Our school geography tells us that Himalayan Mountain ranges form a natural and formidable barrier between Indian subcontinent and central Asia. This is very true, for central and eastern parts of the Indian peninsula. In the North-West India however, where Ladakh is located, things are bit different. We certainly have the Himalayan barrier here, extending all the way from central India to Afghanistan in the West. But in addition to this, There are three equally formidable mountain ranges one after another, spreading parallel to each other in North-West direction.
If we decide to travel to north of Himalayan ranges, we have first the Pir-Panjal or Trans Himalayan range, followed by the Zanskar range. Ladakh range follows the Zanskar range. Finally, before we can reach Central Asia, we still need to cross, an equally formidable Karakoram range.
Between these mountain ranges of the north, major river systems drain out from the glaciers and flow generally to the west , all finally meeting the Sindhu or Indus river. Thus, between Pir-Panjal and Zanskar mountain ranges, we have Zanskar river in the Zanskar valley; between Zanskar and Ladakh ranges we have the Sindhu or Indus flowing in the Indus valley and also the city of Leh; finally betwwen Ladakh and Karakoram ranges, we have the Shoyok-Nubra river system flowing in Shoyok and Nubra valleys.
I am ranting and chanting all this school geography, for one simple reason. I am leaving for Nubra valley today and it is always better to know where you are actually heading. I just had a very refreshing breakfast in my hotel in Leh. My new driver with his Innova station wagon, has just arrived. He is a complete contrast to the earlier bloke, who made my first two days in Ladakh, quite uncomfortable. This new guy, Tundup, has a wiry physique, yet I find him quite enthusiastic about his job. He appears fairly knowledgeable too. In short, I am happy to leave on this new journey.
The car exits Leh town in the Northerly direction and almost immediately starts climbing a steep slope. As I mentioned above, our first obstacle is to cross the formidable Ladakh mountain range. Most of the mountain peaks in this range are in the 19000 to 20000 feet range and we have to have a motorable pass to cross over. There are only three passes in the Ladakh range, out of which Wari La does not have a motorable road. A pass with a motorable road, near the village of Digar and known as Digar La, has a lower height of 17720 feet, but we need to take a much longer detour to travel by this one. The nearest motorable pass to Leh, is Khardung La or Khardung pass. This pass is at 18380 feet and is considered to be highest motorable pass in the world.
As the car climbs up on this steep road, the beautiful oasis of greenery around Leh town, suddenly disappears. What I see around me now, is a vast sea of reddish yellow sand, spread across continuous zigzags of slopes and climbs at impossible angles. The mountain slopes, polished by ages of winter snows, sliding down the hill, look so weird sometimes, that it is hard to believe that I am driving on a road. In this vast wilderness, the metalled road, which I see in front of my car, is the only thing that re assures me that I am still in a civilized world. The car makes a complete U bend; far away, near the horizon, I see the greenery of Leh only for an instant and I realize the distance we have already covered. Khardung pass is about 35 kilometers from Leh.
I see a small group of tin shades ahead with number of Vehicles parked. Our car slows down and we stop. This place is called ‘South Pallu’ and is in reality an Army checkpost. Each and every vehicle that passes Khardung pass is checked here. Our driver Tundup gets down and hands over our ‘Inner Line permits’ to the officer at the check post. Any one who wants to go to Khardung or such places near the international borders, must have these permits. They are issued without any hassles by the authorities in Leh, on production of any type of Photo Identity card such as a driving license or a voter identity card. My travel agent had arranged these permits for me.
Approaching Khardung La
After some delay, we are off again. Tundup points out to a tower, which I can see up above on the horizon. That is the Khardung pass. Then suddenly, he gives a news, which would be absolutely thrilling to any Indian. He says that “ It is snowing in Khardung la”. For majority of Indians, snowfall is something that is seen only in pictures and Holywood flicks. Sometimes, relatives settled down abroad, mention about it. But to experience it yourself and that too at the peak of summer, in India itself, is an unbelievable and the rarest experience for an Indian. The road surface below our car, is continuously degrading as we climb up. We take a turn. On the road side, I see a shade with JCB excavators and bulldozers all ready for any eventuality. Further ahead I see a mountain ridge completely dug up right up to the road level. Two remaining parts of the ridge on either side of the road look like ancient support pillars of a gate. Aptly, this gate is named as India Gate. The road is no longer dry. Streams of water from melting snow flow across the road. A road sign tells us that the road further, is unpaved. The traffic slows down now to a crawl. On one side of the road, I see big chunks of ice covering the surfaces. Then we take a turn and suddenly everything turns foggy. We are amongst a snowfall. Bits and pieces of snow flakes, hit the windscreen and stay there. Suddenly ahead, I see a break in the mountain. We have reached the top of the pass. Khardung la is crowded with vehicles and people even in such weather. There is a cafeteria here which claims to be the highest in the world and sales hot tea and snacks, The business appears brisk. I enjoy a hot cup of Tea and then try to do some snow walking. The snow, fallen freshly, crushes under my feet, making a crunching sound. There is a shop here, selling souvenirs and Tee shirts. I defer the visit to the shop, to my return journey.
