On the trail of two rivers

Print edition : December 31, 2004

The Pioneer bridge on the Shyrok river, near the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir border. -

LADAKH beckoned again. Two years ago, I had travelled from Demchok on the Indo-Tibetan border, where a youthful Indus enters Indian territory and courses through some spectacular mountainscape in Ladakh only to take its leave - rather reluctantly - near Batalik where it enters Pakistan. It was sheer joy to witness the myriad moods of the river, mostly playful, at times sulking and occasionally turbulent and tempestuous. Now, it was time to acquaint oneself with its lesser-known siblings, the Nubra and the Shyok, which disappear at the foot of the Karakorams.

Mud sculptures on the banks of the Chandra river along the Manali-Leh road.-

We were an all-women team of three escaping the oppressive city routine to recharge frayed nerves with pristine high-altitude scenery, and we decided to do it on the arduous Manali-Leh road. What we did not realise was that the journey would take us along three more rivers - the Beas, which chaperoned us until Manali only to hand us over to the Chandra at Rohtang Pass, which, in turn, left us to the care of the Baga even as it turned west to enter the Punjab plains where it is called the Chenab. Thus, throughout the eight-day journey, we always had a river for company.

The Manali-Leh road teeters on vertical cliffs and snakes its way through some of the most remote regions of the country. Very often it dwindles into a dirt track, or worse, gets lost in slushy snow. It was end-August and as the Delhi-Manali luxury bus inched its way out of north Delhi through the traffic jams, doubts were expressed about our taking the unreliable road route to Leh. We had been warned that at this time of the year torrential rain and landslides on the way to Manali could leave one stranded for days on end and that we may not even make it to Leh.

Mud sculptures.-

The misery of the all-night bus journey, on uncomfortable seats with overhead fans that did not work, became a mere blip in our collective memory as we approached Kulu. Travelling through Kulu Valley in August has its own reward of apple orchards groaning with a profusion of pink-hued fruits. Even a single fruit-laden tree is a feast to behold and there were seemingly endless stretches of orchards bursting with fruits. As the bus wound its way alongside the Beas, we could almost reach out and help ourselves to apples straight off the bough. Every few kilometres there were stacks of wooden crates and mountains of apples ready to be shipped to markets all over the country.

We reached Manali around noon and made the regulation visits to the Hidimba temple and Vashisht, where the smoke from numerous chillums blended with the clouds to create a mysterious miasma. At the crack of dawn, we found ourselves packed in a bus bound for Leh. Most of the passengers were foreign tourists - Israelis, Germans, a lone Czech - and there were a few Bengalis. Soon we were inching our way up to Rohtang Pass through some of the narrowest stretches of the road. The driver, Vidyasagar, who has been doing the route for eight years, had to draw upon all his skills to negotiate the path rendered treacherous by landslides a few weeks earlier. We chatted up the other crew member, the helper, and gained entry into the driver's cabin to take in a panoramic view.

Rohtang Pass, at 4,572 metres (15,000 feet), was nondescript at this time of the year, though on an earlier visit in May it had looked more like Delhi's Chandni Chowk, choc-a-bloc with vehicles and mud-hued snow churned up by a million tourist feet. Today, but for the colourful prayer flags, one would not have recognised Rohtang La.

The 350-year-old gompa perched on the hillside at Diskit in the Nubra Valley.-

SOON, we are in the moonscape of Lahaul Valley. We have left the Beas behind and almost until we reach Leh the Chandra would watch over us. Our first stop after Rohtang is Jispa, where foreigners travelling on this route have to register. We are far above the tree line and rain clouds. Fleecy white cottonwool clouds bereft of droplets float lazily in the ozone-blue sky and seem to blush and bedazzle to the caress of the sun's rays. Prayer flags flutter in celebration as chortens (stupa) utter a silent Buddhist prayer.

After Jispa there are no villages, no poplars heralding settlements and no cultivation, until Keylong, the headquarters of Lahaul district. Sheer wilderness stretches out for miles ahead and in many places the road withers into a dirt track and wends its way, hugging stark mountains. Exquisite mud sculptures, painstakingly sculpted by Mother Nature over millions of years, adorn the barren mountainside.

