From Pondicherry, South India, where my partner Krista and our son Desmond have been living, I’d heard that people were taking their Indian-made Royal Enfield motorbikes on tour over the “Himalayan Highway,” all the way to Ladakh, also known as “Little Tibet.” The 300 mile long “world’s highest motorable road” runs from the Himalayan foothills at Manali, across four stupendous mountain ranges to Leh, the Ladakhi capital at the far western reaches of Tibet. I had spent several months in Ladakh 25 years ago, prior to the great onslaught of mass jet-setting tourism and before the construction of the new road, and ever since I have yearned to return to this most amazing place. We travelled by motorbike for several reasons: we wanted to see the most magnificent Himalaya together and not be bound by the two-day, express-bus rush through this spectacular region, or to fly in as do the bulk of the tourists today, but we also wished to bear witness to what the punching in of this road has wrought on the region.
Over the past 30 years, I’ve hiked all over the Himalaya, but I never walk where there’s a road. Roads into any remote areas where the lifecycles of the planet continue to function as they have forever, are nothing but vectors for the pollution of modernity, conveyances for the deep rot of nationalism, colonialism, tourism and development. Although I recognize myself as being a part of an increasingly difficult problem, I have been fortunate to have been just ahead of a huge wave of trekkers, who swarm rapidly into newly opened areas of the Himalaya. As such, I have been able to get a glimpse of what sustainable, enduring human civilization looks like. Inexorably, it seems, wherever the trekkers go, a road seems sure to follow. Twenty-five years ago, I spent a month walking across Zanskar, which is the next valley to the west, and during the trek, I only ran into one other foreigner.Today, hundreds of trekkers are passing through Zanskar during the four month season, while the Indian military incessantly builds its newest road through the valley. Thousands of tourists are now swarming into Ladakh via the Himalayan Highway, and even more take the plane to Leh. So it was with great trepidation that I was returning to Ladakh to see what changes the “advance” of modernity brought by the Indian occupation and mass tourism had wrought on this most amazing land and its people.
So we loaded our old 350 cc Enfield Bullet onto the Tamil Nadu Express train at Madras and headed to New Delhi, after which we travelled north by motorbike. Indian Railways (IR) operates one of the largest rail systems in the world and carries more than 14 million passengers daily. Although the service has improved tremedously over the years and now has a completely computerized reservation system, IR has absolutely no garbage management program whatsoever. On all the long-distance lines, IR meals are served on styrofoam trays wrapped in tinfoil and plastic, with drinks served in plastic cups. All garbage is simply tossed out of the windows, where it festoons the rail-side shrubbery and trees across the land. I mention this because India’s massive garbage problem manifests itself all along the Himalayan Highway, all the way to its culmination point at the top of the continent. The Siachen Glacier has become an enormous festering garbage dump.
At the time of my first visit, India had taken a resurgence of interest in Ladakh after several Pakistani “cartographic incursions” into the Siachen region, and large convoys of Indian Army trucks had begun to ply back and forth along the original road to Ladakh, which runs over the Zoji La pass from Srinagar in Kashmir. But the Srinagar-Leh road was considered to be vulnerable to Pakistani attack near Kargil, so during the 1980’s India constructed a new “Himalayan Highway” between Manali and Leh, Ladakh. This was an ambitious undertaking as the highway crosses several passes of more than 17,000 ft. and can only remain open for 4 months each year, after which it is socked in with snow (by comparison, Mount Logan, the highest mountain in Canada, is 19,550 ft. and the Rocky Mountain peaks around Banff are about 10,000 ft.). But after the 1962 Chinese annexation of the plains of Aksai Chin, Indian nationalist pride was once again at stake, so mobilize it must, and mobilize it did.
