Waking up in Leh as the plane landed was like being transported to a military base in the middle of acres of barren land. Surrounded by brown mountains in every direction, the vastness of the open space was astounding. Of all the colourful images of India I had collected in my mind before my virgin trip to this country, I was not expecting this landscape.
But the neutral-coloured panorama wasn’t the only peculiarity that confounded me as I ventured into the region of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir for the first time. Nausea hit hard within the first hour; the headaches came next. By the time I entered the city’s main market for an authentic Indian meal, the discomfort had grown immensely, making it harder and harder to breathe.
Headache, dizziness, shortness of breath - symptoms of acute mountain sickness - were known to strike new visitors of Leh, who weren’t accustomed to change in altitude; the city standing at 10,000 feet above sea level. I expected that the low levels of oxygen would be the biggest hurdle to overcome in my time in Ladakh, but traveling to Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake would soon prove to be one of the most challenging adventures I’ve had to experience abroad.
Nubra Valley via Khardung-La Pass
The journey to Nubra Valley was arduous, taking more than 4 hours long, crossing a range of mountains, going up and around the sides with dramatic drop-offs at every turn. As we moved deeper into the mountains and further away from Leh, paved roads fell away, giving rise to long stretches of gravel and sand that would come to be my personal source of torture, enough to bring bouts of motion sickness and splitting headaches well before we reached Khardung-La.
The only gateway to Nubra Valley, mountain pass Khardung-La, is a road every traveler from Leh would have to cross.. Until recently, this pass was touted as the highest road in the world open to motorised vehicles. At 18,380 feet Khardung-la lies beyond the snow-line with frigid minus-zero temperatures all year-round.
Severely unprepared to battle the cold that had seeped into the van, I regretted not bringing along a winter coat, a heat pack or a thick blanket. Our driver, Raj, motions to a worn-out shed beside our parked van.
“Coffee, tea, maggi, ma’am.”
Warmth! I ran to the shed, only to find there was hardly any, just cold air. I rushed back to the van and asked Raj to turn on the heater.
Outside the window, I watched a motorcycle ride up along the snow-filled slope, its rider bundled up like a Michelin Man. After snapping photos with the Khardung-La sign, he rode off continuing his foray into the Indian wilderness on two sturdy wheels. On roads that were prone to avalanches and landslides, he would be one of the many adventurous motorcyclists we encountered on our way to Nubra Valley.
Hidden valleys and village settlements slowly came into view. Nestled between towering peaks, the beauty of the scenery was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We moved parallel to the Shyok River, a long stream of magnificent turquoise, flowing against an enchanting chalky-white river bank, passing by Diskit, a town renowned for housing an old monastery dating back to the 14th century.
Camel Rides in Hunder
The Shyok river meets Nubra River to form Nubra Valley, a flat and wide area of scant vegetation. Also a cold desert, we found ourselves at Hunder Sand Dunes, an unearthly oasis cradled by mountains and home to the Bactrian double-humped camels, which are found only on this side of the world. In October, the camels’ beige fur had become thick and shaggy to welcome the winter that had begun to descent upon us.
With the sun peeking behind snow-dusted peaks, a brief camel-ride took us across the large desert in an almost dreamlike journey. In the heart of this natural landscape, there contained a beautiful silence and I listened closely, completely enthralled. I wondered if there is anywhere else in the world where mountains, sand dunes, gentle rivers and sparse grasslands breathed in seamless coexistence, and if I could bring a piece of this precious serenity home with me.
Fatigued from the rough return journey to Nubra Valley, we were headed in the opposite direction the next day. I asked Raj about the conditions of the roads heading to Pangong Lake, a paradise on earth located south-east of Leh.
“So the roads are okay? Less potholes? Not bumpy?” I ask, brimming with hope.
“Not okay. Normal, ma’am.”
I chugged down motion-sickness pills and braced myself.
Fringed by gorgeous, autumn-coloured landscapes and greeted by wild yaks and galloping horses, I could only gasp in wonderment at the sights along the journey, my discomfort soon forgotten. We reached Pangong Lake 5 hours later, a massive body of water with beautiful, ocherous Himalayan mountains at its rims. Popularised by 3 Idiots
, the location had attracted more tourists since the Hindi movie was filmed there.
The most wondrous thing about the lake was how it seemed to change colours from crystal blue to greenish-blue to a light torquoise and every shade in between under different angles of light. Up-close, the water was clear and cold, stunningly glistening under the sun.
Pangong Lake proved to be the handsome reward for every traveler that endures the long, gruelling journey on the “normal” winding roads, traversing the high mountain pass Chang-La. I had no regrets.
Closer to Leh, we visited other sights such as Magnetic Hill, a mind-blowing place where stationary vehicles left unattended seemingly move on their own; and Sangam, the point where the Indus and Zanskar rivers meet, and also, the highest river rafting point in the world!
Though strongly influenced by the Tibetan culture and Buddhism, there exists in Leh a peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Buddhists, and walking the streets of the city, I encountered a mosque and monasteries, women in hijab and monks wrapped in red robes. The people we encountered were warm, and like Raj, people of few words, but hospitable and helpful.
In a land high in the mountains, I felt like I gotten a different taste of India than I had imagined, or later experienced in bustling cities like Jaipur and Agra. Despite the challenging terrain that tested my grit and tenacity, the natural beauty in Ladakh was unparalleled and worth every minute of my time. The magical view of the Himalayas on the way back wasn’t too shabby either. ❤️
Photos provided by the author. For more of her work, visit nurhuda.com