Back to School on The Road to Ladakh

This was a trip I made in 2012 in August (monsoon season in India) with my wife and 2 of our friends. This post has been a long time coming. Geography textbooks in India are pretty boring but I was one of the few people in the class who enjoyed it. For me the Ladakh trip was a way to discover practically what all this meant – mountain pass, watershed, rainfall on windward and leeward sides, glaciers, collision of crust plates and what not. So what follows is a geographical travelogue.

First the route. You can fly to Leh but it takes all the learning out of it. We took the road from Manali to Leh which passes through 4 of some of the worlds highest mountain passes. Some quick facts:

  • Distance: 490 Km
  • Average elevation said to be 4000m (for comparison the highest peak on the alps is 4810m)
  • Highest point is the last mountain pass, Tanglang La: 5328m
  • You can do this in a continuous 18-hour drive but most people on motor vehicles do it over 2 days (some 3 days). Cyclists do it over 10 days
  • We halted for the night near Keylong (and not Sarchu) and it will be clear from the below picture that this is because of the altitude. Likelihood of getting AMS at Sarchu while spending the night is very high and the only help is the army.

We normally see maps to know the route but this is a unique road. The altitude profile tells us more than what a map can. Here is the altitude profile from Himalaya Bike (check that page out): hbyb-120manali-leh20overview20profile

Each peak on this graph is a mountain-pass. Here is what a pass looks in a geography text-book and it is described as a saddle point in topology (math and geography included!)


You have a mountain range with peaks that you need to cross and you pick a point (typically lowest and most accessible point on the range and build a road through. It is hard to photograph a mountain pass in all its glory unless you have a helicopter at your disposal. The below picture shows Khardung La (highest motorable pass?) pulled from Google Earth. You should be able to see the road snaking through; first climbing from the bottom right (Leh side) and the climbing down to the Nubra valley after the saddle point where the souvenir shop is located. I promise real pictures will follow.

Khardungla Pass

One more geography funda before we move on. Usually when there are mountains they stop rain-bearing clouds. The side that faces the clouds is called the windward side and gets more rain. The other side is called the leeward side and is drier. When you are on the road you start on the windward side and progressively cross 4 mountain ranges and it gets drier and drier. This is why Ladakh is called a cold desert. This concept will also be explained over the next few pictures.

Note: The relevant text comes before the photos.

Here is how the windward side looks like (Solang valley near Manali just before the climb to Rohtang). The Solang Valley is lush green and the clouds cover the high peaks and the pass during the monsoon. The river is the Beas river which is part of the Indus watershed.


Now we start climbing towards the Rohtang pass and this is how it looks like! Really scary and not a surprise when you hear about landslides in the Himalayas every year. The road is almost flowing because of a continuous  drizzle (you are in the clouds!) and visibility is very low because the clouds have been held up by the peaks. The road is so fluid that many times you steer left to head straight! If you drop over the side it is a cool 2000m drop. It would take 20 secs to reach the bottom (ignoring air resistance) and you would be traveling at 197 m/s when you hit it.


Here is what it looks like just before the saddle point (Rohtang pass). It is still cloudy. You can see the saddle point a couple of curves away. Amazing work by the Border Roads Organization (BRO) who provide high quality roads at almost 4000m altitude. These roads need laying every year if not more often. These roads are better than the roads in Bangalore!


Now just after you cross the saddle-point the clouds have decreased and the air is clearer! You have reached the leeward side of the Rohtang. It is still a bit green here but nothing compared to Solang valley.


Looking back at the saddle point:


The other side of Rohtang is the Chenab river valley (also part of the Indus watershed). You can see the road winding down to the valley and the river snaking along as well. This is clearly less green compared to Solang.


The road splits here – the branch on the left goes to Ladakh and the right goes to the Spiti valley which is an extremely remote desert valley as well. This is a pull from Google Earth. The bottom left image is the road winding down from Rohtang and it splits at Gramphu. The main stream is the Chenab.


Tea-stop near the Chenab crossing. The dogs have to adapt as well!


