My Dear Aakash,
I arrived in a place of strange beauty, which until today existed only in my dreams. High mountains surround me all around and reach up towards a spotless deep blue sky; while bottomless arid valleys with occasional patches of green run in between them. It seems as if I have descended into a medieval stone fortress where time is at a stand still. Everything is very rustic and dry, but yet there is an unsaid fierce mystical beauty that dwells within these soul-stirring mountains.
The place is Nimmu, a traditional village (~200 families) in Ladakh, set amongst impressive gorges, and is the confluence point (sangam) of the legendary Indus and the Zanskar River. Ladakh, the land of high passes, marks the boundary between the peaks of western Himalaya and the vast Tibetan Plateau. Since ancient times Ladkah has been at the crossroads of civilizations between Central Asia to the west and north, Tibet in the East, and the Indian sub-continent to the south. Until recently, caravans constantly roamed the valley of Indus in Kashmir to Leh, Ladakh’s regional capital. But now, motorable roads exist to connect different parts of Ladakh to Leh.
I arrived in Nimmu sometime this late afternoon with my friend Tsering Spaldon from Leh on a local shared taxi. I will be staying with her family for the next two days.
Our driver, Tashi Namgyal, was a cheerful young guy in his late twenties. I learned that he works part-time as a taxi driver in the summer to gather some pocket money and help pay for his college tuition in Jammu.
After crossing the bridge at Phyang, Tashi took a right turn to get on to the famous NH 1 (National Higway 1) that connects Leh with Srinagar. In the early 17th century, when Ladakh thrived under the famous king Sengge Namgyal, this region became recognized as the best trade route between Northwest India (Punjab) and Central Asia.
The travelers, traders and pilgrims who made up the majority of travelers back then, traveled on foot or horseback, taking about sixteen days to reach Srinagar, although the people riding non-stop and with changes of horse along the route, could do it in as little as five days. Merchants dealt in textiles, spices, raw silk, carpets, and dyes and transported their goods on caravans which took about two months to carry from Amritsar to the Central Asian towns of Yarkand and Knotan.
On this long route, Leh was the half-way point, and developed into a bustling town, its bazaars thronged with merchants from far countries. The famouspashm (better known as cashmere) was produced in the high altitudes of eastern Ladakh and western Tibet and taken to Srinagar where skilled artisans transformed the material into shawls known the world over for their softness and warmth.
Ironically, it was this lucrative trade that finally led to the doom of the Ladakhi Kingdom. It attracted the covetous gaze of Gulab Singh, the ruler of Jammu in the early 19th century, and in 1834, he sent his general Zorawar Singh to invade Ladakh. Thus followed a decade of war and turmoil, which ended with the emergence of the British as the paramount power in north India.
Ladakh, together with the neighboring province of Baltistan, was incorporated into the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Just over a century later, this union was disturbed by the partition of India in 1947, with Baltistan becoming a part of Pakistan, while Ladakh remaining in India.
All of this was before the wheel as a means of transport was introduced into Ladakh, which happened only when the Srinagar-Leh motor-road (NH 1) was constructed in the early 1960s when the Chinese occupied Askai Chin and started building roads connecting Sinkiang, Tibet and the Karakoram Highway. Upon completion, the new Sringar-Leh road cut the journey time from sixteen days to two. Simultaneously, China closed the Ladakh-Tibet border, ending the 700-year old Ladakh-Tibet relationship.
It took us just about an hour to get to Nimmu, where we got dropped off at the main market area. From that point, Spaldon’s house was a good 30 minute walk. The path was steep and rocky, and Spaldon ambled down as if it was paved. The village came up toward us: poplar trees, tall and straight; white-washed mud houses golden bright in the evening sun, set in a patchwork of a hundred different greens of ripening crops.
Spaldon and I wound between dry-stone walls that had been built over generations to retain the fragile soil of the mountains. Entering the village itself, in keeping with the religious custom, we had to make a slight detour to pass to the left of the stupa, the ever-present symbol of
Colorful Tibetan prayer flags fluttered on garden poles. We walked up a narrow path between large, flat roofed white-washed houses, passing vegetable gardens and apricot orchards and finally saw the gates to Spaldon’s house.
The house stands right on the banks of the Indus River and is flanked by green fields and giant mountain peaks that reach up vertically to touch the sky.
