Ladakh, the roof of India and an extension of Tibet which is considered to be the roof of the World, is a cold desert at an average height of about 11000 feet above mean sea level. Temperatures are so low for most parts of the year that the land is covered with snow and the rivers too freeze on the surface and so there is only sparse vegetation and minimal agriculture. Consequently, the life is harsh, compounded by the fact that the terrain is very hilly and so people have to climb steep hills to even go to their farms from their villages or to commute between them. A visit to Ladakh had been on my radar for quite some time but it materialised suddenly due to an invitation to conduct a training session for youth on development issues in the Sambhavna Institute situated near Palampur in Himachal Pradesh of which more later. The timing of the workshop in Sambhavna was such that I had to visit Ladakh in the second fortnight of May just after it opens up for tourists after the prolonged winter. Eventually, I travelled through Punjab and Himachal Pradesh also traversing four of the five sub basins of the Indus River basin apart from the Indus basin itself - Beas, Chenab, Sutlej and Ravi and only Jhelum which originates in Kashmir still remains to be done.
The trip started with my crossing the Sutlej and the Beas Rivers on my way to Amritsar from where I was to board my bus for going to Manali in Himachal Pradesh in the upper Beas basin. Both the Sutlej and the Beas have been dammed for hydroelectricity and irrigation in their upper reaches and so the summer flow was very less in the Punjab plains as shown below.
I next visited the Harmandir Sahib Gurdwara in Amritsar which is the centre of the Sikh religion which essentially preaches truthful living and service to humanity and faith in one God. Despite the huge crowds of devotees and tourists, the management is very good and so the flow of people is smooth.
Then I took a night bus from Amritsar to Manali up the Beas valley and so started my Himalayan adventure which began with rafting on the river Beas in Manali. An experience of a lifetime. The raft bobs up and down through the river as it foams over the stones and drenches you with ice cold water. I booked a raft to myself as I had no other co adventurists. The first time this has happened according to the Raftsman Sunny Sherpa as they normally take 6 passengers. Consequently, due to lesser weight we bounced even more and at one point we went round and round in a 360 degrees spin in an adrenalin rushing experience. Sunny, who is pictured below with his helper Rahul Rajput, is from Kathmandu in Nepal and is a licensed Raftsman. He plies his trade for three months here and then goes to Ladakh and finally in winter and summer to Goa for sea rafting. The raft is made in USA. For the even more daring there is also paragliding on offer. I thought of doing that too for a while but then let prudence take precedence over valour.
The Beas River flows with force and character in Manali because the catchment above is still heavily forested and it is unimpeded by dams which have been built lower down in the valley. A sight for sore eyes after seeing the denuded catchments and summer trickle of the Narmada River in Madhya Pradesh which has been dammed into oblivion. Snowmelt too does contribute a considerable amount of flow and it is being said that due to global warming more snow is melting in summer.
The Chandrabhaga or Chenab, the largest river in Himachal Pradesh by volume of flow, meanders through its upper reaches in the scenic Lahaul Valley which is on the other side of the Rohtang Tunnel which connects Manali to Lahaul on the road to Leh.
I found myself amidst snow capped mountains for the first time in my life at the Shinkula pass which is on the ridge that separates the Lahaul and Zanskar valleys on the border of Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh. It was snowing slightly to add to the romance.
What used to be trekking tracks in the Zanskar valley earlier are now being converted by the Border Roads Organisation into motorable roads mainly to provide multi-pronged strategic mobility to the military. However, there is still a long way to go as for most parts there is little semblance of a road from which the snow has been removed amidst peaks which are still snow laden. The road that we took from Shinkula to Padum, the tehsil town in the Zanskar valley, is picturesque with fast flowing streams, isolated villages and yaks grazing on the sparse vegetation.
The road from Padum to Leh along the Zanskar river is flanked by steep hills. At one point we could see the folded rocks of the Himalayas as they had been cut through by the river. The BRO is working on a war footing to complete the Padum to Leh Road before winter and so it has been closed to traffic after a point in the valley.
We had to take a long detour over two more valleys crossing their ridges through passes at heights above 16000 feet along some of the most scary roads. Finally we reached the Indus some 80 kms downstream of the confluence of the Zanskar with it at Nimmu and drove up to it and then a further 35 kms to Leh.