The road, for the most part, is a painstakingly handmade affair built and maintained by Nepalese and Jharkhandi labourers who are subjected to excrutiating and extremely dangerous working conditions. The Jharkhandi labourers, known as Dumkas, the namesake of a Gangetic plains village about 150 kms northwest of Calcutta, are used for cheap labour all over India, while the Nepalese can be found slaving along roadsides throughout the Himalaya and are just plain tough. For their labours, the Indian army pays their way up to the jobsite and supplies them with army rations during their four month stint. All along the way, one encounters crews of sun-blackened men, women and children hacking away at the rock-face, stacking boulders into hand-woven chainlink terraced shoring cages, shovelling snow, filling potholes or sweeping off the rock-fall which cascades off the ever-exfoliating mountainsides. The workers are woefully ill-equipped and under-dressed and although the army purports to lend them winter clothing suitable for the extremity of the weather at these altitudes, many of the workers were visibly suffering from the cold. People are seen operating jack-hammers in bare-feet, chiselling off shattered overhanging rock, and there’s an ever-present Indian Army supervisor hulking over their every move. At night they’re crammed into crudely built road-side hovels, constructed from cast-off tar barrels overthrown with ragged blown-out tarps.
Road-building is much the same over in the Pakistani-controlled regions of this part of the world, -that is the areas on the other side of the “Line of Control” which delineates the contested de facto border between northern India and Pakistan. The “Karakoram Highway” which was completed in 1982, leads up over the 15,400 ft Khunjerab Pass to Chinese-occupied Sinjiang, and is also a military road, hand-built with considerable help from the Chinese army. Its construction, which took 20 years, cost the lives of 810 Pakistani and 82 Chinese road workers. In Pakistan the deaths of the road workers are acknowledged by several large roadside cairns along the way. Although the workers who built India’s Himalayan Highway are nowhere acknowledged, it can be assumed that a great many of them have also been maimed and killed and continue to die on the job. The Indian Army is very proud of its Ladakh occupation, and considers its road-building efforts to be an exercise in “nation building”. Here’s the India Independence Day 2006 message from Lt. General KS Rao, the Director General of the military-run Border Roads Organization (BRO):
The BRO has made immense and incalculable contribution to the national integration and nation building during the last four decades. We were (sic) the torchbearers of development in the extremely remote, hostile and inhospitable terrain of our northern and north-eastern borders of the country. Our predecessors have brought fame and laurels to BRO by their dedication, hard work and supreme sacrifice and made BRO the premier road construction agency of the country. While we would be fully justified in trumpeting our success story, we can not afford to rest on our laurels. We need to recognize and keep pace with the tremendous changes that are taking place all around us advancement in the field of construction technology, new opportunities provided by revolution in Information and communication technologies and in Military Affairs, to name a few. It is high time for BRO to change in consonance with the environment and maintain the pace if we have to continue to remain as a leader in road construction and contribute to nation building.
Ten years ago I travelled from Rawalpindi on the flats of Pakistan, up the length of the Karakoram highway, which winds along cliffs above the Indus River for most of the way. Just as I reached the Chinese border at Khunjerab Top, a large monsoon typhoon blew a vicious storm right up the pass and it started snowing heavily. I hurried back down to the last Pakistani village at the foot of the pass, and spent three days there, huddled under the leaking flat mud roof of a house that had not seen rain for 100 years. Rain in the Karakoram has been so rare that virtually all of the houses have mud roofs. Even the slightest drizzle brings the stones crashing down onto the roads. This prolonged downpour completely destroyed the road, and I spent the next week picking my way on foot down the ancient Silk Road, back through the Hunza valley to Gilgit. Every kilometer or so, the road was blocked by rock fall. As is the case throughout the Great Himalaya, particulary huge landslides occasionally block entire rivers. A lake then immediately begins forming behind the dam. Such lakes have been known to completely submerge upstream villages along the river, and ultimately, when the weight of water piling in blows out the obstruction, the resultant tsunami takes out the riverside villages downstream. As I walked, giant boulders the size of Volkswagons were continuously dislodging from the shattered Karakoram landscape above and smashing down onto the pavement, shearing off great chunks of road that went crashing into the river.
