To the north-east of Leh lies the Nubra Valley, beyond the formidable Khardung La pass. This was the ancient trade route that linked the North Indian plains with the Central Asian cities of Yarkand and Khotan, a trade route which existed until 1949, when the Chinese firmly closed the border. More’s the pity, as the people of Nubra, once proud and independent traders, are now dependant on handouts from the Indian Army, and on tourism.

Nubra is reached by a road traverse from Leh across the Khardung La on the Ladakh Range. The Khardung La road leads north from the Leh City Gate, up past Castle Tsemo. As you climb up the Ladakh Range, the views of Leh and the Indus beyond get ever more stunning. The 39-km stretch from Leh to the pass via South Pullu is slow and rather bumpy going, with snowmelt carving daily patterns into the road. You are approaching the highest point you can be at in a vehicle on this planet. Even at these great heights, the occasional yak will appear, impossibly sure- footed on these steep mountain flanks. You’ll also pass quite a few motorcycles and even cyclists earning bragging rights for conquering the world’s highest motorable pass. Once at Khardung La, do brave the roaring wind and stop a few minutes to take in the unique view this pass alone affords. Look south towards Leh and the Zanskar Range beyond Stok Kangri, and beyond even these, the massive Great Himalayan peaks. Turn around 180 degrees and look north — and you’ll be greeted by the Great Karakoram. Few comparable vistas could be so easily reached, in the comfort of a 4wD vehicle. As you descend, the landscape on the Nubra side of the pass is stunning: mountains sweep down from all sides, forming a grand amphitheatre of shattered rock. Snow and ice sheath the north faces, and the uncovered slopes are stained pastel pink, mauve and pistachio green.

Sankar Sridhar
Diskit overlooks the confluence of the Shayok River and its tributary, the Nubra
Diskit overlooks the confluence of the Shayok River and its tributary, the Nubra

Then begins the winding 32 km descent to Khardung Village. North Pullu, not far below the pass, is the point where you get onto the south-eastern edge of the vast Tibetan Plateau, according to geographers. As you get lower and closer to the village, you’ll see vast herds of yak feed on the grassy lower northern slopes of the Ladakh Range. Welcome to the Nubra Valley! The Nubra Valley is actually a generalisation for two valleys: the valley branching to the north-west through which runs the Shayok River, and the main valley to the north, through which flows the Shyok’s tributary, the Nubra. The road running parallel to the Nubra River ends up at the Siachen base camp, a resting point before leading to the highest battleground in the world, the Siachen Glacier, where Indian and Pakistani troops have faced each other eyeball to eyeball since 1984. 

T. Narayan
Karakoram range seen from northern slopes below Khardung La
Karakoram range seen from northern slopes below Khardung La

After a 20- km descent from Khardung Village, you are beside the Shyok River. A side road here crosses the river, heading south-east to Shyok Village. You must continue straight, 2 km upriver to Khalsar, with its line of dhabas. Ahead of Khalsar, the road leads down into the smooth, flat bed of the Shyok. A short way along the riverbed, the road forks. The straight road goes up past the Shayok-Nubra confluence through the Nubra Valley towards Tegar and Panamik. The sharp left turn heads north-east to Diskit and Hundar, continuing through the Shyok Valley till the last visitable village, Turtuk. Our coverage first follows the Nubra River, and then the Shayok.

NUBRA VALLEY

The Nubra River runs through desert, but set like jewels on a necklace are the little oases of Tirit, Sumur, Tegar and Panamik. ‘Nubra’ means ‘green’, named for these fertile, well-cultivated oases. The valley is also said to have the best climate in the otherwise arid and stark region of Ladakh. First up along the Nubra Road is tiny Tirit village, where Leh’s Hotel Shambhala has a tented camp, an excellent base for treks in the Nubra Valley. Ahead of Tirit is Lugzhun village, where you can pause to take in the confluence of the Nubra and Shayok.