The Zanskar river freezes in its upper stretches in winter and then it becomes popular for its Chadar Trek in which tourists trek on the frozen ice cover or chadar. The road from Nimmu to Padum will put paid to this the locals said as it will lead to development that will spoil the charm of the trek. The picture below shows the Zanskar in the background with a different colour meeting the Indus in the foreground at Nimmu.
There were no signs of any afforestation efforts throughout the Zanskar valley except near its confluence with the Indus river and in the Indus valley. This is a matter of concern because the people said that the flow in both the Zanskar and Indus rivers has reduced over time. At least along the springs and rivers below the snowline, where irrigation can be ensured by gravity, afforestation work should be done. In addition to trees like willow and poplar there are hardy local shrubs and grasses which could be planted. There was no soil and water conservation work being done either. The steep slopes are eroding away very fast and need to be stabilised. Especially since heavy road building work is being done. The barrenness of Ladakh, even accounting for the fact that it is a cold desert, is jarring after the green beauty of Manali.
Ladakh generally has very shallow soil depth even in the valleys and almost nothing on the slopes which are mostly barren except for a few shrubs and Tufts of grass here and there. We did not see many trees except for a few poplars near the habitations which too were few and far between. The people say that the hills and valleys become covered with grass in July for some time but once the snow begins falling then everything is covered with snow and the rivers also freeze. Since farms with enough soil are very few and there is no electricity and very little rainfall, the villages are few and far between. Some farming is done by directing the water of springs through channels onto the farms. These villages are the epitome of a hard physical life in harmony with nature.
The traditional architecture of Ladakh is based on the use of local resources like stones, mud and wood. The stones or sun baked mud bricks are put together with mud mortar and plastered with mud to form the load bearing structures. The roof is made of wooden beams covered with wooden poles and topped by a special waterproof mixture of mud and sand. Good drainage is provided to ensure that the roof does not leak.
In fact this method of construction is still preferred because it keeps the inside of the house warm in winter whereas concrete slabs lead to freezing temperatures. Carved wooden eaves are used to decorate the roof, windows and doorways.
The Leh Palace built by the Namgyal dynasty in 1630 is the crowning example of this architecture. This, at 40 meters in height was one of the highest buildings in the world at the time. It has been restored by the Archaeological Survey of India and stands in full glory on the commanding height over Leh.
The palace also has beautiful frescoes.
And an exquisitely carved wooden skylight.
There are many panels of experts both international and national cogitating on how to tackle the climate change and water stress crises that face us. However, the best solutions are always the simple ones. There are no other better measures than afforestation and soil and water conservation done in a communitarian manner. Modern Development has ravaged the environment, especially so in a cold desert like Ladakh. The impingement of geo-political factors has made it imperative to construct wide roads in the fragile mountainous terrain. Once roads and grid electricity reach an area, the adverse ecological impacts begin to mount. Therefore it becomes necessary to implement counter measures in the form of afforestation and soil and water conservation. However, the cold and the terrain make this difficult in Ladakh. Compared to what is required, very little of this mitigation work is being done in Ladakh. Nevertheless, something has been done in afforestation in and around Leh. The Buddhist monasteries have taken the lead in this regard. The Hemis monastery, which is a major repository of Buddhist knowledge and history, has won several national and international awards for its afforestation initiatives. The government too has implemented village level schemes, mainly along the Indus river. The newer development in Leh town has many trees and the panoramic view from the top of the Leh Palace is breathtakingly green.
The Shyeok River valley is very picturesque with villages using gravity to bring water for farming from higher up. The river originates in Tibet occupied by China and enters India at Galwan where a fierce battle took place between the Indian and Chinese armies a few years back. The river moves north through Ladakh like the Indus which also originates in China occupied Tibet and meets it in Pakistan.
The Nubra River, the northernmost river in India, after originating in the Siachen glacier, flows south from the Karakoram range and joins the Sheyok River. The valley is much greener possibly because the soil is of better quality. There are a number of very green villages and towns along it with Simur stated to be the greenest village in Ladakh. The Siachen base camp of the army is situated where the Nubra descends from the hills. However, the army has a checkpost about 30 kms from the base camp where it stops tourists from going further. There are hot springs at Panamik village along the river, which are supposed to be therapeutic.
