Visiting Nubra Valley in a way felt like coming home. In a lot of ways it reminded me of Arctic Village. We didn’t board a tiny Cessna and fly two hours into the remote Alaskan wilderness, instead we rode in a Toyota over the highest highway in the world. Nubra Valley was the Yukon Flats of Ladakh. Small villages spread throughout a desolate yet beautiful valley. Vast spaces filled with daunting mountains, huge valleys and unique wildlife. Warmhearted indigenous people living the way they have for thousands of years. It was inspiring.
From Leh we immediately began climbing the partially paved, mostly dirt highway up over Khardung La pass. This is the highest highway in the world. The top of the pass peaks at 5360 meters. For about two hours we wound our way through tight switchbacks opening up to large hanging valleys. We stopped briefly for photographs, and to test the effects of elevation on our lungs. This was the highest Gretchen and I had ever been- 17,582 feet.
Atop the highest point we cared to climb, our guide, pulled out a roll of prayer flags. In ritual fashion, we planned to hang them with hundreds of others. First, unrolling the brightly colored cloth. Then finding a nearby fire pit. We relit some incense and dangled the roll of flags in the smoke. The smoke cleanses the flags before hanging. Next, we each held a flag to our forehead and said a prayer. Our guide, reciting his own mantra. I prayed for safe travels, for loved ones far away, for guidance and direction, and to be used for good in the world, a servant. Seven months later I know my flags are still there, dangling in Himalayan skies.
Nubra Valley is home to several unique features and creatures. The double humped Bactrian camel lives here. Our guide enthusiastically hoped we would opt for a ride. Gretchen and I promptly replied “NO”! A month since our last camel encounter, my bottom was still bruised. There are also spectacular sand dunes worth exploring.
Our last evening in the valley we visited a local community hall for a traditional dance. I was again reminded of dances back home in the Yukon Flats. Women dressed in home made clothing. Men played a variety of instruments. Two drums and a woodwind instrument similar to an oboe. Children watched and occasionally joined the women in dances. It was wonderful.
For an encore the audience was pulled from their seats and formed a “congo line”. We made several laps around the circular tent, made from an old military parachute. The culture dance lasted nearly 1.5 hours. At the end, I briefly felt like less of a tourist, and more of a guest. These people warmly brought us into their home, sharing their sacred traditions. Past down through generations living in this distant place. We drank several glasses of Chang, a traditional home brew made from fermented barley and butter. Though we didn’t speak their language, laughter is universal.
I was sad to leave Nubra Valley. Climbing back up the pass meant a lot of things. We were quickly nearing the end of our trip. One more night in Leh and we would fly back to lower India. I thought for a long time on places I’ve visited in my life, that I may never visit again. Could Nubra Valley be one of those places? This spectacular valley might be another one of those places. I stared frantically the countryside, trying to capture every image possible in my mind. I thought how many other places in my life will I never see again? I don’t like goodbyes, especially with places like Nubra Valley.