Hunder is a small oasis in the Nubrah valley or the valley of flowers in Ladakh, north east Kashmir. The snow capped mountains stand fort on its three sides and the Shyok, a tributary of the river Indus, flows along the other boundary. It is very close to the actual line of control near Pakistan. It is also close to Xingjiang in China.
A garrison of the Indian army stands guard at the gates of Hunder. A tiny village to be precise, this requires foreigners to get visit permits at Khardungla pass. It grows wheat, barley, mustard, peas, blood apples, apricots, almonds and walnuts. The winter climate is below zero and snow freezes the daily life. People live in houses with stone walls under thatched roofs. Summer between May to September is the only season of colour, festivities and travel. A mosque and a Buddhist Gompa takes care of the religious leanings of the natives who are very shy, yet, friendly and helpful. Their smile is contagious and makes the world a happy place. I felt their joy transcend into my heart and could feel the words in the scriptures “Peace on earth and to men of good will”.
In Hunder, I walked from my camp site through the mud roads listening to the sounds of silence, laced by sudden chirps of tiny birds as I watched them hop from one twig to another among the thorny brushes. A woman was watering her farm and at the same time kept collecting dead wood and stacking it in a corner. There was so much of peace all aroundl. There were some construction workers building a small camp site. Tourism was catching up to provide one another source of income to the natives. Change seemed to be inevitable but for the present the village had not lost its calm.
I got ready to visit a special camel camp. Why so special ? It provided camel rides ? May be yes, but it was upon Bactrian, double humped camels. These animals are found only in the dry cold high altitude deserts of Mongolia and the Himalayas. They were rare and special. It was not a refuge or sanctuary for the animals but a place where they were assembled to take people on a ride into the desert for a hefty fee.
It was a short drive from the village to the camel camp. A small stream from the Shyok river flowed towards the village and that I believe is the blood line of Huder’s sustenance. I walked over a small wooden bridge across the stream and reached a crowd of tourists around a herd of camels.The tour guides were trying to organize their groups on camel rides. There was no line and it was chaotic, with some people and children running around trying to bargain their ride with the camel herders. My driver was quicker as he booked a camel and waved me to come faster. I ran to climb up on to a thick ,dark brown, fur coated camel. The herder asked me to lean back as he patted the camel on to its feet. He walked before me, marching the camel over the white sand of the desert.
The rays of the falling sun painted a hue, changing the white desert sands of the more than thirty kilometre Hunder stretch, to gold. The creeping shadows of the tall majestic mountains, cast a shadow as if to hide the sea of golden sand dunes. As we strolled deeper into the desert, a pack of wild dogs kept playing among themselves, running from and out of some bushes far away. They seemed quite big and resembled black and white fur coated Alaskan Malamutes dogs which resemble the Artic wolves. Perhaps they were warming up for their hunt that night. I watched them disappear into the bushes as I enjoyed the cool wind which kept blowing waves, upon the huge dunes.
The dunes were waves of a turbulent ocean and I was comfortably seated upon the ship. I was travelling a part of the Medieval Silk route, braving the cold and lonely desert wind. I imagined what would have been the life of those merchants and realized that they must have loved the desert more than I did, to have traveled upon it, day in and out, practising their trade selling or buying wares. They must have camped at nights, around wood fires, eating barbecued food, drinking wine, maybe listening to songs, watching beautiful belly danseuses perform to the jingles of bells, tambourine, lute and mandolin. May be perhaps, they otherwise, would have spent the night in the warm company of family and friends!
My thoughts were at that moment disturbed, when I overheard a child seated upon a camel alongside mine, question her mother whether these camels were the ones the Magi from the east traveled upon to reach Bethlehem in search of Christ.
Riding a double humped camel and admiring the majesty of the mountains beside the turbulent dunes, was an event that I had never imagined. As the ride continued I watched a nomadic shepherd guide his sheep with his dogs, into a make shift dry rock assembled pen. He quietly tied his donkey to a pole in a thatched shed and unpacked his household wares. Man and nature were going about their chores in quite peace with each other.The night engulfed the day and silver stars silently burst out of the dark sky. They began a sparkling fire work display decorating the universe above. There were millions of them. This was magical, it was heavenly bliss and one that I was never going to ever forget.
Back at base, in Hunder, I lay down on my camp cot, which tonight I felt was the coziest I had ever slept upon. It was a night of tranquility with the wonderful sand dunes, golden mountains, the stars, the cold, the sheep, the shepherd, his home and the camels. It was one that carried me into a dream of a winter night. It was Christmas, and there was snow upon the mountains. I saw a man seated on a rock near a fire place, and in his thatched home a nativity crib with statues of the holy family, angels shepherds with their flock of sheep and the Magi with his Bactrian camels. He was strumming on the guitar to the beat of his feet, celebrating his joy of friendship with people and children of the village. I heard the singing of Christmas carols. It was a fascinating dream and I woke up mumbling ” Let heaven and nature sing”. It was still dark yet this place was one where heaven and nature and a sand man sang me to sleep.
I woke up the next morning as fresh and as fragrant as the morning breeze. I was all smiles, which turned out to be contagious among the fellow tourists and the natives I came across. Enjoying my breakfast I did not want to miss out recording my experience. I took out my diary and jotted “Hunder, a magical desert, peaceful camp, happy camels, a joyous Christmas and peace on earth.”