The Flaneur: Moto Journals 5 — Nubra Valley

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The fifth in a seven-part series. Catch up with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

Atop the rocky outcrop above Hunder stands a temple whose heavy wooden doors have been sealed shut, with a silk ribbon run through the handles.

Below, a white river plunges out of a cliff and crashes into a sluice, which steers it alongside the mountain and pours into to the canals that feed the oasis village below. Otherwise, the surrounding valley is desolate: a sea of sand dunes enclosed by steep peaks.

After a moment’s hesitation (is it sealed for a reason?) we untie the ribbon and push open the temple’s heavy doors. Slowly, my eyes adjust to the darkness.

Enthroned before us is a giant, golden Maitreya Buddha. His face slowly becomes distinguishable in the darkness. The blissful eyes, the Mona Lisa smile.

It’s eerie to open a sealed door onto such a presence.

M- begins to prostrate while I make my way along the muraled walls, whose images tell a story I don’t fully understand. Some I recognize as tantric deities, their faces dark with age, blackened by the butter candles kept burning at the feet of nearby Maitreya. I edge along the paintings in the dim light, along the artists’ strange vision, full of wrathful deities in a wrathful land.

Exiting the temple, the sky blinds me.

I crouch outside sweating among the rocks while M- has finishes her circumambulations, then together we ride back down to the meadow where we pitched our tent two days ago.

M- crawls inside for a nap while I traipse off barefoot through the forest looking for a place to use the toilet. I end up just squatting in the open air beneath a tree, using my hand and some water from a nearby stream.

Back at the tent I lie in the grass and begin writing.

Soon I notice two little girls have crawled over the nearby fence: our regular afternoon visitors, the two Muslim sisters – one dark, one albino – who come to eavesdrop on us a few times a day. They approach carefully, secretly, giggling and hiding in the wildflowers whenever we wave to them.

M- finally lures them over with candy (they know she has it; that’s why they’ve come) but when they get close to us all they do is stand and grin.

The Buddhist family who owns this meadow told us a little about community in this half-Muslim, half-Buddhist village.

We asked if there were ever any tensions. No, they said, never. In a few days when all the Buddhist families leave for Leh to attend the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra initiation, the Muslims will tend to their fields, feed their animals and guard their homes from thieves.

The ezan sounds from the nearby mosque. The little girls hurry away.


Three days later we are marooned in Khardung under grey clouds, waiting for another biker to pass by with an extra spark plug. The high altitude riding over the past few days has charred all five of our spares.

The road is empty.

Nobody is coming.

Nobody is going.

It is the only road out of this valley and it is dead because of a landslide yesterday about 20 kilometers up road near Khardung La.

To make things worse, M- is feeling ill. Plus she is mad at me.

So I drink chai while she lies in bed.

I smoke and watch women out in the fields tending their crops. I watch old men circumambulate the deteriorated stupas topped with yak skulls. I smoke a joint, and wander down to have a closer look. I go until I reach the edge of the gorge beyond the village. There, I simply stare at the mountains.

They are surreal. Each exudes a different persona. The closest, just beyond the gorge separating us, is ill-formed, like an evolving, fetal creature, or like a mountain in the process of devolving into a puddle. To its left are red and orange mountains, and beyond them, a yellow and kingly one, the largest in the view. Beyond that is a range of black, snow-capped peaks.

I light another joint and continue to stare.

Meanwhile, my ears notice the nearby streams, the little foot-wide arteries that direct snow melt through the fields to every corner of the col. They flow by every home and in between every crop. Without them, nothing here would be alive.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Never in my life have I seen so clearly the importance of water.

I blink my eyes again at the mountains.


We wake the next morning to find a dozen Royal Enfields parked outside the homestay next to ours. Finally, bikers. And finally, a spare spark plug, which they let us have.

I plug it in while M- scratches at the charred ones with her nailfile, washing them with gasoline. We are about to go up and over Khardung La pass, the world’s highest motorable pass, and we might need them. I kickstart the engine and rev it; it flutters and gives a clean roar. Then we are off.

Things go wonderfully, but not for long. Slowly, my bike begins powering down until it barely goes at all, with no chance it will make it to the top.

We manage to reach the first military checkpoint, which guards the beginning of the pass road. Luckily, it has been closed off due to another landslide and there are plenty of idle truck drivers around to ask for assistance. None of them speak English, so M- does the inquiring.

