Published: September 11th 2008September 11th 2008
On September 8th we set out for a three day excursion to the Nubra valley. We had managed to negotiate what we thought was a pretty fair deal for the trip. A few days prior Mattius and I bumped into a Belgian couple we had met while staying at the dessert tent camp in Serchu, on our way to Leh from Manali. They informed us that they had booked a SUV taxi for the following day to take them around to see the sights, and offered us the other two seats in the vehicle free of charge. It was a pretty tough offer to refuse as we were both planning to see the same sights over two days by walking, and using public transport.
The day of sightseeing was actually great. We had fabulous weather and saw all the major sights around Leh including some spectacular Gompa's and palaces. The one thing I noticed about our vehicle for the day was just how beat out and unsafe it was. It was a Toyota Qualis with tires so bald that wires were showing, and a broken leaf spring on the rear drivers side. I decided right then and there with what
I had heard regarding trying to make it over the pass into the Nubra valley that part of our trip negotiation would be for a decent, safe vehicle.
Just before we set out for the trip we ran into the Dutch couple we had traveled with here to Leh from Manali. They expressed interest in joining us for the trip and helping us split up the cost. It seemed like our plan was coming together, and I inspected the vehicle we recieved the morning of our trip and it seemed to be exactly as ordered. It was new (new enough to still have plastic wrap on the seats and sun visors), and had new tires. We met our driver Mustapha who seemed friendly enough, even speaking a little english, and we picked up everyone from their hotels and set out for Nubra.
Before I explain the trip itself, its important to understand how traffic flow is supposed to work on the road over the pass. Traffic bound from Leh to Nubra is supposed to be allowed to travel between 7:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. The road is then supposed to close from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. for
maintenance. Once maintenance is completed the road then opens to traffic returning from Nubra to Leh until 5:00 pm. at which time the pass ices up too much to be safe to travel. The road is primarily used by the military, carrying huge convoys back and forth every day as the exchange soldiers and bring supplies out to the front lines of border defence with China and Pakistan. Huge military convoys of trucks make the journey in both directions each day, and as such the road is (supposed to be) kept in good condition. The road is barely wide enough for one vehicle, and there is little opportunity to let another oncoming vehicle make it past, hence the scheduled one way traffic over the road.
The trip started out pretty uneventful, but as we got closer and closer to the pass the weather started getting worse and worse. It wasnt long before our driver was starting to look a little shaky, along with outselves. About a kilometer before the pass the weather degenerated into an all out blizzard, and visibility was reduced to absolutely nothing. To make matters worse, on one side of the road there is a vertical
wall of rock, and on the other side is literally a vertical drop of a mile or two in some places onto huge glacier deposited boulders and ice. Much to my surprise, when the road started to get slippery our driver just started to just the gas pedal and brakes more. It turned out that Mustapha had never seen snow before, let alone driven over ice on such a narrow road. It took him about 3 minutes in those conditions to get going too fast, completely lock up all four wheels, and slide sideways ending up with one wheel over the vertical drop to our certain deaths.
I was weaving a tapestry of obscenity at our driver, and out of our vehicle within a matter of seconds. After surveying the situation I judged that Mattius and I could push him back onto the road if we worked together (as long as Mustapha would actually listen to my directions). After a half hour in the blizzard we did manage to get him going again, only to have him do the same thing fifty feet up the road, this time gettting our vehicle into a worse spot than before. It was
bad enough the second time that the people on the passenger side could not get out of the vehicle, as they would have been just exiting it over the side of the cliff. I basically just screamed "fuck this" as loud as possible directly at Mustapha, and started walking, leaving the driver to deal with his mess himself. Everyone else followed me. It wasnt too far up the road when we ran into another vehicle having trouble getting up to the pass, this was was just legitimately out of traction, and I helped them and two other vehicles get up the road to the pass.
By now the blizzard was on in full force. You couldnt see more than 3 feet in front of your face, and we were so unprepared for the cold that we all piled into a little tourist hut across from the military barracks on the top of the pass. We were informed by a millitary officer that no one was to proceed down the 80 km road on the other side until the weather had cleared. I asked him if we would be allowed to turn back the way we came, and he told
me it was not possible. We were in the middle of several military convoys and we had to keep going once everything started moving again so as not to hold up traffic (no room to pass remember).
So there we sat for a couple of hours waiting for the blizzard to break. When it finally did, I observed that everyone, and I mean everyone had put serious snow chains onto their vehicles. Millitary vehicles and tourist vehicles alike seemed to be prepared for this type of event. Our driver was happily bouncing up and down saying "lets go, lets go" with no chains on our tires at all. When questioned about why we werent chained up he at first seemed confused, and then uninterested by my question. Finally he just got mouthy and told me we didnt need them. "Stop worrying, get in I was told".
The people I was traveling with are all from relatively flat countries, who dont have to drive in the snow. They really didn't understand just how dangerous this situation was. The road was exactly one car length wide, and has a completely vertical drop off one side. The roads are too slippery
to walk down, and we have a driver who is entirely cluless about how to drive in the situation. To top all of that off our vehicle is the only one without chaings, so when he hammers on the binders again, as he surely will, we will most certianly just fly right over the side and never be seen from again. No one in my group but me really seemed to be too concerned however so they all got in, and off we went to what was in my opinion certain death. About two minutes after we got back into the vehicle the blizzard came back worse than before.
In the span of the next ten minutes Mustapha did the same thing he did on the way up three more times. He locked up all four wheels to some spectacular sliding results, the third time being the best. He once again had a wheel completely over the edge of the cliff and I decided that if I was ever to see the people I love again I better suck it up, and start walking.
