8/6/2008-8/11/2008 | India , Ladakh

Trekking to the Nubra Valley

The most common way to enter the Nubra Valley is via the 5602 m (18,375 ft) Khardong La which the Indians love to tout as the highest motorable road in the world, a title which is apparently somewhat debatable.   In any case, I decided to hike in via the lesser used pass 5300 m (17,384 ft) Digar La.  It’s a relatively short 2 hour hike over the hills from Leh to the village of Sabu the starting point of the trail that leads over the Digar La.  I hiked over in the afternoon and began looking for a place to stay.  This turned out to be a much more difficult proposition than I had expected.  The only guesthouse was 6 km down the valley towards the main road and in the opposite direction of where I was planning to hike the next day.  I began enquiring about a home stay.  My first attempt, a rather rude woman wanted 500 rupees which was much more than the going rate for such accommodation.  I rejected the offer and continued walking around.  Just when I was beginning to curse the village of Sabu, I was met by a very nice man who invited me to stay with him.  His wife was a school teacher and spoke very good English which was a plus.  They were planning to eventually open a guesthouse to help fund their daughter’s education.  The next morning I set out at dawn, about 5:30 am, planning on reaching the village of Digar on the other side of the Ladakh Range which separates the Leh from the adjacent Nubra valley.  I knew the trek would be a long one adding up the “walking time” in the Trekking in Ladakh guide I estimated it at about 10-12 hours not including rests. While listed as two and a half days in the guidebook, I considered it a difficult but doable amount considering my present state of fitness and acclimatization.  As I had no tent, reaching Digar was the only option short of sleeping in the open, and necessity is an excellent motivator.  I met two of the three people I saw along the trail that day, barely 30 minutes outside of Sabu.  A couple who was trekking the opposite direction unlike myself fully equipped with proper camping gear.   They assured me it was not possible to reach Digar in one day.  A statement I took as a challenge and continued on.  About 10 am I reached a fork in the valley.  I knew at some point I needed to take a path towards the right.  The trail had become quite vague in the meadow which surrounded the confluence of the rivers originating from both valleys.  I looked up the valley to the right and could not see anything that I thought could possibly be a pass and continued straight ahead.  I walked for over an hour climbing over boulders and rough terrain before surrendering to fact I knew, but didn’t want to believe, that I had just walked over an hour out of my way at the strength draining altitude of around 5000 m (16,400 ft).  Knowing I had lost both critical daylight and vital strength I headed back down towards the junction in the valleys where I figured I must have made the mistake.  As fortune would have it, I ran into the third and last person I would see on the trail that day, a herder watching over yaks and goats feeding on the green grasses in the alpine meadow where I had made my error.  I called out “Digar La?”  He pointed up the valley to the right which I had passed earlier.  It was not long before I found the trail which to my astonishment headed not further up the valley but towards the base of what appeared to be a cliff.  As I examined the cliff from below, like a sailboat emerging from the seemingly random colors and lines of one of those three dimensional posters, the unmistakable zigzag of switchbacks emerged from the dark rock wall.   My heart sank, I was already drained from my needless climb, and gazing up at the trail ahead I knew further pain awaited me.  I took a rest on the rocks below the start of the endless switchbacks.  I ate some peanuts and raisins, washing it down with a swig of water.  Knowing I did not have much time to rest I forced myself upwards.  Typically when I climb over a pass I usually prefer to push all the way to the top and rest there, enjoying the view and the accomplishment.  But on this occasion as much as I pushed myself I found myself needing to rest every 10 to 15 minutes.  An hour and a half later I reached the top I could only afford 20 minutes to rest and take in the view across Shayok river valley to the distant glaciated peaks of the Karakorum range from the 5300 m (17,384 ft) Digar La.  I had lost my appetite in the climb, very unusual for me, and I forced myself to eat some food, noting to myself that I could be feeling some mild altitude symptoms as I was feeling more drained than I would typically feel.  At least it was all down hill from here I thought as I began the long path down.  This was the most beautiful part of the trek as I descended into a series of green meadows with meandering mountain streams in the distance the snow clad Karakorum peaks still rising up across the distant valley.  Unfortunately I was only partially able to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings as I hurried to reach Digar before dark.  The sun had just set as I reached the outskirts of Digar it was 7:30 pm 14 hours after I had started.  I had made it in one day, although it is not something I would recommend nor would I attempt it again.  I would later find out the distance from Sabu to Digar was 42 km including the “side trip” I figure I covered about 48 km or 30 miles that day and about 2000 vertical meters (over 6,500 ft).  But now I needed to find somewhere to sleep.  When the sun goes down in the mountains darkness follows close on its heels, and by the time was walking through the stone paved lanes of Digar, darkness had shrouded the village and I had to resort to my head lamp to navigate through its blackened lanes.  When I saw a house with people near the window I stood outside, called out doing my best to look pitiful and made the international sign for sleep, placing my palms together and tilting my head toward them.  Had I been a Ladakhi doing the same in some parts of the US I may have been greeted with shotgun blasts but fortunately my first attempt was only greeted an awkward decline, on my second attempt I was welcomed in and given a space on the floor of simple Ladakhi style home to sleep, offered food and hot salted butter tea (those who have followed my journey from the beginning may remember my detest for butter tea yet I’m not one every refuse hospitably so on this occasion like many others I graciously accepted).

The next morning I thanked my host and gave them a bit of money for their hospitality and started on my way down the valley.  I planned to follow the Shayok River down to the Nubra, what I did not know was that a road had recently been constructed along the Shayok River after about a 3 hour hike I reached the road.  I wasn’t holding my breath waiting for a ride given the amount of traffic on the road which was next to none. However, given that the valley was hot and wide with very little water which made for rather boring and miserable trekking, I was going to do my best to try to flag down any vehicle I did see.  The first place on my map where there was supposed to be a source of good water was dry.  My water supply was dwindling and I was rationing it, limiting myself to small sips every half hour.  I had walked along the road for about an hour and a half when a jeep approached me from behind.  I waved him down and gladly accepted a lift to the town of Disket, home to one of the nicest monasteries in the Nubra valley and a main transportation hub where I could get transport to other places in the valley.

While the weather was good for my trek, unfortunately during the rest of my stay in the Nubra Valley clouds covered the surrounding peaks and occasional rain marred the afternoons.  I took a shared jeep out of the valley via the Khardong La unfortunately all I saw from the top of the “highest motorable road in the world” was grey clouds and snow.

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