Arriving at the house, we climbed a flight of stone steps to the first floor. We took off our shoes outside and Spaldon took me into the their chansa, (a traditional family kitchen cum living room) a room that was at least forty feet wide with a large brick cooking stove, and spacious windows that looked over the apricot orchards. Rows of gleaming brass and copper pots shone brilliantly against the dark walls.
Spaldon’s amale (mother), Tsering Dolkar, was stirring a huge pot on the stove. With a nod of the head and a warm smile she welcomed us while Spaldon explained who I was. We sat on brightly colored padded Kashmiri carpets, arranged in an L-shape along the walls, with low tables, or chogtse, in front of us. Spaldon’s acho (brother), Angdu, poured each of us a cup of the renowned gur-gur tea (salty butter tea—an acquired taste!) and offered ussigu (almonds), phating (dried apricots), and chorpe (dried yak cheese).
Spaldon’s ache (sister), Sonam Angmo, was rocking a little girl (maybe 7-8 months old) to sleep. She padded her back and forth, carrying the girl in a cloth on her back. Her abile (Grandmother) was sitting in a corner, chanting a mantra, her hands gliding across a row of wooden prayer beads in her lap. I felt at ease with these people, at the quiet and matter-of-fact way in which they accepted the presence of a stranger, as if I had sat in that kitchen many times before.
As we drank gur-gur, Spaldon told me that this ancestral house was built sometime in the very early twentieth century by a relative of Rinchen Namgyal Zildar, a cousin of the king of Ladakh. Gradually, the house lost its glory after the annexation of Ladakh into the Indian Union after the country’s independence. Spaldon’s family now lack sufficient financial resources to remodel the house.
I finished the last sip of my gur-gur (by now I had drunk five cups … or perhaps six … I had stopped counting after three) and went out to the backyard with Spaldon to pick up some vegetables for dinner. Being summer, the backyard is now full of fresh vegetables—carrots, potatoes, peas, spinach, cabbage, and turnips. Spaldon’s parents and siblings have tilled this land untiringly and patiently since mid-April. Spaldon mentioned to me that her family has had this ancestral land for at least six generations.
In Ladakh, the agricultural cycle begins sometime between February and June, depending on the altitude. Sowing is a time of lyrical beauty and the entire family (men, women, and children) share the labor equally to sow the seeds.
Nimmu is at an altitude of 3,100m, relatively low for Ladakh, which makes the climate slightly moderate, and the growing season longer. The common crops are wheat, barley, fruits (apricots and apples) and plenty of vegetables. Spaldon and I walked carefully through the beds and began picking vegetables and collecting them in a hand-woven conical basket.
The only noise surrounding us was the sound of the Indus River, raging fiercely though the fields, the wind blowing though the gaps in the mountains, and the prayer flags fluttering from the roof top, speaking to the wind.
I felt overwhelmed by the strong powerful presence of nature; small and humbled. There is something about the sheer grandeur of the snow-capped Himalayas which inspires even the most world-weary traveler. I closed my eyes and allowed the river and the wind to engulf me and take me somewhere beyond the snow-covered peaks—a place far away from this society, which at times appears so materialistic and rigid to me.
Dusk announced its arrival and there was no electricity lighting our way back to the house. Once back in the kitchen with the basket of fresh peas, spinach, and turnips, amale instructed Spaldon to bring in the LED lamps and help chop the vegetables for thukpa (Ladakhi noodle soup). Spaldon chopped the spinach, while I cut the turnips and shelled the peas. Once the vegetables were ready, we handed them over to amale to be added to the broth.
It needed to stew for a while before adding the noodles. I took the opportunity to slip out of the kitchen and made my way to the terrace. I climbed up an old wooden ladder and took a lung full of the crisp thin air.
The night sky was bejeweled with a million extraordinarily brilliant stars. Here, at 12,000 feet or more, the stars appeared to have increased in their size overnight. “When it is dark enough, you can see the stars,” says an old Persian proverb. The half moon is the only light, and it was more than enough for my eyes. The gentle summer breeze pushed the clouds across the sky, covering up the moon periodically. The stars shone like giant pearls against a limitless black canvas.
I began counting the stars. In less than thirty seconds I lost my count. Aakash, I wonder how many stars you would have counted.
