All the above reports were based on this journey chronicled below.
Day I, 28 July: We leave Leh, Ladakh's capital exactly at 7. In fact when you travel in the mountains, its always best to start as early as possible, even may be an hour before we actually left. Our first destination: Phobrang village (see map). As we follow the District Collector Simrandeep Singh's vehicle, we pass through the usual tourist sites--Sindhu Darshan, Shey--before climbing on to the Chang La, one of the highest passes in Ladakh at 17688 feet. A throng of tourists are busy clicking pictures. After all, this is the peak tourist season in the area. A quick glass of warm water and we are on our way to Darbuk.
Ten km down the road, a group of villagers
|The original map by Aarti and Harsh|
|Our journey, marked by maroon squares|
|Dist Collector Simrandeep Singh reading a memorandum|
|At Pangang Tso|
|An agitated villager at Merak|
|Simrandeep Singh, the young collector|
A quick, local lunch prepared by the villagers and we are off to Lukung, at the very edge of the beautiful Pangong Tso (lake). A string of villages along the lake starting with Spangmik, Mena, Merak takes us to Chushul late evening. An eventful day ends with a long discussion with an Army Unit which was in Assam and the one I had visited in 2007! A sumptuous dinner later, we crash around midnight tired to the bones. Tomorrow is another day.
|Paying my respects to the gallant 13 Kumaonis|
|In contemplative mood at Rezangla|
|Speaking to Rinchin|
|A Tibetan nomad|
The Collector meanwhile has heard the familiar demands: a pucca road, at least one telephone connection in the village and electricity. He points out that solar energy is the focus of the government and all households should get their rightful due in some years. But agrees that roads must be built on priority.We move on. Now its going to be a minimum of five hours of drive to Demchock, at the southern most extreme point in Eastern Ladakh where frequent stand offs between Indian Army and PLA troops is common. On the way, we run into nomads who stop us and complain about shriking pastures and the tendency among Indian security forces to restrain Indian Ribos (nomads) from venturing close to the LAC. The District Collector turns to the accompanying ITBP officials and seeks to understand the ITBP argument in keeping the nomads away. Simrandeep is not satisfied. But we carry on nevertheless. As we hit the final stretch to Demchock, the ground is flat and naturally gravelled but there is no road. Army battle tanks can roll on this terrain very easily, I think to myself but even a Mahindra SUV has its limits. Two hours of bumpy ride along the Indus brings us to Demchock, the absolutely last village on the Indian side.
|The Chinese post across Demchok|
|A double story colony for Chinese Ribos across Demchok|
Its getting late. We have another five hours to travel back to Hanle. If we had travelled in a straight line, the journey time would have been cut down by half but the road is incomplete, so the circuitous route it is.
A long bumpy ride back, brings us to Hanle, base to the Indian Astronomical Observatory, reputed to be the world's highest observatory. The guest house is decent but basic. Tired to the bone after a 15 hour road journey, we have a hot meal and hit the bed. But not before realising that tomorrow is going to be longer!
|Villagers at Chumur|
So our convoy heads to what looks like a disputed spot. The local ITBP commander gets the jitters. He has been told not to allow anyone beyond a certain point. But preventing local residents is one thing and stopping the District Collector is quite another. So he leads the convoy. After a 15 minute drive on a kutcha road, we are at a point called Mane up to which the PLA troops apparently come almost every second day. "They had come yesterday (29th July)," one of the local residents tells me as I do my piece-to-camera at the troubled spot.
My colleague, cameraperson Manu Nair points out that we must be the first Indian media persons to have reached the place which is in news for almost every month for the past two years for stand offs between Indian and Chinese troops!
After a 15-minute inspection of the spot and the terrain around the area, we head back to the ITBP camp. A quick lunch accompanied by an explanation of the situation on the detailed map later, we are on the road again.
A seven hour return journey lies ahead. Its not until 11 pm, that we are back at Leh, only to wake up again at 5 to catch the 7 am flight back to Delhi the next day!
A gruelling, 1250 km extremely educative trip is over. The back is beginning to hurt, the knees are creaking but the satisfaction of having seen the situation on ground and understood the pathetic condition of border villages in Ladakh far outweighs the pain!