The journey downhill to North Pallu or North check-post is uneventful, except for a road block caused by some road construction work. We come down again to the valley level. Tundup points out to a nice picnic spot, where people who have brought packed lunch, usually have it. We carry on and stop in Khardung village. There are couple of eating places here. I order Roti and vegetables with a coke. The waitress recommends ‘Momos’ , another Ladakhi delicacy. Momo or Muk-Muk are bean shaped dumplings, filled with lamb mutton or vegetables and cooked with steam. I enjoy this Ladakhi touch to my lunch. While I am eating my lunch, a lady sitted on the next table inquires about my ordering of Momos.I chat with her for few minutes. This lady, Ms. Chhaya Bhattacharya-Haesner is originally from Kolkata but now lives in Germany. She has been awarded Tagore National Fellowship by New Delhi’s National Museum to study Arts of Ladakh. I tell her about my articles on Saatvahana Kings of Maharastra. She is interested because she has worked on this subject previously.
After Lunch, we are off again. The scenario around me reverts back to that desert wilderness again. The mountains are less tall here but the gorges and ravines are so deep that I would be scared to look down into one of these. I realize that slowly we are reaching the foot-hills of the Ladakh range mountains. I can even see some small wild bushes around now with blue flowers. The car takes a turn and behind a huge ravine, formed by two inter spacing mountains, I suddenly have a glimpse of a very tall mountain peak, completely covered with ice. I know that it has to be a Karakoram range mountain peak. I refer to my maps and notes, but fail completely to recognize the name as it disappears again behind mountain ranges nearer to me. The car takes a U turn. Now unfolding before my eyes, is a vast river basin barricaded by a mountain range. The river basin appears very flat, rocky and filled with white sand in places. The river proper looks like a thick dark line drawn in zigzag haphazard fashion in the vast flat basin.
Tundup informs me that this is the Lower Shyok river. There are green oases patches in the sandy, rocky basin. As we come down to lower and lower heights, the green oases turn into small villages with tin shades.
We are now almost at the river bed level. The river sometimes flows just next to us only to move again to other end of the basin. Another military town is seen ahead; the town of Khalsar. Tundup stops the car on the curb. I get down to enjoy the view. Ahead of me, on the other side of the basin, stand those tall mountain ranges, which I wanted to see since last 49 years. I had heard about the Karakoram mountains for the first time in the year 1962. On 22 nd October of that year, scanty news items had appeared in the News papers, saying that Chinese had attacked Indian border posts near Doulat Beg Oldi in the Karakorams. These Indian border posts in the vicinity of a mountain pass called Karakoram pass, have always been the border points between India and the Chinese Turkmenistan. I had then tried to find out whatever information I could gather about the Karakorams and also the Karakoram pass. I used to have a Readers Digest atlas of the world. I had studied the map then many times those days and had tried to imagine the terrain. Few years later, while standing on tarmac of the airport at Bangalore, I had seen a strange propeller aircraft with a jet engine mounted on the top of the body. The aircraft was a ‘Fairchild Packet’ for sure. A friend working with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. had then told me that these Packets were fitted with an extra jet engine, so that they can land at the airstrip of Doulat Beg Oldi. In the Karakorams. Ever since that day, I had this wish in my mind to visit the Karakorams some day in my life. In 1965, I had an opportunity to spend few months in Kashmir Valley. I had then tried my level best, to travel to Leh. It was of no avail, as no civilians were allowed to travel to Ladakh those days. Ladakh was opened for tourists only in 1974. Now standing here on the banks of Shyok river, near Khalsar, I had a sense of fulfillment and I could cherish the mountains I always wished to see.