Sumur and Tegar

A shortway upriver from Lugzhun are Sumur and Tegar, both of which offer many options for stay. First up is Sumur, whose crowning glory is the Samstanling Gompa, dating to the 1840s when it was raised by Lama Tsultin Nyima. Samstanling is one of the oldest monasteries in the valley, housing about a hundred monks, presided over by a Rinpoche who is the present incarnation of Tsultin Nyima. Samstanling has two du-khangs, both filled with marvellous statues and murals. A walking path leads from Samstanling down to Tegar.

Entry Free, donations welcome Timings 8 am-6 pm, lunch noon-1 pm

Ahtushi
The formidable Khardung La
The formidable Khardung La

Traditionally called Kyaghar or Tegar, now called ‘Tiger village’ by the imaginative Indian Army, this quiet village of some 120 houses, close to the banks of the Nubra, is becoming a tourism hotspot. Do not miss a visit to the Zimkhang Gongma, the old palace of Tegar’s erstwhile chieftains, now in ruins. The traditional royal kitchen within is preserved as a museum. It’s a marvellous space, in which you can easily imagine the household being drawn to the warmth of the fires, gossiping for long hours, amidst beautiful pots, pans and stoves. Near the Zimkhang is the Tegar Maney Khang, a white village shrine shaded by poplars, adding even more charm to the cows returning home and the children fetching water from the handpumps.

The small Yarub Tso lake, set in the middle of a rocky outcrop is reached by a short trek from Sumur across a dry, sandy riverbed. A legend goes that if one is pure of heart, you will see an image of Guru Rinpoche in the lake. Even if your heart isn’t, you can always take in the snow peaks reflected beautifully in the beautiful waters, the sky-blue dragon-flies and pied magpies that abound here.

Panamik

A quick hour’s drive north from Tegar, Panamik village has some interesting hot water springs but despite attempts at cleanliness, you may not want to dip into the pools. Panamik’s biggest lure is that it is the last visitable spot on the road to Siachen. From Panamik, the road continues up the entire length of the Nubra, ending where the river emerges from the Karakoram glaciers that feed it, including the Siachen Glacier. Even further north-east is Aksai Chin and the famous and difficult Karakoram Pass. To reach Yarkand, in what is today China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, one must traverse it. But beyond Panamik, the road is firmly closed to all but military vehicles.

Entry to hot springs ₹20 Timings Changeable, but roughly 8 am-6 pm

Parth Sanyal
Diskit’s sprawling Gyaldan Tashi Chulling Gompa
Diskit’s sprawling Gyaldan Tashi Chulling Gompa

SHYOK VALLEY

Retrace back to the Shyok riverbed ahead of Khalsar, and take the road forking west to visit the villages along the Shayok Valley, famous for its double-humped Bactrian camels lolling amidst wild seabuckthorn bushes in desert sand dunes. The Shyok Valley has three villages you can visit and stay in, the last being the Balti village of Turtuk.

Diskit

The first and largest village of this valley is Diskit, which overlooks the Shyok- Nubra confluence from the southern side. Diskit’s Gyaldan Tashi Chulling Gompa, sprawling high up a hill, is its crowning glory. It’s not accidental that it resembles a fort — it commands the confluence of the rivers and the old trade route, and to date offers stunning views of the valley. Being the largest gompa just across the Karakoram, Tashi Chulling was plundered during the Mongol invasion of Ladakh. The 15th-century gompa itself hosts about 70 monks, and has an interesting gon-khang (the shrine of the fierce guardian deities), apart from two prayer assembly halls. The gompa is built on many levels, connected by wooden staircases, and houses several du-khangs. In one of the older du-khangs on the higher level is a large statue of Maha-kal killing a Mongol warrior. An immense landmark statue of a golden seated Maitreya Buddha, 106 ft high, which took six years to make and was finished in 2010, is a star attraction here. The 2- day Diskit Gustor in October-November (October 21-22 in 2014) sees masked dance performances, with several monks arriving from Thiksey Gompa near Leh, as the head lama of Thiksey Gompa oversees Diskit Gompa.

