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June 20, 1998


The Rediff Special/ Colonel John Taylor (retd)

Chung Tash: The Last Frontier

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The Sino-Indian border extends from Kashmir to the North-East, covering some of the most inhospitable parts of the planet. Colonel John Taylor (retd), who served in this treacherous terrain for many years, recalls his journey to Chung Tash, a military expedition like none other. A startling revelation of what life on the Chinese frontier is like for the Indian soldiers who keep vigil there.

First it was the Missile Race, with the Prithvi and the Ghori blasting into space amidst applause from both sides of the border. As an encore our politicians decided to play to the galleries. India set off five blasts in Pokhran and joined the Nuclear Club. Almost immediately, the Pakistanis followed with six blasts, much to the embarrassment of a red-faced President Clinton. Sanctions or no sanctions, nobody could have stopped either India or Pakistan from going nuclear.

The fact that India did it alone seem to have been lost on the Americans. The shadow of suspicion looms large over the Chinese hand in aiding Pakistan, both in its missile and nuclear programmes. China has been named more than once as India's Threat No 1. The first person to say it officially was General Thimmaya in 1960. The then defence minister, V K Krishna Menon, scoffed at such a "silly idea" while the nation paid the price in 1962.

India shares a very large border with China, from the North (Jammu & Kashmir) to the North-East (formerly, NEFA). During my 30 year tenure in the Indian Army I have walked over large portions of this border in Ladakh, Sikkim and NEFA. My first encounter with the Chinese was in Ladakh in 1969 when I was posted to the Ladakh Scouts, an elite regiment manned by Ladakhis and affectionately called Nunnos (Younger Brother). The Nunnos are the most decorated troops, with most gallantry awards won in 1948, 1962 and 1971.

Very few people are aware that in Ladakh we face both the Pakistanis and the Chinese. The beautiful Nubra valley is the place where you take off to the Siachen Glacier or walk to Baigdandu to face the Pakistanis. Baigdandu is a unique village. You suddenly find beautiful people -- boys and girls with startling blue eyes, auburn hair and ruddy cheeks as against the typical mongoloid features of the Ladakhis. You wonder, 'Have I lost my way?' The answer is no! -- they have. Local lore has it that they were a Greek tribe who came in search of Jesus Christ's tomb and settled here.

Jesus was supposed to have died near Srinagar according to one theory and was buried somewhere between Daras and Kargil. Nobody knows the truth, but when you see a beautiful girl of 16 married to a man who is more than 60 years old you realise how cruel fate is. In 1948, the cease-fire line cut across the tribe, isolating Baigdandu village -- a major part of the tribe was stranded on the other side. In 1971, the Ladakh Scouts liberated more areas and brought more of these people together, pushing back the Pakistanis and setting up the record of having captured the highest post in the world. Baigdandu is famous for the goats that give you the famous Pashmina shawls.

During my stay in Ladakh in the Nubra Valley I was posted at Panamik where two rivers -- the Shyok and the Indus -- meet. It is also famous for its hot sulphur springs. We developed this into a beautiful bath (something like the ones in ancient Rome) and Sundays were normally spend soaking in the warmth of the medicated sulphur water when the temperatures outside were -5C.

One fine winter day I got orders to head for Chung Tash (which means 'Big Stone' in Yarkandhi). This involved a 23 day march. All the passes were closed because of heavy snow. The move was like an old medieval caravan, with over 77 animals and 30 people to carry the rations, fuel and ammunition for 23 days. The animals consisted of yaks, ponies and double humped camels. We had to march through the Shyok Valley, crossing the Shyok river 61 times as we edged forward.

Crossing the Shyok was a ritual in itself. We took off our shoes (combat boots) and woollen socks, then our trousers and long johns (remember it was winter and we were in high altitudes). We rubbed mustard oil on our legs and feet, then gritting our teeth we entered the icy cold waters of the Shyok. After crossing the river, we vigorously towelled ourselves dry, reapplied mustard oil before dressing uup again -- imagine doing it 61 times in 23 days!!

The distance of each day's march depended on availability of grass and fresh water for the animals. Sometimes we marched for only 10 km, on other occasions for 25 to 30 km. During our halts we stayed in Arctic puff tents which had place for just one person to lie down. A burning candle warmed the tent!

The most amazing aspect of the march was the difference in terrain. For the first few days you were in a valley, the Shyok river lazily meandering in huge loops, with high mountains covered with snow on either side. The landscape was barren -- not even a single blade of grass grew there -- with two colours dominating the cold desert. Black (mountains and rocks) and brown (the banks of the river and the flat plains which formed the valley).

