Until 1994, the lands north of Leh were off-limits to tourists and had been unexplored by outsiders since the nineteenth century. Now, the breathtaking Nubra Valley, unfolding beyond the world’s highest stretch of drivable road as it crosses the Khardung La (5602m), can be visited with a seven-day permit, which gives you enough time to explore the stark terrain and trek out to one or two gompas. The valley’s mountain backbone looks east to the Nubra River and west to the Shyok River, which meet amid silver-grey sand dunes and boulder fields. To the north and east, the mighty Karakoram Range marks the Indian border with China and Pakistan. In the valley it’s relatively mild, though dust storms are common, whipping up sand and light debris in choking clouds above the broad riverbeds.
Before the region passed into the administrative hands of Leh, Nubra’s ancient kings ruled from a palace in Charasa, topping an isolated hillock opposite Sumur, home to the valley’s principal monastery. Further up the Nubra River, the hot springs of Panamik, once welcomed by footsore traders, are blissfully refreshing after all day on a bumpy bus. By the neighbouring Shyok River, Diskit, surveyed by a hillside gompa, lies just 7km from Hundur, known for its peculiar high-altitude double-humped Bactrian camels.
The route north to Nubra, a steep and rough road that forces painful groans from buses and trucks, keeps Leh in sight for three hours before crossing the Khardung La, and ploughing down more gently towards the distant Karakoram Range. Due to its strategic importance as the military road to the battlefields of the Siachen Glacier, the road to Nubra is kept open all year round but conditions can be treacherous at any time.