From Gilgit, I travelled up the Indus valley to Baltistan, which was part of Ladakh until the subdivision of the subcontinent into Pakistan and India in 1947. I passed through Skardu, which was once Ladakh’s winter capital and then on through Khapallu to the end of the road at the highest Baltistani village of Hushe. From there I hiked for a week on boulder-strewn glaciers up to a 16,000 ft. pass which overlooks the massive junction of glaciers at Concordia, at the foot of the world’s second highest mountain, K-2. I went on to the K-6 and K-7 base camps where I climbed another pass near the base of the Karakoram massif of Chogolisa which overlooks the Siachen Glacier. While I sat marvelling at the pristine mountain scenery, I was shocked out of my reverie by a squadron of Pakistani military helicopters, clattering their way towards the world’s highest battlefield.
Although people have been travelling up and down the Himalayan valleys forever on foot, roads are a new and very tenuous phenomena. While much of India’s single-lane Himalayan Highway is paved, the vagaries of extreme weather, and the constant motion of ice, snow and the mountains themselves have rendered the higher stretches an obstacle course of broken boulders, mud-wallows, and with no ditching whatsoever, mountain streams are left to run right down the road. We frequently submerged our motorbike’s exhaust pipe, and bouncing between the potholes and the frostheaves for most of the trip, we rarely made it out of second gear. The construction of roads along steep mountainsides alters the natural hydrology and are always a serious ecological incursion. When mountain roads are ditched, infinite seepage courselets are routed along the roadside, and then channeled through culverts spaced at intervals along the road. At each culvert, the waters are unnaturally concentrated into gulleys, where they artificially and inexorably erode new watercourses into the mountainside. Without ditching, the whole road becomes the new watercourse, and the constant moisture-loading and lubrication will inevitably cause sections of the road to slip. Every slippage has consequences both above and below the road.
Descending from the third major pass along the highway (the first part of the trip is described in Part 1 of this article), the 16,600 ft. Lachlung La, the Himalayan Highway is compressed into a narrowing gorge, with the final leg before the river having been manually chiselled right out of a sheer cliff face. This stretch of road is basically a tunnel with one open side, and a stomach-churning sense of vertigo accompanies any glance down the cliff-face into the chasm below. Having passed through the canyon, the traveller emerges into a hauntingly empty convoluted river valley. High above, a line of Hoodoos dominates the scenery, providing a vertical counterpoint to the flowing curves of scree which decend to the river. Here, due to a total paucity of vegetation, there are none of the endless cross-hatched striations laid down by the meanderings of grazing animals which adorn less arid regions of the high Himalaya.
In the evening, Desmond and I walked out beyond the little camp at Pang, and passing by the fluttering toilet-paper-festooned patch of tiny bushes that serves as the toilet area for the thousands of travellers passing through, we entered into a most desolate and silent desert landscape. Distance in the Himalayan desert is difficult to judge for lowlanders who are used to moving in vehicles, and to the visual distortions of rising water-vapours and the structural visual blockage of trees, walls or buildings. We have no visual concept of how far a human can walk in an hour, much less a day’s march, because one’s starting point is immediately obscured by obstacles as one carries along. But here, the clarity of vision is astounding and every detail is intricately defined even at a great distance. In a few minutes of walking, we were entirely alone in the valley, and after half an hour of climbing, the camp at Pang, although invisible in its riverside depression, seemed inconceivably distant. As far as the eye could see in any direction, there was no visible living thing, no movement, no human construction of any sort. As we continued, what had at first glance appeared as an immeasureable vastness of empty space became much more intimate as we began to understand the scale of the vista. A thin, compacted track led upwards to an apparently distant pass but we understood that it was perhaps only two hours away. While trekking in the Himalaya, oftentimes at the end of a long day’s hike, one can look back down a valley, seemingly to the very edge of the Earth, and be astonished to see one’s starting point so immensely far away.
