The Nubra Valley lies north of Leh, over the Khardung La, the ‘highest motorable pass in the world’ (although someone told me that Bolivia bitterly disputes this) at 18,360 ft. I felt uncomfortably dizzy, which made me realize what a good job we had done acclimatizing to a similar height on the Annapurna circuit.
I was in a share jeep with an Indian couple who didn’t speak much English and English Paul, who spoke rather more English than I cared for. In fact he never shut up: with no encouragement he yammered on about his childhood, his parents’ livelihoods, his variety of jobs, and his stays in various spiritual places. He had been to India seven times before and so felt qualified to make blanket statements about Indians. The day passed mostly like this:
Paul: blah blah when my father bought the stately home people thought he was crazy, but then he made a good living turning it into a nursing home blah blah…when I was working as a gardener blah blah
Paul: blah blah I think it’s wonderful how the Indians can fall asleep wherever blah blah…
Paul: Did you know that the crown chakra has moved from the Himalayas to the Andes?
Paul: So do you think Nepal is more spiritual than India?
MF: I am really not the right person to ask about this.
Paul: (momentarily quiet)
Paul: So my mother, who lives in the south of France blah blah…
In hindsight I wonder if the Indian couple spoke as little English as they claimed.
The valley, which is of strategic importance to India because of its location next to Pakistan and China, is filled with military bases but manages to retain its sense of solitude and grandeur. We visited a few monasteries, which isn’t hard considering that you can’t swing a cat in Ladakh without hitting a picturesque monastery clinging to the side of a cliff. One had an elaborate suite kept at the ready for the Dalai Lama’s infrequent visits; he had last been in 2003 and was expected again within a few years.
I was struck by how much Ladakhi architecture resembles that of Northern New Mexico: mud bricks plastered with mud; tree trunk beams that I would call vigas with decorative twigs placed in between that in Spanish are latillas. In the palaces and fancier monasteries there are carved colored beams that would look at home in a New Mexican mission. I wonder whether both cultures evolved the same style because they had the same materials to work with or whether there was some sort of cross-fertilization?
In the late afternoon we visited the Nubra sand dunes, which was the only underwhelming part of the trip. They’re advertised as a bit of Arabia in Ladakh but look more like golf course sand traps with Bactrian camels waiting patiently for tourist money. I did not bother to take a camel ride, as I figured that three days on a camel in Rajasthan had been enough, but I was interested to see that the two-humped camels are a lot hairier than their one-humped cousins and the humps look considerably less firm.
We stayed in a tented camp, which was fine until the morning when I managed to trip off my tent’s concrete platform and sprain my ankle. I was in pain the entire ride back but thankful it happened near the end of my trip with no trekking left. Back in Leh for the night I performed the third world ice trick, i.e. stuck my foot in a bucket of cold water. In the middle of the night I woke because it was hot and throbbing, so I dragged the bucket to the side of the bed and fell asleep with one leg hanging out into the water.