As one of world’s 10 dangerous roads reopens for summer months, R S Gull goes reason-hunting beyond Zoji La to understand why road-connectivity to Ladakh was historically dictated either by desert’s strategic importance or its precious fleece
Come May and it is a celebration time in Kargil. After months of painful hard work that recruits of India’s Border Roads Organization (BRO) put in, literally fighting against nature and burrowing through 60 ft plus of frozen snow walls, they make Zoji La passable for a few months. For media lens-men, it is a big day to click vehicles crawling over dangerous 11300 ft heights through narrow, slippery and unpredictable road.
“I still get nightmares,” says a cop Ghulam Nabi who was posted in Sonamarg in the late eighties when the last convoy on way to Srinagar was caught by massive snow and blizzards. “Somehow we could manage the travellers and the toll was more than 30.” People left their vehicles on the road and fled to safety. Most of the vehicles slipped into deep Baltal gorges and quite a few were retrieved from the mountains of snow the next summer.
But access to the Shangri La, the utopian land of silence, has been like this for centuries, especially from Kashmir and the plains of Punjab. Describing his “terrifying” passage through the Zoji La pass, a western traveller recorded in 1936: “…a narrow strip cut in the side of a cliff; hundreds of feet below the valley was like a chessboard of white skeletons and black vultures.” Then, it was a mule track.
This lam, as Ladakhis generally term the roads, is a mythically cursed pass. Zoji is actually Du-Zhi-la, the goddess of Tibetan’s four seasons; the Du-Zhi-lha-mo. Legend terms her the wife of Naropa. In Ladakh, he wished to leave her behind for her ‘Kashmiri smell’. “She was displeased at that, and turned her back towards Ladakh and her face towards Kashmir,” the legend goes. “This caused Ladakh to dry up and Kashmir to become fertile.”
The 438 km road that now links Srinagar with Leh, for slightly more than six months, is globally considered to be one of the ten most dangerous roads on earth (CNN travel and others). Obliterated by frequent land-sliding, muddy in the middle of the most vulnerable stretch, noisy midday winds echoing in thousand voices make passage challenging and risky. Frequent jamming in the narrow patches and round the clock erosion from the young dusty peaks adds to the experience.
The twin district of Kargil and Leh have been living with it, now for ages. At some point of its medieval history, the region would live as part of the large plateau from Tibet to Gilgit in a sort of self-sufficient situation making these small entities manage their own inter-dependence leaving not much to desire from the plains other than tea and salt. But its location on Silk Route encouraged plains to use all the passes and stay connected. For Kashmir, Cashmere wool was the main attraction which eventually helped the State to understand the strategic worth of a desert bordering three great empires – Britain, China and Russia. The animosities gradually got bigger and complex. Powers that accessed the region for their self-interest, felt compelled to invest in roads.
“I question the roads-development nexus and argue that the reasons why states build roads are extremely diverse and have changed over time. I argue that road construction is a highly political process determined by conflicting motivations and perceptions,” argues Jonathan Demenge, who submitted his DPhil thesis on a Ladakh road to the University of Sussex’s Institute of Development Studies in April 2011. “..road construction in Ladakh is closely linked to its military history and strategic situation.”
(A tourist taxi crossing Zoji La – Photo: Shams Irfan)
Kashmir’s Ladakh connection is old. They fought, lived and ruled each other almost in every era. But the most consequential instance was that of 1684, when, at the fag end of the Mughal era, the Treaty of Tingmosgang was signed. Then, a powerful Mongol-Tibetan army attacked an autonomous Ladakh sub-state.
To retain its autonomy, Ladakh sought help from Kashmir. Initially, it was denied but eventually, the Kashmir army was sent. They successfully undid the aggression. After that, they refused to leave. In barter, Kashmir sought complete rights over the purchase of Cashmere, the Pashmina and the Treaty was signed. Kashmir ruler settled four families in Leh, giving them rights over the purchase of wool and its supply to Kashmir. They are the Argoans, the Kashmir settlers.
Jesuit priest Ippolito Desideri who trekked to Leh in 1715 found thousands of men going to Ladakh for wool; a commodity bought at throwaway costs and was the principal source of riches to Kashmiris. “Many of the men, who, as I have said, go from Kascimir to fetch loads of wool, lose their lives or are crippled forever,” the priest wrote. Then, a man would earn half of a mule’s wages because he could carry only ‘half the horse load’ that almost equalled an ‘ass-load’!
Exploitation apart, the durbar in Srinagar would ensure the pathway is passable. More wool imports meant good work as taxes would fill the coffers. Cutting across regimes and loyalties, the situation remained unchanged. Travellers would push yaks, and mules and follow them. Travelling from Srinagar in 1812, Mir Izzetullah, the assistant of legendary English explorer William Moorcraft (1767-1825), found the trek difficult taking more than a month to reach Leh.
