If you love adventure and getting off the beaten track, visiting the secluded Nubra Valley will be a highlight of your travels in high-altitude Ladakh. This intriguing, far-flung area is notable for connecting India to the southern branch of the old Silk Road trade route from China, through the Karakorum Pass. (The double-humped Bactrian camels that inhabit the Nubra Valley are a legacy of being brought in from China's Gobi desert by traders to haul heavy loads). Up until China shut the border in 1949, traders still journeyed between Yarkand (present-day Xinjiang in China) and Kashmir in India via Ladakh.
Due to the Nubra Valley being a sensitive border area, tourism is strictly regulated and the imprint of it is minimal. Some places remained off-limits until less than a decade ago, adding to the remarkableness of the destination. The widespread presence of the Indian Army against the stark, arid landscape is a further reminder of its position.
This complete guide to Ladakh's Nubra Valley will help you plan your trip there.
Not a lot of archeological research was carried out in the Nubra Valley until recently (the first formal survey took place in 1992). As a result, little is known about the area's history prior to when the Tibetan Buddhist monastery was built in Diskit in 1420. However, numerous fortress ruins indicate that the Nubra Valley was split up and presided over by local chieftains. Indeed, villagers say that Diskit Monastery is situated on the premises of an ancient fort.
Although Buddhism spread to western Ladakh from Kashmir as early as the 2nd century, it's thought that the religion was introduced into the Nubra Valley from neighboring Tibet in the 8th century when the Tibetan Empire was expanding. Unlike earlier rock inscriptions in other parts of Ladakh, the inscriptions found in the Nubra Valley are all in Tibetan.
Local chieftains continued to autonomously rule the Nubra Valley until the 16th century, when Islamic invader Mirza Haider Dughlat entered Ladakh through the area and defeated them. After this, in the mid 16th century, the Nubra Valley came under the Namgyal Dynasty with the rest of Ladakh. This new dynasty was founded by a Ladakhi king and reigned over the whole region. It allowed Nubra Valley's chieftains to remain though.
Unfortunately, Ladakh's relations with Tibet took a turn for the worse in the late 17th century. This resulted in an attempted invasion by Tibet, forcing Ladakh to seek help from the Mughals in Kashmir. A peace treaty settled the dispute in 1684 (among other things, it fixed the boundary between Ladakh and Tibet at Pangong Lake) but started the decline of Ladakh as an independent kingdom.
Ladakh, including the Nubra Valley, was wedged between powerful Kashmir and Tibet. The Sikhs ousted the Mughals and took control of Kashmir in the early 19th century. They also wanted to control the lucrative pashmina wool trade that Ladakh was involved in. So, they arranged for the Dogras (who ruled the adjacent Jammu region) to carry out an aggressive military invasion. Ladakh surrendered, and ultimately ended up being annexed to Jammu and Kashmir.
After India gained independence from the British in 1947, Jammu and Kashmir became a new Indian state. During the Partition, Ladakh was divided unequally between India and Pakistan. Border disputes and national security concerns ensued, requiring the region to be closed to outsiders.
The predominantly Muslim province of Baltistan was one place in the Nubra Valley that was merged with Pakistan. However, India reclaimed a portion of it during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war. This included four villages — Chalunkha, Turtuk, Tyakshi and Thang. The process literally happened overnight. Residents fell asleep in Pakistan and woke up in India!
All the decades of fighting halted economic development in Ladakh and tourism provided an opportunity for the region to recover. To facilitate this, the Indian government reopened parts of Ladakh in 1974. However, the Nubra Valley remained off-limits until 1994 and no one could visit Turtuk until 2010, as tourists weren't permitted beyond Panamik and Hunder in the Nubra Valley.
More recently, after pressure from locals, the final access points for tourists were moved past Panamik to Warshi (in the direction of Siachen Base Camp) and to Tyakshi village ahead of Turtuk (from where you can see the Indian and Pakistani borderline).
