Deep in the Himalayas in the remote valley town of Leh, one local is teaching his neighbors how to protect their fragile ecosystem against a backdrop of increased tourism and a growing population.
Sat in the sunny courtyard of Mr Angchuk’s Goba Guest House in the narrow backstreets of Leh, our conversation is occasionally interrupted by a curious cow trying to nose its way through the gate. Each time, Mr. Angchuk jumps up to shoo it away.
Mr. Angchuk is my host in Leh, a town in the mountainous region of Ladakh in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. We’re talking about the Manali-Leh highway, one of the most dramatic roads in the world that hugs the cliffs and ravines of the Himalayas in northern India. Sometimes rather precariously, too—three of the world’s highest roads pass this route.
But it’s more than a road—it’s a piece of tenacious engineering. At the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, it carries goods and people from the lush foothills of the plains, through the Himalayan mountains, into the high-altitude deserts of Ladakh. The road is such a star player in this remote region, far from towns and villages, that industrious members of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) live in camps by the side of the road in all weathers, endlessly repairing stretches of road damaged by rockslides.
“I was sent by the Indian government and returned to build infrastructure all over our nation. I helped open Ladakh to the world.”
“The roads were built for the army,” says Mr. Angchuk. “They brought soldiers to defend India from China and Pakistan. And then, adventurous tourists started using motorbikes to get here. That brought jobs and money, so the buses started up, and more people came.”
“I studied civil engineering at Brunel University, near London,” he tells me. “I was sent by the Indian government and returned to build infrastructure all over our nation. I helped open Ladakh to the world, but now we have new challenges. With all the tourists and growing population, there’s huge pressure on energy and water. Our ecosystem is very fragile, so I’m trying to educate people.”
Mr. Angchuk, like most of the people of Leh, is ethnically Tibetan—the region of Ladakh is often called ‘Little Tibet’. Photos of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, are dotted about the guesthouse and each morning, I hear the ringing of bells and drone-like chanting, as Mr. Angchuk and his family perform Tibetan Buddhist prayers. But, when it comes to more earthly matters, he sticks to hard science.
In fact, his own guesthouse is a case study of environmental awareness in itself. A parabolic mirror reflect the sun’s rays onto a black water tank, so guests can have warm showers after breakfast. This water then irrigates the fields and vegetable patches, rather than running off into the river. And he’s part of the local Non-Conventional-Energy-Technology group, which encourages people to install solar panels and micro-hydro power, rather than using kerosene stoves or diesel generators.
To get a better sense of the region’s challenges, I take a half-hour walk to Shanti Stupa, a Buddhist structure overlooking the city. Leh itself sits in a side valley, ringed by mountains, with the ridge of Leh Palace overlooking the old town. To the south, the snow-topped Himalayas stand like a vast wall, blocking the monsoon clouds from bringing their rains, and leaving the Ladakh region a cold, dry desert. The landscape is harsh, with grey-yellow ridges reaching down from the peaks.
“Well, I guess we’re not really India. Of course, we are part of the country, but just look at the place…”
But standing out against the dusty earth, a shock of green flows through like a river. This is the carefully managed Ladakhi agriculture, where every drop of water is captured and used. I wander back to the old town, via the irrigation channels, where lines of tall cypress trees hold the thin soil together. It’s clever planning, using nature to help nature. It look strangely European, although unlike the rest of India, there are few signs of the colonial British era here.
For up to eight months of the year, Ladakh is cut off by snow on the mountain passes. It’s July now and the passes have been open for a few weeks. The trickle of backpackers and motorbikes turns into a flood, all crossing the mountains to escape the monsoon in the south.
Leh is buzzing, as locals make the most of the short tourist season. Four-wheel drives with boats tied to their roofs, zip through town for white-water rafting in the valleys; the rhythmic tapping of tiny hammers echo from jewellery shops; and Kashmiri merchants, laden with carpets, shift their latest deliveries into freshly-painted shop fronts.
Alongside Buddhists and Hindus, Muslims are a significant minority in the town. Behind the central mosque, tiny shops sell tasty snacks for the faithful to take home after Friday prayers. I lean through a wooden window to see a tandoori oven embedded in the floor and a man, sitting cross-legged next to it, slaps freshly kneaded dough against the oven’s wall. A few moments later, he hooks it out with two metal utensils, and hands me a delicious hot naan.
On my last day, Manoj Bali, the agent who has arranged my taxi to my next stop Srinagar, gives me a lift to the bus station. He insists on buying me lunch while we wait and as we eat, I ask him why he thinks Ladakh is so different to the rest of India. “Well, I guess we’re not really India,” he says. “Of course, we are part of the country, but just look at the place.” He gestures to the mountains surrounding us. “It’s not all paddy fields and crowded cities up here.”
“Nature is hard to forget when you are looking at the Himalayas.” He smiles. “And because it’s so fragile, we are always reminded about the nature of our lives. I think that makes us less anxious, less rushed, and more likely to help others.”
As the taxi pulls away, I feel particularly sad about leaving what feels like a magical kingdom in the mountains. Until that is, I spot the quirky message of a Border Roads Organisation sign.
“We cut mountains, but connect hearts,” it declares in black and yellow.
It may be sentimental but here, it feels so appropriate. The hair-raising roads which had brought me to Ladakh may get your pulse racing, but the same journey had also left a sense of peace in my heart.
Himalayan Tamers can organize travel, accommodation, treks and internal flights to the Ladakh region. Email them for more information.
Find out more about the Leh-Ladakh region at Incredible India.