Diskit Gompa entry ₹30 Timings Sunrise to sunset

Parth Sanyal
106 ft high Maitreya Buddha, near Diskit
106 ft high Maitreya Buddha, near Diskit

Hunder

Diskit itself is an administrative centre and not that attractive a place for the tourist. However, up the valley 7 km ahead of Diskit, Hunder village is a haven of serenity, satisfying dreams of a true getaway. Its low white houses, empty paths, running water channels, luminous green fields, and sand dunes created by the Shyok close by, all add up to a stay that slowly gains a hypnotic quality. Here the flavour is decidedly Central Asian, with white sand dunes that sprawl across the approach to the village, a startling portent of the desert expanses of Central Asia further north. The quartz dunes aren’t high but come as a total surprise. The winds coming off the mountains have sculpted large furrows into the dunes. The Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin, who travelled across Ladakh to Tibet in the first decade of the 20th century was struck by these dunes and mentions them in his account of the journey. It’s a truly stunning landscape, and the odd Bactrian camel wandering across the dunes completes the image. Hundar is Ladakh’s only place that hosts these double-humped, long-lashed, beautiful Bactrian camels, descendants of those once used on the old Central Asian trade routes. A trip to the sand dunes for a ride on the camels is pretty much de rigueur here. You can walk amidst the gentle beasts if you’d rather not ride, and sample for yourself the tart, bright orange seabuckthorn berries that thrive in these desert sands, and find their way into everything from juice to cosmetics.

Sand dunes entry ₹20 Bactrian camel rides ₹150 for 15 mins Timings 9 am to sunset

Hunder also hides a barely visited shrine of monumental importance. The Zumskhang Gompa, gracing a grove of willows, is an old two-storeyed building, once belonging to the chieftain of Hunder. If you climb a rickety ladder to the elevated ground floor, you will find two large rooms with finely painted frescoes which recall those of Alchi. Up on the second floor is a room full of treasures, only unlocked on pleading with the lama in charge. Within are at least two dozen statues of varying sizes. In the main chapel is a carved and painted wooden Avalokiteshwara, at least 7ft tall. There are equally beautiful painted sculptures of Manjusri, Vairochana, Padmasambhava, Tara, Vajrasattva and others. Yet nobody seems to know the history of this treasure trove. Hunder’s Chamba Gompa is dedicated to Maitreya, and from outside appears a simple two-storey village shrine. But it holds astonishingly rich murals in the du-khang. A thousand Buddhas are painted on one wall, and on another, a massive mural of Tibet’s Tashilhunpo monastery. The gompa also houses a statue of the 1,000-armed- Avalokiteshwara. The main statue of Maitreya is two storeys high.

Parth Sanyal
Bactrian camels, once stalwarts of the caravan route, on the sand dunes at Hundar
Bactrian camels, once stalwarts of the caravan route, on the sand dunes at Hundar

Turtuk

The last visitable village in the Shyok Valley, 79 km upriver from Hunder, Turtuk is one of the youngest regions in India’s history. A Pakistani village, it fell into India’s lap during the 1971 Bangladesh war. On the night of December 13, 1971, the people of this village went to sleep in Pakistan. The next morning, they woke up in India. This remote northwest corner of Ladakh until that night was part of Baltistan in PoK. During the 1971 war, while all the attention was focused on the Bangladesh front, Major Chewang Rinchen of the Ladakh Scouts captured four out of the 14 villages in Baltistan before the ceasefire was declared on December 17.

Opened to tourists only a few years ago, this beautiful riverside village remains culturally a part of Baltistan. Visiting Turtuk is like finding a hidden Shangri-La, for there’s an end-of-the-world feel about the landscape as you approach Turtuk. The chortens and prayer flags of Ladakh have disappeared. The forbidding, jagged peaks of the Karakoram seem to close in from all sides as the valley narrows. Then, suddenly, we enter a green oasis — local landowners Attaullah and Rehmatullah Khan’s tented camp set in an orchard, surrounded by wildflowers and fields of barley. High on a crag are the crumbling ruins of an old fort. The placid Shayok has transformed into a roaring, jade-green torrent as it rushes to converge with the mighty Indus in PoK. There isn’t another car on the road. The LoC is just 12 km away.

