Sheila Kumar, Feb 16, 2014: PHOTOS BY SHEILA KUMAR
The Nubra in August is lovely. Purple, red and bright yellow wildflowers bloom in the cracks of boulders by the roadside, the Leh berry (seabuckthorn) hangs heavy on small trees, as does some kind of blackberry. The Shyok River runs alongside all through, one broad, wide swath the colour of clay. Before the river makes its presence felt, there are brooks of snowmelt, blue as the sky they reflect, gurgling over white pebbles. Here and there, poised on plateaus lie impossibly green oases where poplars hem ripened fields of wheat. It is a hot day but there is a prevailing wind that carries in it the merest hint of something cold and icy. We pass mud dwellings, dzos (a hybrid of the yak and local cattle) grazing peacefully, and then the Shyok’s tributary, the Nubra or Siachen River appears, a gentled body of water the colour of cappuccino.
The roads are often nothing more than mountain tracks, despite the wonderful work the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) does to grade them and keep them working in the face of constant landslips in these parts. At times, we are carefully manoeuvring our way through layers of shale and stone, with the gorge below us, so far below we cannot see or hear the river. The iconic BRO milestone messages continue to entertain (Be gentle on my curves), amuse (Peep peep, don’t sleep), mystify (Got brake, got license) us, but there is no getting away from the fact that the landscape is so raw and elemental here, the traveller can well go from being awed and dazed to being intimidated.
The world’s highest motorable pass, (this has been contested in modern times, though) the formidable Khardung La, comes as something of an anticlimax. It is like an arterial road in any Indian city, choked with cars, trucks, SUVs, even rickety buses. There is a reason for this logjam: the Dalai Lama had been in Leh town for almost a full month and is giving a talk at the Choglamsar Gompa grounds, the next day. This chance to see and hear their ‘God-King’ has infused the Leh-ward traffic with a kind of Mardi Gras atmosphere. Wizened men and pigtailed women, their hands automatically clicking their prayer beads, scrubbed little girls and boys, dapper young men, pretty young women, they are all at Khardung La, (altitude anything between 17,582 and 18,379 feet asl) waiting to cross the pass and go into Leh. The mandir bells from ‘the world’s highest Shiva temple’ ring and bhajans blare, the prayer flags atop the gompa opposite flutter madly in the wind and the glacier at arm’s reach gleams with pristine, packed snow.
As one descends to the floor of the Nubra Valley, one sees donkeys everywhere, intently grazing, frisking with other donkeys and sundry horses, calmly walking the roads, checking out rubbish piles. All too soon, the 32-metre statue of the Maitreya Buddha loomed, a golden counterpoint to the corduroy hills that hedge the valley. To one side of the massive statue, stands the ancient Diskit monastery, dating back to 1420 AD. There are steps galore to climb to reach the Sakyamuni, the main deity of this gompa, and at the top, there is a friendly lama who puts away his cellphone to show us around and patiently answer our barrage of questions.
Some 75 km ahead of Diskit lies Panamik, famous for its hot sulphur springs. The water is incredibly hot to the touch and sure enough, there is a group of tourists boiling eggs in the water! The hot springs are supposed to contain curative powers, so there is a bathing pool for those wishful of ‘taking the cure’. At Sumur is the Samstanling gompa, famous for its mural of dancing skeletons.
A ride on a double-humped Bactrian camel is a must for those visiting the Nubra and with trepidation, I climb onto Marco Polo. Like all camel rides, it is not exactly comfortable, but Marco P behaves himself and thankfully, the ride is over soon and I can go back to sitting on the cool sand dunes and absorbing all I see around me.
And then, there is that moon. A moon of undefined yearnings, of unspelt longing, a moon of much amazement and delight. And ultimately, it is that Nubra moon that will stay with me, long after Ladakh has become a fat album of beautiful memories.