A Drive in Shyok Val­ley North of Khardung La (Front Cover Story)

(Front Cover Story)

ABHA - - Contents -

On Fe­bru­ary 24, 2020, in Leh, anew sun arose even though the ce­les­tial body never sleeps. A punc­tual Ladakhi driver brought a white taxi (i-10 by Hyundi) that did not match my ex­pec­ta­tions. Legroom was cramped. Flap of the glove box failed re­peat­edly un­til the driver ap­plied Fe­vi­col.

The thin driver wore dark shal­low mous­tache. Dressed in black, he used equally dark glares af­ter some­time. He smelled of smoke when­ever I re­turned to the taxi af­ter a brief pho­tog­ra­phy break.

Snow cover was the thick­est be­tween South and North po­lus. Short and tall walls of undis­turbed fresh snow partly fenced this road sec­tion. Both lo­cal po­lice and army manned the pass and polu check posts yet per­mit ver­i­fi­ca­tion was in the do­main of the for­mer.

The small taxi oc­ca­sion­ally shared the spa­cious road with­out side­walks with a few lo­cal ve­hi­cles and con­voys of army ve­hi­cles. The ve­hi­cles with non-lo­cal num­bers re­minded me of tourists. I checked about the num­bers start­ing with CH, DL, and PB with the driver. He ex­plained those were not tourist taxis. Many Ladakhis bought and reg­is­tered ve­hi­cles in Chandigarh (CH), Delhi (DL), and Pun­jab (PB) of­fer­ing ve­hi­cles at cheaper rates than in home mar­ket.

We started from Leh on a wide tar road be­side which snow oc­curred in patches. The army trucks mov­ing in first gear hardly gave pass to as­cend­ing ve­hi­cles. Brown black soot plumes from the ve­hi­cles stained snow. Didn’t the trucks and lo­cal ve­hi­cles go for pol­lu­tion under con­trol (P.U.C.) test? The ve­hi­cles some­times even spewed white plumes of soot. The sun smiled brightly in deep blue sky. Veg­e­ta­tion in­cluded leaf­less poplars, seabucks, and wil­lows. Even post­paid Air­tel sig­nal dis­ap­peared af­ter Leh View Point. The word leh trans­lates as “a plateau.”

The amount of snow and ice on bare high slopes rose as South Polu neared. Fresh un­touched snow set­tled even on the road. Many white road sec­tions blended so well in sur­round­ing snowy slopes that they were in­dis­tin­guish­able. Ve­hic­u­lar traf­fic com­pressed the snow and col­ored it dirty yel­low at places. Lo­cal po­lice col­lected a copy of my per­mit at South Polu. Stok range formed a bluish icy moun­tain­ous back­drop in the south of Ladakh range un­til Khardung La. Ne­go­ti­at­ing the smoothened tram­pled sec­tions re­quired driv­ing tech­nique or chains. Army trucks used chains on two di­ag­o­nally op­po­site wheels.

We as­cended the road lead­ing to Arano be­fore paus­ing briefly at the “gate” of the val­ley. The high gate, Khardung La, is an open nat­u­ral moun­tain pass of­fer­ing even ur­ban con­ve­niences, like, an au­to­mated teller ma­chine (A.T.M.) of State Bank of In­dia (S.B.I.). Af­ter se­cu­rity check, we de­scended into the his­tor­i­cal “gated” val­ley of the

Shyok. The road in the val­ley was white for quite a long dis­tance. There­after, brown-black road laid like a curvy or loopy thread on snowy slopes al­most un­til North Polu that had an army picket too. Polu means “a tem­po­rary shel­ter.”

Khardung La on the Ladakh range con­nects val­leys of the In­dus and the Shyok that rises from the Rimo glacier in the Karako­rum. Khar means “a cas­tle”; dung means “lower”; and la de­notes “a pass.” Khardung La, one of the high­est mo­torable passes, be­comes “a pass of lower cas­tle.” It is also called Khar­zong that im­plies “a cas­tle.” The word ladakh means “a land of passes.” Ladakh range lies in the south of the Shyok and Karako­rum in the north.

The Karako­rum range is dry (arid) and much less forested than the Hi­malayas. Arid­ness and scanty veg­e­ta­tion are at­trib­uted to pre­cip­i­tous slopes of the Karako­rum pro­hibit­ing soil for­ma­tion and neg­li­gi­ble pre­cip­i­ta­tion. Main source of the pre­cip­i­ta­tion is win­ter west­erly winds com­ing from the Black, Caspian, and Mediter­ranean seas. So, the Nubra val­ley in the Karako­rum ex­pe­ri­ences ex­tremely cold dry harsh win­ter stretch­ing be­tween Septem­ber and May.

