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Volume 44, Number 4July/August 1993

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The Road to Leh

Written by Hilary Keatinge
Photographed by Brynn Bruijn

Turning eastward from Srinagar and leaving the lush fields of rice and wheat, the traveler I moves ever upward: Up the gentle slopes I covered with tall alpine firs, and on eastward toward a wall of mountains, the massive [Himalaya Range. This is a border more successful than either politician or geographer could devise, and one must cross it to enter the land that is Ladakh.

Ladakh is part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, one of the component states of India. For many, it is the Kashmir name which sparks recognition: One thinks of fine carpets, prized cashmere shawls and the fertile green of the Kashmir Valley. What is forgotten, even unknown, is that this state has three very different and distinct districts: Jammu in the plains above the Punjab, with its main city of the same name serving as winter capital of the state; Kashmir to the north, with the summer capital at Srinagar; and to the east, hidden behind the Himalaya Range, Ladakh.

With an area of about 100,000 square kilometers (almost 40,000 square miles), Ladakh is geographically the largest district in India. However, it is so lightly populated - just 100,000 people - and for much of the year so inaccessible, that it has remained a remote and little-known district, in terms not only of its geography, but also of its people and culture. Yet sadly, not even the high mountain ranges that surround Ladakh can protect it today from the changes moving in from all sides.

Over the years, cartographers have had problems keeping up with the international border lines in this area. Part of Kashmir has been under Pakistani control since 1949. By 1956-57, the Chinese had quietly built a military road deep across the northeastern corner of Ladakh, linking Xinjiang and western Tibet; when the road was discovered by the Indians, it was too late to counter the incursion. Now there are nervous cease-fire lines, established by the United Nations; an increasingly heavy military presence in the whole area; and occasional exchanges of fire, particularly between Indian and Pakistani troops along the Siachen Glacier of the Karakoram Range.

"India Gate," at 3500 meters (11,500 feet), lies just before the Zoji La, or Zoji Pass; it is the only route into Ladakh from the west. Here the road cuts through the Himalayas. It is open only about four months of the year; with the first snows, it becomes impassable to all traffic. Those first snows - up to 15 meters (50 feet) deep and accompanied by intense cold - can fall anytime from mid-September on. Usually, they arrive in early November.

As recently as 1987, a convoy was caught here in an early blizzard. Of those stranded in the trucks and buses, there were many who did not survive the three-day wait for help.

About mid-June each year, the road crews clear their way through the winter debris and open up the region to general transportation. There is talk of building an even higher road that would bypass the Zoji La altogether, and thus reduce the havoc that avalanche and landslide play with this all-important route; but that is still a long way off.

Once through the pass, one enters a new world. The high mountains block the life-giving moisture that the wind could bring from the Kashmir Valley. Gone are the trees and the rolling grasslands: This is a land of bare mountains, of precariously balanced boulders and fine sandy scree. The painter must put away the pretty valley colors and limn the landscape in browns and grays. The contrast from one side of the pass to the other is so immediate and so dramatic that no amount of preparation or imagination suffices: It is breathtakingly different.

The landscape looks barren and uninhabited; nothing seems to move or grow. But there in the distance is a patch of green... a gleam of water... even a building, or is it two? Life is - possible after all in this desolate land.

Far below is a sparkling river which, like all rivers in the region, is a tributary of the great Indus, which winds for some 3000 kilometers (1900 miles) from southwest Tibet through Ladakh and Kashmir and the length of Pakistan before spilling out into the Arabian Sea. Twisting along the floor of the valley, sometimes beside the river, sometimes taking its own course, is a white ribbon of track: a pony trail dating from the days before motorized transport, and still used by nomads and their flocks of mountain sheep.

The earliest records about the region refer to a transit route through the northern reaches of Ladakh. Merchants of old, some from Persia and places farther west, moved east and then north over the Karakoram mountains into China to join the great Silk Road at Yarkand. Others were anxious to trade somewhat closer to home for the prized pashm, a fine goat-hair from the underfleece of herds that graze on Tibetan slopes. In demand for centuries, pashm, or pashmina "wool," was traditionally used by Kashmiri weavers to make the soft shawls and other garments that even today fetch high prices in Paris, London and New York.

