The Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake – two great trips out of Leh

The Nubra Valley

“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.

Khardungla Pass

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.

Dunes around Hundar

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.

Pangong Lake

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.”

Trekking through the Markha Valley in Ladakh, India

The Markha Valley Trek

With almost my last breath to spare, I hauled myself up the last few metres to stand at the top of the Komgmaru La, the highest pass on the trek at 5150m. Strings of Buddhist prayer flags fluttered in the fierce wind, but the snow flakes of earlier had given way to sunshine and we were treated to an awe-inspiring view of the Ladakh Range below. It was the culmination of a 7 day trek through the Markha Valley and, although the exertion at that altitude had left me exhausted, the privileged view made it all worthwhile. 

The Markha valley is a step back in time to remote villages, often no more than a few houses clustered around the occasional oasis of barley fields and poplar trees. A road promised to bring progress, but it has currently been abandoned and the only way to get here is to walk. I spent the night in homestays, in traditional Ladakhi houses. It’s about as basic as you can imagine, but totally charming. You need to get used to drop pit toilets and a diet of rice, daal and vegetables, but the interaction with the locals more than compensates. The only evidence of modem technology is the use of solar panels which, in fact, you find all over Ladakh.

There are variations on the basic route. One option is to start in Chilling. From Leh there’s currently one bus a week. The other option, which I took, was to start in Zinchen, which is closer to Leh, but it means you have to negotiate a high pass to get into the valley and you’ll need two extra days.

Rumbak village
On my first day I met my guide Aditya and we took a taxi to Zinchen. From there we had an easy walk up to Rumbak, a classic Ladakhi village. I was struck by the horse shoes above the doors and the horns of blue sheep stuck on gates. Cow pats lay drying in the sun – they use these as fuel. There’s little in the way of furniture: you sleep on a mattress on the floor and sit on mats in the communal kitchen. Gas stoves are becoming common, but you can still find wood-burning ovens as these heat up the kitchen better in the winter.

While a woman prepared dinner, her husband was knitting a slingshot to use against wild animals. This is also snow leopard country and the man said they often come into the village. Sadly, they are very rare, but we did see a family of mountain goats racing around at the top of the mountain as we set off the next day. It was a hard climb up to the Gonda La, a high pass at 4950m. Along the way we had great views of Stok Kangri, one of the highest peaks around, and, from the top of the pass, the distant Zanskar range. We descended from the pass to Shingo after 8 hours walking and, with every limb aching, I fell soundly asleep. 

The Markha river

The next day was another 7 hour walk, but thankfully with no ascents. We began by continuing down to Skiu, a quaint little village which sits at the confluence of the Markha River and Shingo Gorge. During a tea break at a parachute cafe, Aditya, who’s from Darjeeling, told me about his Nepalese heritage and his attempt to join the Gurkhas like several of his friends. However, there is a stiff joining fee which was prohibitive for him and so he became a guide and comes to Ladakh for the short summer season.

We were now in the Markha valley proper and we headed east, through an incredible canyon. Chortens, Buddhist shrines, stand at strategic points, as do mani walls. These are stone walls covered with many pieces of chiselled slate, which people bring as offerings and function similarly to prayer flags. It is the custom to circumnavigate chortens and mani walls clockwise, and Aditya scrupulously observed this ritual. Although a Hindu, he also believed in much of what Buddhism has to to offer and, to confuse things further, he also went to a Catholic school and still goes to church. 

Prayer flags and a chorten

We spent the night in Sara, where I finally managed to get a wash in the river. Bathrooms and showers are pretty non-existent in the valley. The following day was an easy 2 and a half hours to Markha. The way often ran along the riverbed which involved boulder-hopping or climbed high above the river on vertigo-inducing narrow paths. Day five provided some adventures. The route to the village of Hankar involves a knee-deep crossing of the freezing river. The cliff  path after that had crumbled away and it was quite scary for a moment as I couldn’t get a grip anywhere, and the path was literally disintegrating as I touched it. 

Finally, we managed to get back down safely and followed the river to upper Hankar, the other side of a ruined fort, where I had great views of Kangyaze mountain. The next morning we climbed up to Nimaling, the base camp for the ascent to the Kongmaru La. There are no buildings here so you have to overnight in tents. At 4730m high, it was pretty cold and it snowed during the night.  Horses, ponies, yaks and zho (a cross between a yak and a cow) grazed on the vast grassy plains below Kangyaze.

Kangyaze seen from across the fields in Hankar

The other side of the pass involved a very long descent to Shang Sumdo through a beautiful narrow canyon. It’s possible to get a taxi from there back to Leh, but I decided to go instead to Hemis and spend the night there. 

