Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Don't take the jeep safari

I love the Himalayas. I loved Ladakh. I have a very, very soft spot in my heart for Diskit. But the Nubra Valley is, for me, somewhere that's been horribly spoilt; and it's been spoilt by the government requirement for permits, by jeep safaris, by the fact that no one goes alone.

Unfortunately, the Indian government doesn't just want you to get a permit. It wants you to go at least in couples, preferably in fours.

Then travel agencies do their best to present you 'two days, one night' jeep safaris. You go to Diskit, you look at the giant Maitreya, you go to Hunder and have a camel ride, you go to Turtuk and you come back. You go over the Kardongla Pass twice in a couple of days and marvel at the views. That's it.

Come, take photo, go. The whole valley cut up into tiny half hour segments of experience.

Hunder is a dreadful place. Or rather; there's a rather sweet village, where lanes wander under tall poplars or between trailing willow, where little bridges cross burbling cold streams; and there's a monastery and a huge field of stupas and tiny shrines overlooking the valley; but most people come, take a camel ride, and go, or stay in huge tented camps where you drive in and drive out and never walk around the village at all. The river by the camel rides is polluted by water bottles and plastic bags, and the only place you can get a drink is the army cafe, and none of the drinks are actually cold.

I love camels and I'd looked forward to seeing the Bactrians. But they're not useful camels, or wild camels. They're a tourist sight, and nothing else.

In Diskit, on the other hand, the streets were full of donkeys; there were donkey foals, with the dark soft fur of donkey childhood still unsullied, and as I wandered back from the fields by the river, I saw a man letting his donkey in at the garden gate, for his supper and his night's rest.

("Do the donkeys work?" I asked.

"No, they have a good life. No need to work now, we have the road and trucks and the bus. So they go to the fields in the daytime, and at night they come home."

No one proposed getting rid of them. They're part of the village.)

Perhaps the reason I got fond of Diskit is that I was able to stay there for a couple of days, wandering around - up to the monastery, to the old Gonkhang and the tiny temple right at the top, to the monastery's kitchen garden above, and the amazing field of stupas below. I saw monks playing cricket below the great Maitreya figure. I wandered out towards the Shyok river, but never got to it, only to marshy fields and stone walled pastures, where there were tall trees and shade and women urging their cattle home in the low, golden evening light. I got used to the daily rhythm, coming out and going home, and the bells of the prayer wheels ringing brokenly as the wheels turned, whenever someone came past who set them in motion.

I sat in the garden of the Siachen Hotel talking cookery and Indian food with the Nepali chef; why Calcutta has so many fat people and why Mumbai has the best food in India, and how to make gundruk (fermented dried greens), and favourite places in Sikkim; and drinking mint tea made with the leaves he'd picked five minutes before, and sniffing the roses (the pink ones smelt of nothing, the red ones were so fragrant you could get high on them).

But the problem is that you can't take that leisurely attitude with the whole of Nubra. The seven day permit (not extendable) makes you worry about transport. You can travel from Diskit to Turtuk, the furthest you can go before the valley turns to Pakistan and the Karakoram, in one morning; but the bus back strands you in Diskit at nine in the morning, with no bus towards Sumur or Panamik till two. Public transport hardly works at all; you're always waiting for a bus, or hitching a lift, and the jeeps never stop for anyone. Shared taxis exist, but try finding one; you'll be offered the special cheap tourist rate of 1,000 rupees to go anywhere.

So most people, of course, take the jeep safari. They pay through the nose for it, they don't spend long enough in Nubra, they act like typical tourists doing typical tourist things. And because these people all take the jeep safari, the valley is developing to facilitate that, and only that. Which is why you shouldn't take the jeep safari.

If you are aiming to go it alone;
  • Shared taxis leave from just above the Polo Ground, from six to about eight in the morning, mostly going to Diskit. 400 rupees should get you there (2013 prices).
  • The other way to do the trip is by motorbike. But while I've biked quite a few roads in Ladakh, this one is tough - icemelt streams rip up the road bed, and dirt biking experience is a must. I'm glad I didn't do it (in early June: it might be a bit different in August).
  • Most travel agents in Leh will help you get the permit without selling you a safari. If one won't, just go next door.
  • Make sure you take enough photocopies of the permit. I needed six, in the end, as there were extra checks on the road up to Turtuk.
  • There are plenty of hotels and guesthouses, mostly at reasonable rates. Hotel Siachen cost me 200 rupees a night - a real bargain.

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