The next morning, we wound up the switchbacks above Pang and arrived onto the Moray Plains of the Rupshu plateau, which features a surprisingly flat expanse surrounded by gently rolling mountains. Rupshu is the farthest western extremity of the Tibetan plateau and aside from small villages on the shores of the salt lakes of Tso Kar and Tso Moriri, it is too high for cultivation. This is a vast unfenced grassland commons dotted with sparse clumps of hardy grasses. At these altitudes, the landscape reaches upwards to scrape the final vestiges of moisture out of the few clouds which have managed to blow over the southern ranges into this vast Himalayan rainshadow. The rare sprinkles provide the green tinge of vegetation which sustains large herds of yaks, goats and sheep that are tended by Changpa nomads. The finest and softest wool called pashm is shorn from these Changpa goats and for centuries pashm wool was traded widely throughout the Himalaya. To this day, the wool makes its way to Kashmir to be woven into exquisite Pashmina shawls that are sold around the world.
The Changpa nomads we met on the Rupshu plain still camp out in their wool tents in the same spots that have been used since time immemorial, and from there, they set off to graze their herds up into the lonely highland realms at more than 20,000 ft. Among the tents are rock enclosures into which baby sheep and goats are herded at night to protect them from the wolves and snow leopards. Outside the tents, people can be seen at their back-strap looms weaving beautifully coloured horse blankets, woolen tent panels and rugs. The weaving and spinning of the wool shorn from their flocks is a constant communal activity for these tough and cheerful herdspeople. In contrast to the garbage-strewn squalor of the Indian army garrisons, police check-posts and parachute tent encampments, here was a total lack of garbage. As non-participants in the globalized consumer economy, the Changpa do not have anything to throw away. This is certainly not because they are impoverished; it’s because they are virtually self-sufficient and everything they own is in continuous use. Their survival has depended on an intrinsic social order which has allowed a continual usage of the available resources, but without any catastrophic depletion or degradation of the grasslands. In spite of the new road, they still manage to exist as did their ancestors, in an ancient peaceful symbiosis, -cleanly living with a minimal ecological footprint as participants in the ecological processes of their environment.
The historic self-sufficiency of the Ladakhi people and their current plight has been best documented by Helena Norberg-Hodge in her marvellous book “Ancient Futures.” Her books are essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the marvels of truly advanced human civilization, where humans live peacefully and happily together in balance and within the means of the giving Earth. My own experience of this pre-monetized, non-wheeled and non-electrified civilization was gained during my previous visit and especially while on my long hike through the Zanskar Valley when I was 21 years old. This solitary experience has left an indelible, deeply rooted impression and opened my eyes to what was once within the human capability -that humans could and did actually live well and happily within the carrying capacity of their environment. It was amazing that here, on this earthly moonscape, people not only lived well from the land, but their activities were the source of all greeness, vibrant colour, and every tree. But while Norberg-Hodge has focussed on the clash of civilizations that has resulted from the arrival of mass-tourism to Ladakh, for valid reasons, she has avoided discussion of the effects of the far more insidious invasion of the Indian military occupation. Had she done so, it would have been impossible for her to carry on with her essential work in Ladakh.
In the Zanskari villages I passed through, wealth was not measured by money and there was no poverty. Every house was busily inhabited, they wove and dyed their clothing, they grew their food, there was no garbage, no pollution, whether visual, aural, or the physical soiling of water, air and earth. The arability of the land was not determined by any natural availability of organic earth. Instead, the placement of villages depended on where aqueducts could be engineered to irrigate the barren, sterile mineral soil, and all organic soil nutrient was carefully added with a clear understanding of the processes of composting. The size of a village was intrinsic to the extent of the irrigable area of its fields, which in turn depended on the people-power to cultivate it, and the supply of water from the glaciers above. The village grew to a size that balanced what it was able to produce, and the population stabilized at that point, regulated in part by the practice of polyandry and the celibacy of the lama and chomo who renounced the householder’s life to live in the Buddhist gompas, which overlook every village in the land. At the bottoms of the farthest fields, one could see the browning off of the barley crops, as the water supply dwindled off to exhaustion.