Chenab river crossing:


We go along the river after the crossing. This image is just to give you a feel of how to read the altitude profile. So every peak on this profile is a mountain pass (on a mountain range where actual peaks are much higher than this) and every valley is normally a river crossing. The mountain ranges are basically perpendicular to your screen at each mountain pass.


An example of how a glacier becomes a stream that feeds a river (see the waterfall near the centre) in the first picture. This stream joins the Chenab and ultimately reaches the sea through the Indus river. A closer view in the second.



The Chenab is actually a shortening of Chandrabhaga. The stream we just crossed is the “Chandra”. We soon reach a “sangam” where Chandra and Bhaga meet and we head upstream along the Bhaga river to reach our night stop near Keylong. I only have a bad picture of this when we cross the Bhaga stream on a bridge. At the deadend, the merged river turns right and the Chandra steam comes from the left of the deadend. Also note the sedimentary layers on the mountain (centre-right) tilted about 30 degrees from the horizontal. We shall come back to this at the end.


Mountain ponies are the default local transport for remote settlements and villages.


The Bhaga stream and the view near our tent for the night at Jispa.


We start soon after towards the 5000nder mountain passes with the first one being Baralacha La. Keep an eye on progressive changes in the landscape.

This is near an area is called Zing Zing Bar!


We still see some clouds and snow on mountain tops but overall much drier than near Rohtang (even leeward side of Rohtang)


This is the Baralacha La. It is a more plain rather than an abrupt saddle point.


Near Killingsarai


The other option for the night halt at Sarchu.


Views after Baralacha La. The canyon at the lower end is above the Tsarap river which becomes the Zanskar river and joins the Indus. We rafted on this river after reaching Ladakh near the confluence with Indus. This river passes through the extremely remote Zanskar region.


We reach Lachulung La. Too tired to really walk out and take any pictures. The altitude had me in bad shape!


It truly feels like a desert now. This is beyond Lachulung La just before we enter the More Plains which is a high altitude (4800m plateau). It is about 40km long and 2-3km wide. You could land a plane easily here. Not sure if oxygen levels would be a problem though. Trade routes crisscross this and you can see mules carrying loads (next 3 photos). This is an area where 15-day trek routes pass through as well if you are interested.


We climb again to the last and the highest mountain pass before the Ladakh valley – Tanglang La.


Ladakh valley as we climb down! We miss the beauty of the high road but start loving the oxygen!




We go along a small stream that meets the Indus. Ladakh is basically a valley of the Indus river.


The Ladakh  (Indus) Valley. The band of green follows the river.IMG_7760

Another specimen!


The road to Leh comes to a close. But we did trips to Pangong and Khardung La along with the rafting I talked about.

Confluence of the Zanskar (from top Left meeting the Indus from bottom left.


We rafted on this! One person from our group fell in and was rescued. We were told it would take 24 hours for us to reach Pakistan if we weren’t rescued. Survival is difficult because this is a glacier-fed river and the temperature would be in the single digits. We had to wear full body suits. Plus the rocks and the risk of drowning make it impossible. Another raft completely overturned and we were doing rescues for 30% of the route! The surface freezes in winter and in olden days there was no road. So the people in Zanskar trekked on the ice to get supplies. The trek is now a dangerous tourist attraction!


Another view of the Zanskar and Indus confluence where we finished our rafting trip.


Climbing up the Chang La pass to go to Pangong. This is the Indus valley.


This is after Chang La and is the Shyok valley. This river meets the Nubra river that comes from the Siachen glacier.




Yak transport!


Climb to Khardung La which is on the Ladakh range. What you see below is the Ladakh (Indus) valley. The mountain range you see beyond the valley (set of peaks from middle to the left) is the Zanskar range.


Man vs. mountain!


