Stop here, or gently pass
Preserve the land's beauty with responsible change, says the writer, who returns to Ladakh after 29 years
Pictures By SHEILA KUMAR
I stared around at Changspa, mouth agape. The long and winding street was full of tourists, mostly foreigners. They were everywhere, peering at the coral and turquoise knick-knacks on display in the stalls, buying apricot kernels and walnuts, filling tables at restaurants, which served both local and western food, haggling over the price of woollen sweaters, fixing trips out of Leh with people they have just met, discussing the finer tenets of Buddhism over bowls of tomato broth.
This is not the Leh I knew. Twenty-nine years ago, to be precise. This is a different Leh, more noisy but exciting.
Ladakh was my “honeymoon posting”. I went there immediately after marriage, to join my Army officer husband who was then stationed in a remote area east of Leh town. At the time, it was just the Army and its kin milling around this fantastical moon desert, and Ladakh struck me with the force of a meteor. I drank in everything I saw around me, and promised myself I would be back.
And now, I was back. In the interim, of course, the state had gone from being paradise on earth to a troubled zone. The Army's presence had more than doubled in Kashmir and the Chinese incursions had become uncomfortably common. Still, tourists come in droves to Ladakh.
Apart from the influx of enthusiastic rubberneckers, serious mountaineers and hardy trekkers, the other significant change was the attitude of the Indian Army. Back then, the men in olive green went about doing their work in the most unobtrusive manner possible. Now, they work hand in hand with the local administration and are always ready to help. The Army seems to have abandoned its characteristic restraint and adopted a friendly and accessible approach to visitors. Some 70 per cent of Ladakh is in their hands, our driver Karma informed us. “And a very good thing, too,” he added. “They have built our roads, set up medical camps, and, in fact, opened Ladakh to the rest of the country.”
All around Ladakh, be it Dras (supposedly the coldest place in the world after Verkhoyansk in Russia), Gumri, or the high passes of Changla and Khardung La, the Army has set up canteens serving hot sweet tea, the ubiquitous Maggi noodles and even momos. What is more, they have set up makeshift toilets, too, a far cry from the lean-tos in the past. At Pathar Sahib, they have a langar serving food to pilgrims and passers-by.
A word about the roads. The Army's Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has been hacking roads from the sides of the mountains for years now. Everywhere we went, we saw them at work, at times wielding their implements in numbing cold. Nature routinely undoes their hard and painful work with landslides depositing shale, stone and boulders back on freshly-laid roads. In winter, heavy snowfall makes these roads slippery paths to death. But, the BRO soldiers on bravely, making these roads motorable again.
The road signs put up by them have now attained cult status. These edicts range from the banal (Fast won't last) to the quixotic (Be gentle on my curves) to the mystifying (Be weatherwise or otherwise). Back then, we would chuckle as we passed the signs; today, it is a rite of passage to get photographed alongside them.
Khardung La came as another shock. At 17,582ft above sea level, it is one of the higher motorable roads in the world. However, the day I was at Khardung La, it looked like your average traffic jam at the Defence Colony flyover in New Delhi, choked with cars, trucks, rustic SUV-type vehicles. Everyone was heading to Leh town to hear the Dalai Lama speak the next day!
We scaled the heights, crossing the passes one by one. Zoji La (11,575ft), Namik La (12,139ft) Fotu La (13,478ft), Taglang La (17,480ft), Chang La (17,585ft) and Khardung La. Back in the 80s, they were chillingly cold, lofty and imperious passes one zipped through, seeing nary but another olive green vehicle in front or behind you. I remember being caught in a blizzard at Chang La once, watching the snow obliterate all signs, cover the roof of the small room that housed the shrine of Chang La Baba before which all passing faujis paid obeisance.
Today, Chang La looks de-fanged. There is a clump of still glistening snow on a mountain close by. In the Army café, I saw a group of Spanish tourists dancing to Senorita, a Hindi film song with snatches of Spanish in it. At Khardung La, bhajans emanated from the world's highest Shiva mandir, shattering the peace and quiet. And everywhere, signs of human detritus: mostly fluorescent green soft drinks bottles thrown on moraine, on the edge of glaciers, in valleys, on the roads.
La is pass and tso is lake in the Ladakhi tongue. While the salt banked Tso Kar still remains somewhat isolated, the fabled Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri are now overrun with tourists. There are visitors' pavilions, tented accommodation and homestays. We arranged for a bonfire at Pangong. It was a surreal experience, sitting beside the blazing, crackling fire while close by, the blue waters of the beautiful lake slowly turned inky.
Wildlife has also been affected by the winds of change. In the 80s, we used to come across herds of kyang, the fleet-footed wild donkeys, and ibex; the moment they hear our vehicles, they would canter out of sight, out of range. This time, I was able to photograph a lone kyang in the lowlands just beyond Tso Kar. Either he was the trusting kind or he was used to humans pointing cameras at him. The yaks and dzos (a yak-cattle hybrid) continued to graze, quite untroubled by tourist intrusions, though.
The Himalayan marmots of Ladakh have undergone the most startling transformation. Earlier, these creatures, a cross between a gopher and a rodent, were shy, beating a hasty retreat into their holes if they heard the hum of a passing vehicle. Now, these marmots are inured to humans; they gambol up fearlessly to visitors who stop to take pictures of them.
Some areas continue to be relatively unspoilt, the Nubra valley being one. Tourists do drive north of Leh town to see the 32-metre statute of the Maitreya at Diskit and to visit the monastery, which dates back to 1420 AD, to marvel at the sand dunes of Hunder, to take a short ride on the twin-humped Bactrian camels, to take the remedial waters at the hot spring at Panamik.
Back in Leh town, the changes are distinct. The town, hedged by massifs tinted green, brown and garnet, has spread; homely homestays and luxe hotels have mushroomed; it has acquired its own Thamel, the Changspa area. Its restaurants now get rated in the Lonely Planet, the locals still smile affably but drive a harder bargain. The “Hall of Fame” building near the airfield lists the Army's hits and misses in a moving manner. But the many pristine chortens, the snow-covered Stok Kangri, Leh Palace, Shey Monastery, Thikse Gompa, all stand silently, unchanged.
Responsible change is what Ladakh needs to retain its stunning beauty. And the onus, of course, is on us.
- Be prepared for long and uncomfortable road trips
- Fortify yourself against high-altitude sickness
- Ask before you shoot pictures
- Take your litter away with you
- Hire your own guide
- Always go clockwise around a gompa
- Do not touch anything in the gompas
- Women travellers, be prepared for the worst loo conditions