Thomas recommended Gyatso from Vajra Voyages to me, so I walk in the door and the first face I see is this instantly endearing Ladakhi boy with a Brasilian bracelet. Bingo. He is super friendly and I ask him to help me organize a trip to Pangong Tso, the most visited lake in Ladakh, famous for its unreal blue hues. Somehow, we managed to have a miscommunication and I end up with a Nubra Valley permit. Umm.
Well, I guess that’s a sign that I’m supposed to go to Nubra and will arrange Pangong when I get back, I decide, and 6am on Saturday I’m at the bus stand. The road from Leh to Nubra Valley is famous for the pass at Khardung-la – at 5329m, it’s the world’s highest motorable road. As we ascend from Leh the air gets thinner, colder, and we are immersed in a wonderland of snow that never fully melts. My breathing is shallow, my head is spinning, I feel like my brain is a cotton ball. Thankfully, we start descending at a pretty rapid rate and things go back to (relatively) normal relatively quickly.
Then we stop. I had been dozing off, and I thought this was a chai or food stop, and since I’m famished I jump up with a smile and get off the bus. Oh wait. There’s like, at least 20 vehicles here. And we’re on the side of the road. And there’s no food stall or dhaba or…anything. There was a truck that had somehow fallen over sideways (it looked like no injuries) but we were going to be here for awhile. I had met a lovely Czech couple the day before on the bus to Phyang and they were also headed to Nubra so luckily I had some company. After about an hour and a half, I decided to ditch the bus and see if I could hitch a ride with people that were taking a pretty precarious alternative route, going straight down the side of the mountain. The first people I ask agree, and they are a family from London now living in Bombay. So we make it down the hill, then find out that they are going to the Panamik side and I am headed to the Diskit side. I figure worst case scenario if I don’t get a ride where the road splits, the bus should pass within a few hours anyway…so they let me off at the turnoff to Diskit, and within 30 seconds a jeep stops, and is going all the way to Diskit! Wonderful. He is a guy from Diskit who is normally a taxi driver but refuses any sort of payment from me, taking me all the way to the bus stand. I am starving; it’s nearly 3pm, I left Leh without breakfast on the 6am bus…so stop in a dhaba and scarf down some dhal. No roti is available, and I need a break from rice. So I gather my few belongings and start on the road down to Hundar, which is 7km away (in actuality I think it is more like 9 by the time you descend from the main road and follow the twists and turns that takes you into the village). As luck would have it, another lovely man stops and takes me about 5km to the army checkpost where he is headed, then I continue walking until another man takes me all the way to the village.
Except I have no sense of direction and I think, wow, this beautiful flowing stream surrounded by towering willow trees, I guess I should follow that…and don’t see a single person for over half an hour. I’m pretty blissed out though, in the shade of the trees with the gentle music of flowing water, and suddenly, a person appears and cheerfully says joolee. Ladakhi is great – joolee means hello, goodbye, good morning, thank you, you’re welcome, good night, and probably a dozen other things…anyway, I indicate that I’m headed to Hundar village and a look of alarm crosses his face, as he tells me I’m going in the complete opposite direction and I am nearly at the next village. Figures. Sigh. All good though, since the walk back towards Hundar is of course, very very beautiful. When I make it back, I ask the next human I see (2 in over 1 hour!) where there are guesthouses and he points to the house that I’m standing next to. Certainly doesn’t look like a guest house…but of course, it is, and within 5 minutes I am situated in a lovely home and go for a stroll.
Hundar may be the most photogenic picturesque village I have seen in Ladakh. It just feels so quaint and so right. I hadn’t brought anything with me, the packing and unpacking on an almost daily basis had really started to tire me out so I decided to just go with my camera, book, and towel and see what happened. Turns out no transport is allowed on the road on Mondays, due to road maintenance and repairs (yes, the road is still in a condition which requires weekly maintenance) – so I would have to leave Sunday, the next day, or stay until Tuesday. I felt something tugging at me to leave the next day so it was decided. As I wandered around the village, around the corner came Marketa and Radek and the other foreigner from the bus! I had been in Hundar (and nearly the next village) for about 2 hours, wandering around, gotten a room, everything, and they were just arriving! Turns out the bus got started about 45 minutes after I jumped ship, but then it stopped along the way for food, and another half hour in Diskit…I brought them back to my guesthouse and soon we were all settled.