We were only supposed to be an hour or so over the pass, and
we were supposed to be inside a vehicle the whole time. It wasnt exactly in my budget to buy any proper boots, a better jacket, gloves, toque, or any proper winter gear for that matter. In fact after this Nubra trip I am completely done with cold weather, and aside from the pass, the Nubra valley is lower in altidude and higher in average temperature than Leh. There just didnt seem to be any point to spending big bucks for proper gear, for an hour spent in a car. In any case, to go out walking in the blizzard without any winter gear was actually only slightly less insane than staying in the car.
I had sneakers, thin socks, my Helly Hansen shell, and a wool shirt. It was cold. Real cold. Everyone else followed me though, and they were as equally unprepared as me. I had to keep my sunglasses on in order to keep the snow, which was now moving sideways, out of my eyes. It was so icy and slippery that it was basically impossible not to slip and fall once in a while, and it was a serious concern of mine for that to happen
just as one of the large military trucks would be passing. Since they would have almost no chance of seeing us, it was up to us to get out of their way by pressing ourselves into the vertical snowbanks on the uphill side of the road, and basically bury ourselves in the snow there until the truck had passed. I had been smart enough to remember to grab the little makeshift survival kit which contained a few garbage bags, an emergency blanket, and some candles from my pack before we left the car. In the back of my head I was thinking if I could find an open enough spot I could get out of the way of the millitary trucks, get into the survival blanket, wrap myself in garbage bags, and hide out in the snow until the blizzard passed. If we didnt get out of it soon, frostbite was going to become a real problem.
Luckily it never came to any of those things. After ducking into snowbanks for the better part of two hours, and after covering almost 10km of the steepest downhill part of the pass Mattius and I were rescued by my new hero.
Pradeep the militart convoy truck driver saw us trudging along, unprepared for the weather, and held up to convoy line in order to pick us up. He got us safely to the bottom of the pass and refused to accept any payment for his kindness or trouble explaining that soldiers have standing orders to help foreigners or people in need of aid in mountainous terrain. We had made it to the bottom of the pass, and although it was going to take a while to thaw out, we were ok.
We found out the Dutch couple we were traveling with recieved the same treatment, and we were all reunited at the bottom of the pass where the vehicles staging to return to Leh were waiting for their chance to depart (wisely the military didn't let any traffic try and return to Leh for two days while they cleared the road and properly waited for the weather to clear).
The Nubra valley is another paradise, just like Leh, but quite a bit different. Its a bizarre eco tourism destination with one valley wall made up by the Karakorum mountain range, and the other wall made by the mighty Himalaya's.
The valley floor is made up of sand dunes, dessert, rivers, farmland, small forests, and wetlands. We managed to see quite a lot of wildlife while we were there, including some black headed cranes, a few foxes, about a million eagles, and some camels. All in all it was a pretty spectacular place, but none of us were really able to enjoy it for a number of reasons. The main one being that since the other entrance from Kashmir is currently blocked off there was absolutley no drinking water, and very little food in the valley. We survived for three days on tea, cornflakes, and some wretched, greasy noodles the local people cooked up for us. The major factor in the trip no being enjoyable was the looming fact that we were going to have to go back over that pass again, and the increasing signs that our driver was quite possibly the worst in India.
After arriving an hour and a half late for the return trip, and not being able to provide an excuse as to where he was, or why he had kept us waiting, Mustapha told us "I am here now, lets go". I could
write a 250 page paper detailing exactly what we went through on the ride over the pass, the stay in the Nubra for a couple of days, and the return trip over the pass and I would still have to leave a lot of the harrowing things our driver did out of the story. I sadly just dont have the time, so I will give you some of the highlights of the return trip. We were in two car accidents with military transport vehicles on the way home, and one accident with a bus. The two with the military transports were serious enough that we were bounced considerably close to a plummet to certain death, while the third accident only managed to destroy the tail lights and the remaining undented body panels on the once new SUV. None of that deterred Mustapha from pushing the needle on the speedometer up near 90 kmh only to decelerate around completely blind 180 degree switchbacks, the whole time fucking around with one of his many cellphones. The guy would be forced (if he was sane) to use both hands, alternating his handing to turn such sharp corners. His awesome cellphone action had him
just letting go of the wheel around the corners, and quickly grabbing it again so as to not have to put down his phone. I actually grabbed it out of his hand half way through the return trip and told him if I saw him touch it, or the other one again, it was going over the cliff and he was going to find out what a hockey beating was all about. He was arrogant whenever we pleaded for our lives, we fully hated him, and he fully hated us by the end of the trip. He is one of the people I have met in life who I would describe as having absolutely no redeeming qualities. None whatsoever.
We did make make it back to Leh basically unharmed yesterday though. The permanent scar left in my mind of my trip to the Nubra valley is one that I am likely never going to forget, and also one I will most probably wake from in the middle of the night soaked in sweat. I suppose thats souvenier enough, as I bought nothing to remember the place with. Last night on our return we immediately went to the travel agent,
told him what had happened, and he promised us we would take action. Apparently our photographs, and recount of what had happened to us actually had an effect on the travel agent as he told us he would eat the other half of what we owed him for the trip. He also promised us that Mustapha's livelyhood as a driver would be destroyed, and to be honest (those that know me well, know that I am not usually like this) that made me happy. If four tourists never have to go through what we did over those three days again, I will be glad.
Everything said and done, Mattius and I immediately proceeded to get horribly drunk in celebration of not being dead, and in an attempt to forget about the last three days. I am still paying for that mistake today, but I am safe and sound and ready to get on with this trip. Talk to you all soon and best regards to everyone at home.
There are more photos below