Two are the main roads which lead to Leh, the capital of Ladakh in India – road having a coded number NH 1D from Srinagar (Kashmir) through Sonamarg – Zoji La – Drass – Kargil – Khaltse – Lamayuru – Nimmu to Leh and a road from Manali to Leh. Both roads are open from May to the late October, some times even to November, when I was traveling around these places.
This is a story about one of the steepest and most dramatic sections of NH 1D – from Leh through Khaltse to Lamayuru and back. This trip begins through a labyrinth of military bases at the exit of Leh. Ladakh province is heavily armed due to its proximity with the troubled region of Kashmir. It takes 30 minutes to pass through this military “town in the town”.
Gradually, the military buildings disappear, ceding territory to the more and more dramatic lunar landscape. The feeling that you are in Sahara is very intensive, but definitely weird, because it is very cold and you hardly breathe due to the very rarified air. The light at this altitude is particularly bright. Objects and mountains are so clearly seen, that I hardly find the right words to describe such state of matter. Eyes are insatiable of this crystal view. Good start! The feeling of euphoria, of some release of your energy channels is so impressive, that you simply like to smile to the whole world, but so that it notice it. Your eyes open, even pop out; you are fully conscious. The amazement is increasing – how deep could be the precipices, how blue green could be the water in a river, how close to edge of precipice could a tyre of car pass, how similar are the military everywhere, how similar are we all, and on the other hand, how different we are, how powerless we are before the evident exploitation of women and children and this in 21st century etc…
The road passes through one of the two highest passes – Fotu La at 4,108 m of altitude and Zoji La at 3,528 m of altitude, which make part of Great Himalayan Wall. The rarified air continues to clarify my brain, which goes to some unknown to me state – somehow pleasant, but weird and definitely euphoric. The low oxygen diet makes you feel brave. I stare rashly, with a liquorish eye at the deep precipices, by the window of the small bus I have rented until the moment when the tyres started to go closer to the cliffs, and I, more and more often, started to notice that. The mixture of deep amazement at the extraterrestrial, lunar beauty of the landscape and the slowly invading anxiety and dismay from the trip which at some points was about to become a free fall, throws my adrenaline to unknown heights.
In order to distract myself from the invading anxiety, I try to imagine the daily life of drivers of The Jammu & Kashmir State Road Transport Corporation (JKSRTC), who operate the regular bus lines between Srinagar and Leh, as well as the life of drivers of the small busses who operate the local villages – every day, every hour, almost on the edge; the expression “to live on the edge” has never sounded to me so literally before. At this point, I notice the smile of my 26-year old driver, Ali, married to a girl from Nebru valley. He operates this road for years and knows every curve and every pebble. “This road very dangerous”, he repeats this learned, no verb sentence, while his big and kind smile shines against the glaring Indus River, winding deep down the ravine.
There are places where the road was making about18 curves (Hangro Loops), which are seen from the high as snake. The feeling of insignificance doesn’t leave me during almost the whole trip. We are not only small, but we also don’t know anything… that was my feeling.
One of the main curiosities are the painted as in the circus trucks, carrying goods between Kashmir and Ladakh. The roar of revved up engines spreads up all over the valley. The trucks slowly climb the elbows, stop, get back in order manage to make the elbow or otherwise stop for a longer time, when some break down occurs, of course at the narrowest part of the road.
Everybody stops and a queue starts to form. Drivers leave the trucks and start to talk. Nobody shouts, nobody is getting nervous, at least not visibly. Obviously, similar situations are frequent and make part of the life on this road. Another reason for traffic jams on the road are the constant repairs, which are made continuously on the whole distance. You hear detonation, followed by roar and a rain of broken stones crashes in the ravine, very close to the line of cars. Then, people and machines quickly clear the road and the line start again. There is no time for safety measures, and there is no back lane, nor even a small lay-by. But the road cannot be closed. Life depends on it.
NH1D is a part of an ancient Central Asian road starting from Srinagar, passing through Leh and reaching Yarkand; it was also known as Treaty Road. This trail has been blazed manually through the inaccessible mountains in 17th and 18th century, and today workers also do the same way. They are mostly Jharkhandi workers, also known as Dumkas, who come from Gangetic villages, located at about 150 km northwestern from Kolkata. The village is a popular source of cheap manpower for entire India and road NH1D makes no exception. Nepal near-by is source of cheap manpower too, as well as the local villages around. Workers toil in shockingly harsh conditions, and the picture reminds, to a certain extent, photos of the industrial areas of Western Europe in the beginning of last century or the building of the first railway in the Wild West of USA. It is not rare to see dirty women carrying children on their backs to work with pickaxes. Little boy trying to break a huge rock, obviously unbreakable using a heavy pickaxe. Hopelessly! Children at the age of 12 to 16 are the most frequent workers using shovels and pickaxes. Older men can be seen steering the very few machines there. It is a heart-rending scene to see a group of 4 or 5 children trying hardly to handle the heavy, vibrating breaking machine, barefooted, with a dirty scarf on their heads. The comparison with our children playing games on the Internet in the same time is perhaps cliché, but I just cannot get it off my mind. The car goes, and then the plane leaves and later on everything is forgotten. I got headache and blame the rarified air for that, in order to not blame for that the helplessness, the frustration and the despair. But that’s just the way it is. Few people dedicate their lives, like Mother Theresa, to help poor people, but many are those like me who see the reality, feel the sense of guilt but nothing more, just pass over and life goes on as it was. Heavy, black and pitiless work in this heavenly beautiful country. People are visibly. People are apparently poorly dressed, freezing and are a sad sight. They sleep at night in hovels, which apparently don’t offer even the simplest life conditions. I don’t have any idea whether the current system for distribution of world resources is fair and whether the word justice has any meaning generally. But, here this word is meaningless for sure.
Slave and brutal work including exploitation of children and women happens right now, at this moment, in a place for tourists who take pictures and watch.
Here is what Lt. General KS Rao, General Manager of military organization “Border Roads Organization (BRO)” which hires workers, said in his speech on the occasion of Independence Day in 2006:
“The BRO has made immense and incalculable contribution to the national integration and nation building during the last four decades. We were (sic) the torchbearers of development in the extremely remote, hostile and inhospitable terrain of our northern and north-eastern borders of the country. Our predecessors have brought fame and laurels to BRO by their dedication, hard work and supreme sacrifice and made BRO the premier road construction agency of the country. While we would be fully justified in trumpeting our success story, we can not afford to rest on our laurels. We need to recognize and keep pace with the tremendous changes that are taking place all around us – advancement in the field of construction technology, new opportunities provided by revolution in information and communication technologies and in Military Affairs, to name a few. It is high time for BRO to change in consonance with the environment and maintain the pace if we have to continue to remain as a leader in road construction and contribute to nation building.”