ABHA

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

(Front Cover Story)

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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.

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 ??  ?? (Foreground to Background) Well-kept road. Colorful rocks before Khalsar. Seasonal snow on the Karakorum.
(Foreground to Background) Well-kept road. Colorful rocks before Khalsar. Seasonal snow on the Karakorum.
 ??  ?? An informativ­e milestone at Khardung La
An informativ­e milestone at Khardung La
 ??  ?? An automated teller machine (A.T.M.) of State Bank of India (S.B.I.) 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.
A public bus plies between Leh and Diskit.
 ??  ?? Snow-covered motorable road at Khardung La
Snow-covered motorable road at Khardung La
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