Amberish K Diwanji


Leh, high up in the mountains, leaves one wonder-struck. Everything here is in superlatives, especially when it concerns heights. Not surprising, considering that the Himalayas are the world's highest mountain range and the world's second highest peak, Mount Godwin-Austin or K2, lies a few miles to the north. On the positive side is the Leh airport, the world's highest airfield. The runway slopes down a hill, and the aircraft takes off, heading for a gap between two peaks.

For someone watching from the airport, it appears that the aircraft is going to hit a peak, but the plane goes through, painfully gaining height. A notice at the airport warns travellers that often an aircraft will take off with less than full load (even if fully booked) since the rarefied air at this height makes it difficult to take off and land. On the negative side is the world's highest battlefield in the Siachen Glacier, ranging in height from 19,000 feet to 22,000 feet (Mount Everest is 29,028 feet!), where even breathing is an exertion.

The world's highest and second highest motorable passes also are around Leh. The highest pass is the Khardung La (la means pass in Ladakhi) at 18,300 feet which is on the road from Leh to the Nubra Valley, a popular tourist spot for the breathtaking view it offers. The second highest pass is the Taglang La at 17,469 feet on the Leh-Manali road. But the most famous pass here is the Zoji La (11,500 feet), the gap in the Himalayas allowing passage between Srinagar and Leh. Zoji La is also famous for a battle fought here way back in 1947-48 between India and Pakistan. And in another achievement, the Indian army drove tanks up to the pass, a feat unparalleled then and now, thereby gaining complete control of the pass and the road from Srinagar to Leh.

With the Srinagar-Leh road taken over by the army, the government reopened the Manali-Leh road for civilian traffic. While the Srinagar-Leh road is 460 km, the Manali-Leh road is 475 km long. Yet, since the road winds round mountains and valleys, with vehicles moving in first or second gears, the Manali-Leh road takes over 24 hours, including a night halt. But this road immediately brought about a sigh of relief from among the hundreds of foreigners who visit Leh. Kashmiris from the valley complained that with the Leh residents stocking their winter supplies from Manali and Himachal Pradesh, their business, already in the doldrums thanks to a decade of militancy, would suffer even more.

Travel boosts tourism. Perhaps the ministry of civil aviation needs to understand this. Leh is difficult to reach at the best of times, but at the worst of times...? Leh receives only one flight from Srinagar every week, two from Jammu, one from Chandigarh. Two years ago, the government began daily flights from Delhi to transport tourists, but the moment there is a drop in traffic, a flight is cancelled.

Since the aircraft operating here are the large Boeing 737, filling them up is not easy. Instead of huge aircraft flying fewer flights, why can't Indian Airlines and Alliance Air fly small aircraft like Dakotas and other propeller aircraft more often and to more destinations from Leh directly? Tourists visit Leh for the mountains or for Buddhism and would like to go straight to Simla or Dharamsala from there. Why should they have to go through Delhi?

Ladakh is at the crossroads of civilisation. It is the meeting place of Islam and Buddhism (in fact, most Ladakhis are Buddhists of the Tibetan sect) while the Indian and Chinese civilisations lie further afield. While for centuries the Muslims and Buddhists of Ladakh, who share the same culture, lived in peace, the situation today is slightly amiss.

Two years ago, following reports of Buddhist girls eloping with Muslim boys, riots broke out between the two communities. A fallout of that riot is that nowadays, whenever it is time of namaz, devotional music blares out from the Buddhist temples. The Buddhists insist it is also their prayer time. Thus the muezzin's call is drowned in the music that begins just before namaz time and ends after. Both communities then also gave calls to boycott the other.

While the situation soon improved and Ladakhis soon got back to their regular lives, the administration will have to remain alert, especially with the recent Kargil intrusions and suspicions among the Buddhists that some Muslims secretly support the Pakistanis. Ladakhi Muslims, for their part, have categorically stated that they have no love for Pakistan and proof of the pudding is in the fact that in all these years of Pakistani-backed militancy, Ladakh was an oasis of calm.

One of the most amazing places on the Leh-Batalik road is an area called Drok-Pa. In this valley live a few thousand people who are neither Muslims nor Buddhists but who practise a faith akin to Bon (the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet and Ladakh). They show no trace of the mongoloid features (such as slant eyes and sparse beard) so common to the people in this area. On the contrary, many of them have blue eyes, thick growth of beard, and sharp features. These people call themselves Aryan and ethnically, they are considered pure Indo-Aryans.

One legend has it that these people are the descendants of Alexander's army, who stayed on in the mountains after the great Macedonian retreated. Being cut off from the rest of the world, they could preserve their unique ethnic identity while adopting the faith then prevalent in the region. Their language, though, is close to the dialect spoken in Gilgit and they also speak Ladakhi.

European visitors to Ladakh are most fascinated by this information and throng the Drok-Pa valley in hordes to see them. A hotel manager informed that the most interested are German tourists. He added there have been unconfirmed reports of some German women desiring that these pure Aryans father their babies.

A few kilometres from Leh, on the road to Srinagar, is the famous magnetic hill. My taxi driver Tshering demonstrated the effect. He stopped the jeep on a marked spot on the hill, which slopes down. The jeep was in neutral gear and the brakes were off. Yet, the jeep did not slide down the slope. Tshering explained it was the effect of this unique magnet hill.

Ladakh is considered a desert where the difference in temperatures is mind-boggling. In the daytime, it is extremely hot (reaching up to 25 degree Celsius). What makes it worse is that there is no cover in the open mountains. The mountains here are made up of rocks and stones, totally bereft of trees that can provide shade. No wonder the skin of Ladakhis is sunburnt. Yet, nights are extremely cold, even in summers and inside the hotel room, two thick blankets are the minimum (in winter with temperatures at minus 30, maybe five blankets!). Ladakh is one place where a person can get sunstroke and frostbite at the same time!

Senior Assistant Editor Amberish K Diwanji was in Leh recently while on a tour of duty to Kargil.