Wars were fought in the name of this wool, and of the treaties recorded, the Treaty of Tingmosgand in 1684 was the most important. This was an agreement between the king of Ladakh and the regent of Tibet by which territory was ceded to Tibet and gifts were to be delivered to certain Tibetan monasteries every three years. In return, Kashmiri merchants would control all trade in pashmina wool from Tibet, as well as the access to the Ladakhi grazing grounds in Qiang-Tang, the high plateau of northern Tibet. Transporting and collecting duties for the wool would be the task of merchants from the town of Leh. This was the seat of the Ladakhi kings; their palace, now a ruin, still dominates the town.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the road to Leh was no more than a precarious track that not even mountain ponies could manage. In those days, thousands of porters dug and cut, climbed and died on their way to the looms of Kashmir with their heavy loads of wool. Later, the route was improved sufficiently for laden pony caravans and 19th-century armies. Today, back-packing trekkers and sight-seeing tourists share it with the merchants and the fighting men, but still only when that age-old enemy of all, the weather, allows.

Along the way, small villages were established centuries ago to cater to travelers; one such settlement is Dras, just 170 kilometers (106 miles) from Srinagar, and 3249 meters (10,660 feet) above sea level. Dras is the second-coldest inhabited place in the world, after Siberia: The temperature can drop to minus 45 degrees Celsius (-50°F). Its hardy inhabitants are Muslims of Balti origin.

Most accounts of Ladakh describe its people as Buddhists, but in fact the population is split almost 50-50 between Buddhists and Muslims. The western sector, with Kargil at its center, is 90 percent Muslim, while the eastern half, near the Tibetan border, is 85 percent Buddhist. The people from the Kargil area have closer ties with the state government; for its part, Leh has always had close ties with neighboring Tibet, and its Buddhist community has for centuries looked for spiritual guidance to the leadership in Lhasa.

Dras is fairly typical of the villages along the road to Leh. The people farm the nearby hillsides and graze their cattle and ponies, for which they are famous, high in the mountains during the brief summer. The village seems almost green with its plantations of willow trees on the slopes; its houses lie along the rushing Dras River, which forms an intergral part of the town's main street.

The people of Dras build their houses with the ground floor dug well into the earth, almost underground. The first few feet of a house's walls constructed of stone and the rest of the two-story structure is of mud brick - which provides much better insulation against variations in temperature than modern concrete. The flat roof is made of these bricks on a base of willow beams, held together with a thick layer of twigs, and the whole covered with a mud wash. In winter, the roof provides storage space for precious supplies of firewood and fodder, usually in a neat band round the edge. The natural enemy isn't so much the snow, though clearing heavy falls from the roof is a routine part of winter life; more damage is inflicted by driving rains that erode the mud on roof and walls and eat into the bricks.

As the first snows blow through the valley, the livestock, herded close to the houses after harvest, is moved inside and tethered in one area of the ground floor, while several generations of the family all move into the adjoining room. Humans and beasts thus save precious warmth as the temperature drops and life outside hibernates. Though ventilation is limited, it is not unusual for some 20 people to live crowded into one small room for a week or more as a blizzard rages outside.

During this enforced isolation, the men of the family will tend the livestock, clear snow when they can and teach their sons chapters of the Qur'an and the rituals of Islam. For the women, it is a confined round of household activities: They may spin or knit small woolen items for their children or for sale to the passing tourists the next season. But the light inside is poor, even during the brief hours of daylight, and after dark there is only the flickering light of an open dung fire or perhaps the luxury of a candle.

The staple food is barley, augmented by potatoes and beef. One or two of the cattle, depending on the size of the family group, will be slaughtered during the winter, and what is not immediately required keeps well outside in nature's Deepfreeze.

The people have learned to be largely self-sufficient, and require few imported goods. As trucks replace animal transport, those few items - tea, salt, kerosene - are more readily available in the village; it is no longer necessary to make the hazardous pony trek down to Srinagar for supplies. Local produce is sold or exchanged in the village market. It is foreign travelers, for the most part, who visit the store to buy such items as biscuits and bottled water, toothpaste and batteries. On most days, a group of elderly men sits at tables in the store, watching all coming and going with interest, passing the time with cups of the sweet, milky tea on the boil in the kitchen.

Farther along the road is Kargil, the district headquarters, and its rising minarets at once proclaim it a Muslim center. Much of the population tends to be traditionalist, insisting not only on a disciplined life of work and worship, but also resisting opening up the region with roads and trucks and unfamiliar ideas. Other Muslims in Kargil see change as inevitable and want their people to be prepared for it: They see no need to abandon old beliefs in order to meet the new demands being put on a community untouched, until very recently, by the modern world.

The town of Kargil has always been a staging post. Today its role has not changed much: It remains a transit stop for all those traveling east and west. Where once pony caravans rested and regrouped along the main thoroughfare, today the narrow road is congested with long convoys of trucks and buses.

"Before the road...." This phrase begins many an explanation of the recent changes in Ladakh, and in Kargil it has special significance. There was enormous excitement in the mid-1950's when a jeep made the first trial run over the Zoji La from Srinagar to Kargil. For most of the local people, this was the first motorized vehicle they had ever seen. "It's a house on wheels!" cried the children in amazement. Their wiser parents wondered, "Will it change our lives?"

