:: Article

Rumble in the High Himalayas

By Iqbal Ahmed.

Srinagar – Leh road

The word ‘border’ has got dire associations in my native Kashmir. The broken line on the map that divides Jammu & Kashmir into three parts is called a Line of Control (LoC) on the western side and Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the eastern side. I realized it was military jargon only after an English acquaintance in London asked me what the Line of Control is. I explained that if you should drift from one side to another while rambling near the border in Kashmir, your life will be at risk in trying to return to your side.

There is no defined border where the two sides of the broken line meet in the middle of the map of Kashmir. But it is the location of one of the longest mountain glaciers in the world and hence a fragile environment. Both the Indian and Pakistani armies have placed heavy artillery in the snow there to ward off each other. It is certainly the most preposterous border confrontation anywhere in the world and has earned the glacier the dubious accolade of being the highest battleground on the planet.

As a child, I preferred to browse those pages of my Bartholomew Atlas, bought at the Kashmir Bookshop in Srinagar, that depicted the physical rather than political terrain. The physical maps had the contours of mountain peaks drawn on them and showed snow-fed rivers flowing freely from one side to another without any regard for a de facto border. However, it wasn’t until quite recently, when I travelled to Zanskar, that I saw with my own eyes the River Suru flowing gently through a valley. It crosses the Line of Control downriver and joins the Indus on the other side.

The erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir is roughly the same size as the UK and the dispute over its borders began in the aftermath of the Raj. The Empire is long gone and Britain is left with only 14 overseas territories – a shadow of her former self.

I always feel enticed by the mountains. It is an old urge. Perhaps it has to do with my growing up in Kashmir where the Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindukush meet. I had visited Ladakh for the first time three decades ago with some friends. We flew to Leh from Srinagar and travelled by road on our way back, stopping halfway at Kargil for a night.

Kargil has become synonymous with war since the breaking out of hostilities between India and Pakistan in 1999. I was horrified when I read newspaper reports in London that the two countries were capable of using thermonuclear weapons in that war. One of the reports highlighted how many millions would be killed in the event of such a conflict in the subcontinent. I rang my mother but she seemed oblivious of the impending danger and told me it was business as usual in Srinagar.

It didn’t take long after the war, though, for Kargil to be on the tourist map again. In fact, some people travelled to Kargil to see the mountains where the recent battles were fought. In the meantime, some of the guidebooks on India omitted chapters on Kashmir in their updated editions. Some years later a new road opened connecting Leh with Manali, making it possible to travel to Ladakh from Delhi and other cities in India without passing through Srinagar. Someone I met in London, who had taken several flights to reach Ladakh, maintained that there was no excuse for me not to go there when I next visited Srinagar.

On my trip to Ladakh I was accompanied by two friends, one of whom drove us there in his own car. We left Srinagar for Zanskar in the morning. I read a feature on Zanskar in an airline magazine when I was in high school and the images of its stunning landscape have stayed fresh in my mind ever since. I remember stopping midway between Leh and Kargil on my previous trip to Ladakh and found a few bikers transfixed by the barren undulating landscape. One of them compared it to the legendary Mountains of the Moon in Africa.

The first mountain pass on Srinagar Leh highway is the infamous Zoji La. The road is as rough now as it was when I travelled along it 30 years ago. The snow makes it impassable for a good part of the year and the remaining months are spent in clearing the rocks deposited on the road by rainstorms and heavy snowfalls. The road is narrow and steep because it follows a pony track that connected Kashmir with Ladakh before the road was built. There was only one road to cross the Zoji La pass on my maiden journey to Ladakh. Now a new road has been built which is wider but unsurfaced. The friend who drove us, informed me that the new road is used by army trucks with 20 wheels that carry heavy artillery to Kargil. A tunnel is currently being dug under the Zoji La and it will take some years to complete. On the other side of the pass, a bend in the road is called Captain’s Turn after an Engineer who fell to his death at the curve during the construction of the road in the 1950s. Some people say that he killed himself because he wanted the entire road to be named after him.

La means ‘a mountain pass’ in the Tibetan language. My first acquaintance with this two-letter word was the fictional place name, ‘Shangri-La’, in James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon. Kashmir is described as a ‘Shangri-La beneath the summer moon’ in an iconic Led Zeppelin song. I recently happened to bump into Robert Plant, the co-writer of the song, in the lift of the hotel where I work and mentioned to him that the lyrics of ‘Kashmir’ are always buzzing in my head. He told me it was a one-of-a-kind song and couldn’t be repeated. In fact, it was Lhasa, on the far side of the Tibetan Plateau, which conjured up the images of a Shangri-La for Kashmiri traders who travelled along the Silk Road. The name Ladakh is derived from the Tibetan word, La-dvags, which means ‘a land of high passes’.

We made a stop at a roadside stall in Drass for a cup of Kashmiri tea in which salt is added instead of sugar. The people in the town have the reputation of making the perfect cup of Kashmiri tea outside The Valley. Drass is a gateway to Ladakh and considered to be one of the coldest inhabited places on the planet during winter. It is lovely in summer. I recall hearing, during my Srinagar childhood, the name of this town in the chanting that characterises the month of Muharram, since the people of Drass and Kargil are mostly Shia Muslims.

We came across a high wall on one side of the road while driving towards the town of Kargil. It was built to hide the convoy of military vehicles from shelling by the Pakistani army positioned on a mountaintop. Some of the shells had landed in Kargil during the war.