The Nubra Valley is located in the northernmost part of Ladakh, at an altitude of just over 3,000 meters (about 10,000 feet) above sea level. It lies between the mighty Karakoram and Ladakh mountain ranges, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of Leh across the Khardung La mountain pass.
The area is actually made up of two valleys — Nubra and Shyok — created by rivers of the same names. These rivers originate from the Siachen Glacier, on either side of the Karakoram Range. The Nubra River merges into the Shyok River near Diskit (the headquarters of the Nubra Valley).
In addition to Diskit, popular destinations Hunder, Turtuk and Tyakshi are situated alongside the Shyok River, which joins the Indus River in Pakistan. Alongside the Nubra River are Sumur, Tiggur, Panamik and Warshi.
How to Get There
It takes five to six hours to reach Diskit from Leh in Ladakh. The main way of getting there is via Khardung La, which passes over the Ladakh mountain range. It's often incorrectly claimed to be the highest motorable road in the world, at a height of 5,602 meters (18,380 feet) above sea level. However, the Indian government has stated its real height to be only 5,359 meters (17,582 feet). Regardless, you won't want to spend any longer than about 15 minutes there due to the altitude, or you're likely to feel lightheaded.
There's an alternative, more difficult route into the Nubra Valley to the east of Khardung La. It crosses Wari La from Sakti, and connects to the main road via Agham and Khalsar alongside the Shyok River. You can reach the Nubra Valley from Pangong Lake, via Durbuk and Shyok villages, as well. This route is growing in popularity.
Public transport is intermittent. So, traveling by private vehicle is most convenient. This might not be feasible for budget travelers, as a taxi will typically charge 10,000-15,000 rupees for a two-day round trip to the Nubra Valley from Leh.
Fortunately, buses run from Leh bus stand to Diskit three times a week — departing early in the mornings on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. You can expect to pay about 500 rupees for the round trip by bus, which is quite a difference! In addition, a bus runs directly from Leh to Turtuk on Saturday mornings, and from Leh to Panamik on Tuesday mornings.
Taking a shared jeep from Leh to Diskit, Hunder or Sumur is another budget option, at a cost of 400-500 rupees per person one way.
Foreigners should make transport arrangements through a registered travel agent in Leh, as it's necessary to get a Protected Area Permit (PAP) to visit the Nubra Valley. According to the rules, at least two foreigners must be in a group to apply for a PAP. However, travel agents will add solo travelers to other groups (so, you can share their taxi too). You don't need to join the group though. Travelers do go alone after getting the permit and are rarely questioned (you can always say your companion is ill or will be coming later).
Note that citizens of Afghanistan, Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China need permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi for a PAP, and should apply through the Indian consulate in their country.
Indian citizens must have an Inner Line Permit (ILP) to visit the Nubra Valley. The requirements are less strict and it's now possible to apply for the permit online here. It can also be obtained from the Tourist Information Center near Jammu and Kashmir Bank in Leh's Main Bazaar.
Khardung La is open throughout the year. However, the tourist season in the Nubra Valley extends from May to October, peaking in July and August. Go in late September or early October to avoid the rush. The Nubra Valley is at a lower altitude than Leh, so it doesn't get as cold.
What to Do There
The Nubra Valley, at the "cultural crossroads" of Tibet and Central Asia, is a fascinating meeting place of two religions — Buddhism and Islam. The main tourist destinations and attractions can be covered in three days, although there are options for trekking and camping for those who want to stay longer.
To get acquainted with the Nubra Valley's Buddhist heritage, visit its prominent Buddhist monasteries. The largest one is clustered on a hill above Diskit. If you're willing to wake up early and arrive by dawn, you'll be able to catch the monks' evocative daily morning prayers accompanied by a melody of chanting, horns and cymbals. Walk further up behind the monastery for magnificent views of the Shyok Valley below. For an unforgettable experience, try and attend the monastery's annual 2-day Diskit Gustor festival in October, where the monks perform masked dances.
The unmissable landmark 100 foot-tall statue of Maitreya Buddha, which watches over the valley, is another highlight in Diskit. This more recent addition was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 2010.
