The dizzy heights

Print edition : December 04, 2009

The snowfield at the Khardung la.-

AFTER spending eight days exploring the remote Zanskar valley in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, we, a group of three women, retrace our footsteps through the same route by which we came Rangdum, Parkachik, Panikhar, Suru and Sankhoo to get back to Kargil to begin the second leg of our journey lasting a week. This leg would take us from Kargil to Leh via Lamayuru, from Leh to Pangong Tso via the Chang la and from Leh to Siachen Base Camp through the Khardung la and the Nubra valley. That would mean making Leh the base.

The road to Pangong Tso.-

Although Leh itself is a dusty town with little to commend itself for, there are some gorgeous gompas Thikse, Hemis, Spituk, Stakna and Shey all within a days drive, not to mention the busy Leh market where one can find very interesting Buddhist and Central Asian artefacts and the most authentic Tibetan food outside Tibet.

After a short detour to Post 43 where an Indian Army post faces off a Pakistani post just a few hundred metres away, we reach Kargil. En route we also stop at Shingo-in where the Shingo river, coming from Pakistan, joins the Drass river in Indian territory to enjoy the splash of colours and the spray of mist thrown up by the confluence. After running a short course through India, the Shingo re-enters Pakistan below Post 43. This point is called Shingo-out.

We have a few hours of daylight left to help us explore Kargil town, a narrow strip of land wedged between the river and the mountain, its slopes clothed in orchards laden with peaches and apricots and the highway running right through the towns high street. After a nights halt in Kargil we hit the tarmac once again. There are two routes to Leh, a new road through Batalik and an old one through Mulbek, Lamayuru and Khaltse. The last time I travelled to Batalik, in 2001, there was no road just a dirt track on dynamited slopes. The promise of a smooth ride through newly paved macadam on some of the highest mountains in the world is indeed difficult to resist, but we decide to take the other fork, one that would take us through a mind-blowing moonscape of desolate and unforgiving barrenness.

The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar.-

That Ladakh sports a landscape of infinite variety becomes increasingly evident as we drive out of Kargil. The road first takes us to Mulbek, a landmark gompa with a huge Maitreya statue carved on a rock. Just a few kilometres past Mulbek, the scenery becomes starker. For every few hundred metres you ascend or descend, the transformation in the landscape is nothing less than dramatic. The shape, size and texture of the mountains change constantly. Rocky surfaces yield to crumbly dust and, eventually, the road becomes so dusty that every passing vehicle raises a cloud of dust that obscures the view and makes driving even more difficult.

In tune with the changing landscape, the ecology also changes. The green pastures of Kargil are long gone, to be replaced by reluctant turf, which in turn gives way to spiky tamarisk, and eventually all vegetation bows out, ceding ground to the creeping desert. Mormots have ceded turf, literally, to ibex and other mountain goats. After a while, the only wildlife you can spot is the occasional rodent or the sand lizard. Every few hundred metres we come across labourers from Bihar and Jharkand toiling away to repair the road. Hired by the Border Roads Organisation, which builds and maintains roads in this sector, these workers are the lifeline of these roads, making passage possible and safe not only for us occasional travellers but also for the Army to move its men and equipment to the border areas.

The Siachen memorial at Base Camp.-

The overwhelmingly earthy hues of the majestic mountains are leavened periodically by the patches of brilliant emerald of the villages en route, testifying to mans tenacity, persistence and ingenuity in turning dust to grain by harnessing whatever little water that might be available in this rain-shadow region. Janet Rizvi, a scholar who has authored well-researched and authentic books on Ladakh, believes that this part of Ladakh was once under water. Ladakh is a land from which, geological ages ago, upheavals of a violence, beyond anything we can conceive, drained off the abundant water of the rivers and lakes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the road leading to the Namika la (meaning pillar of the sky), towering up to 3,700 m and reached through hairpin bends. This is followed by another pass, the Fotu la, where we meet a group of bikers from Europe.

The Indus soon after Lamayuru on the Kargil-Leh road.-

In fact, this route is a favourite biking trail for those in quest of the ultimate in adventure biking. We pose for the regulation photograph against the fluttering prayer flags before we reach the fantastic wall of mud sculpture that forms the stunning setting for another village and monastery of the same name Lamayuru.

