The Shyok continues on to Pakistan before merging with the mighty Indus river. Standing in this monastery, which had undoubtedly seen better days, was something totally magical. It felt otherworldly, as though I was an extra from the film Seven Years in Tibet. From the many monasteries I have visited in Ladakh, it remains my favourite.
Easy hikes... in the Himalaya
Gazing down from the prayer room at Diskit Monastery, the sand dunes and the expansive plains of the Shyok river are shrouded beneath the Karakoram mountain range.
Built in the 14th century in a jumbled fashion, Diskit Monastery has an elevated position on the slopes. It offered the residing monks protection from marauding merchants and mercenaries who plied this section of Silk Road en route from Tibet to Yarkand in China. For centuries, great caravans of wool and cloth, opium, spices and skins, coral and turquoise, gold and indigo wound their way along the valley floor. This came to an abrupt end when China sealed its borders in the 1950’s.
I explored the mani walls and chortens (a Buddhist shrine), marvelling at the ancient Buddhist relics and prayer flags. Venturing to the back of the monastery and peering over the cliff face – only advised for the brave and vertigo-free – revealed a wooden staircase, which descended the rock face and underneath a waterfall. It was the secret back entrance to the monastery, used by locals and as a means of escape in times of peril, as well as for monks collecting water from the stream. Returning the following morning for prayers, I was welcomed by a cacophony of chanting and cymbals as the sun rose.
Less well known than other parts of the Silk Road, Ladakh’s Nubra Valley is a rewarding alternative to the more visited Leh and its many monasteries. From here you can embark on village walks, soft and more adventurous treks, as well as a day trip to Turtuk, a village known for its apricots. Due to its close proximity to Pakistan, it has a Muslim culture, showing a fascinating contrast to the overwhelmingly Buddhist valley.
Eschewing my fear of riding, I mounted a double-humped Bactrian camel for a leisurely paced sunset ride across the dunes. I gazed up at the same mountains and the same view that must have entranced traders back in the trading heyday. It struck me how lush the vegetation was, with groves of poplars, willow and barley fields. Little wonder that the Nubra Valley is known as the “Orchard of Ladakh.”
In keeping with the theme of finding myself on an erstwhile caravan route, my accommodation for my 3-night sojourn was the luxurious Ultimate Travelling Camp in Diskit. It seemed so apt to be staying in tented accommodation given my location on the Silk Route. Though I doubt that former merchants and mercenaries were treated to a luxury suited tent and a mouth-watering menu.
Warmed by a log fire, I ate dinner under the stars one evening. As I pulled out my stargazer app, I again started wondering what those hardy traders would have thought when they marvelled at the constellations all those years ago. Did the stars guide their route, I wondered?
Specially designed experiences by The Ultimate Travelling Camp include a trip following the Hundar river to a small village, which is located at the end of the valley and set amid barley fields. Completely remote, it is breathtakingly beautiful.
Only 17 villagers still live there, with the majority of the young men having chosen a monastic life. I was welcomed by a local woman who wanted me to see how they used to live almost underground. Bending my head, I was led through caves and rooms. I was shown their liquor store and kitchen and failed miserably at weaving wool. Invited back to their newly built home, my host served tea and local rice wine, which is not for the faint-hearted – it left me coughing! She delighted in showing me a picture book, showing the inauguration of her eldest son as head monk of a monastery in southern India.
Reaching the Nubra valley, from Leh, is an adventure in itself. The 5,602m-high Khardung La mountain pass is reputed to be the world’s highest motorable road. It affords incredible views of glaciated peaks. Alternatively, you can cross the sublimely beautiful 5,312m-high Wari La pass. The Ultimate Travelling Camp can arrange for a picnic en route back to Leh at a spot overlooking the valley, with the option to mountain bike down the last stretch of the road, past local villages.
Perhaps it is because the Nubra Valley is less visited, but the people I met seemed deeply genuine and warm living in a stunning Himalayan setting. If only the mountains could talk – the stories they could tell of the traders that found themselves traversing this wild and beautiful landscape.