Ahead of Khalsar, Shyok river meets Nubra river. This river drains out of the famous Siachin glacier and flows in the Nubra valley. The road on which we are driving is on the left bank of the Shyok river and goes straight to Hunder. My plan is to cross this river and go up in the Nubra valley. We are now branching off from Hunder road to left near a place called Tirith. A well guarded steel suspension bridge, is the only way to cross Shyok river here and go to the left bank of Nubra river. Our car stops near the bridge. Our Inner Line permits are checked again and we are allowed to go ahead. This part of Nubra valley is strikingly beautiful. Green patches of fields and little villages are everywhere. The road is also in good condition but narrow. We keep slowing down with every oncoming vehicle, most of which are military trucks. The first village we cross is Sumur, full of gardens, apricot orchards and little houses. After Sumur the road climbs up a little as river bed shifts to our direction. We are now very near the river bed and I can clearly see the brackish muddy waters of Nubra river directly coming from melting ice of Siachin glacier. On the other bank of the river, another village appears clad in green foliage. Tundup tells me that the name of that village is Murgi (Means a chicken in Hindi) and laughs. The wild shrubs all along this road are in full bloom. I can see blue, pink and purple blossoms everywhere. The wild flowers have their own beauty without any doubt.
I see another green oasis ahead. Green field with patches of Mustard flowers, Poplars, Willows and Apricot Orchards. Tundup says that this is Panamik village, our destination. The car leaves the main road , which goes further to Sasoma(About 15 Km.) and then further to Siachin base camp. Both these places are important landmarks for totally different reasons. Our car starts climbing on a hill track in opposite direction. About three four hundred feet up, there is a parking ground that can accommodate only a few cars. We stop there. After climbing few steps, I arrive at the famous Hot Springs of Panamik, a natural geothermal source of hot water.
I had never hoped, when I planned initially my Ladakh trip, that I would be able to come here in Panamik. The Nubra valley proper, which branches off from the bridge on Shyok river at Tirith, was strictly a ‘No entry’ area for civilians. It has been opened only recently for tourists. Most of the people who come, are here to see the Hot Springs. For me, the place is also of tremendous historical significance.
Panamik was the last stop for getting food and provisions for traders and porters of Trade caravans going from Leh to Yarkand and Kashgar in Chinese Turkmenistan (Today’s Xinjiang) besides fodder for their pack animals and also naturally was the first civil stop for caravans coming in from the ultimate wilderness of the Karakorams. The summer caravan route known as Tabistan, was along the Nubra river from here up to Sasoma and then turned left in the river valley. The caravans climbed up the mountain range, on which I am standing now, at Sasoma ( 15 Km. From Panamik) along the gorge of a river to climb and negotiated the most treacherous Saser Pass.
Hundreds of devout Muslims from Chinese Turkmenistan used this route for their Haj pilgrimage. To cut down their hardships, the Sultan of Yarkand, sent in Nineteenth century, Ali Hussain, a brilliant engineer from central Asia, to build a track near Sasoma. All the pilgrims coming down the mountains, rested and recuperated from their arduous journey, at Panamik Hot springs.
In summer of 1889, a young British Army officer, Francis Younghusband was sent by the then Foreign secretary of India, Mortimer Durand, to investigate cases of looting of valuable merchandise from Caravans. He describes meeting Russian and Afghani caravans here in Panamik in his book , ‘Wonders of Himalayas’ . The greatest explorer of the Silk route, Sir Aurel Stein, traversed through Panamik, when he was suffering from Frost Bite in 1908. He describes in his book, ‘Ruins of desert cathay’ Vol II, as to how his life was saved by a quick journey from Chinese Turkmenistan to India through Karakoram pass. He was saved because of the timely medical help received by him at Panamik from Rev. S.Schmitt, who had specially travelled from Leh to Panamik to treat him urgently.In 1937 legendary mountaineer Eric Shipton surveyd these areas. In his book Shipton mentions Panamik as a fertile valley.