The daytime is extremely painfully sunny and hot for me in Ladakh (at least from the time I’ve been here), so I find it most pleasant to be up and about before 9am, and after 5pm. We decided to take advantage of the evening’s lovely weather and go for a stroll. The sand dunes, we were told, are 2.5km from our guesthouse so we go down that path, and emerge onto a field with a wide stream/river, and on the other side are the small but very pretty sand dunes. We stay on our side of the water and slowly head back, going through mustard fields which give the appearance of being completely yellow, framed by purple lupine and other wildflowers. The surrounding mountains are glowing red with the sunset.
We have a lovely local dinner prepared by the family, and shortly thereafter I fall into a deep sleep; I am planning an early morning the next day. 4am and I’m up. I want to make it back to Diskit via the sand dunes, walking and/or hitching, and I want to get started before the hot sun is awake. I set off and it is serenity at its finest. I walk to the sand dunes, and the angling with the sun isn’t the best for getting the red glow, but nonetheless the shadows are gorgeous. It’s not even 6am and already it’s warm. I get back to the main road and about a kilometer further get a lift to the Diskit bus stand. It’s 6.30am. It’s hot. I decided I should go to the gompa since I’ve come all the way here. So another 2km down the road, I turn off and go straight up the mountainside to get to the gompa. Actually, I took the wrong road (How was I ever a tour guide with this sense of direction?!) and go up to the chamba – a huge Buddha, out in the open, on top of the mountain. I can see the gompa on the other side of the cliff. I think, no, I won’t go. But somehow when I descend to where the road splits, my legs go up the other side. It is a tough, steep climb but I fall in love with Diskit Monastery. Most of the monks I see are elderly, with smile lines that start at the edges of their eyes and mouth and meet in many intersections on their faces. The main hall sends shivers up my spine. And of course, the views over the Nubra Valley are priceless.
It’s 8am now, and it is really hot. I start my way back towards Diskit, and there doesn’t seem to be much road traffic. Finally a compact car whizzes around the corner, descending from the chamba, and pulls over for me. He is on the phone when I get in so I just smile, and after a few minutes when his call is over, we start chatting. He is an engineer from Leh who is here to work on drinking water pipelines because His Holiness the Dalai Lama is going to be here in less than 2 weeks. He is pure loveliness. I tell him I left Hundar at 4.30am and retraced my steps for him, and he is surprised and amazed (mostly at the 4.30am start), and after a brief pause, worriedly asks, but what about breakfast?? So I tell him it’s ok I have some dried apricots and muesli and he looks at me with a mildly scolding look. We go to the taxi stand, and the jeep is waiting for one more passenger, after me, to start down the road to Leh. The engineer organizes with the driver to come get me at his base when he finds the next passenger, and insists that I go back to his place to have breakfast. We arrive at the makeshift camp, I guess you could call it, where…the guy who gave me my last ride the previous day, all the way to Hundar, is leaning outside on his car. It’s his brother! So we all have a good laugh about that, then I go in and we eat delicious veggie scrambled eggs and Kashmiri bread. Just as I’m finishing off my chai, the jeep driver arrives and I jump in. Amazing Ladakhis. Thank you.
The jeep ride is exponentially more pleasant than the bus ride and I get great views out the window. It takes us nearly 5 hours to reach Leh since we stop a few times, particularly for some engine trouble, but no big deal. When I get back to Leh, though, I feel like I am really not ready to stay there. The honking, the masses of tourists (it’s relative, though, compared to anywhere in Rajasthan there are no tourists and it is very quiet) – so I decide I’ll go to Stok for the night.