A Guide To Khardung La, Diskit & Hunder In The Nubra Valley Of Ladakh

view of nubra valley, hunder and diskit

Nestled amidst the mountains of the Himalayas, the Nubra Valley of Ladakh is relatively isolated from the rest of Ladakh. Here, farmers and herders rub shoulders with tourists going on rafting excursions, while monks live in relative seclusion in the ancient Diskit Monastery.

At first glance, the Nubra Valley looks like a lush oasis in the middle of a high altitude desert. But this is a place of extremes, as an unlikely sand dune desert separating two massive mountains can attest to. In this guide, you’ll learn more about this unique destination, and what to see and do here.

Getting to the Nubra Valley

It’s relatively easy to get to the Nubra Valley, if you aren’t rushed for time. Buses depart from Leh thrice a week, and is the cheapest way to travel. Alternatively, sharing a taxi is a more comfortable experience, albeit at a higher but still affordable price.

The road leading to Nubra Valley first climbs a thousand meters to 18,380 ft at Khardung La. With a bold claim as the world’s highest motorable road, most travellers make a pit-stop here for photographs in front of the outpost signboard. There’s even an account of hiking up to Khardung La on foot.

From Khardung La, the road winds down the mountain. Eventually, you’ll start to see trees and a fast-flowing river which meanders towards Diskit, recognisable by its huge monastery and 32m statue of the Maitreya Buddha.

Another 8km down the road past the sand dunes, and you’ll reach the farms of Hunder. Here you can find accommodation for the night.

Mountain road to Nubra Valley from Leh
A convoy of cars take on the mountain roads towards the Nubra Valley
Road to Nubra valley by motorbike
Motorbiking is a popular and adventurous way to travel

Travelling by bus

Government-run buses head out from Leh to Diskit every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8am. The bus ride takes almost 8 to 11 hours, depending on the condition of the road. Each ticket cost 200 Rupees, and you’ll need to get them at the Leh bus station. As this bus fills up quickly, you should book a seat at least one day before your trip.

The return bus will leave the next day from Diskit at 7am, so it’s every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. If you decide to spend an extra day in the Nubra Valley and skip the ride back, you can still find shared taxis plying this route throughout the day.

Travelling by taxi

If you afford the price, getting to the Nubra Valley by taxi is definitely worth the price. The travel time is cut down to a mere 5 hours, punctuated by a few short breaks at scenic lookouts. Nubra Valley is devoid of public transport (apart from the daily long-distance bus), and it’s also a lot easier to explore the area with a vehicle.

The city centre of Leh is chock-full of tour agencies that can help backpackers find other travellers to share a taxi with. The price of a taxi is regulated by their union, and the rate for a 2-day trip in 2017 is 10,566 Rupees. This price is shared between all the travellers, so try to maximise the taxi capacity if you’re on a budget.

Hiring a taxi to Nubra Valley
Shared taxis line the carpark outside the Diskit Monastery

Khardung La

The first part of the journey is exhilarating, as you climb a thousand meters on winding roads cut into the sides of the Himalayan mountains. By taxi, it takes about one and a half hour to reach the top, marked by a small military outpost, some tourist shops and a small canteen.

While Khardung La’s claim to fame is disputed, the threat of altitude sickness is real. Most travellers stop here for less than an hour, taking the usual medley of photographs and stopping over at the canteen for a cup of chai and a bowl of instant noodles. Interestingly, there’s a small banner narrating the history of maggi company right outside the canteen. In a desolate and frigid place like Khardung La, this speaks volumes about digging into a bowl of this humble yet comforting instant noodles.

Khardung La prayer flags
Prayer flags flutter in the wind at Khardung La
View from Khardung La
The amazing high-altitude view from Khardung La
Khardung La signboard
Everyone needs a selfie at Khardung La!
Canteen at Khardung La
The local army-run canteen at Khardung La

Driving down the mountains

From Khardung La, the gravel road hugs the side of the mountain and zigzags every so often. Bearing towards the village of Khardung, the grey rocky landscape is occasionally interrupted by a green shrub. Half an hour later, a green meadow welcomes travellers to Khardung, and more importantly, yet another military checkpoint.