This is a view of the Nubra valley north of Khardung La and the peaks in the distance are the Karakoram range. The Nubra is fed by the Siachen glacier on the Karakoram range. The Karakoram range is glaciated in about 28-50% of its area. This is unheard of outside the polar regions. The other parts of the high Himalayas are only around 10-15% glaciated. Siachen is truly scary. The temperature is like the north or south poles but even worse are the oxygen levels which are really really low. We met a soldier at Pangong who told us about it.

There are trade routes to the right and to the left of the peaks that you see that connect to Yarkand and onward to China.


The same view from Google Earth! You can see the road winding down into the Nubra valley and all the peaks we see in the photo. This is why its awesome. This allows you to identify peaks and places very easily from photographs.


All the rivers we crossed are part of the Indus watershed and reach the Arabian sea near Sindh. A watershed is basically a topological shape that ensures that ultimately all streams in this area become a single stream and join the sea. Sometimes the stream(s) divide again before reaching the sea in a delta region like the Sunderbans. You can think of it like a deformed wash basin where all the water poured in has only one exit. The Ganga watershed is adjacent to the Indus Watershed. Earthquakes (or even erosion) can deform or modify a watershed. It is speculated that earthquakes are the reason for the Yamuna to take a turn and join the Ganga watershed. Apparently, earlier it used to feed into the Rajasthan area via the Ghaggar river. The Thar desert was likely created by the shifting of these rivers away.

A quick note on how the Himalayas were formed. This is what happened (Source).


So at some point there was a narrow sea between the Indian and Eurasian plate that became narrower and narrower till the Himalayas were created. This sea was called the Tethys. Fossils of sea animals have been found in the Himalayas.

Checkout this picture: You can see the sedimentary layers which were once horizontal are now completely vertical on the left side and about 45 degrees on the right of this picture. Imagine the kind of forces needed to throw this much rock and make it land this way! It is a geological process that took many million years. These layers contain the fossil evidence that I mentioned.


The Himalayas are still being formed. They are geologically young. This picture shows how rugged it is. Every winter, snow and ice will create avalanches that keep reshaping this land while the movement of the Indian plate northwards keeps making the Himalayas higher. You can also refer to the “Man vs. Mountain” picture from earlier.


Finally a map because a travelogue isn’t complete without one 🙂


A salute to the BSF, Army and BRO for helping us cope with this difficult landscape!

Here are some BRO road signs that help you retain morale through the high altitude terrain:

  • If you drink whisky, your drive will be risky
  • Better to be Mister Late rather than Late Mister
  • Be gentle on my curves
  • Life is short, don’t make it shorter

and so on















Countries, Borders and Regime Changes

Control over limited natural resources and trade routes along with the associated ego boosts have ensured that map-making is a near permanent occupation. The current nationalism debate in India reminded me of reading Return of a King by William Dalrymple (a thoughtful birthday gift from my dear friends!). This is a history of the first Anglo-Afghan war which raises interesting points on the accidents that create a country; whether it can sustain itself as one and what compromises are needed. So let us use the Afghan example to understand these points.

Living in India, the best way to think about Afghanistan is like a buffer zone which prevented continuous migration but every now and then “pumped” people through down the high mountain passes. Many stayed back in the Indian Subcontinent and helped create the amalgamation of humanity we see today and some plundered and managed to return home. The plunderers were normally based in today’s Afghanistan or a few in Uzbekistan. Why is this a “pump”? Now and then people were pushed into Afghanistan due to various reasons (war or famine in their homeland or a sense of adventure or a disinherited prince with an army etc.). Afghanistan by design cannot support a large population (especially a surge) due to its aridity and difficult terrain. So whenever an unsustainable number of people accumulated in Afghanistan they had 2 choices – go back home or ride through the passes to the comparatively awesome Indian subcontinent.

We first take a quick look at the map (source):


It does look Victorian like the side profile of a lady wearing a fancy hat with a feather to boot! The feather marked in blue, otherwise known as the Wakhan Corridor is a “geographic cul-de-sac” (quoting Wikipedia) created by the forces that made modern-day Afghanistan. We will come back to this later.

Another look at wider view with more topographic and political details (source).


