Riding the Silk Road through Nubra Valley

LEH, LADAKH
Sept. 2020

For the third straight day I’m sitting in the District Commissioner’s Office in Leh waiting for my permit to ride into Nubra Valley. 

I have no phone or reading material, so find myself browsing through the District’s Human Waste Management booklet, which comes disturbingly published in full color.

Must… look… away!

Nubra Valley has been doubly off limits due to COVID-19 and its status as a heavily-militarized zone in conflict with China. I’m using all my political skills to get my permit and finally a guy emerges with news.

I can ride into Nubra Valley if I hire a local guide to accompany me and sign a paper saying I won’t photograph any military equipment.  Fair enough. I’m finally stamped and on my way.

Leh is the capital of the Union Territory of Ladakh, lying between Tibet to the east and Pakistan to the west, at an altitude of nearly 11,500 feet.

I head across town to meet my guide, Urgyan. There are no bars in Leh, so the bikers gather at a place called “Coffee Culture,” sipping lattes and leaning against their Royal Enfields.

Urgyan is seated in the corner of the cafe. He’s a small, local college kid with a pencil Fu Manchu mustache and John Lennon shades. He tells me he’s ridden the route before and we can leave tomorrow.

***

Leh is calm in the morning with few vehicles on the street as we ride past the massive, stone-walled Leh Palace and up towards the Leh-Manali Highway. From here it’s a long stretch of tarmac winding up through the desert mountainside. 

“These are military roads, very fast,” says Urgyan, as we stop around 14,000 feet. “RedBull ran a Formula One car up here some years ago.”

As we’re ascending to 16,000 feet, ice becomes visible on the roadsides and my fingertips start to freeze through the tops of my cutoff gloves.

The engines of our Enfield’s are gasping for air and making slow chunking sounds as we cross 17,000 feet. The thin air affects my vision and everything looks choppy and distorted, like some old adventure documentary. 

Urgyan motions up across the valley and I see a checkpoint with some trucks queued-up in the distance. It’s Khardung La, the world’s second highest motorable pass at 18,000 feet. 

(Top of the world, Ma’!)

We park our bikes by the guardhouse across the road. I unbutton my jacket pocket and hand my papers to Urgyan who deals with the guard.

Urgyan emerges 10 minutes later with news. “The guard says you’re just the third foreigner to reach. Two Russians came through earlier.”

“Can we pass?” 

“Yes, but he suggests you keep your helmet on in the valley, because the villagers are worried about corona and might be scared of you.”

I mentally dismiss this suggestion.

In the year before COVID hit, nearly 58,000 foreign tourists visited Ladakh. Now it was just me, Urgyan and the Russians traveling the Silk Road through Nubra Valley. 

Before our descent I swap gloves with Urgyan. My fingertips are frozen and he has the full-finger variety. Plus he’s a local guy raised in the mountains. Riding at 18,000 feet is like playing in the sandbox for him. 

We drop down the backside of the mountain, quickly losing altitude. Our Enfields have more air to breathe and the engines are letting out a confident, high-tempo thumping. 

Up ahead we run into a road construction site with bulldozers. Urgyan hits some deep sand causing his handlebars to twist. I watch his bike swerve before crashing in front of a dozen laborers. 

I hit my brakes to dodge Urgyan, which causes my own front wheel to slide. I drop my bike inches before Urgyan, leaving us both twisted up in a sandy heap of steel.

Urgyan is wincing and holding his left wrist. His Enfield has a bent brake pedal, twisted clutch lever, and smashed headlight. One of the laborers takes his sledgehammer and pounds the brake pedal until it’s somewhat usable. 

Every guy in India is a roadside mechanic. 

The only damage to my bike is a dislodged exhaust, or “silencer” as the Indian’s call it, which I kick into place with my boot. 

We take some time to dust off and collect our wits before heading back on the road. After crossing some marshlands, we ride for another hour or so until the road reveals flat desert and vegetation below. It’s the mammoth bowl of Nubra Valley.

***

There are no stories or dramas playing out in my head. It’s a perfect visibility day and I’m fully in the scene as we ride across the desert. 

This state of mind is surely tied to the tech detox I’ve been on for three months with no phone, no apps and no text messages in my pocket. I even ordered the staff at my guesthouse to remove the TV and phone from my room.

Hey, it’s a tech detox, not an acting bossy detox.

Riding through the desert I have no distractions —apart from the 105-foot-tall golden Maitreya Buddha towering over the Village of Diskit like some Buddhist Statue of Liberty. 