The range might have been named af­ter the Karako­rum Pass (5,540m) con­nect­ing Ladakh and Yarkand. Some schol­ars claim that three coun­tries - China, In­dia, and Pak­istan - meet at this point. The word karako­rum means “a black rock.” Some his­to­ri­ans think that the name is de­rived from a Mon­go­lian word khara kherem that trans­lates into “a black bar­rier.” Tourists fre­quent the road up to lower Nubra val­ley in sum­mer. All eater­ies ex­cept one or two with short menus at North Polu were closed dur­ing off sea­son. A rea­son­ably clean tra­di­tional toi­let was open. The paid toi­let (₹10/use) was locked.

Song of Snow

The snow sang.

Do less.

En­joy more.

Grow less.

Freeze more.

Blunt (steep slopes) more.

Blunt (grav­ity) more.

Sharpen (wind) more.

Play statue maker with wa­ter more of­ten.

The snow sang.

Low tem­per­a­tures in high alti­tude partly or fully froze wa­ter bod­ies. Snow even blunted in­nate power of the steep slopes and grav­ity. Snow sharp­ened the wind; it was cold and numb­ing. The statue maker win­ter froze wa­ter un­til spring and sum­mer would un­freeze it. The sea­sonal sever­i­ties im­plied so­cial dis­tanc­ing and stay­ing in­side the home.

Snow cover was the thick­est be­tween South and North po­lus. Short and tall walls of undis­turbed fresh snow partly fenced this road sec­tion. Both lo­cal po­lice and army manned the pass and po­lus check posts yet per­mit ver­i­fi­ca­tion was in the do­main of the for­mer. Po­lice col­lected a copy of per­mit at North Polu, also called Spang Ch­hanmo. Pho­tog­ra­phy rules varied from army post to post. It was al­lowed at North Polu un­like at South Polu.

The slope an­gles in­creased and quan­tity of snow on them de­creased when the road de­scended from North Polu. Snow re­duced sub­stan­tially on the road as well; alti­tude fell; the snowy Khardung moun­tains ap­peared on the hori­zon in the south. Clear wa­ter nar­row chan­nels rested in gray bed of the Shyok. Very wide and quite flat val­ley re­ceived am­ple sun. Yet the small glacial brooks were largely frozen. Veg­e­ta­tion hardly had a hint of green. The color pal­ette ex­panded: the land­scape wore brown, gray, ma­roon, and dun. Monas­ter­ies, re­li­gious stat­ues, and prayer drums

In­quis­i­tive hu­mans think and ask ques­tions; try to an­swer the ques­tions; and de­velop easy con­nec­tions be­tween fan­tasies and the real world. The con­nec­tions, such as tarred roads, mo­bile tow­ers, he­li­copters, air­planes, and ve­hi­cles, slowly sub­tract the re­mote­ness, the at­trac­tion high­lighted in pro­mo­tional tourism fes­ti­vals and events.

in vil­lages were dressed in bright bold col­ors. Tall moun­tains on all sides sur­rounded the rea­son­ably wide va­cant road adorned with black top for more than 80% of its length un­til Arano. The lux­u­ri­ous amenity con­trasted with many other high alti­tude back-break­ing roads across the Hi­malayas. The road en­gi­neers treated the amenity care­fully for its prox­im­ity to a pair of sen­si­tive in­ter­na­tional bor­ders.

Above silent big Khardung vil­lage an up­right peak never let snow set­tle on it. Af­ter cross­ing the vil­lage, a huge area re­sem­bled a flight of steps from a dis­tance. A closer look revealed that each “step” was ac­tu­ally a deep nar­row chan­nel of a moun­tain stream. Be­fore Khal­sar, an army sta­tion, a branch of the road turned south to Pan­gong Lake and we con­tin­ued north; the Khardung nul­lah meets the Shyok. The frozen nul­lah glis­tened in bright sun. Tirit vil­lage looked like a dry tri­an­gle on the Shyok bank.

The val­ley of “the river of death” was not deadly. The Shyok val­ley is rich in rock art, ru­ins of forts and set­tle­ments, and other ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites. Most of the set­tle­ments be­side Khardung La - Arano road house the rock art. Un­for­tu­nately, I learnt about these sites while re­view­ing lit­er­a­ture for wrap­ping up this ar­ti­cle. Visit the sites in Murgi, Panamik, Tirisa, Tirit and other nearby ar­eas in the Shyok and Nubra val­leys and el­e­vate the ex­pe­ri­ence.

The road in the high alti­tude val­ley in cold desert did not present forests. Only wild trees and bushes oc­cu­pied small pock­ets along the rivers and in and around the vil­lages. These small groves drew many birds. Dwin­dling pop­u­la­tion of snow leop­ards hid in the high moun­tain­ous re­cesses. The home of il­lu­sive big cat con­firmed pres­ence of many other car­ni­vores and her­bi­vores that sa­ti­ate it.

The road, a lifeline for lo­cals and soldiers, bent fre­quently around moun­tain curves. At ev­ery bend some­thing was hid­den, in­ter­est­ing or non

in­ter­est­ing. Es­pe­cially, sharp bends tested driv­ing skills de­spite scanty traf­fic.

