Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Nubra Valley Via Khardung La Pass

At Khardung La, one of the world's highest motorable mountain passes at an elevation of 5,359 meters (17,582 feet). Not easy to breathe!!

Today was the start of another road trip.  We brought our suitcases from the room and handed them over to the front desk guys who took them back into storage.

Although Dorje had given us enough time for breakfast, we quickly downed it and were ready to hit the road bright and early at 8am.

Our drive to Lamayuru took us to the west of Leh.  Today, we would be heading north.  Even the route out of town took us up through the hills of Leh.  By day's end, we would be in the Nubra Valley where the landscape will be desert.....yes, desert and where we will be able to ride on the backs of bactrian camels.  It's simply astounding to think that you have desert landscape in a region where super tall mountains reign supreme.

When you head north, out of Leh, it's a traffic jam to get out of the place.  Yikes!  But soon enough, we were on the outskirts of the city - back to the spectacular mountain views that we have quickly grown accustomed to and that I have fallen in love with.


We even got to see one of Leh's landmarks - Shanti Stupa....also on my list of places that we should try to visit while we're here.


The road led us higher and higher up, winding its way up the mountainside.


We had incredible views of the valley that Leh is situated in.


But soon, even the green valley and Leh were just memories.  We were in the heart of the Ladakh Range of mountains.  The road was windy and bumpy as it was no longer paved.  Our road trip adventure began.


For miles, we were literally the only car on the road.  Well, that really wasn't true.  In fact, it was exactly the opposite.  We reached one popular viewpoint and that's when I first realized just how popular it is to travel from Leh to the Nubra Valley.



We saw countless number of road workers on our drive.  Given the poor condition of the road to begin with, I really wondered what the heck they were doing.  My best guess is that they are removing rocks that have slid down the side of the mountain.  There is no backhoe to do this with.....just a pair of hands multiplied by however many men and women (yes, we saw women) there were to labor over the job.



The road was narrow and bumpy and cars had to be careful as they were traveling in both directions.  There is no rail guard on the side that drops down the mountain and the higher we drove up the mountain, the steeper the drop!


It got to be a real traffic jam at times with not just cars but also motorcycles.  As much as we wanted to keep the windows rolled down, the exhaust fumes emanating from the motorbikes was intolerable to breath in.  So, for the most part, we kept the windows rolled up and the gals donned the surgical masks that Chantale had brought along.  😷



Summer comes late to the Ladakh range.  Snow melt created streams where none exist in the later part of the summer.  The water made it even trickier to drive because you can't tell how deep it is or what lies beneath.  Worse thing would be to get a flat tire here.


At one point, we came to a dead stand still and after a few minutes of waiting and not moving, Dorje went out to investigate. 



We were all curious too so we followed suit.

We could see the line of cars ahead of us.  No one was moving.


Then, we moved but at a snail's pace.  When we got up to the backhoe, it was obvious why the traffic had been stopped.  There had been a landslide and the backhoe had to get there to clear it.



But the delay in traffic had caused a big backlog.  The line of cars behind us was long!!




Even though there was an endless stream of cars heading in the same direction that we were, the bumpy, windy road meant that the cars had to go slow.  Motorbikes...well, they just moved along and whatever speed the driver was willing to push the accelerator to.  I didn't notice anyone weaving in and out the lanes though.  I still am really amazed at how skilled the motorcyclists were at negotiating the drive on this road - it's not easy to offroad in a motorcycle.

It wasn't hard to ignore the traffic.  All you had to do was focus on the spectacular scenery.  We got so high up in elevation that the tops of the mountains met the clouds!  How incredible is that!  Thankfully, I had taken my Diamox this morning so while I did have a wee bit of a headache it was nowhere as bad as if I had not taken the medicine.

By now, I had forgotten all about the green valley called Leh.






Warning.  If you travel with Chantale and you want to take photos, you need to be prepared to deal with not just one camera.  The blue stick is connected to her cheapie GoPro and the other is her dSLR.



The road kept going up and up the mountainside.  The sight of a mass of Tibetan prayer flags signalled we had arrived somewhere of note.  Dorje announced we had arrived at Khardung La.  We are really high up.....like 17,000+ fee high up!   Thank God for Diamox!



The road was literally a parking lot here.  So many cars, so many people.  The exhaust fumes were horrible!



They love eating Maggi mee here.  I never knew it was a Swiss thing.  I always assumed it was an Asian thing.


Dorje told us that if we needed a toilet break, this would be the place to go.  So, we made our way to the row of Jiffy Johns.  It was quite the queue to use them.  Ayşe decided she wanted to use one so she stood in line and waited her turn.  I figured those Jiffy Johns were going to be really disgusting so I opted to just go behind a building to do it.  I guess a lot of people had the same idea so behind the building was really no better than the Jiffy John.  It was a shit dump there too but perhaps the smell was not as bad.  Chantale spotted for me and I returned favor her.  Apparently, the Jiffy Johns were really disgusting but there was a nice view of the mountains.  Who needs that view from the Jiffy John when you can get it all around you?  Not the nicest of toilet breaks.