Just after noon we reach Keylong, a picture-postcard town with breathtaking mountain ranges as the backdrop. Himachal Tourism has recently constructed a guest house on a hilltop. After a sumptuous lunch at Keylong, we are once again northward bound and the Chandra leaves us to the care of its twin, the Baga. We are at an altitude of 4,876.8 metres (16,000 feet) on a bumpy minibus bouncing through dynamite-blasted quartz, and one is beginning to feel queasy. After what seems an eternity, the bus stops at a wind-blown confluence named Darcha, where the hitherto lissom Baga suddenly assumes vishwaroop, gobbling up feeder streams with a menacing roar. The transformation is startling.

Twin-humped Bactrian camesl in the high-altitude desert.-

Soon we leave the flat valley and climb towards our second major pass for the day - Barlacha La at 4,892 metres (16,050 feet). It is chocolate and coffee all the way, the colour of the mountains - some with icing sugar on the top. It is several hours before we cross Barlacha La and descend towards Pang Valley. Suddenly, in the midst of nowhere, appears a cluster of tents belting out film music. Sonam dhaba revives our spirits with a bowl of hot thukpa as we watch a young girl make gur-gur chai - yak butter tea - in a massive wooden churn.

By the evening we are in Sarchu, a flat and square plain with a mountain range on one side as if it is standing sentinel. A gorgeous full moon lights up the valley, emphasising every contour and accentuating every peak. The mud sculptures assume eerie shadows and it is teeth-chattering cold. The Baga is not readily visible, but gurgling sounds announce its presence. The air is so crisp that it could be cut with a knife. The night is spent restfully under layers of quilts piled high on charpoys, two to a tent.

A Balti-speaking woman in Turtuk.-

We resume our journey at the crack of dawn and in a while leave behind Lahaul district and enter Ladakh, with nary a sign to remind you of the inter-State border. The Baga plays hide and seek and the landscape gets starker. It assumes several disguises as if to tease. At some places it is sedate and shy, placidly flowing alongside the road. At others it moves away and entertains with a little leap down slopes, and finally disappears just before Tanglang La, at 5,359.9 metres (17,585 feet), the last major pass en route to Leh.

There is a patch of snow near the pass and soon the descent into familiar terrain begins, with the poplars and chang trees of Ladakh lined up as if in welcome. The Indus greets us like a long-lost friend and stays on till we reach Leh. All the familiar landmarks appear on the horizon - the Shey Palace and the Stok and Spituk monasteries. After a brief stop at Upshi, we reach Leh by evening.

After a couple of days in Leh wanderlust overcomes us again. We decide to head north to check out the Nubra and the Shyok. Our destination is Thoise, the northernmost Air Force station, at the foot of the Siachen Glacier; it is from Thoise that supplies go to Siachen and the neighbouring posts. We need permits to cross Khardung La, the snow-clad pass at 5,699.76 metres (18,700 feet), and descend into Nubra Valley. Actually, Nubra Valley is a misnomer since the road accompanies the Shyok most of the way. But then, Shyok in Yarkandi means death; travellers on the Silk Route used to refer to the Shyok as the river of death, since its upper reaches can be treacherous and many an itinerant merchant perished trying to cross the river. That is perhaps why people prefer to call it Nubra Valley.

The Shyok river near Turtuk.-

Khardung La offers a mesmerising view of the silvery peaks of the Karakoram range and the road leads up to Gilgit on the Karakoram highway - a popular caravan trail on the Silk Route. Right now, one has to be content with a glimpse of the Karakoram peaks. Maybe, someday, when there are friendly relations between India and Pakistan, it may be possible to carry on.

In a while we are cruising alongside a sandy Shyok. Along this stretch, it is unlike any other river in the region, all pastel-hued and sober, in shades of grey and blue. Somewhere along the way, it widens and becomes a huge playground full of pebbles and sand. A little distance away is the confluence of the two rivers. The mountain ranges fork towards the north, the right fork leading to Nubra Valley and the left to Thoise in Shyok Valley. We take the route to Nubra.

The Nubra is born in the Siachen glacier and joins the Shyok just before Khalsar. A pitch black road, straight as an arrow, cuts the valley in half and runs to the other side of the mountain towards Panamik, famous for its hot springs. Sulphur deposits are everywhere and Aparna, my scientist companion, scoops handfuls of the yellow deposits to test in her laboratory back home. Cows and donkeys graze in the vast meadow - a pastoral scene straight out of Constable.

Leh berries, in the Nubra Valley.-

We retrace our path to Shyok Valley and drive up the picturesque slopes. The river is to our right and the ranges on the other side of the river take on rainbow hues. After Diskit, with its charming 350-year-old gompa perched on the hillside, the meadows give way to sandy stretches. But first we go up the steep hill to visit the gompa, where one of the deities holds a mummified head and hand. From the adjoining school for young monks burst forth hundreds of maroon-robed tonsured novitiates, just as playful and noisy as children everywhere.

