Nubra Valley- The forgotten Shangri La
The Nubra Valley, once on the trading route that connected eastern Tibet with Turkistan via the famous Karakoram Pass, is the most recently opened area of Ladakh
The deep-cut Shayok and Nubra River Valleys offer tremendous scenery on a grand scale, with green oasis villages surrounded by thrillingly stark scree slopes, boulder fields and harsh arid mountains. There are sand dunes, monasteries, a ruined palace and – at Turtuk and Bogdang – a whole different culture to discover.
The common way to access this valley is to travel over the Khardung La pass from Leh town. Foreign nationals are required to get a Protected area permit to visit the Nubra Valley. Since 1 April 2017 Indian citizens are also required to get an Inner Line Permit to visit the valley.
Like the rest of the Tibetan Plateau, Nubra is a high altitude cold desert with rare precipitation and scant vegetation except along river beds. The villages are irrigated and fertile, producing wheat, barley, peas, mustard and a variety of fruits and nuts, including blood apples, walnuts, apricots and even a few almond trees. Most of the Nubra Valley is inhabited by Nubra dialect or Nubra Skat speakers. The majority are Buddhists. In the western or lowest altitude end of Nubra Valley near the Line of Control i.e. the Indo-Pak border, along the Shyok River, the inhabitants are Balti of Gilgit-Baltistan, who speak Balti, and are Shia and Sufia Nurbakhshia Muslims.
Siachen Glacier lies to the north of the valley. The Sasser Pass and the famous Karakoram Pass lie to the northwest of the valley and connect Nubra with Uyghur (Mandarin : Xinjiang). Previously there was much trade passing through the area with western China’s Xinjiang and Central Asia. The people of Baltistan also used the Nubra valley for passage to Tibet.
Places to see
Directly above Old Diskit, a 2km spaghetti of hairpins winds up to this fabulous monastery complex, much of which dates to between the 14th and 17th centuries. It’s a brilliant jumble of Tibetan-style box buildings piled higgledy-piggledy up a steep, rocky peak that ends in a toe-curlingly vertical chasm. At the back right-hand corner of the atmospheric gonkhang (guardian spirits’ temple), a white six-armed deity statue clasps a withered forearm and a human skull, supposedly body parts of a Mongol warrior who mysteriously dropped dead when attempting to seize the monastery.
Note that entry times vary and some shrines close early and at lunchtime, dependent on the duties of the various monks. The entry fee includes access to a gigantic (32m) full-colour Chamba statue on an intermediate hill, formally inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in July 2010. At the point where the two access lanes bifurcate, a monastery restaurant serves up a fair selection of meals.
At 5602m, Khardung La is claimed (and disputed) to be the world’s highest motorable pass. A plethora of prayer flags festoons a flanking chaos of rocks and there’s permanent glacial ice on the pass’s north face. There’s also a little souvenir shop, an ultra-basic canteen/tea stand and an information panel outlining the history of Maggi instant noodles. Most Nubra Valley transport makes a brief stop here, but a fabulous alternative is to rent a bicycle, have it transported to the top and to free-wheel all the way back down.
At this altitude you are likely to feel light-headed, so climbing to the small shrine above the road is unwise unless you’re well acclimatised. Most visitors content themselves with having their photo taken at the pass sign, a privilege for which there’s often quite a queue. If you get hit with altitude illness, there’s emergency oxygen available at the small medical hut. The two sets of public toilets are very unappealing. A tiny ‘museum’ has just eight framed black-and-white photos of the 1976 road construction plus the short travelogue of a British couple who came this way on yaks back in 1901.
At the centre of Tegar village is the ancient little Manekhang Gompa from which a mani wall leads down a sloping lane to this unmarked historic house preserved in its original condition and open on request to visitors. It’s entered via the last unmarked wooden door on the left before the footpath tunnels under a raised chorten.
Zamskhang Palace Ruins
The Zamskhang Palace was a former residence of the kings of Nubra. Long abandoned, the building is more ruinous than it looks from afar but a small shrine room inside is just about intact. The site is high up an unstable rocky hillside that retains other increasingly minimal hints of a former royal town, along with many scattered little stupas filled with votive clay tablets.
Turtuk Old Mosque
In the heart of Turtuk Youl, the Old Mosque’s distinctive feature is a wooden minaret with a spiral staircase only partly encased by timber slats. The mosque’s exterior looks relatively modern but inside there are attractive faceted wooden ceiling patterns. Locals date the original mosque here back to at least the 16th century, possibly almost a millennium.
High above the eponymous river valley, this oasis of a village is the first habitation you come across having struggled 38km along the valley from Agham. There’s a small, mostly modern gompa at the very top of the village and at least four summer restaurants and homestays – a pleasant respite if you’re cycling.
Tsolding Buddha Park
The name suggests something far more intricate but the reality is simply a small shrine on an island in a pretty upland pond grazed by dzo (a cow and yak cross-breed). The area is also playground to marmots.
It’s worth a five-minute stop if you’re driving past en route to the Nubra Valley.
Hunder’s small but expanding monastery is most interesting for the various Buddhist sites dotted around it, notably a series of ancient whitewashed chortens and the Skalzang mani wall.
Where the main Diskit–Turtuk road crosses a river on a large new bridge beside Hunder’s modest gompa, look up at the glistening black cliff to spy the remnants of an old fortress high above you.
Small hotels, simple (often family-run) guesthouses and tented camps are plentiful. Prices do depend on the season and are often negotiable.
- Diskit: Spangla Guest House offers simple clean rooms with private bathrooms, from around INR500/dbl downstairs or INR700/dbl upstairs; Olthang Guest House, as above but nicer gardens, from around INR600-800/dbl; Sten Del Hotel with decent rooms and pleasant gardens, from around INR900-1200/dbl.
- Hunder: Hotel Jamshed, basic rooms, so-so garden, from around INR500/dbl; Chamba Deluxe Camp set in lovely quiet gardens, INR4500/dbl tent including three daily meals.
- Sumur: Namgyal Guest House, decent rooms, pleasant garden, from around INR700/dbl; K,Sar Guest House, decent rooms, lovely garden, from around INR700/dbl.