The twin villages of Turtuk-Youl and Turtuk-Pharol are perched on a ridge high above the orchard. Rehmatullah takes us there to meet his family, and to “experience pure Baltistani culture”. You could happily spend two nights in Turtuk doing just that. The villages have an entirely Muslim population that speaks Balti as well as Ladakhi. You find elders with old-time stories of walking to Leh in eight days, crossing the Khardung La with their mules, carrying apricots to trade for clothes and shoes. The Turtukians, fair, pink-cheeked, with aquiline features, “are Aryans with a touch of Mongol,” explains Rehmatullah. The stark lines of the stone-and-wood village houses are softened by the mulberry, walnut and apricot trees that surround them. Both villages have beautiful old wooden mosques, with the one in Turtuk-Youl dating to the 17th century.

Ahtushi
At Sumur’s Samstanling monastery
At Sumur’s Samstanling monastery

You can shop at the village blacksmith’s for beautiful brass ladles and bracelets inlaid with red and green enamel. You must visit the wooden palace of the hospitable Khan of Turtuk, Mohammad Khan Kacho of the Yabgo dynasty of Chhorbat Khapulu. He traces his genealogy back to 1000 CE, when Turtuk was an important stop on the Silk Road. The erstwhile local ruler has preserved his home’s traditional architecture, and has put together an informal museum of royal clothes and objects of this area. And you should certainly taste the delicious Balti cuisine — breads made of buckwheat and walnut, roasted barley porridge, sundried tomato chutney, yogurt flavoured with local herbs, and an abundance of apricot and mulberry.

For those who want to explore further, Attaullah offers trekking routes, of varying intensity and duration, that take you beyond the crumbling ruins of Turtuk’s old Pun Khar fort, across high pastures, deep into the Karakorams. The Thesu Nala in the vicinity can be explored for hours. A couple of beautiful lakes are only short walks away.

WHERE TO STAY

Both Nubra and Shyok valleys boast a number of good camps. Tourists can also stay with families in guest houses set up under a state government-sponsored incentive scheme. The tariff ranges from ₹800-1,000. They can be booked through your Leh operator, or just land up. They often have rooms available.

TIP Most camps and guest houses operate only in summer (May to Oct). Some guest houses open in April

NUBRA VALLEY

In Tirit

Leh’s fanciest hotel, Hotel Shambhala, has a tented camp (Delhi Tel: 011-26867785, Mob: 09810035145; Tariff: ₹4,000-7,100) in Tirit. Namstot Tonpo is another small, 4-room guest house here.

Sankar Sridhar
The Balti village of Turtuk, near the LoC
The Balti village of Turtuk, near the LoC

In Sumur

Sumur has some of the best camps in Nubra and a few guest houses. Mystique Meadows Swiss Cottage Camp ( Mobile: 09596814282, 09622957112, 094692 90324; Tariff: ₹3,900, with meals), in the heart of the village, offers 18 Swiss cottages and 5 Mongolian Yurt tents with attached baths. The camp serves multi-cuisine organic meals and arranges cultural shows on request. Behind the Samstanling monastery lies Dreamland Treks and Tours’ Dream Camps (Leh Tel: 01982-257784; Tariff: ₹3,500, with all meals) with 6 deluxe tents with attached bath. They arrange sightseeing and camel safaris. Valley Flower Camp (Tel: 01980-200299, Mobile: 09858060655; Tariff: ₹3,870-4,667, with meals) has 17 luxury tents and serves Indian, Continental, Chinese and Gujarati cuisine in its spacious dining tent. It has concrete attached bathrooms. Silk Route Cottages (Leh Tel: 01982-253439, Mobile: 094196 70499; Tariff: ₹3,200-4,800, with meals) has 29 bamboo cottages with attached bath and good food. Lharji Resorts (Delhi Tel: 011-40580334-35; Tariff: ₹4,000-4,400, with meals) has 15 deluxe cottages with attached baths.

