Kunzum Travel List #13: Nubra – Over the highest motorable road

Buddhist monks walking in Nubra Valley
Buddhist monks walking in Nubra Valley

Get ready to drive over the world’s highest motorable road at the Khardung La (pass) – it is 5,602 m (18,380 feet) above sea level. That sure is some altitude.

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Look around, and you will see stunning panoramas – what else do you expect when you are up so high? Don’t be surprised to be greeted by snowflakes even during peak summer. It was no mean task for the army to build this road. Equipment, jeeps and workers had to be lifted by helicopter to the site. Extreme weather conditions meant risks of avalanches, cave-ins and frostbite. After a few failed attempts, the road was finally built in 1972-73 but not before 18 men lost their lives. All this to connect to a few villages acquired after the 1971 war with Pakistan, and to serve the forward bases of the Indian army.

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The side effect was a treasure trove for travellers. Cross the Khardung La, and go onto the Nubra Valley. The landscape is stunning. If you get the permission, drive all the way to the 70 kms (44 miles) long Siachen glacier, the world’s highest battlefield where India and Pakistan spend billions annually in a senseless face-off. Atop the glacier (at elevations from 12,000- 19,000 feet), soldiers live in sub – zero conditions in cramped quarters. They spend at most 90 days at a stretch there. Supplies are lifted by helicopters. It costs Rs 70,000 to airlift 60 kg. In other words, rice costing Rs 70 a kg costs nearly Rs 1,000 a kg to deliver. Death and frostbite are common even when not a bullet is fired. It is a tough life.

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The snout of the Siachen glacier - it is nothing but moraine, a black mix of ice, soil and rock. The glacier has receded by a kilometer over the past 30 years. Global warming!
The snout of the Siachen glacier - it is nothing but moraine, a black mix of ice, soil and rock. The glacier has receded by a kilometer over the past 30 years. Global warming!
The shrine of OP Baba at the snout of the Siachen glacier. Soldiers offer their prayers after a successful stint on the glacier
The shrine of OP Baba at the snout of the Siachen glacier. Soldiers offer their prayers after a successful stint on the glacier

The pass presents a friendlier picture though – the Army even has what they call the ‘world’s highest souvenir shop.’ Pick up Khardung La branded merchandise including mugs, plates, cups, T-shirts and plaques. While there, look up the posters and maps on the walls to get a sense of history and geography of the place.

The Khardung La (Pass)
The Khardung La (Pass)
The ‘world’s highest’ souvenir shop at Khardung La
The ‘world’s highest’ souvenir shop at Khardung La

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Drive along the Shyok and Nubra rivers and you will not want to return to the world you live in. You will rarely see such beauty and calm as in this landscape. While here check out the stunningly located Hunder Fort, Diskit Monastery, the Panamik Hot Water Springs – and say hello to the double humped Bactrian camels. Nubra Valley was a stop on the legendary Silk Route, and these camels were a part of the caravans at one time – their job profile has now changed to entertaining tourists.

Pity we all have to come back from Nubra eventually. Wonder what it would be like to journey back on these camels?

The road back from Siachen
The road back from Siachen

Nubra: Travel Tips

* The road to Khardung La and beyond is accessible roughly from June to September only. A SUV is suggested for this terrain.
* Options to stay are limited and include guest houses like the Sand Dune in Diskit and the Yarab Tso in Kyagar besides a few others.
* Indians and foreigners need Inner Line Permits – and some areas are still out of bounds for them. The Siachen Glacier can be accessed only with Army permission.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Hai Ajay, everything is 100% sure. It just reminded my last year’s trip up to Khardungla. Could not go beyond because of lack of time. I will be going to Leh again during 14-31 Jan 2012. Any idea, whether I can go to Khardungla at that time? Will the road be open at that time (because the army has to use this road, I think)

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