From these Hot springs in Paanamik, the view is just out of this world. The mountain slope, where I am standing is actually one of the main arms of the Karakorams and is known as Saser Muztagh range. This range extends straight up to Chinese border. In fact a major Karakoram peak, Saser Kangri II (25170 feet) is located about 25 Km. East of my position. I look around. Because I am standing only at ten thousand feet, it is impossible for me to see any of the big peaks. I can however see many snow clad peaks in the front. The mountain ridge in front of me, is the southern end of the famous Saltoro range. This range actually joins the Saser Muztagh range( the mountain range on which I am standing) at the start of the Siachin Glacier at Indira Col, forming an acute angled valley through which Nubra river drains the Glacier. It was Francis Younghusband again, who, in an earlier expedition, had surveyed and realized that the glacier basin starting from this northernmost point, was a true watershed dividing Indian subcontinent from central Asia. He called this as a true border point between India and China.
Northern reaches of the Saltoro ridge, happen to be the most crucial and important mountain range from India’s strategic and defense point of view. It provides an effective dagger like separation, between India’s two hostile neighbours, Pakistan and China. In a preemptive move, India occupied the northern reaches of Saltoro ridge in 1984, in an operation named as ‘Meghdoot’. Entire Siachin operations of the Indian Army are essentially to defend this Saltoro ridge and the passes. This ridge and the mountain passes are called the highest battlefields in the world and have seen heavy military action in the decade of 1980-90. Holding Saltoro ridge is also of paramount importance if India hopes to resume trade any time in future with Central Asia through Karakoram pass.
I stand spellbound by the panoramic view from the hot springs in Panamik for a long time. I am awakened from my trance like stature, by a Ladakhi girl, selling Tea from under a blue tent. I ask her to give me a cup. The Tea is nice and hot. While drinking Tea, I realize that it is uncomfortable to stand in the Sun, as the sunlight is very bright and burning. I move to the tent, which is shady and cool. The hot water from the spring, comes out of the ground at a slightly higher elevation above us. Water channels have been built to bring the water down to the bathing area. I check the water at a channel. It is moderately hot. What is interesting is that the entire bottom surface of the channel is coated with a bright yellow sediment. I try to pick up a small piece of the sediment. It is actually an Algae layer, coated with a thin layer of sulphur smelling sediments, that are imparting the yellow colour to it. The same Ladakhi girl asks me whether I would like to take a bath in the hot springs? On spur of the moment, I decide to take a bath. Bath Towels are available from the same Ladakhi girl, selling Tea. Bath rooms built by the Government are nice, clean and specious. There is even a shower. It feels kind of funny to take bath with water with a sulfuric smell. For last three thousand or more years, people from central Asia and beyond, travelling on this route, have been enjoying a natural hot bath at Panamik. I have joined them.
We start on our return journey. After crossing the suspension bridge at Tirith, we turn right and start crossing the Shyok river basin. The entire area is filled with well rounded whitish coloured stones and patches of marshy land. The road is flat and straight. Tundup enjoys the road by speeding up. After reaching the other side of the basin, the road climbs up to a higher elevation. On a U bend, I view again, for a fleeting second, the snow clad Karakoram peak, in the gap between two mountains, that I had seen in the morning. I still have no clue to its identity.
We pass Diskit town. Now we have regular white desert sand on one side of the road complete with dunes. At a distance, I see some camels also. With wind blowing towards us, the sand blows on the road, making it look milky white. Within one day, I have seen snow fall and also desert sand blowing in the wind. It is just kind of weird.
Finally we reach our destination for the day, Hunder village. After the snow fall of morning and dust storm of the evening, Hunder is a complete anticlimax. It is a lush green village with thick foliage, small brooks and springs flowing from every nook and corner, apricot orchards, mustard fields, cows, goats. Lovely wild flowers blooming from shrubs on hedges.
The Car stops at Snow Leopard Guest House. A lovely place with blooming flowers everywhere. I am slightly disappointed, because I am allotted an old room. The room is cozy, comfortable and with reasonably good toilette. I sort of cover my disappointment and walk out for a stroll.
The hotel is a family affair. The dinner, cooked by the wife of the owner, is quite nice. Instead of Roti, we are served some kind of wheat-barley bread, which turns out to be quite tasty. While I am having my dinner, a troupe of about 15 bikers led by a woman enters the dining hall. Now I know the reason for my getting an old room. These guys have been staying in the hotel for last couple of days. No wonder, I have to manage with this tiny room. They order beer and talk about motor bikes. After my dinner is over, I have a chat with the leader. They have been travelling all over North India on their motor bikes. Royal Enfield is the best bike for India, she tells me.
I hit the bed and just go to sleep.
(to be continued)
3 August 2011