The primordial shapes of earth painstakingly sculpted by nature over millennia stretch for miles while a limp Wanle river meanders sinuously at the bottom, a slip of a blue ribbon glimpsed at the turn of the road, but otherwise invisible from the majestic heights through which we cruise for hours. The mountains sport every hue in an artists palette from all shades of grey and brown to blue, pink and russet. The road twists and turns tortuously into loops and whorls, prompting the rather apt appellation jalebi bends by which they are known in these parts. Then it begins its descent, a steady plunge through hairpin bends until we level with the gorge at Khaltse. At Khaltse, the Indus has already travelled 800 kilometres from its source in Lake Manasarovar in Tibet. The valley is fairly thickly inhabited with frequent villages. The road itself runs along the banks of the Indus until you cross it to visit Alchi, a monastery with exquisite murals and a beautiful statue of Maitreya. At Nimmu, the Zanskar river meets the Indus, each retaining its distinctive colour at the sangam (confluence) point, but they merge soon after to acquire a pale blue colour as the river now wends its way towards Leh. The vistas offered by the landscape as you near Leh town are breathtakingly panoramic.

An aerial view of the Greater Himalayan Range.-

The following day, we head towards Pangong Tso, the very same one that was in the news recently for alleged incursions by Chinese patrol boats. More than half of the 130-km-long lake stretches into Tibet and, like elsewhere in Ladakh, the international border is more notional than real. It is often a rock, a peak, a nullah or a flowing river or as in this case, a lake with a rippling surface. We fail to understand how it is possible to adhere strictly to your side of the border when the border itself is literally fluid.

A view of the Nubra valley from Hundar village.-

Anyway, the ride to Pangong is as mesmerising as the lake itself. It takes you through some very steep climb across snow-strewn slopes. In fact, in just a couple of hours you ascend as much as 900 to 1,200 m that you begin to feel giddy, not to say scared at the teetering edge over which your vehicle puffs its way up often in first gear. After you crest the perpetually snow-carpeted Chang la at a height of 5,360 m, you begin the steep descent to the lake where, in some stretches, the road has been washed away by a stream and your wheels try to negotiate a pebbly bed. Long before you reach the lake, it tantalises you with a flash of blue framed by peaks.

Bactrian camels in the Nubra valley.-

Aloof and disdainful at a height of 4,350 m, Pangong Tso draws travellers like a magnet, not just for its location but for its immense beauty and tranquillity. Beyond the lake is the primordial-looking Changchenmo range, which eventually melds into the Aksai Chin, the bridge between Xinjiang and Tibet. In 1962, the Chinese not only took Aksai Chin but even advanced as far as Chushul, a border village on the southern margins of the lake.

The lake and its serene environs are truly surreal, the imposing mountains surrounding the lake assuming moulded shapes, like the limbs of a giant mammal. But it is the lake itself that shimmers like a jewel, sporting over a dozen shades of blue at any given time and constantly changing colour with the changing light. At its deepest the lake is cobalt blue, at other places it subsides into sapphire and aquamarine and in some spots it is a light topaz. On my trip to Lake Manasarovar more than a decade ago, I had witnessed similar shades of blue. Perhaps, it is a characteristic of high-altitude lakes.

The water is brackish and the lake is said to harbour no life. Thanks to our friends in the Indian Army, we are taken for a motorboat ride across the blue expanse framed by some of the grandest mountains in this part of the world. The lake is patrolled by the Indian and Chinese Armies, in their respective territorial waters, although it would have been in the fitness of things if motor boats had not rent the silence nor sliced through the ripples of the lake. Mercifully, civilians are not allowed to camp anywhere near the lake and there are no business establishments except those run by the Army out of temporary shelters and tents. In fact, this cafeteria offers Punjabi thali at Pangong Tso. Opposite the lake is the garnet hill strewn with rough pieces of garnet for anyone to take home.

