By Team EarPeace
The road to Nubra Valley, Ladakh - Vol. 2
My next destination was the extremely popular Hundar. The cold desert between Diskit and Hundar is another major attraction for tourists. Tourists throng the cold desert to watch the sand dunes and for joy rides on the Bactrian camels, also known as the Mongolian camels. Native to the steppes of central Asia, the Bactrian camel has two humps, in contrast to the single-humped camels found in Rajasthan and other parts of India. The Bactrian camels, found only in Hundar, were the main mode of transport when Ladakh was an important stopover on the ancient trade routes with Central Asia. They are a pointer to the region's importance since ancient times.
I reached Hundar in the evening and went out to the sand dunes to visit the site of the camels. It was packed with people and quite overwhelming, as I’d been travelling to the remotest villages for more than a month and hadn’t encountered such a huge crowd before. The sand dunes of Nubra seem to have become one of the most popular tourist attractions of Ladakh with people coming in hordes from all across the country. The camels were domesticated and quite gentle, with one of them taking too much of a liking for me in particular. As I squatted down to take a picture with one of the camels, it started rubbing its face on my sleeve for a good 10 seconds. I guess it was just dealing with an itchy nose but I did feel loved for a while. After witnessing a moonrise with the sun casting shadows on the dunes, I headed back to my campsite to retire for the night.
The next morning, I headed towards Thang, the last village of India bordering Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Until a few years ago the village of Turtuk was promoted as the last village of India before the line of actual control, which was technically incorrect as there are a couple of villages beyond Turtuk with Thang being the last village of India. As I rode deeper towards the northern border along the Shyok river, I couldn’t help but notice the distinct change in the facial features of the locals. The population of Thang is largely Balti, who are natives to the Pakistan-administered territory of Gilgit Baltistan, one of the most beautiful places to visit in Pakistan. I reached Thang around noon after crossing a few army checkpoints and headed to the view point from where one can spot a village in Pakistan and a few army bunkers. Visiting this place was quite nostalgic as a few of my ancestors originated from the Baltistan region, specifically my great grandfather on my mother’s side.
The history of Turtuk and Thang is quite interesting. I sat down with the locals to hear one of them tell me their story. He specifically asked me to switch off my camera and then went about narrating the story. Until 1971, there were 5 villages until Turtuk, including Thang which were a part of Pakistan, but in the war of 1971 the Indian troops occupied Turtuk and the Pakistani army retreated to the village of Pharnu which was the neighbouring village of Thang. The actual line of control shifted and the villages until Thang became a part of the Indian administration, with Pakistan losing 5 villages. In the morning of a cold winter morning in December, unassuming villagers from the village of Pharnu had come over to Thang to go about their daily chores. As the Indian army advanced towards Thang, these villagers were stuck with no option to go back home to Pharnu. They had to leave their homes and their families back in Pharnu, and had to start a new life in Thang. Most of them never even heard from their families again as there wasn’t an option to go back, nor to contact them by any means. The only option to visit their families was through the Wagah border which lies in the state of Punjab, located 15 miles from Lahore (Pakistan) and 20 miles from Amritsar (India). I met a 70 year old guy selling dried apricots who narrated his story of how the war of 1971 affected his life. He was 18 years old and had a wife and family in Pharnu and had come over to Thang on that fateful day, but he could never return. He never heard about his parents or his wife again and had to start a new life from that day onwards in Thang. Many people from both sides were affected deeply and hearing these stories was heartbreaking. I sat for a long time with the locals trying to understand their point of view about the war and its aftermath.
After buying a few kilos of dried apricots, which are quite famous from this region, I decided to head back to Leh. It wasn’t ideal as it was already 1pm and reaching Leh would have taken me at least 5-6 hours, and crossing the Khardung La pass was a pain once the sun went down. I went for it anyway. Ripping across the beautiful valley of Nubra I managed to cover a lot of ground on my motorcycle whilst keeping an eye on the sun. It was pleasant in the sun, and a nightmare without. The wind chill was rising with every passing minute making my hands numb with cold as my gear wasn’t ideal for the sudden temperature drop I was experiencing. I managed to reach the top of the pass around 6pm and the sun had almost vanished. All I could see was a golden glow in the horizon which made up for one of the best sunset experiences of my time in Ladakh. The moon rose over the snow-clad peaks on one side, while the sun lit up the horizon as far as the Stok Kangri, the highest mountain of the Stok range on the other. I stopped to take a few pictures of the surreal views, forgetting about the freezing cold and the wind chill for a while. Soaking in the views for a while, I hopped back on my bike and braving the wind chill made it back to my hotel safely. Coincidentally, this turned out to be my last night in Ladakh as I decided to leave the next morning. I believed this was the perfect sending off I could have gotten and it was time for me to head back down to lower altitudes.