Monasteries and Sandstorms in the Nubra Valley

After relaxing in Leh, our new homebase, where we enjoyed the off season prices of a lovely hotel, complete with clean white fluffy duvets, we planned our next journey in Ladakh. We decided to travel to the Nubra Valley, with one of the main draws being that we could do it by local transportation, not having to travel by expensive chartered jeeps. The old small catch is a travel permit required due to the military sensitivity in the area, it costs about a dollar a day and is supposed to be issued to groups of 4 or more. Our permit had the names of some Korean travellers on it, we were told, if asked, to tell officials that they were travelling by jeep. The route to the Nubra Valley crosses the highest motorable pass in the world, Khardong La at almost 5700m in altitude at its highest point. Since we were still early in the season was open to traffic every day in only one direction. We left on a huge rickety bus early in the morning and it took nearly 10 hours for us to get over the pass and to the small town of Hunder, despite the total travel distance being about 100km. Hunder is as far as you can get with your permit, a few meters along the highway is a large sign reminding foreigners not to go any further. Our afternoon in Hunder was a frustrating experience of searching for a guest house in a town that didn't seem to interested in having any guests. We were still early in the season it appeared, most guest houses hadn't opened yet, and those that were, offered us peak season prices. We finally found a guest house on the outskirts of town that was reasonably priced, but was also the local watering hole. Hunder had come as highly recommended over the neighbouring town due to its peace and quiet, but it was just a little bit too much peace and quiet for us.

Deskit is the biggest town in Nubra (and it's not very big), and sits only 7km away from Hunder. People flock to Deskit and Hunder mainly because they are separated by a small desert complete with sand dunes, if you're lucky you can even spot a wild bactrian (two humped) camel, remnants from the towns position on the silk road. Trade was still booming only one generation ago, but the Kashmir conflict has effectively shut it down, today you're more likely to see a bactrian camel carrying a whole family of Indian tourists. We decided to walk to Deskit through the dunes, which seemed like a great idea until we got hit by a sandstorm about 20 minutes into the walk. It lasted only a few minutes but long enough to get sand in everything. After the sand storm, our intrepid guide Jochen, decided he would lead us through the most difficult terrain, since staying next to the river or the highway was too boring. This excursion terminated with us knee deep in mud, but we felt more hardcore, like we had actually done some trekking, even though the highway was still in view if you looked closely (which we didn't, to keep up the illusion). Deskit was way more of a "tourist hub" then Hunder, there were at least two open guest houses! We spent two days in Deskit, with one whole day mainly dedicated to playing cards in our guest house. We were told by a teenage monk that the morning prayers were at 6 a.m. so we had a very early morning as the walk up to the monastery took almost an hour. When we arrived, bright and early, we surprised to find that there wasn't the usual pre-prayer bustle. In fact, not a single soul seemed to be awake. We were rescued by the groundskeeper, an older monk, who pulled out a mattress that we could sit on, served us biscuits and hot tea and even got out his binoculaurs. This helped the time pass as we discovered we had an hour before the prayers actually started.
The Deskit Monastery isn't quite as polished as the Thiksey Monastery when it comes to their morning prayers. They wouldn't receive nearly the amount of visitors that Thiksey does, seeing as Thiksey is only a few minutes drive from Leh. This made the ceremony even more entertaining. There were no novice monks there, but the old guys seemed to have reached the point in their monk careers where they couldn't be too bothered with rigidity. Their eating breaks were noticeably longer than those in Thiksey and many times monks would break into full conversation as the prayer leader ploughed diligently through the recitations. We were greeted warmly and affectionately by the small group of monks living in the monastery and were happy to have made the morning trip. Morning prayers were becoming my favourite activity despite the ridiculously early hours. From Deskit we caught a local bus to the town of Panamik, India's northern most town accesible to tourists. Panamik is nothing more than a few homes, a couple of small military buildings and its hotsprings. Not much has been done to make the hotsprings a tourist destination, although all the travel brochures claim that Panamik is a must for the "famous hotsprings". The hotsprings are surrounded by thick cement walls and two cabins have been built for bathing but not really cleaned or taken care of. The water is scalding hot and is used all year round by locals for bathing, which is nice in a place where winters are frigid and hot water is a luxury even in big city Leh's hotels. My main activities in Panamik were sleeping and eating while the boys explored the area. We all dipped into the hotsprings though. Our last stop in Nubra was the small town of Sumur. We were on day five of our travels in the region when we arrived, and we knew the next bus out of Nubra was the next day. Our inner-line permit was only valid for one week, and since buses run on alternate days, we knew it was our only chance of leaving Nubra without a permit violation. The workers at our Sumur guest house assured us that there was a bus the next morning, so we spent the day exploring town and visiting the local monastery. It happened to be the monastic school's final day of exams and the spirits were high. Upon arrival we became surrounded by a crowd of teenage monks eager to hear their English teacher (also a monk) practise his skills on us. When we got back to town after the monastery visit, it was lunch time and we searched for a local restaurant. We were greeted by the English teacher, who had obviously taken a shorter route than us, hanging out from a second story window calling at us to come have tea with him, we obliged. He ended up paying for our teas and lunch despite, once again, our strong objections. We also got the reliable information that there was definetely no bus leaving Sumur the next morning and that the only way back to Leh was from Deskit. We quickly gathered our things from the guest house and waited in the Sumur main square for the last local bus, along with dozens of other villagers. We had to push our way through the crowds to get spots on the bus, actually on the roof. The ride was great until we started climbing through the mountain roads, then it just got scary. We managed to track down the bus driver for the Leh bound bus who remembered us from our ride from Leh six days earlier, he confirmed his departure location and time for us (he was now about the only person we would have trusted with this information). We arrived back in Leh with a full day left on our permit.

1 comment:

2par4 said...'re really starting to get into this Monastary thing. You're not going Leonard Cohen on us are ya? ;-)