You'll find more Buddhist monasteries in the vicinity of Hunder, Sumur, and Panamik. Chamba Gompa at Hunder features an imposing large gold Maitreya Buddha statue, vibrant frescoes, and interesting Buddhist sites dotted around it. Samstanling Monastery, near Sumur, was relatively recently constructed in the 19th century but is beautifully decorated inside with paintings and wall hangings. From Panamik, it's worth visiting little-known Ensa Monastery perched on the other side of the Nubra River, where an elderly monk lives in solitude.
The monastery has a curious footprint in one of its prayer rooms. It's believed to belong to a monk called Dachompa Nyima Gungpa, whose religious cloth gave him the power to fly. Ancient and remote Yarma Gonbo Monastery is further on, towards Warshi, and can now be reached by tourists.
Panamik is best known for its natural therapeutic hot water sulfur spring, which may relieve aches and pains. Despite the new bathhouse there, some tourists find it underwhelming. A short 10 minute hike to holy Yarab Tso lake, in the mountains near the entrance of the village, is more rewarding.
The atmospheric Tiggur village (also called Tegar or Tiger), between Sumur and Panamik, is developing as a tourism hot spot. It's home to Zimskhang Gompa, the ruins of a palace that belonged to a local chieftain. There are more fort and palace ruins in nearby Charasa.
In the sand dunes between Diskit and Hunder, a sunset ride on a Bactrian camel is an iconic thing to do. This barren expanse was formed in 1929, by a major flood that washed away a dense forest of sea buckthorn. Wind swept sand up from across the valley and deposited it there. Camel riding is possible at Sumur too, although the dunes are less impressive.
Do allocate a day to visit the Balti Muslim villages beyond Hunder, with their distinctly different landscape and culture. The Balti Heritage Museum in Turtuk provides insight into local history, from the time the village was inhabited by the Brokpa tribe and later taken over by warriors from Central Asia. You may also be able to meet the "king" of Turtuk, Yabgo Mohammad Khan Kacho, a descendant of the Yabgo Dynasty that ruled Baltistan for 2,000 years. He still occupies the former palace, and has converted part of it into a museum to showcase the dynasty's memorabilia.
Old wooden mosques that have withstood the test of time are another draw in Turtuk. While you're there, dine on authentic Balti cuisine at the Balti Kitchen near Maha Guest House or Balti Farm at Turtuk Holiday Resort.
The various accommodations in the Nubra Valley consist of tented camps for glamping, guesthouses and homestays. Most are only open during the tourist season from May to October.
Chamba Camp Diskit is ideal for luxury travelers. Butler service, gourmet food, bespoke itineraries and immersive experiences are all part of the package. Expect to pay 68,000 rupees per night for a double, with discounts for two and three night stays.
For less expensive glamping in Diskit, try Desert Himalaya Resort. The three categories of tents, plus trailer accommodations, are spread over six acres. Rates start from about 8,000 rupees per night for a double.
Alternatively, Hotel Sten Del is recommended in Diskit. The rooms are clean and attractive, and the property has a relaxing garden. Doubles are priced from about 5,000 rupees per night.
There are plenty of accommodations to choose from at Hunder. Himalayan Eco Resort is popular, with 20 cottages and five tents. Rates start from about 4,000 rupees per night. Nubra Organic Retreat has 20 deluxe tents on a lush organic farm. Expect to pay about 7,000 rupees for a double per night. Apple Nubra Cottage has cheaper but still comfortable Swiss tents from about 3,000 rupees per night near Hunder.
Want to get away from the crowds? Modern, family-run Nubra Eco Lodge is located in a scenic and serene spot near Sumur. It has four tents, two cottages and three rooms. Rates begin from 5,000 rupees per night for a double. Or, in Tegar, Hotel Yarab Tso has rooms in a restored Ladakhi house with rates from around 6,000 rupees per night for a double. Lchang Nang Retreat is another standout place to stay in Tegar. It offers Ayurvedic and wellness therapies. Expect to pay 10,000 rupees per night upwards for a double.