Mesmerised in Ladakh

Print edition : January 28, 2011

Driving across thefrozen Hanle river en route to Zarsar, which is about about 10 km from the International Border. -

A 340-kilometre round trip from Leh presents awesome sights, among them the frozen Indus and the peaks with frozen waterfalls.

BEYOND Heniskut, from Dachi up to Sanjak on the Leh-Srinagar National Highway, is a string of Balti Muslim villages. Five years ago, girls of these villages, encouraged by their families, took to playing ice hockey, an aggressive sport, at a rink built at Chiktan-Pargue. A few Canadians, Americans and Dutch ice hockey enthusiasts got them the equipment and also trained them in the sport. When I visited the area in mid-December, I was hoping to see ice hockey being played by girls from traditional Muslim homes.

The 340-kilometre round trip from Leh offers many an awesome sight, among them the frozen Indus and the immense bare crags and peaks with frozen waterfalls and streams clinging to them. The route follows the Leh-Srinagar highway along the right bank of the Indus up to Khaltse, where it leaves the highway and continues along the river up to Dha-Hanu. The river enters Pakistan beyond Batalik, about 30 km away. The view widens, and the poplars and the willows look elegant despite every tree and field being stripped bare by the cold.

Near Hanu the road crosses the Indus into Sanjak, which is in a dark and narrow gorge. Here, a finger of water emerges from the iced Sangeluma tokpo (stream) to join the semi-frozen Indus. The road is now a narrow strip wedged between the bare willow- and poplar-fringed Sangeluma and the steep mountain side. Women wash clothes in small puddles of water formed by heating the ice that is all around. Once out of Sanjak's gorge, the valley opens out and the sun shines bright on the fields and homes on either side of the tokpo. Nearly all the people in this valley are Balti Muslims.

The residents of Chiktan-Pargue wash clothes in water got by heating ice from the frozen tributary of the Sangeluma stream.-

Guarding the northern entrance of the main Chiktan village (Chiktan Khardun), about 30 km from Sanjak, are the ruins of a remarkable 16th century palace and fort called Chiktan Khar (fort). In Ladakh, there is abysmal indifference towards ancient structures. At the southern end of this valley, on an imposing cliff above Bodh Kharbu, emerge the ruins of a Buddhist fort.

At Chiktan-Pargue, the ice hockey rink is, sadly, in an unplayable condition; the spectators' stands, the goal posts and most of the field were laid waste by the cloud burst of August 2010. But for the odd child sliding on home-made skates, the field is empty.

The Sangeluma stream.-

A young girl, Yousouf Sha, takes us up the narrow and dark alleys of the congested village that is built on a hill. All available space is kept aside for cultivation. Yousouf's several-tiered home has wide windows in all its south-facing rooms to let sunlight inside to keep the place warm for as long as is possible. Most of the rooms have pictures of ice-skating! Ice hockey has indeed become a powerful unifying factor, cutting across gender and religion.

Far away, the Buddhist village of Durbug, north of Chang la en route to Pangong tso, boasts a girls' team that has played itself into the record books and into the hearts of many spectators. The teams from both villages have had to struggle to get into tournaments that were once dominated by males. This season the children, especially the girls, will miss the thrill of challenges. The government has shown hardly any interest. It could have at least got the rink repaired quickly. After all, the equipment has been given by foreigners.

We leave the hauntingly beautiful village as the shadows lengthen and the chill increases. The serene valley is lit up momentarily by a crimson-gold sunset. Smoke rises straight up from chulhas in the windless evening before spreading in the rarefied air and descending over the village. Chulhas still dominate the kitchen, though use of gas for cooking is increasing.

After driving for 12 km we join the Srinagar-Leh road near Bodh Kharbu, awed by the gorge through which the Sangeluma tokpo bursts out.