But the trial run was an  army project, and it took some  years and a conflict with China before the first road was built. In 1962, construction began in earnest; the Indian army was suddenly on the defensive, and needed to get men and supplies to the border area. The road reached Kargil two years later, built by a brave band of workers, not a few of whom perished in the undertaking and are honored by memorials all along the way. They had the unenviable task of building a road on a seemingly impossible mountainside with nothing but the most basic equipment. Since then, they have had the equally dangerous task of maintaining it.

When the road opened, the first small commercial bus followed, forging the first permanent link with the outside world. Many of the changes that have occurred in Ladakh over the last 30 years have been the result of that link.

Health care has come to a people who had little before; nevertheless, tuberculosis and eye problems remain the most common illnesses, and it is not unusual to see children with various skin complaints caused by poor hygiene.

Education has become the norm rather than the exception; Muslim girls, too, are attending school in increasing numbers. Motivation is strong and these children are well aware that class work and book learning are the way to a better life.

But on the negative side, the road has put a strain on the fabric of society. The arrival of foreign tourists has brought new demands and influences. Hotels and rest houses are mushrooming, and refreshments for Western tastes are imported and prepared.

Sneakers, fizzy drinks and pop music threaten traditional customs: A different world is on display. Yet with only a six-month working year at most - even less for those who live on the short summer tourist season - there is little extra cash for residents to purchase these goods.

The region's only export is the apricot. Extensive orchards surround Kargil and lie farther east along the road, at Khalatse and Nyemo. Apricots have always been an important part of the local diet, fresh in the summer and dried for winter. But to be really marketable outside Ladakh, far more need to be grown. That would require irrigated land, which is in short supply. To process and dry the fruit, a regular supply of electricity is also essential, but generator power is available now for only a few hours a day. Authorities have yet to open a hydroelectric plant anywhere in Ladakh that can cope with river silt in summer and frozen waterways in winter.

Two high passes accommodate the road between Kargil and Leh. The first, Namika La (Pillar of the Sky Pass), cuts through the Zaskar Mountains at 3700 meters (12,100 feet). Looking down from its dizzying heights to a landscape of brown desolation, it is hard to believe that this was once a land of lakes and roaring torrents, surrounded by thick forest and abundant vegetation. All was changed by a geological upheaval long ago - at least, long ago in human terms, for these mountains are still being uplifted as India crunches on toward Mongolia.

Habitation is scarce: One cluster of houses is carved into the crumbling hillside, and down deep in the valley, by a patch of green, lies another. Muslim and Buddhist villages seem to alternate along the way, very similar in design but distinguishable by the color of their flags: black for Muslims and white for Buddhists. They have lived in peace for decades.

On either side, spectacular rock faces seem solid. But the truth is terrifyingly different: One tremor, one hour of rain, and the whole hillside could come tumbling down. The year 1988 saw an unprecedented three days of rain; whole villages were washed away, rivers changed their courses and gloomy forecasters feared that weather patterns were changing and that worse would follow.

Some 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Kargil, hidden high on a craggy skyline, is the Heniskot fort, guarding the gateway to central Ladakh. Here, in the early 1600's, armies from Baltistan and later from Kashmir met the kings of Ladakh and fought for control of the region. To them, the importance of Ladakh was its strategic position controlling the movements of traders and of troops. Today, the ancient fort lies in ruins, but battles are still being waged for the same reasons along these high mountain passes, on the roofpeaks of the world.

Next on the road comes an even higher pass, the Fatu La, where the road climbs to 4100 meters (13,500 feet). Looking backward, there is a dramatic view of the Zaskar Mountains and the spiraling ribbon of road just passed, which gives shape to the contours of these mountain slopes. One looks across, even down, at high peaks, and the sky is an unbelievably deep, rich blue found in few other places in the world.

Each hairpin turn opens up a new and different scene. Occasional tufts of green dot a background of brown and gray, and for more dramatic effect, great slashes of purple stone cut through the craggy rock face. A group of houses left in ruins in a corner of green begs the question: Did life here become too difficult even for these hardy mountain folk?

A government checkpoint is stationed in the village of Khalatse, just as there was in the ninth century. Today's travelers, like those of old, refresh themselves in the shade of the brightly painted tea stalls.

After Khalatse, more historic architecture marks the route: impressive forts and ancient Buddhist monasteries. The landscape is still one of stark, bare beauty. The mighty Indus flows through the steep gorges, gray with the heavy load of summer silt it carries, and then is joined by another fiver, the strikingly different, emerald-green Zaskar.