I’m no Buddhist, but I’m pretty sure the Buddha would not have signed off on this statue.

As we arrive in Diskit, I stand by our bikes as Urgyan walks down the streets looking for a place for us to stay. 

There’s no way I’m keeping my helmet on as the border guard suggested, so I remove it and instantly get startled looks from locals who haven’t seen a foreigner all year. I’m basically an alien who just rode into their village. Some locals pull their shirts up to cover their mouths as they pass by. 

Urgyan finally returns. “There’s just one guesthouse open in all of Nubra Valley,” he says. “Hotel Sten-Del, it’s just down the street.”

We park our dusty bikes and the owner welcomes us in. He’s a short, dark-skinned man named Stanzin, flanked by his wife who offers us chai.

“Julley,” says Stanzin, which is the traditional Ladaki greeting. “You’ll be the only guests here. Two Russians were here earlier, but they left.”

“Did they make it to Turtuk?” I ask.

“No, they had to turn back because the guy hurt his leg trekking.”

Now with the mysterious Russians gone, it will just be me and Urgyan traveling the Silk Road.

Oh pilot of the storm who leaves no trace
Like thoughts inside a dream
Here is the path that led me to that place
Yellow desert stream
My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon
I will return again
Sure as the dust that floats high in June
When moving through Kashmir

— Led Zeppelin



As a child I was always running around going someplace I wasn’t supposed to be — a little rebel explorer. 

My mom has repeatedly confirmed this, and she is one of the few real adventurers I know. Even into her 70’s, she has continued to take trips around the world while overcoming numerous injuries.

Now for the first time I was experiencing the type of travel that would make her proud — diving into the desert like some dusty, trespassing rogue.

***

Hanging on the wall by our breakfast table is a faded map of Tibet, which sparks up a conversation. 

Urgyan tells me he comes from a family of Tibetan Buddhists who immigrated to Ladakh many years ago. He was born in Lamayuru and is pleased to learn that I’d already traveled there and had lunch with the locals in his monastery.  

After breakfast we check on our motorcycles. Urgyan’s bike and wrist are in no condition for the long ride to Turtuk, so I tell him to jump on the back of mine. I note the irony of the situation. My guide, who I’ve paid to lead the way is now my passenger.  

No problem. I’ve grown fond of Urgyan and he’s been invaluable in dealing with locals and getting us through checkpoints. Plus he’s small and I don’t notice the extra weight on my bike as he hops on. I tell him his new job is to take videos from the backseat.

(Riding through Nubra with Urgyan filming from backseat. Soundtrack: “Yearning” by DJ Drez)

We set off on the Diskit-Turtuk highway which is flanked on the right by sweeping sand dunes. Urgyan tells me that Bactrian “double-humped” Camels roam these dunes, ancient remnants of the Silk Road trade. 

“The camels came from Central Asia and would carry goods along the desert for traders,” says Urgyan. 

Unfortunately there are no Bactrian Camels today, so we keep rolling along the route which is dotted with BRO “Border Roads Organization” military highway signs with entertaining slogans: 

DARLING I LIKE YOU, BUT NOT SO FAST!”


“DON’T GOSSIP, LET HIM DRIVE

On our right Thoise Airbase comes into view. The district commissioner had forbidden me from photographing any military operations, but he didn’t say I couldn’t write about them.

Thoise is a two kilometer stretch of desert airstrip with ten large hangars and barracks. Just as we approach, a massive C-17 Globemaster III lumbers onto on the tarmac. We’re riding our motorcycle alongside the airstrip just as the Globemaster begins its takeoff and I feel like I’m in some Bollywood remake of Top Gun.

According to media reports, the U.S. sold India a dozen C-17s at a cost of $366 million each. The planes can carry heavy equipment and about 100 troops per-flight to the glacial outposts on the Chinese border.

India has been in conflict with China over the nearby Galwan Valley for decades. But just a few months before our arrival, things intensified with a series of skirmishes that left 20 Indian soldiers and 43 Chinese troops dead. 

According to reports the battle was a gruesome, frigid affair fought at 15,000 feet with stones and nail-studded clubs. Many soldiers were beaten to death and others left drowning in a freezing glacial river.

I wondered why was the Indian Army flying solders on $366 million airplanes and then making them fight with Ice-Age weaponry? I read something about a ban on firearms in the Chinese border region, which makes no sense to me.

After reading this I’m happy to go back to my no-media detox.