The river bed fea­tured rel­a­tively wide wa­ter chan­nels hemmed with snow and gravel be­fore the con­flu­ence of the Shyok with its prin­ci­pal trib­u­tary the Nubra. In the north of the con­flu­ence, snow and gravel in the Nubra bed in­creased and the wa­ter chan­nels thinned out.

The wish-grant­ing Tirisa lake was frozen. My driver and I plod­ded through sandy bed of the Si­achen river for 5-10 min­utes to reach the lo­cal pil­grim­age site near the road. The lake al­most re­sem­bling Sri Lanka was on the east of the river.

Big and small vil­lages stood on fun­nel-shaped al­lu­vial fans at the foot of ravines for am­ple wa­ter sup­ply and fer­tile soil. Man-made high rise build­ings were non-ex­is­tent. Fire wood hun­gry bukharies re­duced im­pact of cold. Prob­a­bly ev­ery house­hold owned a car for con­ve­nience and liveli­hood. Visi­tors were miss­ing.

The spa­cious glacial val­ley was quiet in win­ter due to neg­li­gi­ble hu­man-sounds. The vil­lagers stayed in­door. A few still spun wool for self-use. Oth­ers bought ready-mades from far and near mar­kets. Fields were largely empty. Some started pre­par­ing fields for spring-sum­mer crop.

My driver from Arano shared his ob­ser­va­tion about lo­cal death pat­tern: young die in sum­mer and old in win­ter. His def­i­nite state­ment led to a def­i­nite ques­tion: Why so? He gave ex­am­ples but could not rea­son out the causes. In re­cent past, 10-15 young peo­ple died be­cause of poor or rash driv­ing in Leh. An old lady died the day I ar­rived in Arano.

Arano vil­lage on the west of the Si­achen has two parts up­per and lower. Each fam­ily in the vil­lage man­aged all chores with­out the help of ser­vants. I saw some res­i­dents fill­ing wa­ter in worn-out plastic can­is­ters from a fat pub­lic wa­ter pipe hang­ing above frozen ground. Some used their cars while oth­ers hand-pulled trol­lies for trans­port­ing wa­ter. The vil­lage had a small gen­eral store sell­ing lim­ited goods. Bare poplars had a hint of pale green.

The flat roof low rise houses looked like car­tons vis-à-vis tall moun­tains. Sign­boards aimed at tourists crowded the lower Nubra val­ley fa­mous for its dou­ble-hump camels. The boards were con­spic­u­ous by ab­sence in the up­per part.

A new chap­ter in the his­tory of the Nubra val­ley be­gan with re­cent open­ing of Up­per Nubra for tourists. It might be a new op­por­tu­nity for lo­cals like my driver who re­gret­ted that he was left be­hind, while the world forged ahead.

Arano pre­pares for tourism that may provide em­ploy­ment, mainly, to driv­ers and other stake­hold­ers of ac­com­mo­da­tion and trans­port in­dus­tries. This devel­op­ment would give a com­plete makeover to the re­mote vil­lage in the Up­per Nubra val­ley. By the time, the vil­lage achieves the de­sired foot­fall, the vil­lagers would get car­ried away by con­ve­nient mech­a­nized life­style of the guests. There­after, some lo­cals

“Ter­raced” ground in the fore­ground ac­tu­ally com­prises al­ter­nat­ing rows of flat land and deep moun­tain brook chan­nels (red ar­rows). Khardung moun­tains make a snowy back­drop for the ground be­side the east of the Leh - Arano road.

would grum­ble young gen­er­a­tion had for­got­ten its cul­ture and oth­ers would say why visi­tors wanted to trek to the top of the moun­tain.

In a day drive, we saw three moun­tain ranges: Stok, Ladakh, and Karako­rum. Snow sum­mits with unique pro­files reg­u­larly ap­peared on the hori­zon. The snow was both per­ma­nent and win­try. Cul­tures in­herit this dy­namism. Change is like clock­work be­cause our brain is a cre­ative work­horse; and the change is set in stone. We like to live our fan­tasies.

In­quis­i­tive hu­mans think and ask ques­tions; try to an­swer the ques­tions; and de­velop easy con­nec­tions be­tween fan­tasies and the real world. The con­nec­tions, such as tarred roads, mo­bile tow­ers, he­li­copters, air­planes, and ve­hi­cles, slowly sub­tract the re­mote­ness, the at­trac­tion high­lighted in pro­mo­tional tourism fes­ti­vals and events.

(Fore­ground to Back­ground) Well-kept road. Col­or­ful rocks be­fore Khal­sar. Sea­sonal snow on the Karako­rum.

An in­for­ma­tive mile­stone at Khardung La

An au­to­mated teller ma­chine (A.T.M.) of State Bank of In­dia (S.B.I.) at Khardung La

A pub­lic bus plies be­tween Leh and Diskit.

Snow-cov­ered mo­torable road at Khardung La

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.