GATA LOOPS OF LADAKH A Driver’s Nightmare

Satish Singh Lalotra
…. A Norwegian proverb.

‘Travelling is an education’. Though a small and crisp sentence ,it encompasses within itself a world of wisdom, knowledge and myriad experiences all rolled into one. With the modern means of transportation man has been able to map this planet in a very short span of time those places which were unthinkable even a few decades back .India is one of the most diverse and geographically demanding landscapes on this planet ,with government of the day constantly devising new and newer methods to cover those areas which hitherto were reached only by animal transport or by foot. India’s northern border states particularly J&K, Himachal Pradesh and Uttrakhand have been bestowed by one of the most geographically unreachable spots to include mountains, lakes and glaciers. Ladakh bordering Lahul and Spiti of Himachal Pradesh and Tibet in the east ,has within itself a plethora of mountain passes ,trekking trails, yet to be discovered for a tourist’s delight. An initial attempt to map ,survey and walk through these inhospitable areas was done by the British in the initial decades of 19th century when the’ Great Game'( Proxy war between Russia and UK) was in full swing for the control of these areas for the final march of Russian army into the hinterland of India. British army officers , in the garb of tourists/businessmen like Capt Francis Younghusband, David’ O’ Conolly etc were specially given charge to map these mountain passes and roads by the viceroys of that time to include Lord Dalhousie ,Lord Elgin etc ,the aim being to find out the probable Russian army’s advance into India ,and block them in time so as to negate their design of expansion into south Asia .Famous Indologist Peter Hopkirk in his book ‘The Great Game ‘has beautifully depicted the various attempts by British Govt in India to launch discreet expeditions to these faraway places for their assimilation in their greater scheme of expansion in the Indian subcontinent .Ladakh has always been the cynosure of Great Britain /Indian travelers mapping its innermost recesses, valleys which continues to this day.
My interest in Ladakh was triggered primarily by my stay in Siachen Glacier as also having few short visits to Zozila and high altitude school in Sonamarg while serving in the army .After having had my share of Siachen glacier posting ,self was posted along with my Battalion to another equally interesting mountainous place in the Himachal ,known as Roopa valley in district Kinnaur .Route to Kinnaur can be followed either from Shimla or from Leh ,with both sides offering a range of exciting opportunities waiting to be exploited by a die hard traveller . Since self was supposed to be moving out from Leh via road ,and with the traditional Leh-Srinagar road choc a bloc with tourist vehicles ,it was decided to route out from Leh to Roopa valley via Manali following the Leh-Manali road/highway. The Leh -Manali highway is a 490 Kms /300 Miles long highway ,connecting Leh ,the capital of the union territory of Ladakh with Manali in Himachal Pradesh. The highway is open for only about 5 months starting from May till Sep,when the snow is cleared and closes mid October ,when the snow fall again blocks the high passes. The primary destinations on this highly demanding highway being..Leh- Shey-Karu-Upshi-Gya-Sarchu(state border)-Zingzingbar-Patseo-Darcha-Jispa-Keylong-Tandi-Sissu-Khoksar-Gramphu-Rohtang-Manali.The highway was designed ,built and maintained by the Border roads organization (BRO)of the Indian army. It supports the heaviest of vehicles. The average elevation of this highway is more than 4,000 mts/13,000 feet ,with highest elevation touching 5328meters/17,480 feet at Tanglang la pass. The highway is generally 2 lanes wide ,(one lane in each direction) with a road divider ,but it has only one and half lanes at some stretches. It has over a dozen bailey bridges ,some in poor condition . Having started from Leh in a long convoy of 80 odd vehicles loaded to the brim early in the morning ,we crossed Upshi via the famous Shey Gompa . Having crossed the outskirts of Upshi ,suddenly the mesmerizing beauty of Ladakh unfolded in front of us with all its splendor .The road from Upshi to Sarchu via Gya is all along river Indus meandering its way across in all its beauty. In fact from Upshi to Sarchu via Tanglang La pass a distance of 60 kms is hazardous to say the least. From Sarchu to Gata Loops is about 24 kms which passes through Nakeela pass at 4739mts/15547 ft and Lachungla pass at 5065mts/16616 ft.
The Gata Loops are a complex set of 21hairpin bends with the highest bend at 4667mts/15302 feet. The name Gata Loops is unknown to anyone except for the few who have travelled on the Leh-Manali highway. As a matter of fact this steep and winding section of the road is considered as one of the tourist attractions of Manali-Leh highway. As per many these Ghata Loops are haunted and different people have different take on this .But the most plausible one which stands to conviction goes like this…
A truck many years ago loaded upto the brim and with 2 travellers was on way to Leh some where in mid October . The driver and the cleaner with the loaded truck crossed the already frozen Rohtang pass ,by which time the Kunzam pass was already closed due to heavy snowfall and hence no vehicle was coming from Kaza side .Unfortunately the truck developed a technical fault right at the Gata Loops ,eventually making the truck halt at the loop. The cleaner of the truck was very ill and barely able to stand. Since the truck couldn’t be left unattended at the loops, hence the driver started walking to the nearest village to get some help. There being no help in the village, the driver started walking to another village some distance away, when the weather turned bad and heavy snowfall started off. The driver just couldn’t go ahead and was stuck in the village for days together ,with the poor cleaner left in the truck. The driver in the meanwhile passed information to Manali for help. Help came but after many days ,and by the time the rescue party went to the Gata loops to look up the cleaner , he had frozen to death. The poor cleaner was cremated at the Gata loops itself.
The legend says that whenever any traveler goes to the Gata loops , he is stopped by a beggar asking for water . All those who do not offer any help are met with some or the other mishap on their journey, whereas those who help ,have said and reported that the moment they offer the water bottle to the beggar, the water bottle simply falls off from his hands ,with no sign of that beggar . Seeing all these things the locals decided to build a small temple at the very site of the cremation of that beggar ,and started offering water bottles to quench the thirst of this unknown spirit.
In fact the whole of our northern states are full of such legendry tales which are enough to make your hairs stand on its head. All said and done , the Gata loops are not meant for the faint hearted ,but the stout ones in mind ,body and spirit. The need of the hour is for the governments both at the state and center to make adequate infrastructure for the travelers to enable them undertake the onerous journey round the year. With the opening of the Atal tunnel which is 8.5 kms long at the Rohtang pass ,it is hoped that long felt need of the locals is met finally.
(The author is Colonel (Retd.)