Sun, sand and snow – the deserts of Nubra Valley in Ladakh

What would you find in Leh that would remind you of Rajasthan?

Bet this would be a tough one, even if you are given the KBC style 4 options.

And the answer is…..

Sand dunes!

Yep. That’s right. Leh does have sand dunes.

While the north of the Khardungla pass is literally the home to snow, the temperature just south behaves far more reasonably, and rarely dives below zero.

“Khardungla?” you wonder. “Am I supposed to know that one?”

If you are a geography student, you’d flunk if you did not. Or maybe you’d lose a couple of lakhs if this were asked in KBC. Being neither, I claimed ignorance when it was first brought to my notice. And soon realized how ignorant I was of this region.

Khardungla, at 18380 feet, is the highest motorable pass in the world. Nestled among the highest peaks in the world, it is the only gateway to the district of Nubra.

Nubra was on our list for the survey for days, but snow always played spoilsport. To avoid problems crossing the pass, vehicular traffic flows one way a day, and the other way the next day. With the pass covered, we could not make our way to the valley. We needed a day when traffic moved down, and had we done a time line forecast, the past ten days offered no hope.

Finally, the stars peeked out of the sky last Wednesday, indicating that snow had finally stopped playing truant.

Once at Leh, you might think, that anyone would be accustomed to the rarefied air. One does learn to survive quite efficiently on a third of the usual oxygen level within a couple of days. But Leh is at a lowly 11500 feet. For Khardungla, we had to move up another 7000 feet in a couple of hours.

A one-sixth supply of oxygen to the lungs every breath is not the only problem. Due to incessant snow, vehicles have a tough time finding purchase on the roads. The vehicle preferred by experienced drivers is the Maruti Gypsy, as the driver can flick a gear and turn it to a four-wheel drive vehicle. So we had to set aside the comforts of the Sumo and squeeze into a Gypsy as we set out at 7:00 AM that morning.

We climbed steadily along the mountain roads, and within an hour, had risen to more that 16000 feet. So far no problem. Our first halt was at South Pullu.

The army mans the post at South Pullu. The locals are allowed free access, but anyone not of Jammu and Kashmir has to get a permit to get beyond. The formalities were taken care of and we were free to move ahead.

Seeing snow after many days, Sanjiv, Johnny and I freaked out on the white carpets. Tsewang urged us to move on, but our excitement saw us tarry a while longer. The result was that we now had an army truck in front regulating our pace.

Trucks have their wheels chained for better traction

Trucks do not have the benefit of a four wheel drive, so there is an ingenious jugad to drive on snow. Before hitting the road, the tires of the vehicle are bound in chains. Two chains are wound around the rim and held in place by strips of canvas, and chains are then tied between them, increasing the traction of the tires. As the truck moves along snow, the chains dig up clods of snow buried deep under and create a small hail of snow pebbles, a foot high, in the truck’s wake.

The next 9 km of road would get us 2000 feet higher. Progress was slow, and as another Gypsy joined us later, the convoy of three lurched along the snow road, tires struggling for grip on the terrain. A little while later, the truck ground to a halt; reason – a Scorpio in front was stuck in the snow. Tsewang and Padma bhai, our driver for the trip, got out to investigate. Wanting to stretch my feet, I too got out and stepped on the road…and almost fell flat. The moisture on the road had turned to ice, and my rubber soled shoes were as good as skates on that surface. To avoid doing an involuntary dance, I picked up patches of snow to step on. Snow can be as treacherous as ice. Though one does not slip on snow, it clings tenaciously to shoes and soon runs through them to wet the feet within. The only way to get rid of the snow powder on the shoes, one has to stamp hard on the ground. This activity itself meant that I had to stomp on ice, not an enticing option. I preferred to let the snow have its way and take time to look around.

At that height, White was a despot and mercilessly squelched the existence of any other

Snow on the roads

colour. All I could see was a little blue where the clouds allowed the sky a breather, and some brown ground where the ice had not yet taken siege. It was snowing lightly. In the morning light, it seemed as if it was raining crystal. Small crystals of ice within the snow reflected light, looking like tiny mirrors had been embedded in white.

