Leh to Srinagar – Notes after Day 1

Yesterday was exactly what I had hoped for, a memorable dramatic journey on the way from Ladakh to Kashmir. Now I am just over halfway to Srinagar I am still thinking about why the road exists given this most inhospitable land. Ladakh is largely barren and has few natural resources such as minerals, farmland, natural produce, even water so can barely subsist. The few barley fields are uneconomic. There is just one other link with India and that is southwards through Manali. Kashmir is more self-sufficient with links to Jammu. Roads in general are made for communication and trade. So here are two reasons, apart from its scenic value, that I think make this 440 km road particularly unusual.
1) Tibet and Ladakh have high altitude pastures which are ideal for mountain goats that produce a very fine under fleece or pashm. In another context this could be gold and likewise in high demand. Kashmiris are well-known for their skilful shal (Persian) or shawl-making. So just a matter of bringing the two assets together. This mutual trade began centuries ago and it is surprising that porters from Leh would carry 110 lb. sacks of pashm on their backs over several days through the icy mountains often without tracks. Only recently was it possible to use pack ponies. Now lorries can do the job. This trade fluctuated for several reasons but I was surprised to read that supplies of pashm to make shawls were part of the short-lived 1846 Treaty of Amritsar when the English East India Company released much of Northern India to Maharajah Gulab Singh. Even so it survives without Tibet of course.
2) The borders to the north are fragile due to the nearness of China and Pakistan. When tensions rose between India and China in the 1950s the Chinese discreetly built a military road from Tibet to Xingjian and this was only discovered by India in 1957. The dispute over sovereignty in the northern borders was resolved in the Sino-Indian war of 1962 as the Chinese caught India by surprise and quickly achieved its claim lines but a major war involving US support was only just avoided. As a result the Srinagar-Leh Highway now NH1D was greatly improved in just two years for military purposes to protect Ladakh. Kargil is just a few kilometers from the LoC and as recently as 1999 Pakistani soldiers infiltrated this mountainous area intending to capture and control vital high positions. This was the Kargil War. India responded quickly and recovered the majority of its positions. Kargil has a large military base and it is obvious that the main value now of NH1D is to maintain control of its side of the borders. It has only been open for civilian use since 1974 and remains hazardous and is often snowed up during the winter months.

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