Monday, 13 February 2012

Nubra Valley – Land Of Sand Dunes And Bactrian Camels In Ladakh

Nubra Valley

One of the most popular two days program from Leh, Nubra Valley jeep safari, remained closed throughout the month of May, because of excess snowfall and closure of Khardung-la pass.  We did some adjustments in our itinerary to avail of the opening day of Nubra Valley Jeep Safari, on first day of June. The feeling was like seeing, first day, first show, of popular Hindi block-buster or much more than that! 

We started at 7 am, to head for the highest ( 18,300’ ) motorable pass in the world, Khardung-la, at a distance of 39 km from Leh. Leaving Leh town behind, a continuous ascent on the hills, on a perfect asphalt road, we head for our first halt at South Pullu, the army check post.  We see the beautiful panorama of the snow clad mountains, lined around Stok Kangri peak.  The going was  good on a serpentine road, till we actually reach South Pullu after covering 24 km, in good time. We were buoyed up with thought of getting on top of the world and savoring the Kashmiri tea

When we pulled up near South Pullu, behind a few jeeps, the gate was closed. On inquiry, Sonam found that, the first batch of cars and jeeps left the gate at 6 am. There was no idea when the gate will open again. We had no option but to play a waiting game. Slowly, the jeep after jeep started arriving and formed a serpentine queue of about quarter of a kilometer. 

Wait at South Pullu
As tourists got out to stretch their limbs, some for taking leaks, it was time to take the notice of the grand panorama of snow peaks around, do some serious photography, to try out a few new settings in my camera. The Stok Kangri peak looked exciting and inviting; I got some good still shots at high optical zoom in my Sony Handycam. With Sonam, a Ladakhi youth as our car driver, it was also time to catch up on our Ladakhi vocabulary, which till now had only one word ‘Julley’. Sonam began  by explaining the meaning of word Julley, which means all the good things like ‘good morning’, ‘good evening’, ‘good day’, ‘how do you do’ etc. Any ladakhi will get impressed when greeted with that word. In Ladakhi, water is ‘choo’, sun is ‘nima’, God is ‘Konjok’, tree is ‘shing’,  name is ‘min’, sun is ‘nima’, road is ‘lumb’ and mountain is ‘zee’. Ladakh is predominantly inhabited by Buddhists and Muslims. When two Ladakhis of either communities talk, Muslim will utter the word Wallah, in every sentence, whereas, a Buddhist will say Konjok. All Buddhist houses have flags on the roof, whereas it is not so for Muslim houses. 
Snow peaks from South Pullu
After a wait of nearly three hours, at 11 am, we got through the gate of South Pullu. With so much time lost, we did not know, whether we will be able to catch up with Camel safari at Hunder, which closes at 7.30 pm. Sonam said, ‘we will just make it in time but we may have to do without the mini photography halts, in all our jeep safaris.’ 

The road gradually changed from asphalt to mud track, snow on both sides of the road, as we ascended higher. We had a slow but decent run, observing the adjoining hills and panorama of Stok Kangri and other mountains at a distance. The late heavy snow fall this season gave a different dimension to otherwise brown hills. When we reached the Khardung-la Top, it definitely got chilly. Many jeeps had already reached and tourists just flocked to all the signboards with word Khardung-la, for a memory photo shoot! 
Rinchen cafetaria
I sighted Rinchen Cafetaria with the signboard peeping out of snow. We went inside walking between two snow walls. It was a wooden structure - the hall had a few tables and chairs, what was funny, water was dripping through and a lot of icicles hanging from the ceiling! At night the temperature must be below zero degrees, freezing the water dripping through.