After doing the deed, we had a few minutes to walk around before having to get back into the car.  I took the chance to take some photos.





I think we were pretty much the only non-Indian tourists around.  We've seen plenty of snow but for many of the Indians, they were having good time playing in it.  Most were not properly dressed for romping in the snow but they were having so much fun, they didn't seem to care.  I smiled just watching them happily play like children.



After our short break, our road trip to the Nubra Valley continued.  It was downhill the rest of the way.

Chantale is forever snoozing😴


Then it was another full stop.  Roadwork.  We had to wait for the truck to move out of the way.  One thing about life here.  People are used to inconveniences.  Despite all these annoyances....at least they are annoyances to me,


Every now again, I noticed rocks painted with numbers on them.  My guess is that these are elevation markers.  I don't know what they would be used for.


Of course, after passing Khardung La, it was downhill drive and soon, patches of green reappeared.  Dorje stopped the car for just a few minutes as Chantale wanted to take a photo.  I was curious about those little black dots by the water's edge.


Zooming in, I noticed they were yaks.  We are high up enough in elevation where yaks can live.


As we continued down the mountainside, the sight of snow capped mountains faded and were soon gone.


I spotted the outhouse and had to laugh because there was no sign of where the customers would be coming from.


Then....quite a walking distance later, I spotted the sign for the restaurant.  You better not be in a rush to use the facilities - it's quite the hike to get there.  As you can see, it's not an extensive menu.  For lunch.....Vag means vegetable.  So, it's all vegetarian fare here.  I don't know what Mok mok is but the next two items are noodles, then there's the rice and then Maggi which is basically ramen.  Meals are simple here.  You get tired of them very quickly 😞


Seeing the menu triggered the hunger pangs in me.  It was noon but we had yet to reach the Nubra Valley.  That would be two hours later.  We passed the time enjoying the scenery around us.

We did have to stop briefly at another security checkpoint.  We handed our passports over to Dorje and he did the needful for us.


It was an overcast day. I just kept hoping it wouldn't rain.  It's chilly here and it definitely would not be any fun to walk about a monastery in the rain let alone ride a camel in the rain.  Unfortunately, it seemed like the closer we got to the Nubra Valley, the more threatening the skies got.







The road that we are on is only open during the warmer summer months.  Enterprising Ladakhis set up *pop up* restaurants to cater to passing tourists.  We drove past several such *establishments* on our drive to Nubra.  Hey, when you need to make money to feed yourself and your family, you figure out a way to do it!



We also drove across several mountain streams; waters were raging from the snow melt.



Some of the really poor residents of Ladakh still live in cave homes.  Hard to believe that anyone in this day and age has to live like this.  It's a very sad reality of life here.  Can you imagine living in cave in the winter time?  Look around.  There are no trees for heating fuel.  Hopefully, you have a small herd of animals that you can collect dung from.  That you dry and burn for heat and cooking.


Three and a half hours after leaving Khardung La, we saw our first signs of desert.


I've been to quite a few deserts in my life.  It was unusual to see gray colored sand; it's usually terra cotta in color.  At first glance, I didn't even think it was sand.  It took a few seconds of focused looking to realize it is sand.




The valley's not big and under gray skies, it looked really drab.  I can imagine just how pretty the view would be on a pretty day.  A desert valley flanked by snow capped mountains.


The further we got into the valley, the more green the landscape got.  We also passed by a lot of guesthouses.  We had finally arrived at our destination.

Dorje turned off the into a small parking lot.  We got out of the car.  It was nice to be able to stretch our legs.  We followed Dorje to one of those pop up restaurants though this one looked way nicer than any of the others that we had passed along the way.  There were two other people already seated and waiting.  Shortly after we took our seats, a tall Caucasian man walked in.  He had full motorbike gear on and a helmet in his hand.  We struck up a brief conversation while waiting for our food to arrive.  He was a South African man who decided to bike across part of Ladakh on his very short vacation.  He's traveling on his own.  Apparently, he's done this before and loves it. Brave man.  Like us, he's spending the night in the valley.


Lunch was a simple affair.  As he has started doing, Dorje joined us which is great.  We all shared some fried rice.  You saw the menu earlier up in this post.  There's not a lot of choice to the food here. 


After eating, I decided I should use the facilities before getting back into the car.  I was so shocked to find a bathroom so clean, I could've eaten off the floor!  Hallelujah!!  Happily full and with an empty bladder, I was ready to move on.

Time to visit a monastery!