On a cliff above Bodh Kharbu, the ruins of a 12th century fort.-

For some years now Leh (3,452 metres) has not shut down completely in winter as it once used to. Its permanent population is now about 30,000 instead of around 4,000 a couple of decades ago. A few shops and hotels are open always. A few of them have central heating. Wherever there is precipitation there is ice. Leaking taps have ice cones hanging from them. Two streams in Leh, Sangto or Ganglas chu and Sabo tokpo, are almost frozen in December. The window panes of houses have frost that does not melt for hours after the sunrise.

We now head for Changthang, the high-altitude desert in the southeast of Ladakh, along an ice-filled Indus. About 20 km from Leh is the Stakna hydel project. Work on it was started in 1972 and is still incomplete. Consequently, Leh continues to use diesel to run its generators; the consumption now is more than 12,000 litres a day. The rest of Ladakh and the Army use at least four times as much. The administrators have any number of stories about how the intense cold prevents them from finishing the project. Yet, 350 km upstream, and only 50 km from the border at Demchog, the Chinese have built a 50 megawatt dam on the Indus at Ali Shiqanhe, which is at a higher altitude and hence much colder. They completed the dam in four years, in 2006, and in winter it reduces its power production only by 30 per cent.

Yaks grazing near the International Border and the source of the Hanle river.-

As the road curves to the left from Upshi, the Indus valley narrows into a gorge and the river has only small rapidly freezing channels to flow through. By January the Indus is frozen over up to this point, and its waters flow under the thick sheet of ice. The gorge, known as the Rong locally, ends before Mahe, after which the valley opens up until Loma Bend.

Nyoma (4,216 m), Changthang's subdivisional headquarters, seems to stand rooted in a frozen sea the Indus is so wide here. With most of the water sources frozen, Ladakh's elusive wildlife can be seen more frequently. Shapo (Ladakhi Urial), bharal (blue sheep), Red fox, Chanku (Tibetan wolf) and Kyangs come to the gaps in the ice to drink. As there are quite a few of them, they can be seen even from the road.

The ITBP post at Zarsar near Imis la, the most accessible pass to Tibet, at 1 o'clock in the afternoon.-

Nyoma is an urbanised village and has about 130 homes. In winter its residents are busy tending to their goats and sheep and yaks and managing the many shops that they have put up because of the new prosperity. The Changpas, nomadic shepherds of the Changthang (meaning high plain), who live in their ribos (camps), come to Nyoma on scooters to protect their legs from the biting cold, to buy medicines, foodstuffs and cooking gas and to operate their bank accounts. The Changthang is now bristling with hand pumps. As a result, the residents, who once heated ice to get water, now store it in buckets and jerry cans in the warmest part of their homes. A difficult life made slightly better.

The further one goes beyond Nyoma the closer one gets to the International Border (IB) to the south and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to the southeast. The heart and highest part of the Changthang starts from here. The confluence of the Indus and the Hanle river at Loma is fully frozen and confined in a narrow space. The Ladakh or Kailash range crosses the Indus at this point. After this confluence, on entering India, the Indus almost doubles its size.

In the high plains of Changthang (4,500 m) scooters are popular with the nomadic shepherds, or Changpas. Here, they make sure all is well before setting out to herd their pashmina goats.-

The road to Hanle turns south along its right bank. After a kilometre, near Loma village by a completely frozen Hanle, the valley opens up. One vast camping ground followed by another form a 40-km-long barren plain until Hanle. The bare mountains are about 10 km apart. The immense 450-year-old Hanle gompa stands proudly atop a promontory at a point where the two ranges form a narrow funnel a kilometre wide.

In winter, the main headache for the Changpas is finding grass for their valuable pashmina goats. To prevent overgrazing, each herd is shifted from one community-assigned ribo to another. It is a centuries-old practice. They disdain tarred roads, which they cross only to get to the next ribo. However, they have begun using two-wheelers and jeeps, which they keep in their main camps.

