| A vehicle drives through the Khardung La Pass, north of Kashmir. (Reuters file picture)
Khardung La, Oct. 15 (Reuters): It is not clear whether the signpost is intended to be welcoming or menacing.
“You are on the world’s highest motorable road,” it declares.
But as the road climbs to 18,380 feet, the wreckage of trucks that have gone over the edge — visible to anyone brave or foolish enough to look down — pretty much decides it. There is definite menace here.
The Khardung La pass, running through the barren mountains of Ladakh in the remote northwest bordering China and Pakistan, is one of the world’s most forbidding and desolate roads.
Barely a clump of grass grows in this high, cold desert, where the road snakes up vertiginously through the scree towards the jagged rocks of the summit, huge slabs of stone folded together like corrugated iron.
The air thins and the temperature drops sharply despite the blazing sun. Patches of snow appear and finally the road flattens out into an unexpectedly cluttered summit.
Hundreds of prayer flags in green, yellow, red, blue and white have been pinned up alongside the road — the people in this Buddhist-dominated region believe their prayers are picked up and carried by the wind.
Khardung La also boasts the world’s highest temple, a small building in yellow brick. On either side of the road are prefabricated huts in grey and blue.
This road is kept open throughout the year — it leads to the Siachen glacier, the world’s highest battlefield, where India and Pakistan have been fighting since 1984 — and the men who keep it open through the heavy winter snows have to live here.
Inside one of the prefabs, the scene is oddly domestic after the desolation of the road — an unmade bed, a kerosene stove, clothes hanging on a line to dry.
The men, from the Border Roads Organisation, each spend a maximum of three months here — the body cannot tolerate living at such an altitude for longer — to clear the road.
“They have the toughest, most challenging job,” said Brigadier Amar Jit Singh, chief engineer of the group.
With snow piling up to 20 feet near the pass, the men operate in independent teams, supported by manual labourers, each clearing their part of a 27-km stretch until the pass is open. “They have to get up, heat the oil and start the bulldozers in sub-zero temperatures,” said Singh.
“The cold is our biggest problem,” said A. Majeed, an employee from the plains who had begun a three-month stint on “Khardung La Top”, as it is called. He shivered as the wind blew down from distant snow-covered mountains.
Before he got to the top, he was ordered to acclimatise at a checkpoint on the route at 15,300 feet. Similarly, when he finishes, he will be “deinducted” slowly, instead of being allowed to descend directly.
Last year, an avalanche swept away a bulldozer operator and two labourers. Two survived but the body of one labourer was found a month later in the valley far below.
The road was completed in the 1970s but when fighting began in 1984 on the Siachen glacier at heights of 22,000 feet, the group was ordered to keep the pass open through the year.
Both India and Pakistan claim the Siachen glacier, which lies to the north of Kashmir, a territory disputed by both once they won Independence from Britain in 1947.
Each day, army convoys lumber up the narrow road from Leh, the capital of Ladakh, and through Khardung La carrying troops, oil and equipment for the standoff on Siachen.
Along the highway are a string of army bases where soldiers train and supplies are stocked to be airlifted to the men deployed on the glacier.
On the way to the frontline, the highway descends into the sparsely inhabited Nubra Valley where caravans from Central Asia used to halt along ancient trade routes to Ladakh and Tibet.
And, always passionate about its signposts, the border roads group has put up yellow signs urging drivers to be cautious.
“Driving with care makes accidents rare”, says one; another, more inventively, “Overtakers, beware of undertakers”.