The following morning I visited the famous monastery for early morning prayers. The vividly painted walls provided a visual backdrop to the hypnotic chanting of the mantras by the monks. There were also many novice monks, dressed in red and yellow robes, some of them very young,and yet they behaved like children the world over; they looked bored, they giggled and whispered to each other. One of them spilt his mug of tea. 

Hemis Monastery


It was the perfect end to a week long odyssey through stunning Himalayan scenery and an absorbing insight into Ladakhi culture and religion. 

Attending a teaching session by the Dalai Lama in Ladakh

The Dalai Lama greets the crowd

I’d already missed one opportunity to see the Dalai Lama over a week ago, so I was determined not to miss out again. It meant getting up at 6am, cramming into a bus packed with devotees and travelling the short distance to Choglamsar, a village with many Tibetans in exile. 

By 7.30am a huge crowd had already gathered in a vast field and were eagerly anticipating the arrival of His Holiness. I picked my way through the throng and envied the families who’d come more prepared than I with mats and rugs and picnics. Many people were dressed up in fine clothes and several in traditional Tibetan costume. Several old men and women were sitting on the ground spinning prayer wheels in their hands. 

Woman with prayer wheel

By luck more than anything else, I somehow managed to make my way to the front where the Dalai Lama was due to appear and got a great view of his arrival. Two monks held enormous parasols to protect him from the sun. Lavishly dressed women bore flowers to welcome him. 

Women welcomimg the Dalai Lama

I then realised that I’d also stumbled into the foreigners’ section which, perhaps unfairly, was right at the front to one side. His Holiness began his teachings which lasted almost 4 hours. There was simultaneous translation into English which was difficult to hear and many people had brought radios to tune into special frequencies broadcasting the translations. 

The Dalai Lama waves goodbye

But for me the most interesting thing was simply to be there, to watch the crowd and to admire the humility and compassion of the Dalai Lama. 

A day at the doctor’s in Delhi and relaxing in Ladakh

Leh

Taking an auto rickshaw through the wild congested streets of Delhi is not for the faint-hearted. You need nerves of steel and clenched buttocks. The white lines painted on the tarmac seem for decoration only. Four lanes invariably expand to six, with rickshaw drivers being particularly adept at squeezing into frighteningly narrow spaces between lorries and buses. Cows, dogs and pedestrians have to take their chances as best they can. It’s even more bewildering when you’ve just got off a long flight and you’re also suffering intense back and stomach pain. Being ill on my first day in Delhi was not what I’d expected.

I went to a local hospital and, sidestepping the baboon on the grass outside, ventured inside to be confronted with a pretty grim picture. I didn’t stay long, but eventually found online the name of a doctor operating in the Main Bazaar in Paharganj where I was staying. He operated out of a dingy, hole-in-the-wall shop in a congested street, but was extremely helpful and friendly. He sent me off for some X-rays and a CT scan and so I was once more weaving my way in a rickshaw through what was now rush hour traffic. And, by the way, it’s monsoon season here, so the heat and humidity are quite oppressive. 

By the end of the day and £200 pounds poorer, I had a diagnosis – a kidney stone. In years of travelling I’ve been really lucky in avoiding any major problems except the odd sprained ankle, so this was a bit of a shock for me. As I was flying to Leh the next day with plans to go trekking in some remote Himalayan regions, I was quite concerned, but the doctor said that nothing could be done right now and that I shouldn’t cancel or change my plans.

Prayer flags near Tsemo Fort

Leh, the capital of Ladakh, is a great place to spend a few days recuperating. After noisy Delhi it’s a haven of peace. Situated way up north near the borders with Tibet, China and Pakistan, it has a strong Buddhist influence and feels very different from other parts of India. It stands at 3520m above sea level and in more prosperous times was a centre of trade coming down off the Silk Route. Tibetans, Hindus, Moslems and now tourists from all over the world mingle freely. 

Woman selling fruit in the Main Bazaar

The Main Bazaar is spacious and wide, clearly designed for traders to pass along with pack animals and horses. Women still sit at the sides selling fruit, vegetables and spices. Prayer wheels and stupas are dotted around the town, while an impressive Sunni mosque presides over the old town. Lanes radiate out from the centre, many of them lined with guesthouses and restaurants. Many of them have their own gardens and the wonderful smell of fresh mint hangs in the air.

There are several gompas, Buddhist temples, dotted around and I walked up to the Sankar Gompa to find it empty and serene. A young monk opened the door of the main shrine for me and inside I marvelled at the statues and brightly coloured wall paintings.
Ladakhi man

Above the town sits the old Royal Palace and, even further up on the ridge, is the old Tsemo Fort. After exploring the crumbling old rooms of the palace, I sat in a cafe overlooking the town eating a bowl of thukpa, a delicious Tibetan soup. Down below at the Jama Masjid, the muezzin started a haunting call to midday prayers and, for a moment, I forgot my medical worries and just lived in the moment, which, after all, is what travel is all about.