Soon after Diskit begin the sand dunes wearing stripes. This is a high-altitude desert complete with Bactrian camels and oases. There are no date palms, though. Nor are there wild twin-humped Bactrian camels that used to roam these parts just a few years ago. Almost all the herds have been captured and domesticated and visiting tourists who crave the authentic desert experience can ride one. We drive on to Thoise, at 3,145.53 metres (10,320 feet). It seems like the end of the earth, with the feeling of being walled in by mountains on three sides. Thoise is a sprawling air base painted electric blue complete with an air sock billowing away at a distance. The spot is indescribably beautiful and placid and but for the drone of an occasional aircraft - mostly helicopters - one would have thought this was Paradise itself.

The next morning - a sunny day - we are bound for land's end - Turtuk, on the India-Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) border. It is a long and scenic drive along the Shyok, past malachite and garnet hills. From Thoise it looks as though the two ranges converge to the north and there is no way up further north. But the V-shaped ranges open up to let the road meander alongside the Shyok for several kilometres. We drive past picture-postcard villages with their quaint irrigation channels. The first village after Thoise is Bukdang. We have our first flat tyre just after the second village, Skuru. While the driver changes the tyre, we take a walk through barley fields. There are apricot orchards everywhere, but we are just a little late; the fruits have been harvested.

Triped sand dunes in the Shyok Valley.-

The Shyok widens as we proceed north and is a noisy frothy expanse near the Largrap bridge. Each bend brings a new shape and colour and there is infinite variety in the design of the majestic mountains. We pass through Changmar and Chalunka villages along the way.

After driving for about two hours, we suffer a second flat - just before Pioneer Bridge where the Shyok is at its broadest. Both the tyres have to be fixed and that gives us three hours on Pioneer Bridge, where we are offered chairs and an unending supply of tea and snacks by our ever-hospitable soldiers guarding the bridge. The bridge creaks, groans and sways every time a truck passes - vehicles are allowed to cross the bridge one at a time. Yonder, on the slope, trucks clamber up on first gear. From our perch under the bridge, they look like toys.

The Indus river in Ladakh before it enters Pakistan near Baltik.-

Pioneer Bridge is an important landmark. Until 1971, the territory north of the bridge was part of POK. Since then, all the six villages right up to Zero Road on the border have been reclaimed by India. The difference is stark. The prayer wheels and gompas are gone. Even the crops are different - mustard and kesar dal instead of barley. The facial features of the people are sharper than those of people from Buddhist Ladakh. We are now in Muslim villages where people speak Balti. Apple-cheeked women ferry basketfuls of harvest. We persuade them to pose for a photograph. They can just about comprehend our Hindi, while we do not understand a word of Balti but manage to carry on a brief conversation in sign language.

Next we stop at Tyakshi village where a group of curious schoolchildren in blue uniform surround our car. When we ask the name of one of the boys, he replies with a mischievous twinkle, "Saddam Hussain". The next one says he is "Osama" and the third one calls himself Musharraf, and the game proceeds to the utter merriment of the onlookers. At Turtuk further down, olive green is ubiquitous. So are typical military paraphernalia - bailey bridges, bunkers, binoculars and a babel of tongues in which I at once detect my own - Tamil. The village school even has Internet connectivity, for which both the Army and the civilian administration claim credit.

Border fencing at Thang village.-

The Saltoro ranges, which flank the Siachen glacier, tower in the background. They are inaccessible and supplies to the posts on Saltoro are airdropped periodically. We proceed towards Zero Point along Thang and Pachathang villages perched literally beneath Pakistani bunkers. Barbed wire fencing stretches for miles on one side, while on the other are fortified walls behind which Indian posts are located.

Since November 2003, ceasefire prevails, bringing some relief to the Army and the villagers. Subedar Major Wariam Singh enthusiastically points to Pakistani positions on the other side. Once again, we are treated to the unfailing hospitality of the Indian Army in the remotest and most difficult locations - hot pakoras and tea. At this point, the Shyok leaves us to enter Khaplu Valley in POK. However, its flirtation with POK is rather brief and it rushes back to embrace Indian territory near Kargil. We bid an emotional farewell to the Shyok as well as to our brave soldiers guarding our frontiers and turn back reluctantly.

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