In the moonlight I could make out the prayer flags flapping in the air from the roof, the eular trees rustling in the breeze, and the fields that lay behind the house. I wish you were here with me to share this experience. I miss you, Aakash.
If destiny wishes it, then one day we will again arrive at the same place together and we shall count the stars together. Until that day, keep traveling as far as you can and as long as you can, “seeing and being” were your last words for me. I love you very much. Yours forever, Indus .
Sharmila Pal spends her time between Seattle and Ladakh with her organisation Wheels Across India where she actively organises and leads low-impact, non-touristy backpacking trips.
Travel Information for Nimmu
When to Visit—The best months to visit Ladakh are from May to September. For adventure sport lovers, the trekking months are July and August. Masked dance festivals organized by various monasteries are held usually between June and July.
Getting to Nimmu—From Leh: Hop on to any bus going towards Lamayuru, Mulbek, Kargil, Alchi, Likir, Saspol, or Khaltse. They will stop at Nimmu. Buses run at 6:30 a.m., 8 a.m., and 4p.m. Tickets are Rs 50 (less than a dollar) one way. Afternoon buses are more crowded than the morning ones, so if you want a seat, get to the bus station a bit early. The bus will drop you off at the main market. Alternatively, you can take a local shared taxi (also Rs 50) from Skalzaling.
Where to Sleep: Nimmu does not have a lot of fancy hotels. If you are looking for high end services, try the Nimmu House (ladakh.nimmu-house.com). They have permanent tents as well as rooms for accommodation. Breakfast and dinner are included in the price
(~Rs 3000 per night ($47)), and lunch is Rs 450 ($7). There are also few budget hotels/guesthouse in the market area.
Where to Eat: Nimmu market has several small local restaurants and a big tea/snack shop. The tea shop is a great place to hang out, read a book or write your journal. It is very spacious and you can find your own corner to stake out. There are several local restaurants where they serve Ladakhi food. If you are looking for the Indian fare try Ranjeet Di Hatti.
Things To Do:
• Village walk: Village walks in Nimmu are always an absolute delight. Walk through the green fields and mountain dirt roads and see where the path takes you. Ask a local person for directions towards the Urgain, Chamba, and Basgo Monasteries (highly recommended, especially Basgo Monastery). The 400 year old Basgo monastery is situated on top a mountain and houses some of the most beautiful murals and images of Buddhist deities. The main attraction is the enormous gold and copper statue of the Maitreyi Buddha (the future Buddha). Don’t forget to climb all the way up to the roof top to enjoy some of the wonderful scenery.
If you have more than 2-3 days in Nimmu, try hiking up to the beautiful Nimmu Lake. The path is very steep and not clearly marked. This is a 2 day/1 night trip, so plan accordingly and don’t forget to take food and a good sleeping bag.
• Rafting: Nothing comes closer to white water rafting in the foaming waters of the Zanskar and Indus River (grade- II to IV). Daily rafting trips on the Zanksar River starts from Chilling Village
(distance 28 km; trip duration 2.5 to three hours; ~$25). The trips end at the confluence point in Nimmu and is usually followed by a hearty lunch. If you are looking for some serious adrenaline rush, try the 5-day Zanskar expedition from Padum to Nimmu—a breath taking rafting and camping expedition that will take you through some of the remotest parts of the river canyon!
Apart from the Zanskar River, daily rafting trips as well as expeditions are also offered on the upper and lower Indus River. It is always better to get prior booking from Leh. Some of the reputable rafting companies are: Offbeat, Splash, Wet ‘n Wild, and Luna Ladakh.
• Alchi Village: Alchi is perhaps one of my favorite places in Ladakh. Unlike the other gompas (monasteries) in Ladakh, The village is famous for one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh (a world heritage site). The monastery has magnificent 11th century murals and some stunning woodcarvings.
Alchi is best to visit when the cherry blossoms (mid-April) and apricots (mid-June to August) are in season. They look fantastic against the crystal blue sky and make the whole village come alive with color. You can get to Alchi either by bus or a local shared taxi. There is a bus from Nimmu’s main market at 9 a.m, which will drop you right in front of the monastery. From Nimmu, it takes about an hour to get to Alchi. Alternatively, you can board the Leh-Kargil bus from Nimmu at 6:00 a.m.