Meadow in Nubra Valley from Khardung Village
Passing by a meadow near Khardung Village

Security in Ladakh

Jammu and Kashmir, the mountainous state where Ladakh is located in, is still a restive area. With the partition of India still a recent memory, expect numerous security checkpoints on major roads outside Leh. More importantly, travellers need to register for a security permit before travelling to major sightseeing places like Pangong Lake, Nubra Valley and Tso Moriri.

Most travellers can get this permit within a day at Leh. However, some nationalities will face more problems depending on the current geopolitical climate. For example, China and India are still tussling for dominance at their Himalayan borders. Hongkongers and Macau residents are treated like Chinese nationals, and may apply for a security permit in Delhi only. If you’re visiting Leh without one, you’ll be limited to exploring the city and the small towns along its outskirts only.

The canyon-esque landscape

To some, driving to Nubra Valley is itself is part of the attraction. Passing through some of the most dramatic landscape in Ladakh, you’ll come across sections that look remarkably like the Grand Canyon, albeit smaller. Carved out by an unassuming river over thousands of years, it gradually widens and expands into the valley up ahead.

It is this river that sustains life in the Nubra Valley. Unlike the polluted rivers elsewhere in India, the fresh glacier water here is a refreshing sight to behold. And if you’re looking for an adventure, this is where you can take on the white water rapids on a rafting excursion too!

Valley on the way from Nubra Valley
A roaring river winds along a chasm

Diskit Monastery

Diskit is recognisable from the huge red and white Buddhist monastery sprawled across the mountainside. Built in the 14th century, this ancient place of worship tells of a remarkable story involving a Mongol warrior who dies mysteriously during an invasion. In a dimly lit prayer hall, a white six-handed deity cradles a withered arm, purportedly of the Mongol warrior. The locals claim that his head lies somewhere else in the monastery too.

If you’re able to make the climb up to the top (bearing in mind that this is still 3,000m above sea level), the panoramic views from the top of the monastery is stunning. It overlooks the river to the right, the tree-lined farms on the right, and the Maitreya statue in the middle. In a remote town hundreds of kilometers away, and perched up high with the ascetic Buddhist monks… this is a good place to reflect on life, at least for a while.

Diskit Monastery from far
The Diskit Monastery from afar
Diskit monastery
Entering the Diskit Monastery
Diskit Monastery view
The view from the top, along with some creepy wooden skulls?

The Maitreya Statue

Just a short drive away, a 32m tall statue of the Maitreya Buddha gazes out serenely into the valley down below. Walk around the statue in a clockwise manner, or let an irate monk shout at you to do so. From the front of the statue, enjoy another amazing view of Diskit and nearby Hunder. And all around you, devotees go about their prayers as part of their pilgrimage.

Maitreya statue in Diskit
The Maitreya statue in Diskit

The sand dunes of Nubra Valley

Miles away from the massive sandy deserts of western China, it’s hard to imagine a sand dune desert up high in the mountains. But here in the Nubra Valley, you can ride double-humped Bactrian camels across the sandy ground, with towering walls of rock stretching up from both sides of the valley.

During the day, this place is full of tourists and visitors going on camel rides, enjoying a picnic, or just playing around in the sand. Jump into the fray and have a tumble down a dune, but beware of the many camel droppings littered across!

Sand dunes of Hunder
Climbing up a sand dune is no easy feat
Bactrian camels at Hunder sand dunes
Young Bactrian camels at the Hunder sand dunes
Camel rides in Hunder
Tourists taking camel rides across the desert

Staying overnight in the Nubra Valley

As the day winds down, you might have enough time to visit a plantation. Some guesthouses grow their own fruits as well, and you might have a chance to taste their apricots or apples.

Finding a guesthouse is relatively easy, with many choices in both Diskit and Hunder. Due to the remoteness of this area, mobile phone reception and electrical supply is in short order here. If you’re lucky, you might enjoy a spot of WiFi for the evening, as the power grid turns on from 7pm to 11pm. Otherwise, bring a good book and settle in for a quiet night.

Guesthouse in Hunder
A guesthouse in Hunder, surrounded by lush greenery
Fruits in Hunder plantation
Fruits grow surprisingly well at this height



Booking.com

Leaving the Nubra Valley

From the Nubra Valley, consider returning to Leh for more connections to other places in Ladakh. Otherwise, head further in and visit the hot springs of Panamik to relax. You can also try to get as close as possible to the world’s highest battlefield, the Siachen Glacier. If you’re on a two-day trip by taxi, there’s enough time to squeeze in a bit of breakfast before setting out again.