When you look at the map the country doesn’t make any geographic sense:

  • The Hindu Kush mountains cover a good part of the middle of the country cutting the country into several pieces that don’t connect logically.
  • The many rivers that start in the mountains of Afghanistan, flow in half a dozen different directions with most not reaching the sea: The Swat river empties east into the Indus but some like the Helmand, Harut and Harirud end in the Sistan basin Iran/Afghanistan and others like Murghab and Amu in Turkmenistan.
  • The region south of Kandahar is a logical continuum of Balochistan which is now part of Pakistan and is a sandy desert called guess what – Registan
  • The region east of the road from Kandahar to Ghazni is a sort of dry desert between the Hindu Kush and the FATA highlands in the Af-Pak border beyond which lies Quetta
  • There is a small valley (Jalalabad) between the Hindu Kush and Safed Koh ranges. The Khyber pass is on the Safed Koh range on the road from Jalalabad to Peshawar (in the plains beyond the Safed Koh in Pakistan)
  • Surrounding the Hindu Kush are a short expanse of plains or plateau before you hit the Uzbek, Turkmen or Iranian border. Given the superiority you have when occupying the highlands you can radiate a bit of control over the surrounding plains/plateaus but you cannot occupy an Iran or Uzbekistan! Conversely an Iran or Uzbekistan cannot radiate control into the Hindu Kush mountains. In other words, a geographic stalemate.
  • When they tell you that you could reach the Indian Subcontinent in historic times by climbing either the Khyber or the Bolan pass it is only a half truth.
  • To go from Kabul to Jalalabad (the modern highway is still dangerous) you have to first cross the Khord Kabul pass, the Tezin pass and the Jagdalak pass. Then and only then you may cross the Khyber to reach the Subcontinent proper (Peshawar).
  • The Bolan route is no easier. From Kandahar you cross the Khojak pass through to Quetta after which you may attempt the Bolan pass. If you decide to avoid all the mountain passes then you just trek through the registan!
  • Winter is extremely cold and summer fairly hot along with frequent earthquakes on the Hindu Kush. The elements truly hate you here!
  • To control a mountain pass you need to have strong supply lines. If party A controls Peshawar and party B controls Jalalabad then the Khyber is truly no man’s land in between. This is today’s situation. In historic times Peshawar has been controlled by the Afghans but it was difficult to maintain supply lines from across the Khyber and this was not sustainable always. There are some smaller mountains between Islamabad and Peshawar but this is not an insurmountable difficulty in modern times.
  • Quetta lies between 2 passes and has changed hands historically several times between rulers of Kandahar and of the subcontinent.
  • It is extremely challenging for an attacker from beyond Afghanistan to reach the Subcontinent because reaching Kabul itself from Bukhara or Samarkand means crossing another two or three mountain passes!
  • The Hindu Kush and the Registan are key in truly defining an “Indian Subcontinent” because without these it would be a free pass for all!
  • Therefore, a short trip from one city in Afghanistan to another means crossing a couple of high mountain passes or passing through deserts etc. etc. In historic times this mean every valley and mountain pass had its own tribe whose easiest economic activity was to terrorize any caravans that made the mistake of passing through. To make a trip across these roads you had to pay a “treacherous geography tax“. If you didn’t pay up a horde would ride up on horses and slaughter an already tired caravan. These tribes have made money this way since very ancient times (think pre-silk road) and they still do
  • However, no one tribe could take over the country because of all the above geographic challenges. An uneasy equilibrium was maintained. Tribes had reputations to maintain with huge egos. If one tribe defeated another and took control of a pass or valley, no one forgot. There was always a fight-back even if it came two generations later. They just fought each other until an external force (like the British) appeared and they united momentarily against them. Even the Taliban had to fight the Northern Alliance (ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and others) during its rule.
  • Ranjit Singh of Punjab (undivided) is kind of responsible for the disturbance in the equilibrium when he conquered Peshawar (Khyber Pakhtunwa) and the FATA. The British (and later Pakistan) inherited this. It is hard to say where the equilibrium is but these areas are definitely within the influence of the Pakhtun/Afghani tribes and therefore a big problem for present-day Pakistan. The Durand Line cutting through Pakhtun areas was defined after this disturbance in the equilibrium by a momentarily more powerful British. Afghanistan never really recognized this line, signatures be damned! The Durand Line intrudes a bit too much into the mountains that are not very amenable to control by subcontinental powers.