We stayed out-of-town in a hotel located on a bank of the River Suru, an ideal location to explore the Suru Valley. I had heard of the Surma Valley in Bangladesh but not the Suru Valley in my own state. The mountains continually changed colour while we sat on the balcony of the hotel in the evening. It is such a serene place and seems a million miles away from the skirmishes that occasionally take place at what is euphemistically called ‘the Line of Control’ or LoC. Its name was changed from ‘the Ceasefire Line’ as a recognition of a de facto border after the two countries went to war for the third time since 1947, the year that India gained independence from Britain. A shopkeeper in Kargil’s Lal Chowk suggested that we should go to see a village at the LoC that is less than 10 miles away from the town. He said we could see the other side using binoculars. Although I carried binoculars with me, I didn’t think it was a good idea to venture out that far.

The next morning, we left the hotel in Kargil to go to Rangdum. The first section of the road is surfaced and offers resplendent views of the Suru Valley, with green fields enclosed by poplars, willows and apricot trees. I was eager to catch sight of the Nun and Kun peaks on our way to Rangdum, the highest peaks in Kashmir on this side of the LoC. The second highest peak in the world, K2, lies on the other side. It was named by a British surveyor when he sketched two Karakoram peaks from Harmukh, identifying them in his notes by the symbols K1 and K2. I saw the Harmukh peak in my youth and it cast a spell on me that stayed for a long time afterwards. I also remember the famous reply by the 1953 expedition leader, Sir John Hunt, when asked why he wanted to climb Everest: “Because it’s there.” A very apt answer, I think, perhaps deliberately echoing George Mallory, an earlier Everest climber who is believed to have said it first.

Driving slowly along a fair-weather gravel road from Kargil to Rangdum, we saw many majestic peaks covered in snow but I wasn’t sure which ones were Nun and Kun. I mistook two high peaks on the horizon for them until I saw a higher peak shrouded in the clouds behind them. The snow on one of the peaks looked like chiselled marble. I used my binoculars but couldn’t ascertain whether it was snow or white stone.

A few miles before reaching Rangdum we passed a camping site with a few tents pitched on the green grass by a mountain stream. As we approached a monastery built on top of a hill in a wide valley, the sunlight at dusk turned the mountains behind the monastery into a palette of beige and brown. When I stood at the monastery I found that the sun had set aflame the trough formed by the slopes of two mountains. It was as beautiful as Turner’s painting, The Fighting Temaraire. I was awestruck and tried to record the scene on my phone camera but it was too grandly panoramic to be captured by so small a device.

I would have liked to spend the night in a tented enclosure at the foot of the monastery but it was booked by an Italian group expected to arrive that evening so we decided to go to the camping site we had seen on our way to Rangdum. There is a restaurant and a small hotel at a short distance from the monastery. We stopped at the restaurant for dinner. The hotel restaurant next door was full of French guests. I spoke to a tall Californian in biker gear who was riding his motorbike all the way from Delhi to Ladakh via Manali. He folded his hands in a Namaste gesture before saying that Zanskar is a beautiful place. He had rented a Royal Enfield motorbike in Delhi for 600 rupees a day, which is less than 10 dollars – the price he said that he pays for a sandwich and a cup of coffee in America. He told me that it was the golden age of motorcycling in the Himalayas and was surprised by the number of motorcyclists riding through the Khardung La pass on the way to the Nubra valley. This mountain pass, accessible to motor vehicles of all kinds, is a couple of thousand feet higher than the highest peak in Europe, Mont Blanc.

It was dark by the time we reached the campsite and we used our car headlights to help us search for a spot to pitch our tents. I carried two tents with me but knew how to put up only one of them. The other tent didn’t yield and we had to give up and the three of us slept in a tent that had been designed for only two people.

It started to rain at midnight and didn’t stop until the early hours of the morning. I thought the campsite must have been greatly affected by the downpour. However, when I unzipped the tent, I found that the ground was dry. The rainwater had seeped into the sandy soil. Once outside our tent we were greeted by a friendly dog. When I spent a night in a tent on my first trekking expedition in Kashmir, I was kept awake the whole night by the barking of a Bakarwal dog who guarded the goats and sheep of the nomads.

There were three or four more tents pitched at the site, belonging to a group of Spanish rock climbers. They had hired a local man to cook for them who sat in a bigger tent that was open on one side. He offered us tea in the morning but wouldn’t accept payment for it. I was moved by the genuine hospitality of the Ladakhi people, which made me determined to visit again. I asked one of the Spanish rock climbers if he could show me how to set up my second tent since his tent was somewhat similar to mine. He too found it a complicated task but eventually he succeeded in assembling it.

The people of Kashmir consider Ladakh less appealing than their own valley. However, I was struck by the beauty of the mountainous landscape of shattered rocks in Zanskar. Ladakh has become more attractive for travellers in recent years because it is relatively peaceful. And peace is always beautiful but now it seems fragile again because of the rumble in the High Himalayas between the Indian and the Chinese troops.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Iqbal Ahmed was born and raised in Kashmir. He writes from the standpoint of an immigrant who has travelled widely and lived and worked in London for many years in a variety of occupations. His curiosity and cosmopolitan outlook have been nourished by his present vantage point as concierge of a busy London hotel that is part of a worldwide chain. Iqbal Ahmed’s first book, Sorrows of the Moon, was chosen as a BOOK OF THE YEAR in The Guardian and his second book, Empire of the Mind, in The Independent on Sunday. His books have also been favourably reviewed in many newspapers and magazines, including the TLS, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, The Tablet, Stern and New Zealand Listener.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 24th, 2020.