MY Ladakh tenure was drawing to a close in the evanescent phase of the autumn of 1982. On a quick tally, there was no apparent disparity between official objectives and accomplishments. However, on the personal front, I was afraid of losing the opportunity to proceed from Leh to Manali on an alignment that had not yet matured.
Following a demarche by Kushak Bakula, who was later to represent Ladakh in Parliament for a decade from 1967, with the Centre, work on this alignment commenced in 1964. Bakula later complained to Prime Ministers Morarji Desai and Charan Singh about the languid pace, but failed to have the project expedited. The former reportedly conveyed that the Army, though initially keen, had lost interest in it.
Buoyed by accounts of the adventurous few around us, we decided to drive from Leh to Keylong in Lahaul district of Himachal Pradesh, 70 km short of Manali. The fittest Jonga and a one-tonner were readied. A small posse of the willing and able was enlisted. Two of them had been part of the way on this route during a visit to Kar Tso, the highland salt water lake, wedged between the eastern extremity of the Zanskar range and western lobe of Changthang.
We set out at 4 am in early winter. The first 50 km upstream on the Indus was a breeze; there was no traffic. As we branched off into a tributary of the Indus, it began to pour. Fifteen minutes into the defile, despite limited visibility, we found ourselves hedged in by sharp slopes distinguished by deep purple rocky bands; occasionally red sandstone emerged to make for an interesting chiaroscuro. This spectacle was capped by the unusual sight of a stream carrying grey black water crashing into the purplish water rivulet that had accompanied us ever since we parted ways with the Indus at Upshi.
In the Miru-Gya belt, famed for hosting the snow leopard, Eurasian lynx, blue sheep and Tibetan argali — an endangered mountain sheep, poor visibility and wet conditions extirpated the possibility of any sightings, not even of a marmot, and so our camera shutter remained unexercised.
Several layers of hairpin bends saw us ascend quickly to Taglang La, which was expectedly barren and swept by vicious icy cool winds amidst a weak snowfall. As we descended from this point at 17,500 feet, the rising solar orb tore through cloud cover. Its rays fell on jade green bluffs past Debring. And after about 25 km and a descent of about 2,000 feet, we got to the aureate More Plains. That innocent looking level stretch was to prove to be the most challenging to negotiate; with no identifiable track, our vehicles would frequently get stuck in the loose sand. A covey of Bar-headed Geese, obviously laggards, heading southwards, and the occasional raspy call of Chakors constituted the only distractions from our predicament.
Having covered less than half of our route, clouds developing again and uncertainty about the challenges ahead, we decided to drive hell for leather. A gentle climb to Lachulung La, then a steep 3,000 foot descent to Tsarap river and a drive along it upstream to Sarchu gave us confidence that we would make it over the Bara Lacha La into Himachal Pradesh before dusk. And so it transpired.
But soon after crossing Suraj Tal, where we did not tarry to absorb sufficiently the amazing change from azure in the centre of the lake to turquoise on its fringes, we came upon a terrible landslide at Zing Zing Bar. There being no chance of getting across it and nightfall anigh, we reconciled ourselves to a night there huddled within the solitary tent that we had. Having consumed a heavy breakfast and a heavy lunch en route and with our frames shaken during the 15 hours spent on the way, we gave up on dinner and hit the sack. The young cook, who had been jolted around in the back of the one-tonner, had the beans to cook next day’s meals and pack them before he turned in.
Waking up at dawn to a clear sky, we spent a while contemplating the still and colourful waters of Suraj Tal before making a hurried run through Bara Lacha La onto Sarchu, which had been deserted by the seasonally deputed PWD staff, leaving a derelict road roller behind. Our collogue in the cabin about the challenges ahead was interrupted by the keenest nature lover amongst us as he spotted a Lachu plant (Rheum spiciforme) and extolled its use in indigenous medicine as a wonder cure for rheumatism. This perennial herb, a rhubarb of sorts, with all the leaves at its base and dried red flowers in the form of cylindrical spikes, was in abundance around Lachulung La and thus lends its name to that Pass.
Two captivating sights followed in the next few hours. The deep cleft between weathered sand-coloured escarpments at Pang could well be characterised as Ladakh’s Grand Canyon. And a lone horseman with a cocky hat riding a spirited horse at a fair pace across the deserted More Plains in the late afternoon, generating a plume of dust, ignored our presence and headed determinedly towards what must be his destination in Changthang; he seemed inured to the difficult terrain and confident of dealing with any challenge that nature might throw at him.
Back in Leh that night, after covering about 620 km in 29 hours, one wondered as to when this strategically vital axis to Leh would be completed. That did not eventuate for another seven years — a quarter of a century after work on it began, but fortunately during the lifetime of Kushak Bakula!