The Qahwah or Kashmiri tea definitely tasted good and gave warmth, to get our circulation going. The Kashmiri tea is a concoction of tea leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, baking powder and sugar. It is very effective in cold weather. A souvenir shop, with collections of tee-shirts, caps , woolen garments etc. attract some tourists. The Hindu temple by the side, allows the devotees to have a darshan. A Buddhist temple up on the snow bound slopes, is a difficult proposition to reach but looks really colorful. 
Temple at Khardung-la
We continued beyond Khardung-la, through same mud track, at places, the snow melted water made a small puddle, through which the vehicle had to be cautiously negotiated. We cross
Kahardung village and junction point Khalsar. We took a detour to Shyok Valley. River Shyok, at this time of the year did not have much of water. The sand of the river bed was exposed at many places, and the blue looking water made some geometrical patterns, which looked lovely from top.  We decided to shoot more photos on our return trip next day.
Shyok river - Shyok Valley
On way to Sumur, many wild rose bushes, full of blooming flowers made their appearance at regular intervals. As we approached the village of Sumur, it was greenery all the way, with agricultural plots, Poplar trees and bushes by the roadside. Through perfect asphalt road we headed for Sumur monastery. An arch-gate was under construction to welcome His Holiness Dalai Lama. We reach the Sumur Gompa, enter the gate and find a few Lama students painting some geometrical designs on walls, to be painted later, on eve of Dalai Lama’s visit. The Gompa building is colourful and of modern construction; unfortunately doors of Gompa gate was locked. Back to jeep, we moved further ahead and reached Panamik, which contains hot springs. We had to climb along a mud - stone track to reach there. The hot water is led through concrete structures, at different levels and some bathing space is created. This destination was kind of a letdown and we regret to have lost some time in bargain. We learnt that, beyond Panamik, the road goes towards the Siachen glacier. We commenced return trip to Khalsar for going to Diskit and Hunder. On the way a small break gave us time to visit Tegar Gompa, a monastery by the road side, simple yet very attractive.  

We passed through Diskit area, it has a nice looking Gompa, which we decided to visit the next day. As we approached Hunder sand dunes, it was playing in my mind, ‘Years back, in a calendar, I saw the picture of  a camel in sand dune; the camel was off white in color with thick fur, looked healthy, having two humps. The animal appeared so unreal, as if generated by computer using animation software.’  I was looking forward to see the same species of camel, the real one on sand dune of Hunder. When we approached the camel safari area, it was already 7.15 am. ‘We still have 15 minutes,’ Sonam encouraged.  We found a lot of tourists returning after doing their safari, followed by Bactrian Camels in batches of twos and fours along with their masters. The camel owners were actually returning home, after counting their day’s earnings! On inquiry, Sonam found out that the safari actually ended by 7 pm. That was a huge disappointment. I put it behind my mind and concentrated on some photo shoots instead. The Camels had dark brown skin and brown fur, much of the fur had fallen and bare skin remained exposed. Some camels were resting in a place with bush like trees full of thorns.
Bactrian camels at Hundar
A mother and a baby camel were moving behind us. Suddenly, the hell broke loose. A giant military truck making roaring sound appeared from nowhere and passed by; next we found baby camel charging towards me and Sac, as if to attack us. We jumped aside and avoided it nick of time. The baby camel ran and ran as far as we could see and disappeared. The mother camel and the owner appeared nonchalant, and were casually walking towards baby camel’s trail. Five minutes later, as if by magic, the baby camel returned to reunite with the mother camel! 
Bactrian camel family
By 7.30 pm, the distant hills were getting the last crimson lights of sun before dusk. Time was running out. Sid who had planned to do a Camel safari was a dejected soul. Sonam was talking in native Ladakhi, making a last ditch effort of coaxing, cajoling the camel owners, for just a 15 minutes ride on their return path. When dusk was almost there, a camel owner finally relented. Sid riding the camel, was looking happy that he had made it finally, also provided some lovely footages for my Handycam.

With dusk falling, we were back to car and found our way to Hunder village for finding a suitable guest house for our night halt. We came across many guest houses, but being the first day of Nubra valley circuit today, and being very late in arrival, did not have much luck. Sonam, next made some enquiries, and we come to a newly constructed guest house called Ibex Guest House.  It had a big compound containing some vegetable plots, flower beds, surrounded by tall Poplar trees, a few apple and apricot trees. We immediately liked the place and booked two luxurious double rooms, at Rs.500/-per day per room, with attached bath. The tastefully decorated entrance lobby has a dining table with beautiful ceiling design. Owner Sonam Wangpo, welcomed us with mint tea, which really tasted good.

Ibex guest house at Hundar
We had a Ladakhi dinner, cooked by owner’s wife. The menu had rice, chapatti, dal, palak (from the owner’s plot), egg curry, sweets , all unlimited. This meal was one of the best we tasted at Ladakh. Post dinner, we discussed about our plans to visit, Hundar Gompa, situated on a nearby hill, the next day, before we commenced our return jeep safari.

