"If you have a really powerful set of binoculars, you can see them waving back at you," says Faizin in all seriousness, pointing to specks of white on the mountain facing the village of Turtuk. It's only been a couple of years since tourists were allowed into this village, and their gullibility hasn't been lost on this bright-eyed teenager.
The specks are soldiers of the Indian army, and on the adjacent mountain, Pakistani militarymen who coop themselves in one of the most inhospitable of environments to 'guard the heights' and their countries. Siachen, 'the highest battleground in the world,' is just around the corner.
The village is remote, and its inhabitants are always on the edge of the seat, watching keenly for any onset of hostilities flaring up between the two countries. There is only one road to this village, and once it's taken, you won't encounter another soul for hours.
And so it was, bags stowed in the trunk of BMW's latest monster truck - the X6 - that a photographer friend and I set out on the NH1 to traverse the significant distance between Delhi and Leh - one of the most challenging road journeys in the sub-continent. As that journey has been widely documented, I'll just pick up the thread after we negotiated the Khardungla Pass and descended into the magnificent Nubra Valley.
A word about the X6. It's a bit difficult to encapsulate this remarkable vehicle in a trite abbreviation: BMW calls it a 'Sports Activity Vehicle.' What you get is a sporty coupe-like cabin mounted on the X5's chassis. If you're one of those people who want a luxurious yet subdued car that'll get you no undue attention on the roads, then don't even consider buying the X6. This SUV (or SAV), with its curvaceous body, enormous size, and gut-wrenching acceleration, screams for attention.
It's the kind of car a 30-something rich playboy would drive - loads of oomph, lots of power (306 bhp), the biggest BMW front twin grille in existence, and no quarter given to practicality. To make sure that the vehicle's significant weight doesn't roll while cornering at high speed, the suspension is on the stiffer side, which is great for big long highways, but not ideal for potholed roads. And far from ideal for the Khardungla Pass.
But that's to be expected from a vehicle that's built for good roads and, to its credit, the X6 never complained - handling knee-deep slush at the Passes, loose stones the size of footballs, and even desert sand, with consummate ease. The 'Dynamic Stability Control,' is on by default and keeps the car from sliding or doing anything unexpected irrespective of how unskilled its driver is at the wheel. Switch on 'Traction Control,' and power delivery to all four wheels is regulated to avoid even the least bit of slippage in difficult terrain.
Going up Khardungla, and nonchalantly breezing through intimidating glacial streams with a haughty look on our faces, while other vehicles waited for someone else to take the first plunge was worth every bump. The dashboard is the same as the old X6 and the i-drive works as seamlessly as you've come to expect from BMW syncing the phone and other media devices to the media console. The only grouse with the X6 is that it's perhaps too refined. It's crazy fast: 0-100 in 6.5 seconds, and you can see that happening when you floor the throttle, but you can't feel it.
A bit like a large rocket reaching warp speed without pinning the passengers to their seats. Most people come to Nubra Valley only to go as far as Hunder, 70 km from K-Pass, where Bactrian camels rove the sands, and tourists head for luxury camps to sit on cane sofas and quaff beer while listening to Hindi music on the radio. We followed suit, and in the seedily luxurious tents of the Organic Retreat, surrounded by beds of cabbage so large that they seem almost vulgar, spent our first night gazing at crystalline stars, lulled by the din of frogs.
As we left Hunder the next day,we drove through the arid cold-desert ecosystem, most of it bereft of the more obvious signs of human folly, and all of it unavoidably gorgeous. The sheer scope of the landscape - some hills are shaped like lunar pyramids, others resemble vast rolling rivers of rock - is overwhelming in the Nubra Valley. We went past craters, stone-stacks, riverside lakes, sand dunes, enormous cliffs, gorges and passes; crossed gurgling creeks, swerved to avoid herds of dzos, pashmina sheep and even the occasional roving Tibetan wolf; and laughed at the limericks which the Border Roads Organisation inflicts on travellers every few kilometres. On the final stretch of the journey, nature seemed hell-bent on testing the car, and us.
The wind was gusting at 80kmph, and with every dollop of sand, the visibility was down to the point where even the X6's fog lamps couldn't make an impression. After driving for an hour into what seemed like the void, river pebbles knocking the underbelly, and wild rose thorns pricking its precious Prussian paint, the X6 crying out for the Autobahn, Turtuk finally emerged through the dust cloud just before sundown. A journey of just 70 km had taken us almost seven-eight hours to traverse.
Turtuk is stunning at the first glance. One of only three Balti villages in the country, and the only one open to tourists, it seems like a patch of green nestled between imposing barren mountains. The village is divided into two neat halves by a glacial stream - Youl on the right and Farool on the left (the latter is famous for the best apricots you can find in Ladakh). From a high point overlooking the village near a former Pakistani army bunker now sits a Gompa, from where you can spot military camps on the mountains above.