The roads in the Sheyok valley are mostly in bad shape because of sudden floods that take place due to huge snow melts. So even though most of the time the flow takes place in a narrow channel, the river bed itself is very wide and full of stone debris that the flash floods have brought down from the mountains.Consequently, for its safety, the road has to be built well above the river's bed. This has been done in the downstream portion for the road leading to the Pakistan border because there has been much more fighting there ever since the time of independence.However, on the upstream section, the road to the China border still runs through the bed of the river and so has got washed away in many places and there is only a bed of stones to drive on. The serious battle that took place two years ago between the Chinese and Indian armies has drastically altered the situation. Full mobilisation of the military has to be done on the China border also like on the Pakistan border and so work has been started on building better roads but there is still a long way to go. The Border Roads Organisation is hectically at work and employs contract Adivasi workers brought in from as far as Jharkhand.
The village Pharnu in Pakistan is on the other side of the Shyeok River from the village Thang which is the northernmost village of India on the border with Pakistan at N 34 degrees 55 minutes 37 secs and E 76 degrees 47 minutes 55 secs at 9534 feet above MSL. Separated by the River Sheyok and Line of Control now, before 1971 they were both in Pakistan.A few villages along with Thang were occupied by the Indian army. Sadly, despite close family ties they are now permanently separated from the Pakistani villages due to the hostility between the two countries. The residents are of the Balti tribe who are Muslims.
There is a rich collection of prehistoric rock art thousands of years old throughout Ladakh in the Indus valley. Mostly these are in remote areas which can be accessed only by trekking. However, there is one set in the village of Tangtse which can be accessed by car and so we went and saw that one.Tangtse village is off the electricity grid but Tata BP Solar is running a 100 KW solar energy plant and supplying electricity on a commercial basis to the village.
The Changthang Wildlife sanctuary is possibly one of the most visited of sanctuaries in India, not because of its wildlife which consists of snow leopards, ibex goats and asses but because of the Pangong lake which is situated in it. Situated at about 15000 feet above MSL, it is a huge salt water Lake which is 134 kms long and about a km wide. Half of it is in India and the other half in China occupied Tibet. It is the site of fierce battles between the two countries from time to time and so is heavily militarised. The water is very clear. The views of the sanctuary and the lake are very scenic.I took the opportunity to swim in the Pangong lake and do some more high altitude yogasanas there. In fact I swam in all the major rivers also during this trip braving the freezing cold despite my normally bathing only once a week and that too in warm water!!
The last leg of the Ladakh tour was a visit to Dah village and the Sham valley. The Brokpa tribe resides in a few villages in the lower Indus valley region of which Dah is situated on the Leh to Srinagar highway. They are very fair and blue eyed and so it is said that they are the unalloyed descendents of the migrants into India from the central Asian region in the second millennium BCE.
The village is very scenic situated in a valley and ensconced as it is amidst hills .Returning from Dah we went up the Sham valley to the Lamayuru monastery which is situated in a spectacular moonlike landscape. The village itself is quaint because it mostly consists of mud and stone houses. The villagers are farmers who bring water into their fields through gravity channels from the stream making it very green in contrast to the moon landscape surrounding it.
After this we visited the monastery in Alchi which is the oldest in Ladakh dating from the 11th century CE. It has three tall standing statues of the Buddha.
Alchi also has a rich collection of rock art on the hills overlooking the Indus River.The Ladakh tour was organised for me by through his travel agency . He not only planned the trip for me but also very accommodatively made changes in it along the way as I received inputs from friends to try out other places off the beaten track. All arranged at a very reasonable cost. He and his wife Padma also provided superb hospitality at their home stay on the banks of the Indus river at Choglamsar about 10 kms from Leh which is close to the Sindhu Ghat built for bathing and swimming in the river. All in all a fabulous experience.
