The drive down from Leh into the Nubra Valley after traversing the precipitous Khardung La, offers the first glimpse of Ladakh’s famously awe-inspiring vistas. The Shyok and Nubra Rivers cut through deep valleys characterised by craggy mountains, stark rocky slopes and giant boulder fields contrasted by sporadic green swathes of settlements along the riverside. Most visitors cram a trip to the valley in two days, typically stopping at Diskit and the sand dunes of Hunder (overnighting at the latter), but nothing less than three days will suffice to visit the equally charming village of Sumur and the nearby hot springs of Panamik. For a truly off-the-beaten-track experience, venture on the lonely drive to the Balti village of Turtuk on the LoC, and get a rare insight into a place virtually untouched by modern life.
Nubra’s biggest settlement, 70m from Khardung La, Diskit is important for practical reasons: one, it’s got the region’s only petrol pump (1km north towards Hunder); and two, it’s the only place where you’ll find internet connectivity. The Central Bazaar also has a couple of photocopiers where you can make copies of the all-important Inner Line Permits if you intend to travel further to Turtuk. There’s not much else to do here, although the remarkably well-preserved 17th-century Diskit Gompa is worth a visit. Perched on a craggy peak above Old Diskit, it offers sweeping views of the valley and a massive (32m) statue of the Maitreya Buddha on an intermediate hill.
By far the most popular destination in Nubra, mostly on account of the sand dunes starting 3km east of the village, Hunder is ensconced in greenery against the backdrop of soaring valley cliffs. The dunes themselves can be traversed on double-humped Bactrian camels which are unique to the region. Also drop in at Hunder Gompa, which contains a large gilded Maitreya Buddha (Chamba) statue; a crude trail climbs to a precarious little ridgetop fort.
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While the dunes at Hunder are well-known, Sumur has an equally expansive spread of sand. The village is reached by taking a prominent right from the fork after Khalsar village (left goes to Diskit and Hunder). To go to the dunes, take a left on an unpaved road 1km before the Link Road junction. The dunes begin about 800m down this road. Don’t mistake the trio of uninspired restaurants at the junction as all the village has to offer. To access several guesthouses and prayer wheels, take the right on Link Road and turn left at a road fork 2km down the road. The road winds up another 1.5km to the colourful and extensively rebuilt Samstemling Gompa. The gompa is alternatively accessible by driving a 2km asphalted spur road from Km25 on the main road, i.e. the northern end of intriguing Tegar (Tiger) village. Directly overlooking that junction, the eerie rubble of Nubra’s former royal citadel leads to the three-storey shell of Zamskhang Palace. Cautiously climb up to the roof for valley views.
Just 20km from Sumur, Panamik is famous for its hot springs, but these are not the best reason to visit – the two springs on the southern end are utterly forgettable dribbles of ferric-orange water, with way too many people bathing in them. Panamik’s actual crowning glory is the scenery of surrounding valleys, best appreciated from the bridge just west of Hargam. Since 2010, permits allow you to cross that bridge and double back down a very rough road (part stream) towards little Ensa Gompa.
Top Tip: Permits
You will need an inner line permit to visit Nubra Valley. These can be arranged at the Office of the Deputy Commissioner in Leh. You can also ask any travel agent in town to procure the permit for you before you have to leave.