Ladakh. For someone as besotted with the mountains as I am, the name has always stirred something in my soul. Images and sounds of extraterrestrial landscapes, extremophilic biodiversity and a culture shrouded in yak-skin mystique have gnawed at my imagination for years, urging me to venture forth. Something kept holding me back. Thanks to Technology for Wildlife and Shashank, my long spell of indolence paid off and I was able to experience the trans-Himalaya in a special way – not only for the relatively remoter regions we were able to access (owing to some expedition-level planning and permission-seeking by TfW), but also for the work we ultimately set out to do. You have (or will) read enough about the work conducted during the expedition from the keyboards of more qualified persons here on this blog. This post is about the mountains, and time in the mountains is valuable – so let’s get right to it.
I have been exploring the Himalaya (mostly on foot, and in limited pockets) for the last four to five years now. I recently obtained my Basic Mountaineering certification from the National Institute for Mountaineering and Allied Sports, at Dirang (in West Kameng, Arunachal Pradesh). Being as it is under the Ministry of Defence, the Institute also caters to defence personnel who are required, or are looking, to gain competence in mountaineering (whether for warfare, or for participation in armed forces peak-climbing expeditions). Only a fraction of the month-long course is conducted at the Institute itself, and the rest in various stations in Tawang district, right up till the final station at the base of the Meerathang glacier (at about 4600 metres ASL). Most of these areas are not accessible to civilians, and I – along with the rest of my course mates - was fortunate enough to see some truly pristine parts of the Eastern Himalaya, with appropriately breathtaking biodiversity to match the stage. This region of India is culturally contiguous with southern Tibet, of which Ladakh forms the western frontier. I was almost trembling with anticipation at this - to be travelling to the other end of the Himalayas, mere months after my 28-day boot camp in its eastern reaches.
We began our journey in Kalka, travelled through Narkanda (in Shimla district), Rampur Bushahr (the gateway to Kinnaur), stopping at Nako (Kinnaur), Dhankar, Kaza (in Spiti) and then via Keylong towards the settlement at Thukje (at Tso-Kar) before proceeding to the other sites on our itinerary. Over about 7 days, and thanks to our first terrific driver Lucky (from Kullu), we negotiated roads (of varying descriptions, but I’ll call them all roads for the sake of convenience) through the foothills, lesser Himalayas and Greater Himalayas before crossing over into the trans-Himalayan region - Kinnaur and Spiti (literally the ‘in-between land’) - and ultimately entering the dramatic cold desert region that is Ladakh.
The changing landscape was very different to the road trip from Gauhati to Dirang, which starts at the floodplains of the Brahmaputra, crosses the lush foothills of the Eastern Himalaya and takes one to the gateway of the higher reaches, towards the McMahon Line and the famous Bailey Trail along the Arunachal Pradesh-Tibet border. For one, the lush forests at the lower latitudes of the Arunachal Pradesh Himalaya are ubiquitous even as high as 3500 metres above sea level. As we move northwards and westwards, the tree line gets lower and lower and vegetation in Ladakh (which is at an average elevation of 3200-3700 metres ASL) is very different – there are poplars and willows but mostly plantations in irrigated areas, or in the lower reaches of the valleys. Other than that, there are bushes typical of desert areas, shrubs and grasses. The land itself is more undulating than mountainous, and the vistas sprawl wider than is possible to see in the Himalaya proper. The cultural contiguities with Arunachal were surprising, though – given the three thousand or so kilometres of mountains, plains and valleys that separate these two regions. The ethnic identities of their peoples as Tibetans is still preserved – in the common traditions of their robes (minor variations of the Tibetan Chuba), their lifestyles (both the Changpa of Ladakh and the Monpa of Tawang are pastoral tribes, chiefly herding goats and yaks), and their faith (Tibetan Buddhism is still the dominantly ‘visible’ religion in both places, and predates Islam and Christianity in Ladakh). Even their wildlife is shared - marmots chatter at the higher reaches of the Arunachal Himalaya, and can be found urgently waddling their way throughout most of Ladakh as well. The black-necked crane (thung thung to the locals of Ladakh) breeds in the wetlands of Ladakh and flies down to Bhutan and Tawang for the winter. It is revered as sacred by the Changpas and the Monpas alike.
As the likenesses strike, so do the contrasts. The visual dominance of Tibetan Buddhism over the Ladakh landscape thinly veils the cultural eclecticism of a land that lay at the crossroads of important trade routes, from the Far East to Central and Western Asia. The influence of multiple ethnicities – Uighur, Balti, Kashmiri, Punjabi and Tibetan – is amply visible in Leh, especially in the establishments and homes near the Main Bazaar and old city. The limited availability of wood in Ladakh is evinced in the mud houses that dominate the rural landscapes (Leh has become increasingly concretised), in contrast to the stone-and-wood houses of Arunachal (more common in the Himalaya and sub-Himalaya). Wood is used in Ladakh, though sparingly, and is more commonly seen in the houses of the affluent, in gömpas (religious buildings), choskhors (religious enclaves) and the palaces. The dominance of tourism as a sector of the economy in Ladakh also struck me; the careful curation of its cultural features for the foreign eye – opening up, so to speak, while trying simultaneously to hold on its identity. We were told by the founder of our travel agency, Jigmet, that local hospitality operators blacklist or even penalize anyone with a MakeMyTrip sticker – an old value of the Ladakhi people and a lesson that has been reinforced from other Indian towns that have become tourist spots at the cost of the local economy and culture, such as Manali. In contrast, the more difficult terrain and remoteness of Western Arunachal have engendered a more culturally homogenous population, as well as a much lower influx of tourists. Their problems are different – of infrastructure, of connectivity, of integration with the rest of the economy. Their ecology and its associated services are threatened, just not as visibly as in the extremes of Ladakh where the lack of water and the changing precipitation patterns are far more perceptible as effects of anthropogenic climate change.
Hopefully, the work our team has started will go some way in bolstering the conservation efforts already underway in Ladakh (and eventually, other high-altitude regions as well), and ensure these fascinating landscapes survive as more than just stories.