By the time we got to the grocery store, figured out that there was no electricity, searched out an internet café which would let us download songs from Sandeep’s mobile and then set out for Nubra, it was a bright and sunny ten a.m.
The road to Nubra goes past Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable road at 18000 + feet. It also seemed to be the sharpest ascent, since in a mere 35 kms, we had scaled 4000 feet from Leh. Stanzin drove the last bit very slowly and carefully, yet my heart was pumping really fast as I pointedly looked ahead, ignoring the sheer drop. There were cyclists pushing ahead with amazing amounts of energy. At that altitude, you had to be superfit to even attempt cycling.
We had already seen Taglang La and Chang La and could not wait to see what Khardung La looked like. The peaks around us were beginning to appear at our eye level, so were the distant clouds (that's a pic taken on the way).
Then we reached. We could have been on Chennai’s Marina Beach or Ooty’s Dodhabeta or Mumbai’s Gateway of India. The crowd was unbelievable. There was a buzz as everyone followed the routine of getting off, using the toilets and then positioning themselves in front of one of the many boards that proclaimed ‘Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable pass’ to take a snap. Aged aunties, who rightfully should have been pumped with oxygen given the difficult in breathing, waddled sprightly to the nearest signboard. And some of them were being given oxygen later. But photos at any cost seemed the motto.
Stanzin later explained that a lot of people made it a point to make a day trip to Khardung La from Leh. Hence it usually got crowded and touristy. Seeing no reason to stay for too long, we followed the routine and then continued to Nubra Valley.
The descent took long, over 100 kms of winding roads. We stopped for army convoys making their way over to Leh and stared in wonder at all the vehicles. Nubra finally appeared, in its beautiful valley glory. There was a green patch. Then there was a vast, flat mudland with a single tarred road running in the centre of it. We could have been in a James Bond movie, discovering a nuclear hideout for Russians. It was so deserted, desolate, yet humming with activity.
It was long past lunchtime, yet the fat, home-made chowmein that was presented to us as food had few takers. Stuffing what we could, we made our way to Panamik and watched the hot spring – a tiny bit of water gurgling from the bowels of the earth, fairly hot when it appeared and gradually cooling down. From there, it was to Samsthanaling Monastery at Sumoor. Just 150 years old, this was much quieter than any of the monasteries we had seen earlier.
It was my turn to sit at the back of the car. The day had been long and hot. The ride was getting bumpy. The music CD, after having regaled me with a medley of various favourite artists, had settled into Metallica. The speakers were right over my head and amplifying what I had already put down as noise. In a matter of minutes, I was cranky and snapped at anyone who ventured to talk to me. Yet all was forgotten when we got stuck in a ‘traffic jam’ (basically the guy operating the road roller for an ongoing road construction refusing to let anyone pass through till he finished one segment). We got out and jumped around in the nearby sand dunes, playing like little kids.
We reached Diskit when it was beginning to get dark. Everyone else went for a walk in the two streets forming the town. I stayed back and read my book. Dinner turned out to be really nice, especially after the sad lunch. I slept well, dreaming of sand dunes and Metallica.