Back on the route we finally see some other vehicles. Two bulldozers are clearing a road that leads down to a steel bridge over a turquoise river. We cross the bridge into the jaws of a stone-tooth shark. 

Further ahead we ride into canyon that’s stacked with house-sized boulders that appear glazed with metallic purple paint. My polarized sunglasses are making them look even more trippy as I stop to gawk at the boulders wondering if they were chucked here from another galaxy.

*** POLICE CHECKPOINT ***

Up past the boulder canyon we approach a green hilly outpost. An officer emerges, motioning for us to enter his small room which is set up like a dorm with just a cot and TV. 

The officer takes our papers and peers at them closely before asking me the familiar question, “You are from?” 

“U.S.A.” 

He marks his logbook then holds it up. 

“See here, you are only traveler to reach all year.” 

I let this sink in for a moment then throw my hands up in the air, “Touchdown.”

We’re almost out of petrol so we stop to refuel in the next town of Bogdang, which is surrounded by bombed-out buildings. It used to be part of Pakistani Kashmir before India took it over in the 1971 War. 

As we roll out, a group of children line up on the roadside and give us high fives.

Finally we’re approaching the Pakistan border at Turtuk. I realize it took me seven months in India to discover this place and wonder if anyone else from my hometown of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin will make this journey. 

According to Google Maps, the total nonstop travel time from Sun Prairie to Turtuk is 60 hours. But it doesn’t take into account the 48 hours you will need to spend resting in a hotel in Leh to acclimate to the altitude. Plus the minimum 24 hours it will take to get your permit to enter Nubra Valley. 

So altogether that’s 132 hours from Sun Prairie to Turtuk and at least 60 hours for the return trip, for a total of eight days round-trip travel. Given that the average annual vacation time for Wisconsin residents is nine days, this gives you exactly one day to step out and enjoy your entire vacation for the year.



“The ordinary world, and our ordinary lives in the world, are not sufficient to reveal who we really are — quite the opposite. To discover who you are you must go beyond who you think you are.”

— Deepak Chopra, Metahuman

***


We’ve reached the final outpost. The tip of the subcontinent: Turtuk.

Just north is the Karakoram Range of the Himalayas which leads into K-2, the second highest mountain on earth. Further northwest the range leads to Afghanistan and Tajikistan. 

Along with India, Pakistan, and China, five countries converge on this one remote spot of the planet, the much disputed and indisputably glorious Kashmir.

We enter Turtuk and search for a place to eat. Just off the main road is an open-air restaurant with a stone staircase and some plastic tables. The kitchen is inside the cave of a boulder and the cook smiles at us through a window in the rock. Urgyan orders chow mein noodles and I get the chicken curry rice.

It’s just us and a bunch of military guys in fatigues at the restaurant. Their vehicle outside is marked: “Siachin Warriors: Courage and Fortitude.” It refers to a war with Pakistan fought on the Siachin Glacier, dubbed the “Highest Battleground on Earth.” India took control of more than 1,500 square miles of territory from Pakistan in the conflict including our current location. 

After lunch, we head up through Turtuk into the final checkpoint. This one is more heavily militarized than the rest with multiple barracks, heavy equipment, and gates. Urgyan gets off the bike and talks to a guard with brightly dyed orange hair, which is for some reason a thing for older guys in India. 

Apparently the guard thinks we are locals. But just as he is motioning for us to pass, I stupidly remove my helmet, revealing my bald, white head. 

This causes all sorts of problems. Now the guard has to see my passport and make several phone calls informing his superiors that I’m here. Eventually Urgyan takes the cellphone from the guard, talking in Ladakhi with the higher up, persuading him to let us through.

After all this way we almost got denied because I removed my helmet. I should have listened to that first guard. 

We finally ride through the checkpoint and head up along the Shyok River for the final few miles.

(Indo-Pakistan border at Turtuk)

“We made it. That’s Pakistan!” says Urgyan, pointing at a devilish-looking mountainside looming overhead.

“Holy shit.”

We park our bikes by a rusty bridge, take some pictures and rest for a moment to enjoy our accomplishment.

As we pass back through the Turtuk checkpoint the orange-haired guard comes out of his post to give us a thumbs up. I’m buzzing as we get back on the highway riding south past Bogdang, past the space boulders, past the airstrip. 

Just as we reach Diskit the sun is setting on the Maitreya Buddha statue and I have a feeling that I’ve never had before. Like I’ve been initiated into a new club: Adventurer.

But there’s no club to be seen. Just me and Urgyan, sole travelers of the 9,200-square-mile Nubra Valley. 

***

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