In light of the above, creating a country here with a strong central power just doesn’t make common sense. So when you read reports of Warlord A (probably Uzbek) controlling Mazar-i-Sharif or Warlord B (probably a tribal from near Quetta) controlling Kandahar, don’t be surprised anymore. Central powers have always had to give local tribes and group broad autonomy to survive even for brief periods and therein lies a possible solution to this problem. Anglo-Afghan wars (there have been four of them since the 1830s), typically start because someone behind a British (or American) desk did not understand these ground realities. The script then follows: dislodge the regime in a matter of days, install a puppet ruler, put soldiers on the ground, struggle to keep supply lines going, take casualties from insurgents, retreat. And repeat! Dalrymple just replaces a handful of names in the first Anglo-Afghan War history and voila you have the current Afghan situation already documented. 

The British tried controlling Afghanistan (grossly overestimating that the Russians could overcome the above geographic challenges and reach India!) and had to retreat with heavy losses. Time and again the central power (Taliban is the latest) in Afghanistan was easily removed but were able to prevent any stability by savaging supply lines passing through difficult deserts and mountain passes and continue an insurgency.

As promised we will also tackle the question of the Wakhan Corridor raised earlier. This is an extreme rugged and high altitude landscape even for Afghanistan but it was on the main trade route from Badakhshan (northern Afghanistan) to Yarkand in the Pamirs and China beyond. This was one of the routes of the Silk Road and ancient celebrities like Marco Polo are said to have crossed this. The northern border was defined as the edge of the Russian empire (as it is along the Pamir river) in an Anglo-Russian Treaty and the southern border was defined by the Durand line. China lies beyond this corridor and now refuses to open it for trade. So the Wakhan Corridor was just to ensure that no part of Russian territory touched British India.

Is there a solution?

  • Unite the historic tribes either by drawing a new line or by making the line irrelevant. This means Peshawar comes under some question and so do the northern regions in Pakistan like Swat. Pakistan will obviously disagree but it might help their security. Even Balochistan will need some rethink on similar lines to improve the current situation.
  • Define smaller geographic units using geography and ethnicity and not lines drawn on maps by bureaucrats sitting in their offices. Provide heavy regional autonomy with only foreign affairs and military (not police) centrally controlled. Try to include the Pakhtun territories currently part of Pakistan in this framework and make nationality irrelevant?
  • Have a Presidency that rotates between tribes but with elected executives to run the Government?
  • Tax trade routes (old formula) and devolve most of it to the tribes (officially regions). Even current tribal borders sometimes are not at equilibrium! This needs to be addressed.

Is this a general problem?

  • Yes, Iraq is an example where borders were drawn by artists in Europe and small ethnic groups were split 2 or 3 ways. Equilibrium will be restored and until then we will see fake equilibriums (Saddam) or real chaos (now).
  • Sudan already split
  • The Balkans after the break of the Austro-Hungarian empire
  • In all of these places regime changes don’t help because of the underlying weird borders.
  • A geographically well-defined country can sustain itself for long periods. Island countries truly demonstrate this! But rivers and mountains that naturally separate ethnic groups should be given primacy over temporary disturbances when defining borders in a civilized world. In this sense, the Indian Subcontinent is a fairly well-defined geographic unit. If only …
  • Then again does a truly civilized world need borders? The answer is no. But not all countries, ethnic and religious groups are ready for such a world for it would demand compromise and compassion from all. Something we sorely lack in these times.


I might have got stuff wrong here because I don’t do this for a living. I read Dalrymple’s book about an year ago and have also read up extensively on articles and write-ups on the Afghan situation. I don’t have any direct experience though so don’t quote as original research please!