The Thikse gompa.-

No one goes to Leh without cresting the Khardung la (you can even get T-shirts inscribed with I crossed the Khardungla), which, at 5,486 m, is claimed to be the highest motorable pass in the world. But apart from that, the Khardung la is the gateway to the Nubra valley, the barley bowl of Ladakh. There are fibre-glass huts of the Indian Army at the pass serving sugary tea to every visitor.

The views from the Khardung la are mind-blowing. On one side, you see the Zanskar range and on the other, the Ladakh range and yonder, the Karakoram range, which is in Pakistan. Some day, hopefully, one would be able to travel right through to Gilgit as traders and merchants of yore did on their ponies. The mountain slopes are strewn with carcasses of vehicles that tumbled over the side, giving you a creepy fear as your vehicle wheezes up the slope.

Post 43. This Indian Army post faces a Pakistani post a few hundred metres away.-

The Nubra valley is a narrow strip of land wedged at the foot of the Ladakh range. The Nubra river originates in the Siachen glacier, travels south along a pebbly and picturesque valley dotted with villages perched on the alluvial ledges for a distance of about 70 km and then takes an abrupt U-turn at an expansive sandy flat where it meets the Shyok river. Shyok means death perhaps it is meant to underline the dangers faced by traders who ventured out this far all the way from Yarkand and Khotan in eastern China. Actually, Nubra is separated from China by three formidable ranges Ladakh, Karakoram and Kun Lun. But these ranges did not deter the intrepid merchants of yore who undertook this arduous trek persuaded by the compulsions of commerce.

The Nubra irrigates a dense growth of seabuckthorn, or Leh berry, which, in recent times, has found its way to urban markets in the plains in the form of packaged juice rich in Vitamin C. After the confluence, the stream meanders in a maze of channels before it picks up force as a torrent to flow in a north-westerly direction towards Baltistan, where it joins the Indus. Along the way you come across a high-altitude desert with sand dunes and Bactrian camels, which must have come into this valley with the traders and merchants. Now they are available for tourist pleasure, offering rides through this novel desert in the sky.

Leh town as seen from the Khardung la.-

Once again thanks to our friends in the Indian Army, we manage to obtain the necessary permit to visit the Siachen Base Camp, the highlight of our journey to Nubra. Soon after we descend from the Khardung la and make our way past the confluence and then Panamik village, known for its medicinal hot springs, we are rewarded with tantalising glimpses of the glacier itself, said to be the longest outside of the Arctic region. But Siachen also has the dubious distinction of being the highest battlefield on earth, one in which for over a quarter of a century the armies of India and Pakistan have faced each other in the most inclement and dangerous locations in which to take on an adversary. At temperatures plunging below 50{+0} Celsius, merely staying alive on the glacier entails a war with nature, what to speak of fighting the enemy. But such is the dedication and commitment of our armed forces that soldiers and officers consider it a matter of pride to be posted to the glacier. This, notwithstanding the fact that a number of those posted on the glacier never return, a fact that is attested by the procession of plaques bearing the names of martyrs at the Siachen War Memorial at the Base Camp.

We are received by the ever-courteous officers and men of the Army at the Base Camp and shown around the establishment. We visit the OP Baba Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the legendary soldier who fought valiantly and repulsed the enemy in the face of dire adversity and inclement weather conditions. OP Babas blessings are sought by soldiers of every creed posted on the glacier. Today, there is an arti to OP Baba by a company of newly posted soldiers. We feel privileged to participate in the event.

The Mesmerising Pangong lake.-

Yet, there is little doubt that Siachen is a disaster waiting to happen. Heavy artillery, fibre-glass tents and other gear, tonnes of paraffin used by soldiers for lighting and heating purposes, not to mention loads of equipment required to maintain a military presence on this high-altitude ice field, have been accumulating over the years. Discarded gear and equipment is just dropped into the yawning crevasses where they remain buried intact for now, thanks to sub-zero temperatures. But once the ice begins to melt, it is very likely that all this debris will wash up into the Nubra valley and show up downstream.

Perhaps, that day is not far off, with global warming accelerating the process. Already, the glacier is receding at a rapid pace. Where there used to be a snowfield as late as 2003, all you can see now are black rock and sludge. If we are serious about averting this ecological disaster, it is imperative that we act now to begin a constructive dialogue with Pakistan on evacuating the heights.

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