Within twenty minutes she’s found an empty load truck willing to take both of our bikes to the top for 500 rupees.

We drive the bikes over and wait for the truck to back onto an incline, then ramp them up and onto its metal bed.

The men get to work entangling the bikes in a web of yellow straps. I watch them, knowing that there’s no way this is going to work. The road over the pass is one of the worst I’ve ever been on, full of potholes and avalanched stones and rushing streams, with loose scree above and paths chopped through perpetually expanding and melting glaciers. We already came over that road on the way into Nubra and I know that the bikes will bang around so violently that they will be damaged.

“Should we ride in the back with them?” I ask M-.

“I’m up for it,” she says, ignoring the obvious danger of such an endeavor and instead being quite enthusiastic about riding in an open truck bed because of the possibility that she’ll be out in the open snow.

An hour later, word spreads that the pass will soon open.

We crawl into the truck and stand near our bikes, but a military officer orders us to get down. It’s too dangerous, he says. Not long ago some people riding in the back of a truck were killed by falling rocks and now it is forbidden.

M- rides with the truck carrying our bikes. I ride in the truck behind it. It doesn’t take long before the bikes have jerked and jumped out of their original positions. I watch them, knowing soon something terrible will happen. I am so worried that I barely notice the two men I am riding with. M-’s bike begins sliding down onto its side, then a big bump sends mine leaping against the wall, bending the right handlebar back onto itself.

“Stop!” I shout.

I leap down from the truck and run up to M-’s window.

“The bikes are being thrown everywhere. They can’t make it like this. We have to ride back there with them.”

It takes awhile for the driver to strap them down again. He doesn’t look very happy about it. We wedge ourselves between the bikes, wearing our helmets to protect us from falling rocks, and get going.

It is a lot rougher than I had imagined. Entwined in the web of straps, we must use every ounce of our altitude-enfeebled strength to keep the bikes from jumping around and being damaged. And then there’s our own bodies to worry about. And our brains, which begin to throb as we climb higher into the atmosphere, up over the snow line, where tiny snowflakes begin to swirl in the air.

“Snow!” M- shouts, opening her mouth to the sky to catch some on her tongue.

I’m too busy to watch her for long.

I can barely breathe. Each time I must strain to hold the bike up I start heaving, unable to catch my breath. As my clarity begins to deteriorate, my head starts womping and my vision darkens. My ears began to ring. It feels I could white out at any moment, but we still have a long way to go.

The road only grows worse. It is narrow, often barely wide enough for a single vehicle, and has no guardrails. Some stretches are no more than a hacked-open path through a glacier, with a steep plummeting drop-off to the left.  I keep my eyes on the rocks above, overloaded with ice and fresh snowfall.

It feels there could be another landslide at any moment.

I am beginning to plan accordingly, thinking of how best M- and I can leap out of the truck should we begin sliding over the edge.

To make things worse, there is traffic.

In theory, the pass is only supposed to be open to one-way at any given time, allowing vehicles to make their way over these dangerous roads without getting stuck in landslide-prone areas because of a jam. In practice, this rule isn’t well regulated, meaning at bottlenecks both lanes come to a standstill, unable to go forward or reverse.

We stop and go, stop and go, inching past other large trucks with our wheels near the ledge. As we inch along, we must often pause on some of the most dangerous stretches of narrow road.

Nearing the final stretch, we pass a broke-down SUV parked on a slope within inches of the ledge. A Ladakhi family is standing outside it, the snow swirling around them, bundled in whatever extra clothes and blankets they could find in the cab. The patriarch, wrapped in a loose-fitting blue robe, shouts up at us in Hindi as we pass: “Water! Do you have any water?”

But our water is too hard to reach and before we can even try our driver has already moved too far on, a millipede of cars following and honking behind us.

When finally we reach the pass the driver, without hesitation, backs up onto a pile of stones and snow, then, without a word, jumps up and begins unstrapping the bikes. There is a one-foot drop between the truck bed and the snowy boulders we’d backed onto, but somehow we wrestle the bikes down and guide them over to the road.

The damage, at first glance, seems bad. One of my handle bars is bent around into the other, and M-‘s clutch handle has broken off. But soon she figures out how to make the broken clutch work, and I bend my handlebar back into a workable position and we’re off again on our way down the pass to Leh.

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