But as you travel out again and up to Khardung La, take a moment to appreciate living in this rugged part of the world. If you want to get off the beaten track… well, this is it.

Travel Itinerary For A Week In Ladakh

Landscape of Ladakh

Compared to the ease in reaching the major cities across India, heading up to the mountainous region of Ladakh is considerably harder. And after you’ve reached Leh, the capital of the Jammu and Kashmir region, travelling overland to lakes, valleys and other interesting sites will involve climbing hundreds of meters up mountain passes and around meandering rivers. As such, set aside at least a week to enjoy the adventure in the this beautiful land the Indians fondly call the Crown Of India.

This itinerary assumes that you fly in from Leh. Check out Drifterplanet’s 10-day itinerary if you’re looking to head up from Delhi.

Day 1: Acclimatise in Leh

You can either get into Leh by bus or plane. Take some time off to acclimatise to the altitude – at 3,500m above sea level, Leh is high enough for travellers to exhibit acute mountain sickness (AMS) symptoms. You can sleep it off in one of the many affordably-priced guesthouses or hostels, or stroll down the Main Bazaar, a 200m stretch of shops and cafes that serve as Leh’s city centre.

If you’re up for it, the 30-minute climb up to Leh Palace offers a 360-degree panorama of the entire city, backdropped by the majestic Himalayan mountains. Don’t rush the climb, and certainly do not try it if you’re not feeling up to the task.

View from Leh Palace
Take in the scenery like a boss!
Walking along the streets of Leh
Walking along the streets of Leh

Accommodation

If you’re looking a clean and well-furnished place with nice backpacker vibes, check out Raybo Hostel. It’s a 10-minute walk from the city centre, but offers good opportunities to find fellow travellers to share taxis or tours with. The private rooms are not expensive either, and totally worth the upgrade. Check out the latest prices and room availability.

Alternatively, visit Booking.com for the following deals:


Booking.com

Day 2: Take a bus or shared taxi to Pangong Tso

The blockbuster movie “The Three Idiots” brought Pangong Tso to the attention of a global audience, and this scenic saltwater lake is now a must-go on every Ladakh itinerary. You can get here by catching a public bus (~8 hours), renting a shared taxi (~6 hours), or for experienced riders, renting a motorbike to take on winding gravel roads that spiral up to the Changla Pass at 5,360m (17,590 ft). Note that buses run only on Saturdays, Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, so you’ll want to plan ahead if you only have a week to travel.

Where to stay in Pangong Tso

At Pangong Tso, spend a night in a guesthouse or a campsite. The average cost of accommodation range between 500-1,000 Rupees per person, mostly centered in the town of Spangmik. Don’t expect reliable electricity supply or hot water in this remote settlement, but generators power the town in the evenings to around 11pm.

There’s no need to book tents usually, since accommodation options are plentiful. In fact, you can just drop in and find a place pretty much anytime.

But if you need to shower with hot water, or can’t travel easy without making reservations ahead of time, Pangong Sarai is a relatively expensive but comfortable stay. It’s the best this remote place can offer, and some comfort goes a long way on a cold windy night. Check out the latest prices and room availability here.

Tourists by Pangong Tso
Taking in the scenery by the shores of Pangong Tso
Pangong Tso reflection
Reflection off Pangong Tso

Booking.com also offers occasional deals on accommodation options:


Booking.com

Day 3: Return to Leh

The journey back to Leh will take an equal amount of time, or possibly more if the drive back is interrupted by a roadblock caused by construction works. Roads need to be constantly repaired after each winter season, so take these incidents in stride, and it’s inadvisable to try to catch a flight or bus on the same day.

Spend the rest of the day in Leh’s many cafes, or hanging out with other travellers in your hostel. You will also want to find a shared taxi or bus to Nubra Valley. Another stunning alpine lake, Tso Moriri, is less popular, so you can start putting up a shared-taxi request at travel agencies first.

