Easily reachable from Leh by chartered jeep or by your own wheels and behind the mighty Khardung La, lies beautiful Nubra Valley. The deep-cut Shayok and Nubra River valleys allow for incredible scenery with stark, naked mountains, hugged by green oasis villages.
The Mighty Khardung La
The classic and most common way to reach Nubra Valley from Leh, is to scale the Khardung La - which at 5602 meters of altitude is supposedly the highest motorable pass in the world. The road starts to zigzag up almost immediately when you ride out of Leh.
Note that if you want to enter Nubra valley as a foreigner, you need a permit - easily arranged by an agent in Leh for some 600 rupees. The permit consists of a fee for the agent, a 300 rupees Ecological tax, 100 rupees Red Cross contribution and a 20 rupees per day wildlife fee.
The permit is valid for up to 7 days. Police check points are at Km 24 and Km 53 (before and after the Khardung La), where you’ll need to show your passport and handover 1 copy of the permit at each checkpoint.
Additionally, on route to the top of the pass, there is a check point by the motorbike union of Leh, who check the license plate of your motorbike. They will only allow motorbikes into Nubra with a Ladakhi license plate, so they’ll force you to leave your rental bike in Leh and rent another one there is your bike is from Manali or Delhi for example.
I was definitely not planning to leave my bike in Leh and rent another one, so the way to get around it is to leave Leh early morning (between 05:30 and 06:00) - when no one is manning their check post. Cheeky..
The sand dunes of Hunder
After passing Diskit, with a small bazaar and a quite random ‘petrol station’ - complete with antique pump- you’ll reach Hunder after some 7 kilometres. With a population of only 1200 people, but lost in greenery and surrounded by soaring cliffs, it is worth staying a night.
Some 130 kilometres from Leh, you will reach Hunder in about 4 hours driving. The granite outcrops enclosing the village crumble and weather into small quartz particles, producing real sand dunes. You can spend the afternoon here riding real two-hump Bactrian camels - which is a very popular activity with local Indian tourists.
The town itself plenty of guesthouses, but the best ones fill up quickly with local tourists, even outside the high season (which is June - July). Best is to arrive early or book ahead. I can recommend staying in the Apple Cottage - which has a beautiful flower and vegetable garden.
They use their own grown produce to whip up an amazing dinner in the main building, which is included in the price, as is the breakfast. You’ll sleep in large tents, complete with an attached bathroom with warm water. Luxury!! Just be prepared to be woken up at 06:30 by staff banging on your tent and screaming ‘Chai! Chai!’. Morning and afternoon tea is included in the price and they are very eager to get it to you.
Reaching old Baltistan
Another 2,5 drive will take you 80 kilometres over winding roads with overhanging rocks, past the wild and turbulent Sahyok river, over dodgy, weak bridges and crossing the magnificent mountains to the village Turtuk.
Only 7 kilometres away from the frontline border with Pakistan, the area is full with military bases and everyday you will cross (or be stuck behind) convoys of army trucks of sometimes up to 40 trucks. In fact, Turtuk was part of Baltistan, which later became Pakistan - until the war with India in 1971 in which India seized the town.
The people in the village still feel more Pakistani than Indian, and you notice this in everything. They speak Balti, are muslim and their Balti culture and cuisine is very much alive. There is a small Balti Heritage Site, where many centuries old items are displayed in a Balti house of the late 18th century. It is worth visiting and the gentleman who works there is more than happy to tell you all about the items.
He is also the holder of the key to the ‘natural refrigerator’. The natural cold storage is known as Nangchung in Balti, meaning ‘Cold house’. They are small, low, stone bunkers of which the gaps in the structure allow for cold air to pass. The locals use it to store butter, meat, wool and milk in the summer time. Stepping inside such a large natural fridge is truly something else!
The best way of passing time in Turtuk is just to wander around the village, through the narrow little alleyways and watch the village life pass by. The valley is dotted with apricot trees, so don’t let the opportunity slip to pick some apricots of the trees - they are delish!
The organic, 100% apricot juice they sell in small shops and restaurants is so full and rich in flavour, you’ll be asking for more. Some places offer other typical Balti dishes, in which buckweed is the shining star ingredient. You’ll see the white fields with buckweed all through the village.
For stunning views of the valley and Turtuk, you can make the 20 minutes walk towards the Buddhist monastery, sitting on top of a small hill.
A dynasty of Khans
Another great museum to visit is the 15th century ‘Palace’ which belonged to a long line of Khans who ruled Baltistan. In contrary to the Balti Heritage site, the palace sits at the other side of the wooden footbridge connecting the two sides of Turtuk.
It’s easily recognisable by a large wooden carved eagle overlooking the entrance gate. It has multiple items on display which were worn by the Khans, but the most interesting part is meeting the current Khan himself: Yabgo Mohd Khan Kacho.
Yep, that’s right - he lives there.
Their family tree is painted on the wall, and traces back to the first ruler of West Turkistan. His English is somewhat shaky, but you’ll get a good idea of their fascinating history.