Among the guest houses, A O (Tel: 01980-220050; Tariff: ₹300-600) has 4 double rooms, K-Sar 4 rooms and Namgail Lhamachan 8 doubles.

In Tegar

Tegar village has the excellent Rimo Hotel (Tel: 01980-200125, Mobile: 09469214903, 09419864417, 094192 18202; Tariff: ₹4,800). Hotel Yarab Tso (Tel: 01980-223544, Mobile: 096228 20661, 09419977423; Tariff: ₹4,800, with meals) is a beautiful charming property. This old Ladakhi house, surrounded by a garden, has 12 clean, comfortable rooms. Leh’s Hotel Lharimo runs the Lharimo North Camp (Leh Tel: 01982-252101, Mobile: 09419178233; Tariff: ₹3,600-4,600, all meals) here, with 22 huts, single as well as double.

Alamy/ IndiaPicture
Happy Turtukians
Happy Turtukians

Other small guest houses/ homestays include Goba Guest House (1 double, 1 single, 5 dorms), Namgial, Bani and Charbagh (each with 4 doubles), Dakchan with 8 doubles and Tasma with 2 doubles and 6 single rooms.

In Panamik

Panamik also offers stay in Hot Spring Guest House (Mobile: 09469612555), Bangka Guest House (Tel: 01980- 247044), surrounded by beautiful gardens, and Nebula Guest House (Tel: 01980-247013; Tariff: ₹500-700), which has 4 double rooms.

SHYOK VALLEY

In Diskit

Hotel Sten-Del (Tel: 01980-220196, Mobile: 094193 48223; Tariff: ₹4,300, with meals) near the hospital, is the best option. It offers 20 rooms, a multicuisine restaurant, a bar, travel desk and TV in all rooms. Olthang Hotel (Tel: 01980-220025; Tariff: ₹1,800-3,500) with 18 rooms; Sand Dune Hotel (Tel: 01980-220022, Mobile: 0946976111; Tariff: ₹2,200) in the main market with 15 rooms, and Real Siachen Hotel (Tel: 01980-220004, Mobile: 09419372016; Tariff: ₹1,200-2,800, with meals) with 14 rooms are other good options.

In Hunder

Hunder has many camps and guest houses. Among the tent stays, the most pleasant are Nubra Organic Retreat (Tel: 01980-221070, Mob: 094192 13000, 09469176076; Tariff: ₹2,700- 4,300), Double Humped Camp (Mob: 09818449952, 08826649952; Tariff: ₹2,000-2,500) and the Nubra Ethnic Camp (Delhi Tel: 011-40580334; Tariff: ₹4,000-4,400). The tents have attached loos, the grounds are lovely and the food is good. Another option is the Chamba Deluxe Camp (Leh Tel: 01982-257858, Mobile: 09858394400; Tariff: ₹3,064-3,916) located in a garden with 12 fully furnished tents.

The only proper ‘hotel’ is Karma Inn (Tel: 01980-221042, Mobile: 094196 12342; Tariff: ₹2,800-3,600), which has 10 rooms, LCD TVs, hot water, games, bonfires, a coffee shop, power back-up and a good broadband connection. Most of the guest houses are hospitable, clean, with attached loos and with negotiable rates between roughly ₹1,000 and 2,000. Jamshed (Tel: 01980-221158; Tariff: ₹800-1,200, tents ₹400) is the oldest homestay in Nubra. It has 10 rooms and 6 tents. Snow Leopard Hotel (Tel: 01980-221097, Mobile: 094691 76759; Tariff: ₹1,300-2,200) is the largest guest house here with 21 double rooms and a restaurant. Olgok (Tel: 01980-221092, Mobile: 09469177357; Tariff: ₹1,300-1,600), next to Karma Inn, offers 6 double rooms. Ldumra Oasis (Tel: 01980-221066; Tariff: ₹1,200-2,000) has 2 doubles and 2 singles. Habib (Tel: 01980-200344, Mobile: 09469736543; Tariff: ₹1,200-2,000, with meals) has 5 rooms, and Milky Way (Tel: 01980-221041; Tariff: ₹400- 700) has 3 single rooms.