We got up at 5 am, and by 6 am, we went through the village roads, leading to main road and then to the hill. Hundar village, is one of the best dwelling, I have seen in Ladakh, in terms of good roads, beautiful guest houses, flower gardens, dense green cover of Poplar, Apple and Apricot trees. It was pleasure taking an early morning walk through this charming place.

We started our climb to reach to the three, religious structures, with flags fluttering, perched at different levels on the hill. The steep stone and mud track uphill was not to my liking. I reached the first point, where some flags were fluttering around a cement structure. I was not interested in going up further. Sid and Sac took off to reach the gompa way up. Coming down the hill, I came back to Hunder Village, to guest house. I went to terrace, spend some time watching the village and the hills around, for some photo shooting. 

At 7.30 am, Sid and Sac returning, we had a breakfast containing Ladkhi bread, curd, jam, butter, which was offered unlimited. We were pleasantly surprised that unlimited dinner and breakfast for four persons in total cost only Rs. 500/-. At 8 am we left the beautiful Hundar village, to proceed to Diskit monastery. Since we had a whole day to cover our trip to Leh, it offered us time to have a frequent photo shoot breaks. In one such breaks, we photographed sand dunes from road. 

Reaching Diskit, we visited Lama School, on a small hill, from where, the seven storied Diskit Monastery, built on hill slopes looked awesome. Behind Lama School and slightly above, a huge new Buddha idol was being freshly painted; it had a lot of scaffolding for the work. The work will be completed before Dalai Lama’s visit. 
Diskit Monastery
A small drive towards, Diskit Gompa, on the road, Lama students were making an efforts to carry an electric cable. Next we visited the Diskit Gompa, climbing a lot of steps.  Having spent some time inside we commenced with the journey. Another lucky break came in form of a bunch of wild camels walking on sand dunes along the bushes at the edge. That kept us busy for some more time. 

Wild Bactrian camels at Diskit
We had yet another break to have a look at Shyok Valley.  It looked much beautiful in the morning sunlight.

Shyok Valley
By late afternoon, we reached Khardung-la, and at Rinchens everybody ordered for Thupka soup for lunch. I simply had ‘samosas’ and Kashmiri tea. Taken out of Microwave oven (a DG set to run it was visible), samosas were luke warm, but really tasty and palatable. The jeep ride back, from Khardung-la became really slow this time. With a lot more snow melting, the potholes on the mud track was filled with water and really cautious driving for car like Innova, which is not as good as Qualis, in this sort of situation. With some more photo shoots on the way, we reached Leh, with a feeling that we have got lot more than we bargained for. Nubra circuit will remain one of our most memorable journeys in Ladakh.         

Important informations :
1) Nubra circuit, this year (2009) started on 1st June, the days on  which this safari operated was, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
  2) It is better to reach Khardung-la by 6 am, to avoid bunching of vehicles and delay at South Pulli.
  3) Inner line permit is required for this trip.
  4) Panamik may be avoided, if you want to conserve time. Sumur, Diskit and Hunder are must see places.
  5) There are too many options to stay ay Hunder village, like, guesthouses, tented camps.
  6) Camel Safari closes at 7 pm. 
7) Qualis is better option for ride near Khardung-la pass. Innova is ok, provided driver is very careful on this stretch.


  1. Sonam Guest house - Nubra. over looking the Diskit Maitreya Buddha statue. wonderful location. recently constructed.
    run by lovely middle-aged couple(both are School teachers) .
    Food is home cooked - awesome. vegetables fresh from kitchen garden. they organize a momo party also at night. very affordable.
    bathrooms and rooms very nicely maintained and cleaned.
    authentic Ladakhi cuisine served if asked for.
    the lady is a very good in cooking Parathas and North Indian food also.

    we stayed at 300rs/day rate. food was 150Rs/person/per day. rates fluctuate according to number of tourist in that particular week. subject to change.

    located on main road(highway).
    ample parking space.
    very nice view.
    cosy rooms.
    best for families and single lady travellers.
    rooms have huge windows and a great view.
    kitchen is very big and very traditional.

    the best part we enjoyed was d vegetable momos(never thought vegetable momos will be so tasty. it seems they taste heavenly because of the fresh cabbage and carrots)

    do try this place.

    Phone number - 01980 220109, 09469265784, 09469384010.

    1. Thanks drsnehabhavsar for reading my blog and offering interesting info on accommodation and food at Diskit. Surely, the tourists will find it useful.