘lake’ in local parlance), a hidden lake. Literally tucked between serrated rocky ridges, it’s a great place to open a picnic basket. There’s a tiny shrine here too. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous!

Panamik : Close to this gem is the town of Pamanik, the last major village where caravans halted before they negotiated the Saseer and Karakoram passes onwards towards Central Asia. Panamik’s hot springs then served many purposes are a bit of a disappointment today. Far from pristine, steaming water with healing powers rising from virgin soil, the hot springs at Pamanik are a large pool with changing rooms! But don’t feel dejected. This is not really your destination (it’s the last post for foreign tourists, though). The Ensa Gompa at journey’s end is worth the trip to the northern-most tip of this circuit.

Ensa Gompa : If you want to experience the true meaning of the middle of nowhere, here’s where you should go. Ensa Gompa is located close to Panamik. The access road is in good shape and its hairpin bends are as exciting as they come. At Hagram, cross a bridge where the Nubra River narrows – more thrills! The old monastery is situated on the top of a tall hill. Even though it is being repaired, its small prayer hall is untouched. It’s dark inside but squint andyou will notice ancient paintings on its walls. There is a lone monk who oversees the gompa and he will be happy to let you in.

Outside, look around carefully and you will spot two fragile trails connecting the monastery to the valley road far below. Then the penny drops. Asphalt roads and four-wheel drives are meant only for modern pilgrims; God’s chosen ones shun the easy route to the promised land.