Road works on the route out of Leh
Road works on the route out of Leh
Pizza restaurant overlooking Leh Main Bazaar
Guess the pizza couldn’t wait for its photo to be taken

Day 4: Take a bus or shared taxi to Nubra Valley

The next day, head to Nubra Valley by first climbing up to the world’s highest motorable road, the Khardung-la Pass. Before you start celebrating though, you might want to note that the 5,359m height falls short of other road-based passes. Just don’t be a downer and dampen your fellow travellers’ excitement, ok?

From the Khardung-la Pass, the road winds down through Grand Canyon-esque scenery, following a river that cuts through steeps mountain slopes and eventually leads you to Diskit, which is easily recognised by an impressive monastery and a huge Maitreya Buddha statue.

From Diskit, head 11km down to Hunder, which is famed for sand dunes that look out of place in this mountainous landscape. There’s also white water rafting, ATVs and other activities to do from Hunder or Diskit. At the end of the day, you can easily find a guesthouse to spend the night in either town.

View from Diskit Monastery
View from Diskit Monastery
Maitreya statue in Diskit
The Maitreya statue in Diskit
Sand dunes of Hunder
The sand dunes of Hunder

Where to stay in he Nubra Valley

Consider these Booking.com deals, if you’re looking to book a room ahead:



Booking.com

Day 5: Return to Leh

Spend another half day travelling back to Leh, once again taking in the awe-inspiring scenery as you climb up the Khardung-la Pass.

Back in Leh, if you haven’t found a shared taxi to Tso Moriri, you’ll want to look around for one. Otherwise, you can plan a day trip to Lamayuru the next day (2 hours drive from Leh) or visit the nearby monasteries just 30 minutes outside Leh.

Leh Palace at sunset
Leh Palace at sunset

Day 6: Visiting monasteries in Thiksey, Shey and Stakna

Forgoing Tso Moriri, I rented a motorbike to visit the nearby monasteries, but you could also easily hire a driver for a half day to do the same trip. Rental motorbikes might not be in the best conditions after years of abuse by tourists, so you’ll have to inspect the bike throroughly before riding off. A 220CC Bajaj Avenger cost 1,000 Rupees for a full day rental, and a 350CC Royal Enfield costs 1,100 Rupees.

The Thiksey monastery is pretty interesting for an hour’s visit, but if you’re into pretty landscapes, the view from the Stakna monastery is simply breathtaking.

As a side trip, fans of The Three Idiots should also make a stopover at the White Lotus School, the filming location where the main protagonist Rancho was finally found by his friends (no spoilers here!)

The view from Thiksey Monastery
The view from Thiksey Monastery
Riding up remote Buddhist monasteries is an adventure in itself
Riding up remote Buddhist monasteries is an adventure in itself
The wall made famous by the Three Idiots movie
The wall made famous by the Three Idiots movie

Day 7: Spend some time for yourself and recover from the hectic week

On the last day of your whirlwind tour through Ladakh, you can spend a day buying souvenirs in the Main Bazaar, chill at a bookstore cafe, or ride on further to even more towns outside Leh. There’s too much still left to do, so a return visit might be warranted!

What should you bring?

Pack light, unless you have a private driver and car. As the weather in the Himalayas can change rapidly, make sure you have warm clothing, enough to keep you warm in single digit temperature (Celsius, that is). Here’s a short list of useful items to bring to Ladakh:

  • Winter jacket
  • Spare batteries (Smartphone, camera etc)
  • Power adapter
  • Sunglasses (the sun here is very strong)
  • Daypack (a small bag to carry out when hiking)
  • Waterproof shoes
  • A good book (for long bus rides)
  • Padlock (some hostels do not have lockers or padlocks)

Accommodation deals

Generally, staying in India is cheap, with hostel beds from as low as US$5 for a decent place. If you have a bit to spend, a private room is usually more comfortable and safer. Note that if your sharing a room with other travellers, make sure you secure your belongings. Theft happens, and it can really screw up your trip.

On a side note, buy insurance too. It’s the least you can do, if you’re saving a lot on accommodations already.

Booking.com

Conclusion

Leh is simply an amazing place to travel, and it doesn’t take a lot to get around. It’s remote, adventurous and scenic – as long as you stay safe. Look out for symptoms of altitude sickness, and take care when hiking in the mountains or riding a bike.

This itinerary covers just the area around Leh. If you have more time, there’s a lot more places to check out in Jammu and Kashmir. All you need is a sense of adventure!