In Turtuk

Stay at Attaullah Khan’s Turtuk Holiday Camp (Tel: 01980-248103, Mobile: 09906993123, 09419219868; Tariff: ₹3,300-4,000, with meals) or the Maha Guest House (Tel: 01980-248040, Mob: 09622982145; Tariff: ₹2,000-2,600) with clean attached loos.

With Nandini Mehta in Turtuk

THE INFORMATION

Location The ‘Nubra Valley’ comprises the Shayok and Nubra river valleys, lined by oases. The Nubra Valley running north from Khalsar is the old caravan trail which connected Central Asia to Ladakh; its last visitable village is Panamik. The Shayok Valley runs east from Khalsar towards Baltistan; its last visitable village Turtuk is 12 km from the Line of Control

Distances Diskit in Shayok is 114 km N of Leh; Tegar in Nubra is 117 km N of Leh

When to go Though the road to Nubra is open year-round, summer is the best time to visit. The fields are green and the weather is perfect. It’s also more comfortable. In September, the Nubra festival takes place at different villages, with folk dances and music. Diskit Gompa’s Gustor festival takes place in January

Getting There Buses run from Leh to Diskit and Sumur but services are not regular. It’s best to hire a high ground clearance vehicle from the Leh Taxi Stand. Rates are fixed. A one-day trip from Leh to Sumur costs ₹5,700-6,300 and to Panamik ₹6,000-6,500; to Diskit ₹5,700-6,500 and to Hunder ₹5,800- 6,400. Check the Leh official website (leh.nic.in) for updated rates

Permits Nubra Valley is a restricted area and every visitor must have an Inner Line Permit to enter. This can be obtained from the District Commissioner’s office in Leh (Polo Grounds, Leh, Tel: 01982- 252010). Your travel operator or hotel can get it done easily. Indians need a copy of ID and residence proof; foreign visitors must have their passports. The permit is valid for one week and covers all places in Nubra Valley, including Turtuk

TIP Carry quite a few photocopies of the permit as you would need to submit them at various check posts

Operators All good Leh-based travel operators will arrange your visit to Nubra, with transport and stay. For Turtuk, Abdul Rashid of Destination Inde (Mob: 09906996677) in Leh can organise a trip for you. If self driving, by car or motorbike, remember to tank up at Leh and carry extra fuel along, as the petrol supply bunks in Nubra are shut most of the time

ROUTES AND DISTANCES

Leh to Khalsar crossing 100 km

Leh City Gate to South Pullu: 24 km

South Pullu to Khardung La: 15 km

Khardung La to North Pullu: 16 km

North Pullu to Khardung Village: 16 km

Khardung Village to Khalsar: 23 km

Khalsar to Shayok riverbed crossing: 6 km

Shayok Valley, Leh to Turtuk 205 km

Shayok riverbed crossing to Diskit: 15 km

Diskit to Hundar: 12 km

Hundar to Thoise: 16 km

Thoise to Yaglung: 27 km

Yaglung to Gunesthang: 14 km

Gunesthang to Chalunka: 9 km

Chalunka to Turtuk: 13 km

Nubra Valley, Leh to Panamik 138 km

Shayok riverbed crossing to Tirit: 5 km

Tirit to Lugzhun: 7 km

Lugzhun to Sumur: 4 km

Sumur to Tegar: 2 km

Tegar to Yulksam: 10 km

Yulksam to Panamik: 11 km