The road, as it approaches Leh, opens out onto a wide, undulating plain; in the distance, foothills lead up to the white-capped peaks of the Ladakh Range, with the great palace of the kings of Leh perched over the town itself. The Indian army is much in evidence here, but, surveying the strange landscape, it is hard to imagine from where any enemy could approach - or even why they would want to come.

Today, Leh is the end of the modern road. Alternative access is either by air from Srinagar or Delhi, or up from the south on an even rougher land route from Mana La. Movement into and around the area is strictly regulated by the military and, of course, by the weather.

The stretch between Kargil and Leh, along the rim of the Zaskar Valley, has relatively light snowfall and, unlike the rest of the area, is usually passable, barring landslides. For those coming from the south, the most direct, if precarious, winter route to Leh is along the frozen Zaskar River.

Each year, small groups make the week-long journey along the river from near Padam at the southern end of the Zaskar Valley, each man carrying up to 20 kilos (44 pounds) of yak butter, to be sold or exchanged for clothes in the Leh bazaar.

For half a millennium, Leh has been a regional capital and one of the world's highest commercial crossroads. In days of old, long pony caravans worked their way up from the plains of India, carrying spices and cottons, honey and shoes, moving northward to western China. On the return journey, the pack animals were loaded with carpets and silver. The westward caravans carried wool, and from the west came saffron and other textiles. Leh was a strategic depot between Kashmir and India and the Chinese provinces of Yarkand, Kotan and Kashgar.

This trading past is reflected in the cosmopolitan population of the town. Some of the families are descended from the early Yarkand merchants, others came originally from Kashmir or from farther south in the Punjab. Then there are Tibetans, recently forced out of their own country.

In Leh today, the old people remember - some even traveled in - the heavily laden caravans of ponies and mules which set off from the bazaar each year after the harvest had been brought in. They often trekked along trails signposted by the remains of earlier travelers who had succumbed to the altitude and the cold. The risks were great; the rewards, they say, more than justified them.

Today, the wealthy trading families no longer have agents in entrepôts across the borders, and their trade has had to change direction to survive. Now they supply the ever-expanding Indian army presence and have adapted to meet the demands of backpacking Western visitors.

With the latter came modern-day traders from Kashmir, ready with curios and "antiques," most said to be Tibetan. Some may come from Tibetan refugee camps in India, but the greater number are mass-produced farther south. Some 80 percent of tourist business came into the hands of these outside entrepreneurs, so local tradesmen watched with some satisfaction on 1989 as the traders, intimidated by growing religious and political tensions, moved back to Kashmir, taking their showcases with them. The shuttered stalls remain an uneasy presence along Leh's main bazaar.

Every aspect of life in Ladakh, and in Leh in particular, has changed visibly in recent years. These changes have been wrought by outside influences, most dating from the arrival of the road in 1962, and from the lifting of restrictions on non-military travelers in 1974.

The family unit has held strong in Ladakh for centuries, bolstered by the people's religious principles, but traditional roles are changing. Men now leave home during the summer months to guide recreational trekkers, and inevitably this puts a strain on families during the busiest agricultural time. The women thus work harder than ever before, and day-laborers are now being hired for what were once totally self-sufficient farms. Young girls want education and office jobs, and their untraditional behavior dismays their elderly relatives.

Patterns of dress have also changed rapidly; the shops in Leh bulge with ready-made clothes. No longer does one wait for the traveling weaver to come knocking on the door, and then virtually adopt him into the family for two or three months as he weaves woolen cloth and fashions it into robes and cloaks. It may be a relief to wear just one warm layer against the winter cold, in place of two or three, but more basic values are fading with the change from pattu - homespun wool - to polyester. Jeans and jackets are the anonymous uniform of a youth that, their elders fear, is fast forgetting the traditions of loyalty and conformity.

Another pattern being cut differently these days is that of social interaction in Leh. Gone is the welcoming spaciousness of the town and its surroundings: Houses and properties are now being hidden behind dividing walls, since land is scarce in town, and every vacant plot is being snapped up for construction of hotels and guest houses. The click of prying tourist cameras has forced social activities indoors, and has made the big religious festivals such spectacles that they are no longer truly local.

Religious groups used to live harmoniously side by side, often cooperating to solve problems and attending each other's festivities. Muslim would greet Buddhist and all might meet at a Christian reception. Teams from each community would meet on the polo grounds or compete for archery prizes.

For the present, however, tensions and uncertain ties have pushed these noble sports and activities from the calendar. Where a short while ago Leh was one interactive community, barriers are now being erected along religious and political lines, and these more leisurely events must wait for another turn of the wheel of life.

Hilary Keatinge, an Irish writer who lives in The Netherlands, is the author of a book on sailing in the Usselmeer.

This article appeared on pages 8-17 of the July/August 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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