Ladakh – the ‘Land of the High Passes’ – is among the most stunning parts of the Indian Himalayas. Wedged between Pakistan, Tibet and Xinjiang Province (China) and India’s Himachal Pradesh, it forms the eastern part of the contested state of Jammu & Kashmir. North of Leh, Ladakh’s ‘capital’, lies a far-flung and austerely beautiful enclave cradled by rugged mountains ‒ this is the Nubra Valley (often simply abbreviated to Nubra), a tuft of land on the very scalp of India.
The region actually comprises two valleys: Nubra and Shyok. Both their rivers rise amidst the remote and heavily glaciated peaks and troughs of the Karakoram Range. The Nubra joins the Shyok in ‒ as far as tourism is concerned ‒ the region’s heart near Diskit before flowing westwards into Pakistan to eventually join the mighty Indus.
Why visit Nubra
Local communities once prospered on an extraordinary trans-Himalayan trade which originated with the Silk Road. Comprising huge mountains, yawning valleys and vast uninhabited hinterlands, most of Ladakh’s boundaries may look almost impenetrable on a map. Yet for centuries great caravans of wool and cloth, opium, spices and skins, coral and turquoise, gold and indigo negotiated several routes and their hazardous passes mainly between Leh and Yarkand (in China). The already withering trade finally died in the late 1950s when China largely sealed its borders..
Some of its salient features remain largely out of reach ‒ the Siachen Glacier, for example, is the world’s second-longest glacier outside the polar regions, but short of a fully fledged expedition you’re unlikely to get near it. Siachen is sometimes referred to as the world’s highest (and coldest) battlefield; India and Pakistan have skirmished here at astonishing 6000m-plus altitudes, but a ceasefire has held since 2003.
Far more relevant to today’s visitor is the journey to Nubra on what is claimed to be the world’s highest motorable road. Climbing steadily out of Leh and the Indus Valley, the road officially crosses the Khardung La pass at 5602m (18,379ft), although this height is now disputed and the accolade is probably incorrect. But don’t let the maths or contested measurements spoil what is still a great drive.
Where to go
Diskit has become Nubra’s commercial hub, but it’s still a modest little place and more like an overgrown village. The main attraction here is Diskit Gompa, or monastery, perched high above town on a craggy spur. You can drive up here but it’s a joy to walk among the mani walls (elongated, almost artfully arranged mounds of stones engraved with Buddhist prayers and mantras) and whitewashed chortens (dome-shaped monuments housing Buddhist relics).
A little network of paths and lanes weaves among the monks’ quarters and offices to a cluster of ancient prayer halls. If you arrive by dawn you can catch the daily morning prayers ‒ chanting monks, crashing cymbals, and deep horns. In another hall stands a famous statue of a protector deity brandishing the apparently mummified head and arm of a medieval Mongol soldier. Admittance to this particular hall is erratic but often easier with a Ladakhi guide. Footpaths climb up behind the monastery and past a ruined watchtower from which there are superb views of the Shyok Valley.
About 10km west of Diskit stands Hunder village. Camels can often be seen grazing on the dune-like landscape between the foot of the mountains and the braided Shyok River. It’s a pretty village, ideal for ambling, with a small roadside monastery known as Chamba. Opposite the gompa, a long mani wall indicates part of a traditional pilgrims’ route orbiting several other shrines set high in the cliffs. You can follow a lovely trail clockwise up into the hills ‒ it might look implausible but is straightforward, though you’ll need a head for heights ‒ which skirts another medieval watchtower and more terrific views.
A recently opened stretch of the Shyok Valley which descends gradually towards Pakistan is now drawing more travelers. From Diskit or Hunder the approximately 90km journey to Turtok makes a fine day-trip. It’s a gorgeous drive, the generally well-metalled road shadowing the spectacular river valley for much of the way with occasional detours through great boulder fields. And wild though it is, several scattered villages reveal a clear transformation from the mainly Buddhist Nubran heartland around Diskit to an overwhelmingly Muslim culture towards Turtok.