Near Foti La (5,501 m), 35 km from Hanle. A road goes over this pass to Koyul (4,247 m) on the Indus, across which is the LAC.-

Nowadays only some of them are clad in their traditional clothes heavy fur skin capes with brightly dyed outers. Most men are dressed in trousers and shirts and the women are in salwar kameez. They cover themselves with several layers of Chinese woollens and finally a Chinese jacket, which are bought from a nearby Chinese market. The woollens and the iced river and streams are the only visual signs of winter here. The famous large lakes Pangong tso (3,516 m) and Tsomoriri (4,572 m) of this region are nearly frozen. About two decades ago they would freeze by mid-November, enabling the herds to take short cuts across the lakes.

Hanle is a collection of villages and several flat grazing grounds within an area of about eight square kilometres. About 55 km south of Hanle is the captivating Zarsar camping ground. There is a lonely Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) post here. Zarsar is about 10 km from the IB, which is marked by a ridge that has three 5,500 metre-high passes and six 6,200 metre-high peaks.

The tarred road ends at Hanle, but finding the way in this vast plain is no problem as one has merely to keep the frozen Hanle river to the west. For about 15 km the tracks leave the Hanle to cross Gongma la (5,288 m) and descend to the camping ground of Lemale where there are two tents and a thousand goats and yaks grazing. The Hanle separates it from the grazing ground of Nemgale.

The Indus divides the 'shopping mall' and the Ladakhi camps in the foreground.-

The Hanle is so thoroughly frozen that it is easily driven over even by loaded five-tonne trucks. The sweeping view covers at least 20 km in any direction. Plains, serrated ridges, snow peaks and herds of yaks and goats at their feet, and the IB. Such is the pleasure of driving or walking in the rarefied air of Changthang in southeast Ladakh.

The smooth but unmade road heads south, climbing unnoticeably and steadily. After crossing five camping grounds, each merging into the other, one is struck by the neat symmetry of a rectangular ITBP post amidst nature's haphazard, rugged and ruffled mixtures of mountains, streams and plains. Above it, and just about 10 km away, is the ridge line of the Zanskar range, which separates this part of Ladakh from Tibet.

The solar-powered heat burners at the observatory of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, at Hanle. In the background are the old village houses whose residents still use dung and brush fires to keep warm.-

A few kilometres beyond the camp and over the low ridge to the south of Zarsar are the sources of the Hanle, which surprisingly form the largest sheet of ice in Ladakh apart from that found in the Siachen glacier far to the north. Eight glaciers form this ice cap and the streams from them combine to give birth to the Hanle. On the other side, in Tibet, are a few glaciers from which flow tributaries of Pare chu a quixotic river that rises in Lahoul (Himachal Pradesh), flows through Ladakh and Tibet and then enters India to increase the waters of the Spiti at Shugar in Kinnaur (Himachal Pradesh).

Hanle has an element of future shock too: two gleaming metallic domes on a hill opposite the gompa hill. This hill is called Digpa Ratsa Ri (4,458 m). The two domes house a reflecting telescope each. A few kilometres away, in a bowl above the Hanle, is a plains-style double-storey white-and-yellow house and behind it are about 300 sq m of solar panels. This sight, after passing the Changpas' tents ( kurs) and the yaks and goats and slithering on ice, was a pleasant surprise.

A man crosses the frozen Indus on his way back from the Chinese 'shopping mall' at Dumchule across the LAC.-

The larger dome revolves open and shut and the two-metre reflecting telescope can be turned in any direction by a simple mouse. The biggest surprise is that this telescope is remote-controlled via satellite by astronomers at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore. There are three Ladakhi engineers stationed here to maintain the machinery. No one else would be able to do their work so happily in the five-month-long cold.

The minimum temperature in Hanle in mid-December was 22C and the maximum 5C. The 40 kW power that this facility requires is supplied by the solar panels. It is the third highest observatory in the world. The Chacaltaya Astrophysical Observatory in Bolivia, the second highest, is at 5,230 m and was made in 1943. The highest, at a height of 5,640 m, is the Tokyo University Atacama Observatory in Chile. All three use optical infrared telescopes and are situated at such heights where the atmosphere is very clear.

