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The long and winding road!
Following a night back in our hotel the Grand Himalaya in Leh, we arise with freshness and the promise of a new adventure ahead. We drive out of the hotel complex and head in a new direction to the North-West beyond Leh. This takes us up a long and winding road right from the beginning. Our guide Konchok tells us that this road has been used to test a certain brand of Formula 1 racing cars, “Blimey!!” I say, just a bit shocked! But I could also see the value in this adrenaline stimulating narrow road for testing these powerful cars that have to glide around corners and manipulate hairpin bends with very accurate precision! But where does this road lead?
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Amazing views on way to the Khardung La Pass
Our destination today is the Nubra Valley with its renowned landscapes, interesting history and lower altitude (link to be added once Nubra Valley story published). To get there we drive up the long and winding road which, at the start at least, is sealed.
With barely a cloud in the sky, the view over the Ladakh Valley and Leh towards the snow-capped mountains on the other side is more than spectacular. Konchok points to the green valley in the distance below the mountain range and tells us it is Stok. He had told us about this valley the day before and it is where the royal family, who like to be known as lay people, now live since they moved from Shey Palace in 1834. He points to the mountain range beyond and tells us about the long Markha valley beyond the mountains that is a popular trekking route with six villages that exist the way they have for centuries without modern conveniences except one satellite phone for all the villages. Read more about ‘trekking the Markha’ here
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Stupa under construction
We drive past a construction area and I ask the question “what is that?” as I peer into the valley just below the road. Konchok tells us that the Buddhist Society of Ladakh are building a new stupa – like the Shanti one we had visited on the day we arrived in Leh. The foundations are laid and at this stage, it resembles a Roman amphitheatre.
I turn and look up towards the saddle in the high mountains which houses Khardung La Pass and think “what a sight, and what a road to get there!” To look up and see how high we are heading to the pass is most definitely a wow moment!
The roads we travel
The tar sealing on the road runs out as we enter an area under repair and re-construction. We are back to slow and bumpy but the anticipation and views are worth it and override any discomfort as we head to the top. Building roads here in these high mountains is no easy task, there are few modern machines and many road workers carry out the hard manual labour. It helps us to appreciate the road beneath our wheels especially when one notices women breaking rocks on the side of the road, sometimes with little children by their sides. A signpost states “you are driving up the highest motorable pass in the world, not a short-cut to heaven.” Road signs in India are inspired and offer great advice to the hill drivers to take care and ensure travellers reach their destination. This pass was built in 1976 but was only opened to motor traffic in 1988 and is essential for moving supplies towards the Siachen Glacier area – a strategic military zone. Formerly a track on the caravan route, it has seen thousands of horses and camels pass over in the hundreds of years before the road.
Khardung La Pass
At the top of this road lies the Khardung La Pass – the highest motorable pass in the world (5,578m/18,380ft). We voice our excitement to be well on our way and anticipate what lies around the corner at the top, which hides out of sight to travellers, only signalled by a tall tower which we can see in the distance. We enjoy seeing a bit of snow along the way; someone has made a tiny snowman and small frozen roadside waterfalls make for a pretty sight. We appreciate our careful driver who stops many times as we photograph the vistas all around and thank him for his patience. It takes a bit of time, but soon we are there.
At the top of the world
At the top, we get out of the car with great enthusiasm and take the usual round of photos by the signposts, toilets and the highest cafe in the world – after all, such feats of accomplishment need to be recorded!
It is cool but not as cold as I thought it would be and we are only slightly breathless as we carefully walk about in the soft snow on the top of the world! A small stupa, adorned with multiple colourful prayer flags sit atop a small rise just above the pass. The flags flap in the wind and the other end of the string is latched to rocks higher up the steep mountainside providing a welcoming and colourful sight against the white snow background. Konchok tells us that if two people marry, one from each valley on either side of the pass, the families gather at this stupa for ceremonies that offer them protection.
After tea and snacks we are back in the car and on our way, the view down to the Nubra is spacious and invites us to explore. The road twists and turns as it snakes down the mountainside in the snow to then become brown grass and rock.
We are close to the Nubra now where special permits are needed and organised by Suresh our travel organiser see Suresh’s website here and Konchok, along with our driver. The terrain changes and we are excited as we look towards a few days in the same camp bed, and exploring the acclaimed Nubra Valley.
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