“Safe drive stay alive!” warns a road sign on the sinuous mountain road up to the Khardungla, reputedly the highest motorable pass in the world. But at 5602m it’s certainly the highest I’ve ever been. Vehicles heading north of Leh to the dramatic Nubra Valley all make a requisite stop for photos at the top of the pass. As soon as you try to walk, you can feel the rarity of the air. It’s also really cold, but the tea stall sells delicious masala chai to warm you up.
You can get to the valley on public transport, but I opted for a shared jeep through an agency in Leh and with five of you it works out quite reasonably for a 2 day 1 night trip. You need a special permit for which you have to apply the day before, since the Nubra valley runs close to the Pakistan border. It’s a long journey and a lot of time is spent in the jeep, but the advantage of going in a tour is that you can stop wherever you want for photos.
The mountain scenery is incredible and in Hundar, where we stayed the night, there are huge sand dunes. If you want to do something really touristy, you can take a ride on a Bactrian camel, but I opted just to explore the area on foot. The highlight for me though was the stop on the way back at Diskit Monastery, where one of the head monks invited me into the garden for tea and I gave an impromptu English lesson for the curious novice monks who gathered around.
The same special permit will also grant you access to Pangong Lake south east of Leh. The permit is valid for a week so it makes sense to do both together. So, after one night in Leh, I was back in a jeep, this time heading over the world’s third highest motorable pass. The lake is huge and one side of it lies in China so this is another heavily militarised zone with many army camps.
In Spangmik a group of five us managed to get a good deal on some luxury tents, luxury in the sense that there was an en suite loo! The setting by the lake was fabulous and sunset was a great time to wander by the shore and watch the changing colours.
But in India you always have to expect the unexpected and the most dramatic part of the trip occurred on the way back when we encountered an overturned lorry on the mountain pass which was blocking traffic in both directions. The driver had escaped unscathed and was lucky, since you can often observe the wrecks of lorries that went over the edge. However, it meant that we were stuck there for five hours as darkness fell and the cold set in.
There appeared to be no official rescue service, but the army stepped in to help and somehow managed to push the lorry to one side. The gap to pass by was still scarily narrow and I insisted on getting out and walking past the lorry. I was certainly relieved by the time I got back to my guesthouse in Leh at nearly midnight. I fell asleep thinking of other road signs I’d seen clearly written by someone with a sense of humour. “Driving faster causes disaster.” And my favourite, “After whisky driving risky.”