The simple hand pump has made a big difference to the lives of the Changpas. The pumps give them clean water even when the temperature dips to -30oC, which is common here in winter.-

On the night that we were visiting, there were clouds and the telescope was not being used.

The website that the engineers found most reliable was China's 7timer, at, developed by Shanghai University. To the southeast of Hanle and about 35 km away is Foti la (5,501 m). A road goes over this pass to Koyul (4,247 m) on the Indus, across which is the LAC. The road is still being made. Despite the extremely low temperature, there were Ladakhi men and women widening and strengthening the road. Scraper and bulldozer crews from places in south India and Jharkand were stoically operating their machines from unheated cabins. There was a thin crust of dry snow, which grows to a thickness of about 6 cm, on the top of the pass, which is marked by a squat square temple built by the Gurkhas in 1989. Along the way are abandoned defensive dugouts, remnants of the India-China conflict of 1962.

At Chiktanpargue, A hot lunch inside a house kept warm by sunlight.-

As the road climbs, one gets a majestic view of Lenak la (5,579 m), dominated by three peaks that are over 6,300 m high to the west. To the southwest, across Tibet, is the Himachal Pradesh peak of Gya, which, at 6,833 m, is the highest in this area. Foti la is in the Zanskar range, and after crossing it one arrives at the more dessicated Ladakh or the Kailash range, which was last passed at Loma Bridge. This range starts at the confluence of the Shyok and the Indus near Skardu in Pakistan and ends about 10 km east of Mount Kailash (6,713 m).

The views are more extensive but unremarkable after crossing Foti la to the east. To the south is Thangliang la (5,428 m), from which flows Koyul lungpa. The rough road goes north along this frozen river until Koyul village (4,247 m), which has grown so much in a decade that it has its own Doordarshan relay station and will soon have a mobile telephone tower.

The houses at Chiktan-Pargue have large south-facing windows to allow sunlight inside in order to keep the rooms warm.-

Beyond Koyul, the Changthang opens up around the Indus. The Indus basin is around 4 km wide and about 60 km long. It is indeed a massive desert watered' by the frozen Indus and several hand pumps. After Koyul, the unpaved motorable tracks to the southeast lead about 30 km away to Demchog on the Indus and the LAC. The Indus is not seen until about 10 km before Demchog, and then it strikes one that the LAC is just across the river, about 15 metres away. Below Koyul is the recently rebuilt airstrip of the Indian Air Force at Fukche.

From near here one can see a long white building, about 3 km across the Indus. This is Dumchule, where the Chinese have established a market exclusively for Ladakhis. The nearest Tibetan settlements are more than 60 km away and over the 5,632 m-high Chang la pass, which was once the International Border. This large market is on occupied Indian land. In 1972, when I first visited Demchog, there was no structure in Dumchule. Eight years ago, there were 22 shops, which were so welcoming that even I could stroll around unchecked.

Changpas moving from one ribo (camp) to another.-

The route to Dumchule is from Tsaka village and under the ITBP post of Hena above the right bank of the Indus. Today, the massive market has more than 50 shops and is locally referred to as the Dumchule mall. It is in winter that it is best stocked and most accessible. With the Indus frozen a metre deep, people just walk across with their herds (they help in carrying much of the shopping back). It is a temptation that the Changpas cannot resist. The ITBP has set up posts at Hena and Tyagarmale, and the Customs Department has one at Nyoma, but the shopping trips continue.

I saw herds and their owners drifting in casually over the Indus to spend the night in their ribos on the Indian side. Their ribos, too, have adapted to change. They have solar panels for lighting and gas for cooking.

At the head of the Koyul lungpa river.-

Mesmerising is the word to describe this round trip along the LoC, the IB and the LAC, through two valleys, two passes and many plains.

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