After passing through Rupshu, the road ascends to the top of the 17,500 ft. Taglang La pass. Looking down from the pass, one can see the recently-abandoned ancient trail switchbacking directly down the mountainside to the desolate plain below. At the foot of the pass, a line of crumbling chortens and rings of wolf-proof stone fences marks an ancient campsite where traders and their caravans and flocks once rested as they plied their way across the mountains. Beyond the campsite, the trail is demarked by a continuous line of mani walls, topped with thousands of stones, each one carved with the ubiquitous mantra, “Om Mani Padme Hum,” and placed, one-by-one, over centuries by the passers-by.
Clearing the top, we dropped down into the narrow Gya River valley, where one finally enters Ladakh. Rounding the corner above the highest village at Rumtse, the splash of green barley fields set against startling purple mountains, featuring sedimentary strata pushed vertical by tectonic forces, demarcates the environmental limitation at which crops can be grown. Although there are higher agrarian villages in Ladakh, Nepal and Tibet, they are only found where certain geographical features, -a southern exposure, a particularly sheltered valley- can allow this limit to be pushed even higher. As we descended down alongside the Gya, we passed through numerous villages with well-built and white-washed houses individually interspersed throughout tree-ringed fields, and people along the road broke into huge smiles and sang out “Juley,” to us, the Ladakhi greeting, as we went by. Finally, at Upshi, we reached the Indus.
For the remaining 30 miles to Leh, the ancient capital city of Ladakh, situated at 11,500 ft, the road, on the north bank of the River Indus, passes by a series of dusty, sprawling military garrisons, that contrast with the lush greenbelt of Ladakhi villages on the southern side. The road here, the best in Ladakh, is flat, and mostly several lanes wide to accomodate the heavy military traffic. The villages it passes through have long lost their charm and cleanliness, and the once beautiful Tibetan-style houses are falling into disrepair and are being rapidly replaced with the same dreary reinforced concrete boxes and garish billboards that have buried so much of India’s architectural heritage. The village of Choglamsar, which I remember from 25 years ago as a gorgeous green centre of Ladakhi culture, has been reduced to a typical Indian strip mall of dust, clamour, garbage and squalor. Leh itself is surrounded by hideous military garrisons and a sprawling, shoddily-built concrete suburb, but the old part of the city with its surrounding fields still retains its beauty.
India claims that the road to the Nubra Valley over the 18,600 ft Khardung La Pass is the “highest motorable road” in the world, although China claims to have bested this achievement in Tibet. The road starts climbing the Ladakh Range directly behind Leh, and as one switches back and forth endlessly up the barren slopes, Leh’s barley fields and the verdure along the River Indus dwindles gradually to a glittering emerald speck in the distance. We picked a gorgeous, sunny cloud-free day for our ascent, but as we climbed, the cold and fuzzy numbness of very high altitude slowly enveloped us. Nearing the top of the pass, several of the switchbacks proved too much for our heavily loaded old Enfield, and Krista had to get off to walk the last 1/2 mile, which is no easy feat for those who’ve spent the past year living at sea level on the coast of South India. Above 18,000 feet, any exertion results in gasping and a racing heartbeat, and there’s an aural sensation similar to that buzzing tinitus which is experienced when diving into deep water. At the top of the pass the view was especially breathtaking, with range upon range of snowclad peaks against a black-blue sky stretching off to a convex horizon in every direction. Looking out across the Great Himalaya from such height exemplifies the thin tenuosity of the human-created lifestreams of Ladakh, with thin green veins extending in deeply incised desert valleys through the far more extensive whited snow and ice fields. The Khardung La was once the crux of a major trade conduit between Ladakh (now occupied by India), Baltistan (now occupied by Pakistan) and Sinjiang (now occupied by China). In spite of its great height, this was a comparatively easy pass, with the rest-stop of the village of Khardung near the top on one side, and Leh nearby on the other.