Amid Kashmir’s ‘monopoly’ over the wool, Moorcraft in 1820 found Kashmiri artisans using the precious fleece in Punjab plains. It suggested the East India Company was working its bit to get part of the commerce from the region. It helped Jammu Dogras to make a bid to wrest the region and control the wool commerce. It sent ruthless soldier, Zorawar Singh in 1834 to take over Ladakh for which he improved the road and laid certain bridges. He vandalized Kargil, Leh, Zanskar and Baltistan and eventually reached interiors of Tibet. Pushed back, he restricted to Ladakh alone but was lost with his army on the frontiers to weather and Tibetan fighters in 1841. Dogra control of Ladakh led to another Treaty in 1842 but it failed them to control the trade. However, the Treaty of Amritsar in 1847 gave Dogras Kashmir too thus creating a situation in which they had to maintain the supply of wool as it was directly proportional to their earnings. For 55 kgs raw, the tax was Rs 87 and carriage Rs 10!
Given the British concern over what Russians and Chinese were doing on the frontiers, Kashmir’s Dogra rulers had to maintain the round the year communication set up. As early as March 1867, durbar would run a courier service to manage to transport “sealed bags” from the frontiers to the Resident in Srinagar for half the cost that a similar load would cost in London. On June 1, 1875, a postal sub-office started in Leh that was made permanent in August 1876. During Gulab Singh’s era, durbar would appoint runners. Historians have recorded 32 stages between Leh and Srinagar and every stage had two runners. Between Srinagar and Matayen, there were 16 extra runners during winters when letters would exchange on fortnightly, not daily, basis.
Situation altered only after Hari Singh, the last Maharaja while fleeing Kashmir in October 1947 acceded to India that immediately started the first Kashmir war. For the first time in history, a serious effort was made on an emergency basis to lay a road on Zoji La. In May 1948, the situation was quite terrifying for the army in Srinagar as Pakistan was in possession of Gurez, Tulail, as areas in Kargil were falling one after another. Reinforcements were ambushed and destroyed and those staying put were besieged. The only option was to make the trek fit for a 3-ton load so that tanks could move towards the pass, albeit in dismantled form. By July 5, Madras Sappers converted the mule track between Gumri and the Pass worth a jeep journey and by November 1, the desert was cleansed of the last infiltrator. But it had sliced the region: India retained Ladakh as Gilgit – the gateway to Central Asia, stayed with Pakistan.
Later in 1960 BRO took over the road and in December 1985, Project Himank (dual meaning word suggesting something which is part of snow or has snow as its part) came into being. While Himank takes care of the defence road till Gumri, the Beacon is responsible for rest of it. For the subsequent years any improvement on this road was hugely because of the tensions – the wars in 1962 with China, with Pakistan in 1965, 1971 and then localized conflicts over Siachen Glacier in 1984 and Kargil in 1999. Sino-Indian tensions have cost Ladakh its physical connection with Tibet that devoured part of its economy as well.
Given the Red Army’s massive investment in the road network around the Actual Line of Control (ALoC) and Pakistan following it along LoC, Delhi is under tremendous pressure to have an adequate response. So when Red Army shows itself near the unmanned dividing line in Changthang peripheries or in Cheshul, Leh gets talking. Not because China will get in and take over but to bring home the point that Ladakh retains its strategic importance which requires adequate investments, especially in roads. Post-1999 Ladakh a massive road network was developed within the desert as Delhi is improving its access from Shimla through Rohtang Pass.
After the road closes with season’s first snowfall, Ladakh is locked by the passes that surround it. Unlike Leh that has a civilian airport, army flies weekly courier service, usually the old Dakota AN-32s.
“It is not just the temperature that is an issue,” says hotelier Akbar Ali. “It is the gloom of remaining restricted and an enforced idleness that is the killing factor,” Ali says he can go to any extent to support any political force in the state that can assure him of early completion of the ambitious tunnel project that would bypass Zoji La and open the arid desert for round the year access.
Dictated by its defence requirement (Delhi is confronted with Pakistan and China), BRO wants to bore two tunnels on the road – 6.50 km at Z-Morh and 12.50 km under the Zoji La itself. In 2013, Rahul Gandhi flew with Dr Manmohan Singh’s transport minister and laid the foundation stone for the first Rs 2716 crore tunnel. There is no follow up to it so far.
Over the decades, Kashmir has lost its commercial interests in the region. They have ceased to use raw wool and now machine-processed Cashmere is imported from Mongolia. But that does not reduce the state’s strategic interests. It is something different that government might be waiting for yet another build up in the region to fast forward its tunnelling project because strategic reasons have remained a key for change in the region.