The road we travelled

By this time, the Scorpio tires were also bound in chains, and the convoy set off. It kept getting a bit more difficult to breathe every minute. The lungs sucked in large amounts of air, but finding that most of it was of no use, duly dispatched them back into the air before taking another large gulp of air. I kept from getting sick by chewing gum. Within a few days of coming here, I realized that by keeping my jaws moving, I would not throw up, and would not fall asleep. Ever since, I have always traveled armed with pockets full of Centerfresh.

We crested a mound on the road, and as the truck rolled off ahead, I saw a board reading

At Khardungla

– Khardungla! The highest motorable pass in the world. 18380 feet.

When we got out the Gypsy, my eyes fell on a small monument. A closer inspection revealed that it was dedicated to the 18 army men who lost their lives making the road across the pass.

Further evidence of the hardships faced by the jawans were visible there. The jawans stayed in a small snow bunker shaped like half a cylinder laid out flat. We got in to have a drink of water. Inside were cramped three beds in addition to a bukhari and a small kitchenette. We got chatting to the jawan inside, and he told us that he had been there for three months (that’s the shift rotation) and it was his last day. He was moving on to Hunder, further down in Nubra. Some other jawans were to move on to Siachen glacier. The cold stint at Khardungla was more a preparatory stint for the arid glacier where they would then spend the next three months. One immediately feels a sense of respect and gratitude for these brave men, manning these inhospitable frontiers.

Shrine dedicated to all religions

Tsewang then pointed out a small building atop a mound beside the pass. A few steps revealed that the snow there was a foot deep, but that did not deter us from trying to get on top. Once on top, I pulled off my gloves to take a few snaps. That turned out to be a big blunder. Wanting to get Johnny with a snowball, I picked up some snow. But the snow packed very lightly, and it quickly melted in my hands. I tried climbing down, but had to support myself with my hands a couple of times. When I got down to the road, my hands had turned numb and I could not feel anything below my wrist. Panic seized me. Tales of frostbite flashed through my head, and I was scared I would lose my hands to the cold. I hunted for the first heat source I could find, and quickly placed my hands near the exhaust of an army truck. The ploy seemed to work fine, and blood and sensation started returning to my hands. But just then, the driver of the truck began revving the engine, and in addition to the heat, the exhaust also lent a considerable amount of soot to my hands.

By this time, the others had also gathered by the road, and seeing my hands, everyone had a good laugh. Tsewang quickly got me some warm water and soap from the jawans, and I muttered my thanks, feeling quite foolish at not having thought of that option initially.

But jokes apart, the hands are the worst hit in this weather. Constantly being exposed to weather, all moisture dries up on the hands, and the skin on the back of the palm quickly wrinkles. Any amount of moisturizer applied thereafter just eases the itch in sunlight, but the skin stays wrinkled and dry.

At Nubra Valley – Panamik

Nubra valley is even lower than Leh, and we had to descend to 10000 feet after cresting Khardungla. The drive down is more tiring, as the descent is faster, and the body does not adjust too quickly to the fluctuations in oxygen supply during the day. I slumbered off in some while.

When I awoke, the rest of the colours had hit back with vehemence and had overthrown White’s iron hold. Trees sported colourful blossoms, and the ground began decking itself with green. We halted briefly at Khardung village to finish our survey there before proceeding to the block headquarters – Diskit. Before reaching Diskit, we stopped at Khalsar, a village on he banks of the river Shyok. Shyok is fed entirely by melting snow, and since the sun had not worked its magic on snow so far, the river had folded itself into a tiny stream flowing within the river bed.

The air this side of the mountains is far warmer, and after the cold environs of Leh, even the 20 degree temperature felt hot on the skin. We quickly doffed our jackets and walked around in T-shirts – the first time since I arrived in Ladakh. After our survey work, we set up base camp at the Diskit PWD guest house.