In the Solu Khumbu region of Nepal, the Sherpa villages of Pangboche and Dingboche near the foot of Mt. Chomolungma, or Sagarmatha as the Nepalese call it, or Everest as the Brits called it, are said to be the highest year-round inhabited villages in the world, at 14,000 ft. The Ladakhi village of Khardung is at 15,000 ft. and somehow, at this altitude, in the thin rarified air at the edge of the atmosphere, people are still growing barley, which they grind and roast into tsampa flour that is eaten uncooked, mixed with soldja, or butter tea. Far above Khardung, right up to the receding snow line, we could see tiny black dots of yak moving across the green and wine-stained stoney landscape.
Below Khardung, we entered into the Shyok Valley, and in contrast to virtually all other Ladakhi rivers which are opaque with silt and mud, the Shyok River runs a clear glacial blue. As we descended, the confluence of the Shyok and Nubra rivers came into view to the northeast, a scene of unparrelled beauty: barren desert sand dunes, interspersed with brilliant green fields of villages against the pale blue waters, and the snow-clad Saltoro Range of the Karakoram mountains towering overhead. The Shyok River drains off from the Karakoram Pass at the very apex of India’s claim over the region. This historic pass, over which trading caravans have passed between Ladakh and Sinjiang since ancient times, now overlooks the highest battlefield in the world, where India and Pakistan carry on the hidden, futile, stalemated and potentially the most dangerous war on the planet. The battlefield itself is the massive Siachen Glacier, the source of the Nubra river. At more than 50 miles long at more than 22,000 ft, Siachen is the largest glacier in the Himalaya and is known as the “third pole.”
The Nubra Valley is in the remotest, northernmost area that is permissable to visit in India. The village of Panamik is the end of the tourist trail, although the military road continues to the foot of the glacier several miles beyond. Siachen means “place of wild roses,” and along every watercourse and seepage, they were in full bloom providing a muted pink contrast to the greenery. Just like everywhere in Ladakh, everything has its use, and along with sea buckthorn, the wild roses of the Nubra provide impenetrable barriers which protect the precious fields from marauding livestock. Meticulously built freestone walls surround each field and thickets of thorny rose stems crown the walls along their entire length. Above Panamik village, natural hotsprings seep out of the mountainsides and a series of pipes delivers 24-hour hot running water to many of the households. The Indian army has ‘developed’ the hotsprings by installing several crude concrete tanks for the use of its soldiers, and now the facility is strewn with festering garbage.
The Nubra is at the altitude limit where apricots can be grown, although the really good ones are found further downstream at Khappalu in Baltistan, now on the Pakistan side. The arbitrary slashing of the LOC across the Shyok River between the Buddhist villages of Diskit and Hunder and the Islamic communities of Skardu and Khappalu, just downstream, has completely disrupted local cultural interactions, and a growing rift now festers between Ladakh’s Muslim and Buddhist communites. Baltistan, which has always been part of Ladakh in spite of converting to Islam centuries ago and which shares the same language, used to supply apricots to all of Ladakh and on to Tibet. In return they got pashm and other wool products, tsampa (roasted barley), Tibetan tea, copperware and turquoise that comprised the bulk of the goods that constantly traversed back and forth across the ranges. Charas (black hash) was carried up from the Kulu/Manali region and silk goods came down from Sinjiang. Here at the Nubra/Shyok confluence, a remnant herd of about 200 double-humped Bactrian camels are a living testament to this now-extinct historic caravan trade that once knit together so many Himalayan communities. These shaggy camels have all gone feral now, and continue to thrive in this remote wilderness. Several of them have been domesticated to provide camel rides among the desert dunes for tourists.
