Paldhan, our driver, stopped the car by the edge of the serpentine road and said for the third time in the last half an hour of our journey, “Now drink as much water as you can.”
Though my stomach was already bloated with his previous two orders, I relented. From that height, the Indus valley and the town of Leh was spread, way down below in the South, as a patchwork of green strip surrounded by the mountains of Ladakh — stark and barren, as if some invisible hand has skinned them off. Only their snow covered peaks dazzled in the morning sun.
We started moving up the mountain again. A brown marmot peeped out from its hole by the crag of the mountain and I grappled for my camera. Soon, we ascended the snow line. It became white all around, and the road treacherously narrow and uneven.
Paldhan slowed down to snail’s pace to let a group of seven adventurous motorcyclists in their black leather jackets and trousers overtake us. The patter of the seven Enfields echoed across the mountain.
The riders waved at us while passing, their butts raised up the seats all the while to buffer off the bumpy road.
Our car went lugging up the jagged mountain road, like a drunkard aware of the consequence of a fall, for another 20 minutes. We reached the narrow flat of Khardung La — the high mountain pass.
Standing at 18,380 feet, as the signboard proclaims, we were at the highest motor-able road of the world. The small parking lot was filled with cars, bikes and army trucks. There was an exuberance buzzing around, of achieving some tell-able milestone of life. There was also caution. For, at that dizzy height, three tourists were being provided with oxygen supplement at the army’s medical camp.
Desert at the top
The road eases down after Khardung La, first in steep hairpins, then in more gradual bends. Thankfully, the road got smoother. At the small town of Diskit, we met the broad valley of Shyok river, and with it entered the Nubra Valley. We followed the river for some distance and then turned west across a broad arid flat to again ledge up the mountainside.
To our right, some 200 metres below the road was the vast sea of sand dunes of the Hunder Desert. A herd of Bactrian camels — those with two humps on their back instead of one — were crossing the sandy stretch, leaving behind a trail of footprints on the silken contour of the desert.
We came down to the level of the desert at Hunder village. This is a one-of-a-kind place. A desert at 10,000 feet above sea level, surrounded by craggy brown mountains with snow-covered peaks. It was afternoon. The sun had started to stretch the shadows of the dunes. Three of the four camels that provide joy rides to the tourists had escaped the previous night, and their owners, or captors, as the case might be, had gone in search of them. I could not help but feel a secret sense of joy and covertly wished those lovely desert animals freedom for life.
Battle of hues
We left the desert for greener pasture. Our tent in the Nubra Valley was amid an orchard of apple and apricot at the edge of a tiny village. The villagers cultivate paddy and barley, grow vegetables, work in the barn and pray at the local Buddhist monastery. There is no electricity. Life is simple, without ostentation.
But there is remarkable richness in the way these villagers go about. I ventured out on the narrow village road, a quarter of which was also shared by a gentle flowing mountain stream — the main source of water for the village. In the whole of Ladakh, village communities grow around such mountain streams that are somewhere free-flowing, somewhere channelised.
A village elder was coming the other way. He smiled at me, nodded his head and said, “Julay.” “Julay,” I responded. It is the equivalent of Namaskara, I had learnt. At the bend of the road, two teenage girls appeared, and again, “Julay,” they greeted me smilingly. I was pleasantly surprised.
I walked past the village. The road opened up to green paddy fields. Fed by the two rivers, Nubra and Shyok, over relatively flat topography, Nubra Valley is among the few places in Ladakh suitable for agriculture over large tracts.
And this is what makes Nubra so fascinating. For, at the far end of the swaying green expanse, the signature-brown Ladakhi mountains soar up to touch the sky with their snow crest.
Creating a green-brown-white spectrum over the canvas. Near to me on to my right, a long-beaked hoopoe was dancing among the branches of a poplar, its spotted tuft swinging like a pompom at the flap of its wings. The little fellow evaded my camera every time I tried to focus.
But its live performance was worth a king’s ransom. In the background, the fields and the mountains stood still. The serenity was pervading. Like the Buddha in the monastery.