During the survey, I have seen how incomplete the government records are. According to the district statistics, all villages in Ladakh are electrified. That they are, sure, but most of them receive power only for a few hours in the evening. Diskit has power supplied by a diesel genset supplied by the army but only between 7:00 PM and 11:00 PM at night. The villages further ahead receive even less, and many of them have supply on alternate days, or alternate weeks. Given the climatic constraints, even procuring supplies and gas cylinders is a problem for many villages.

We surveyed Disket and then a couple of villages near it the next day. By this time, my enthusiasm for conducting further surveys was fast dampening, and I just pulled on as we had just a few more surveys to conduct before we got our required sample. The endless cups of tea that we were offered and the many that we had to accept made things no easier. By the final day, I was sick of tea.

The last village we were to survey was Kobed. We got across a rickety bridge to get there (I love walking on them now) and Padma and I found a councilor’s house for conducting our survey. We were invited in into their kitchen and and the usual hospitalities were followed.

“Chai?” said the hostess.

“Chung,” replied I, preferring that local brew over another bout of tannin.

The smiles broadened, and glasses were soon brought out.

Since chung is brewed in every house, the taste varies slightly. Compared to the chung I had earlier, this one had a sharper taste. Tsewang later explained how they made chung – wheat was dried, powdered and then ground and mixed with the seed of a local herb which has mild alcoholic properties. This is then used as a chungmix.

I drained a glass and set it down.

The host immediately filled it up with a kettle.

Now I’m a moderate drinker. And specially so if I have to soon cross a 200 m long three foot wide rickety bridge.

I glanced at Padma and his glass. He was already on his second glass, and the host was poised with his kettle to refill his glass again.

I took a small sip and set the glass down.

My glass was topped up immediately.

I took the best excuse I could manage. I fished out my survey form and began, “Aapka naam?

Thoda chung aur lijiye,” was the reply.

I but on my most sincere expression. “Survey ke baad!

The next 10 min went by in my studiously filling in the survey form, interrupted by interjections of “abhi chung lenge?

I wrapped up the questionnaire, gulped down the chung in the glass and rushed out after a couple of hurried julleys.

Hardly had Padma and I reached the gate, when Tsewang walked in to be offered a glass of chung.

We had to turn back, and to my horror, I saw a full glass being brought to me. This time, after draining the glass, I walked up to their wash sink and placed the glass inside.

The bridge seemed unusually rickety on the way back.

The soporific effects of chung had worn off by the evening, and by the time we were back at the Panamik guest house where we were to spend the night, I was looking forward to visit the hot water springs across the road.

The Panamik guest is constructed such that the hot water spring flows under the building, keeping the room warm. For the first time since we hit Ladakh, I was able to sleep without a heavy quilt over me. The PWD has routed the hot water springs through a couple of pipes across the road. Before hitting the bed, we each had a long stint under the tap, allowing the hot water to wash away the day’s grime. Soaking in the water, I let me thoughts rush over the past two days.

The day before, we had stopped by at the Shayok river bed for lunch. As the snow was still fresh on the mountains, the river bed sported huge sand dunes, lined with the cactus-like shrubs that grow here. The water in the stream was cool to walk in, and we enjoyed cavorting on the sands and washing up in the river.

As if to better the experience, Tsewang drove us to the banks of the Siachen river near Panamik the next day. He stopped the Gypsy en-route to the river and asked us to have a look at what was behind some hills there before walking down to the river later. The walk was well worth it. Nestled among the hills was a large pool of clear water, formed by melted snow. The hills formed a fortress around the pool, keeping it undisturbed from the rest of the world.

Sand, water, snow, pools to be discovered, streams to frolic in,hot springs to bathe in – Ladakh is the place for a perfect holiday. And oh yes, some chung does make it better

In 2006, I spent the months from March to May in Ladakh. Six of us from SPJIMR had chosen to do our summer project there, working on understanding and forecasting energy demand and supply for the region. It was an incredible experience. As part of the project, we travelled across Ladakh for primary surveys. The posts below were written during the visit.

I couldn’t, however, get Ladakh out of my mind. I visited Ladakh again in 2009 with friends to enjoy the now-discontinued Confluence music festival. The post on the second visit:

Read all my travel posts here.


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