A little further up the valley lies the snout of the Siachen glacier. This is the culmination point for the bulk of the military traffic which travels the Himalayan and Karakoram Highways. These massive and fantastic road construction projects are for the most part, built with an vicious singlemindedness to prosecute their ongoing Siachen war. India and Pakistan’s imperialist war in Ladakh is a filthy business, which utterly defiles this most spectacular sanctuary of pristine mountain wilderness. Teru Kuwayama, a New York based photojournalist who visited the battlefield on assignment for Outside Magazine in 2002 was shocked by the mountains of garbage he saw surrounding the remote military outposts. “To see these incredibly pristine mountains and the glacier ,” he writes, “and then to look down at your feet and for kilometers around you and just see nothing but this completely apocalyptic wasteland, it is really shocking, it’s really surreal, and sad, mostly. Thousands of tons of garbage, -spent ammo, rotten food and discarded weaponry- has accumulated on the ice for 20 years, and whatever goes up doesn’t go back.” Kevin Fedarko, Kuwayama’s co-writer for the Outside article writes:
When I got back down to the Corps Command Headquarters in Leh, I found out that the Indian army has, in fact, made an attempt to calculate the amount of garbage on the glacier, and the figures they’ve come up with are staggering. To sustain its troops, the army airdrops about 13,000 tons of supplies onto the glacier each year. Out of this, nearly 2,200 tons are left as waste: 1,400 tons of packing materials, 330 tons of empty ammunition cases, 7.6 tons of canned food, and 55 tons of miscellaneous items, including dead batteries, discarded clothing, and used signal cables. On top of all that come the periodic kerosene spills, which can disgorge up to 1,850 gallons in a day if undetected, and 372 tons a year of human feces, which has the potential of spreading jaundice, cholera, typhoid, and amoebic dysentery into the water flowing from the glacier and into the Nubra River. All told, that makes at least 41,000 tons of trash on the glacier. But that figure does not include the 43,000 artillery shells that India says are fired over the Saltoro Ridge onto the Siachen by the Pakistanis every year. Nor does it figure in the bodies of dead soldiers that cannot be recovered from the bottoms of crevasses and the middle of avalanche debris fields. By comparison, the South Col of Mount Everest, the most highly publicized high-altitude trash dump in the world, is polluted by only ten tons of garbage, most of it discarded oxygen cylinders.
The Indian military occupation is an insidious cultural, environmental and economic calamity of the worst order for the people of Ladakh and should be as widely condemned as the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the Pakistani occupation of the Karakoram. The associated war-mongering, which has cost the New Delhi government a million dollars a day since 1988, has simultaneously become an immense burden for all the peoples of the subcontinent. It has brought the belligerents to the very brink of nuclear war on numerous occasions and has continued to breed hatred and resentment across the land. While the rest of India struggles to uplift itself out of the humiliation of centuries of British colonial subjugation, India is perpetuating the very same Imperialist designs of its once British masters. While India rushes headlong into massive military development, space programs, missile programs, nuclear weapons programs, nuclear submarine programs and civil nuclear programs to maintain an aggressive hegemony over the subcontinent, hundreds of millions of people all over India continue to struggle in abject poverty. India should redirect this massive military largesse into developing a comprehensive, mutually respectful peace process with its neighbours, and celebrate and encourage the increasing independence efforts of its vast diversity of cultures. Instead of foisting an incessant cultural and political homogenization, this enormous and complex land would do far better to work respectfully to promote cultural and political autonomy in its regions, which is the only way forward towards a lasting peace in Asia.
It seems that the only hope for the survival of Ladakh’s traditional culture and precious ecology will be the imminent collapse of fossil-fuel-fed expansionist, capitalist economies like India’s. The bulk of the traffic on the Himalayan Highway is an endless convoys of fuel trucks, and a simple inevitable doubling of fuel prices will render it impossible to continue with this remote and ridiculous war. Perhaps then, the roads will become obsolete, and will gradually disintegrate over time, to allow the amazingly resilient and patient Himalayan peoples to reclaim their beautiful mountains and rebuild their damaged civilization.
INGMAR LEE is a Canadian freelance writer currently living in Pondicherry. He has travelled extensively throughout India since his first trip, overland from Europe in 1977. He has a deep and abiding love for India but is concerned about its current direction. Ingmar can be reached at ingmarz(at)gmail.com