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Ladakhis await re-opening of historic Tibet route

Luv Puri

Use of Demchok tract by Kailash-Manasarovar pilgrims will boost local economy: MLA

POVERTY BELT: Ladakhi children near the Line of Actual Control.

DEMCHOK: (Line of Actual Control):In sharp contrast to the rest of Jammu and Kashmir which eagerly awaits the opening of a shorter trading route and softening of borders with Pakistan-occupied territory, this part of the State desires the early re-opening of historic trade routes with Chinese-occupied territory. These routes traditionally kept these remote areas in contact with the outside world for several centuries and what enthuses the Ladakhis is the recent assurance of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that he would take up the re-opening of the Demchok-Kailash Manasarovar road with the Chinese Government.

The Demchok tract is situated in the Chumathang belt and the Indus flows through it. This was the historic route of the caravans heading to various parts of China.

Ladakhis have been demanding the use of the Demchok tract to facilitate road travel to Kailash Manasarovar. A proposal has also been made to China regarding an alternative route to Kailash-Manasarovar to make the Yatra more convenient. The Prime Minister raised this issue during the visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to India in April 2005. China reportedly said it was willing to facilitate the pilgrimages from India.

This reporter took the much-touted route which started from Leh, the main district headquarters to see the condition of the road set to become an international highway when the two countries finally reach an agreement to re-open the historic route. The road from Leh which runs parallel to the muddy Indus which originates from Tibet is a difficult tract and one can reach Demchok after travelling 198 km.

But it is an arduous journey as the road is metalled only till Dugti 98 km from Leh. From Dugti there is a 100 km unmetalled road, which takes more than six hours to cover till the last Indian post at Demchok.

Demchok is a typical cold desert village although compared to other parts of the Ladakh region it is situated at a low altitude. Administrative record books show that it has a population of 150 people living in 24 houses, all having solar-powered lights. The village itself was divided into two parts one held by India and the other by China after the 1962 Sino-Indian war, though there is not a single divided family. On the Chinese side one can spot two houses and the road seems to be in a poor condition.

Brigadier Manvendra Singh who is the officer in charge of the area says: "Not a single shot has been exchanged in the area and there is complete peace. Once the official go-ahead comes in, it would take just a few months for us to make the tract fit for traffic."

From here, Manasarovar in Tibet and the major attraction of pilgrims is just 200 km away but in contrast to other routes available from the country this is mainly a plain route.

The entire tract can be covered by vehicles. The main town on this route is Tashigong, 35km away from here and on the western highway which links China with the important Xinghang province. Rhudak is another small shantytown presently famous for its gold mines.

Local residents here admit that clandestine trade has gone on for decades although lately it has come down with the curbs imposed by security agencies. Nawang Chora, a 30-year-old man says: "There was a time when goods from neighbouring areas used to flood Ladakh but now due to restrictions the goods are mostly coming from the plains of the country." Still one would readily find Chinese goods in every house with the favourite being thermos bottles and foot wear.

The local political elite is also aware of the tremendous boom awaiting the local economy if the Demchok route is opened. Pintoo Narboo, local MLA and famous Leh-based hotelier says: "Ladakh has lost its role as the trading hub between the sub-continent, Tibet and Xinjiang. Currently, a handful of pilgrims go to Kailash-Manasarovar through Uttaranchal or through Nepal.

If the Demchok route is re-opened there would be a flood of pilgrims coming to this place as this is a very convenient route. This would boost the local economy. Demchok can be a gateway for India to the unexplored markets in central Asia or inner Asia.

In my view it is a win-win proposition for the people of Ladakh and the country."

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