Ladakh - the ‘Land of the High Passes’ - is among the most stunning parts of the Indian Himalayas. Wedged between Pakistan, Tibet and Xinjiang Province (China) and India’s Himachal Pradesh, it forms the eastern part of the contested state of Jammu & Kashmir. North of Leh, Ladakh’s ‘capital’, lies a far-flung and austerely beautiful enclave cradled by rugged mountains ‒ this is the Nubra Valley (often simply abbreviated to Nubra), a tuft of land on the very scalp of India.
The region actually comprises two valleys: Nubra and Shyok. Both their rivers rise amidst the remote and heavily glaciated peaks and troughs of the Karakoram Range. The Nubra joins the Shyok in ‒ as far as tourism is concerned ‒ the region’s heart near Diskit before flowing westwards into Pakistan to eventually join the mighty Indus.
Overlooking the Shyok River's broad valley, prayer flags crest a small watchtower in the stark hillside above Diskit Monastery. Local communities once prospered on an extraordinary trans-Himalayan trade which originated with the Silk Road. Comprising huge mountains, yawning valleys and vast uninhabited hinterlands, most of Ladakh’s boundaries may look almost impenetrable on a map. Yet for centuries great caravans of wool and cloth, opium, spices and skins, coral and turquoise, gold and indigo negotiated several routes and their hazardous passes mainly between Leh and Yarkand (in China). The already withering trade finally died in the late 1950s when China largely sealed its borders.
After decades of obscurity peppered with geo-political spasms ‒ it remains a sensitive border area ‒ low-key tourism has gradually injected more visitors and money into Nubra. And as increasing numbers of tourists visit Ladakh each year, more are tempted to go the extra mile and come here.
Why visit Nubra Valley?
Some of its salient features remain largely out of reach ‒ the Siachen Glacier, for example, is the world’s second longest glacier outside the polar regions, but short of a fully fledged expedition you’re unlikely to get near it. Siachen is sometimes referred to as the world’s highest (and coldest) battlefield; India and Pakistan have skirmished here at astonishing 6000m-plus altitudes, but a ceasefire has held since 2003.
Far more relevant to today’s visitor is the journey to Nubra on what is claimed to be the world’s highest motorable road. Climbing steadily out of Leh and the Indus Valley, the road officially crosses the Khardung La pass at 5602m (18,379ft), although this height is now disputed and the accolade is probably incorrect. But don’t let the maths or contested measurements spoil what is still a great drive.
Plunging into the Shyok Valley via Khardung village, distant hamlets and their patchwork fields add a human touch to the muscular scenery and immense views. All Nubra’s settlements ‒ and there are many large, handsome homes set amidst groves of poplars and fields of barley ‒ occupy shelves of land above the rivers. A couple of ancient Buddhist monasteries, a handful of mostly feral Bactrian camels grazing a dune-like stretch of valley floor, opportunities for walking and hiking, and one long Shyok Valley drive can easily fill several days’ exploration
Crumbling chortens dot the hilllside around Ensa Monastery high above the Nubra River valley.