Suddenly there was a steep climb and you came across a flowing stream with brick red coloured water -- the place was Kazi Langar or 'Red Water' in Yarkandhi. You climbed further till you came to an La (pass) and suddenly even though my lungs were bursting for lack of oxygen, the Ladakhis burst out with a melodious cry of ''Ki Ki So So Lar Gia Lo (May the good spirits be with us.)" This the Ladakhis chant on reaching any La or crossing it. We marched on till we came to Chung Tash. There was much joy, especially for the troops we had to relieve. They had been in Chung Tash for over five months.

Life in Chung Tash was very difficult -- the nearest village was a 7 to 10 day march away. Not even a crow could be seen in the vicinity. Rations including K oil and rum were air dropped. You waited for the sound of an aircraft (an AN-12) and rushed out looking at the skies. An aircraft meant fresh meat, eggs, fresh vegetables, but most of all it brought letters from home.

When the aircraft flew away, everybody waved as if a long lost friend was going away -- the plane would only return after 10 or 15 days, weather permitting. I was newly married and longed to hear from my wife Thelma. When the plane arrived I would get 10 or 15 letters (mostly from my wife). I would patiently open them all, arrange them datewise and then read them. Getting news from home was great -- one of the most thrilling experience at Chung Tash.

From Chung Tash you had to patrol an area of about 70 km. Again the terrain was undulating; climbing up and descending down was normal. There was a flat plain, which was more than 10 to 15 km long and about 5 km wide. You only knew you were going in the right direction if you came across a heap of bones (camels, yaks, other beasts of burden) at regular, 100 to 150 metre, intervals. This was the old trade route between Tibet and Ladakh, and over the years thousands of animals and men perished traversing the hostile terrain. Here also lay the remains of a helicopter abandoned in 1962 -- a grim reminder of the Sino-Indian war.

When you came to the actual border it was most confusing because our maps were crisscrossed with different versions of the border. The Indian Claim Line was marked in blue, the Chinese Claim Line was shown in Red, the Macmohon line (the British version of the Indo-Tibet border before 1947 which is not recognised by China) was shown in yellow and the 1962 Ceasefire Line was shown by a dotted line in red.

Patrolling the border was a tightrope walk between different versions of the border. The Chinese troops never "illegally" occupied any area, but came regularly, stayed and went back, from areas they claimed as theirs. Incidentally, the Chinese army pulls back during the hostile winter months. The Indian Army does not enjoy such luxury -- they stay on and rough it out 12 months in the year.

In this hostile environment God made a few concessions. He inhabited the area with the magnificent snow leopard, the Himalayan fox, the ibex and the musk deer (all on the Endangered Species list). Even in 1969, the musk deer was a rare sight. Interestingly, on more than two occasions, when we came across the musk deer, it ran away from us to the Chinese side of the border. When a Chinese patrol arrived, it would run across to the Indian side!! A smart animal with a strong sense of survival.

On the way to the Karakoram Pass you came to Butse located on the bend of the Shyok river. On this bend you found the most unique stones. Pebbles with all sort of designs on them, including spikes. These stones are not found anywhere else in Ladakh and to my knowledge, anywhere else in India.

You moved on to DBO (Daulat Beg Oldie), where Daulat Beg's caravan was overtaken by a snowstorm. Everyone perished. Folklore had it that a lot of gold was buried with the caravan -- we never found any!! DBO was at the foot of the Karakoram Pass. It was July 1971, the Chinese had removed our flag. We were assigned to replant it.

We travelled all day, planted it at night and stayed on the Karakoram Pass till daylight. The Chinese troops arrived soon. Both parties stayed put for 24 hours. Then the Chinese went back and our patrol returned to Chung Tash. I was welcomed like a hero and told I had been blessed with a girl -- my daughter Rachel had decided to come into the world while her father was on the Karakoram Pass. Good timing what!

We were relieved after six long months. By now the snow on the passes had melted. We crossed the pass at Saser Brangsa and reached home (our post at Panamik) in just four days. However, a pall of gloom hung over us. Just before we left, the troops who had come to relieve us had lost one man while crossing the Shyok river. He had been swept away by the strong current. The river was over 800 metres wide and the flow of water was very fast. If you looked down while crossing the river, you felt you were being washed away and then you actually fell into the water. This always proved fatal.

We decided to make a human chain. I would be the lead, following me would be a horse whose reins I would hold. Another soldier would hold the horse and follow. Instructions were issued -- "If you feel you are going to fall, grab a horse or yak's tail and hang on for dear life." Horses and yaks never drown. They swim and emerge downstream after about 1,000 yards.

A man on the other hand sinks like a stone because his coat, parka and woollen clothing becomes three times its weight when soaked in water. Moreover, the ice cold water totally immobilises a man's movements. We were lucky -- all of us crossed the river safely, chanting ''Ki Ki So So Lar Gia Lo. A tired but very happy Major John Taylor and his band of Ladakh Scouts reached Panamik safe and sound.

The Rediff Specials

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