The one thing that one can't miss in the Himalayas is the ubiquitous presence of the army. In fact all this tourism in the mountains has been made possible by the army. The Border Roads Organisation is frantically constructing roads in the high mountains so as to increase the military capability to counter the strategic threats from Pakistan and China. Consequently, the world's highest motorable passes, Umling La at above 19000 feet above MSL, Khardung La at more than 18000 feet above MSL and Changla below at 17688 feet above MSL are in the Indian Himalayas. So what was once a trekkers' paradise is very quickly being converted into a standard tourism destination.
There are a few people in this country who follow their passion regardless of the hardships that this entails. I met one such person quite by chance in Ladakh when I got down to have food in a restaurant. This is Phunchok Angchok who has set up and runs the Ladakh Rocks, Minerals and Antiques Museum at Shey on the Leh-Manali Road just next to this restaurant where I had lunch ( Ladakh Rocks and Minerals Museum
). He was a government school teacher but gave up the job to work full time in collecting and displaying rare rocks, minerals and antiques of Ladakh. He set up an NGO for this which runs solely on contributions made by the public without any government support whatsoever. So he is able to do some work but not able to do it on the scale that he would like. Here he is standing in front of traditional stoneware utensils used by Ladakhis to cook food.
The last major river valley I visited on this Himalayan trip was that of the Ravi in western Himachal Pradesh. Unlike the Zanskar, Chenab, Nubra, Sheyok and Indus rivers which cannot be dammed under the Indus Water Treaty which stipulates that all their water has to go to Pakistan, the waters of the Ravi are allocated to India and so it has been dammed at Chameri. In contrast to the cold desert of Ladakh, the lower Himalayas through which the Ravi flows are very green with trees and shrubs. I stayed at Banjal village with my long time activist friend at a height of 7200 feet above MSL. For the first time on this trip I did some trekking. An art that I have lost. There was a time in the 1980s and early 1990s in Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh when I used to trek all the time as there were no roads in the Hills. However, now there are roads even in the remotest villages of the Narmada valley and so trekking is a thing of the past.
The residential houses and cattle barns are made of a combination of stones, mud and wood with slate roofs.
They carry their goods and produce up and down the steep slopes on mules. They also have conical baskets in which they carry goods on their backs called kirtas.
Water supply is by pipes from concrete tanks built at a height to which water from the springs is diverted.
This Himalayan tour happened because I was invited as a resource person to train youth by the Sambhaavna Institute of Public Policy and Politics in Kandbari in Palampur in Himachal Pradesh . Sambhaavna is a unique institution, the only one in India, set up by the Kumud Bhushan Trust, of which public interest litigator and activist is the secretary. The institute conducts trainings in various aspects of alternative sustainable and equitable governance and development with the help of activists from the field so as to provide youth and activists an understanding of the nature of the challenges that this country faces. The programmes are currently anchored by who is a computer scientist by training and has ditched his career in software engineering to become a full-time activist resident in Sambhaavna. The campus is picturesque, situated as it is with the Dhauladhar range as a backdrop. The buildings are eco-friendly, having been designed by the late iconic sustainable architect Didi Contractor and built with local materials.
Thus, my exhilarating fortnight of travel concluded with a few days spent in Palampur. This area has tea gardens.The tea industry is labour intensive as the plucking of the special set of leaves that are made into tea cannot be mechanised. Therefore, primitive accumulation takes place as the big companies involved in tea production like Unilever and Tatas, all skimp on paying proper wages and providing decent working conditions so as to increase their profits. A few of the youth participants in the workshop from the Northeast were the children of the workers in the tea gardens and they related how horrendous were the living and working conditions there and how disease and death were rampant.
Finally, the springs in Bohal supply a small fraction of the total water of Palampur, which is mostly drawn from the Neugal river. So a much more widespread soil, water and forest conservation programme has to be implemented over the whole catchment of the river extending to over 7000 hectares involving many more villages. The Himachal Pradesh Government has received hundreds of crores of Rupees for ecosystem restoration from the central government but instead of designing and implementing appropriate projects with these funds it is publicising a grossly inadequate project, that is unjust towards compensating the forestdwellers for the ecosystem services they are providing, as a successful example of payment for ecosystem services.
Even in remote villages there are homestays. Their cuisine too is fabulous.