Manali to Ladakh Tunnel and the End of Seclusion

Recently the Government of India announced that it would begin a long planned road infrastructure project, that of the Rohtang tunnel on the Manali to Leh road. Once completed, the tunnel will create year round road access to Ladakh, which is presently cut off from Manali (and thus the most direct road access to Delhi) for around six months every year. The tunnel aims to by-pass the 3995 metre Rohtang pass, which regularly becomes impassable in the winter months due to heavy snowfall. The effect of this tunnel will be a greater flow of goods into Ladakh – surely a relief for its residents, who presently have to suffer through the long winter months on barely a trickle of fresh produce and other goods. It will also mean a greater number of tourists visiting throughout the year, hopefully offering the local tourism industry a more sustained stream of revenue – as opposed to the current four month summer window of feverous activity, followed by the long winter off-season. However the flipside of this increased flow of goods will be the subtle erosion of the very reason that has drawn tourists to the region – its exotic remoteness and inaccessibility. Though long ago was Ladakh truly remote – perhaps since before private airlines such as Jet and Kingfisher began operations to Leh, when the region was beholden to the on-again, off-again service of Indian Airlines – it is nonetheless the final barrier, psychological and/or physical, to be overcome in connecting this starkly beautiful but fragile part of the Indian Himalaya to the rest of India and the world beyond.

Concurrently work is continuing in the Zanskar region of Ladakh on a Leh to Padum road, which aims to create an alternative, faster route between Kargil and Leh, via the main Zanskar town of Padum. The effect of this road will be three fold: It will allow tourists entering Ladakh by road from the Srinagar/Kargil side to reach Leh via the Zanskar valley, thereby greatly increasing the number of ‘drive-by’ visitors to this once remote region of Ladakh. Secondly, the road will be the first direct route between Leh and Padum, which are presently only directly connected by a trekking path. The direct road will mean that non-trekking tourists who visit Leh will now be able to easily visit the Zanskar valley. Thirdly it will result in easy access to Chilling, the tiny hamlet near the confluence of the Markha and Zanskar rivers, which is a regular starting point for the hugely popular Markha Valley trek. Taken together the effect of the road on these small, hitherto isolated villages and trekking routes will be quite significant: the Markha Valley will see many more casual visitors due to the greatly increased vehicle traffic at the foot of its valley, potentially causing the loss of its unique appeal; and darbhas and small shops will open along the Zanskar valley in order to service the vehicle traffic, creating rubbish and waste problems. While the overall outcome for residents – increased connectivity and new economic opportunities – would appear to be beneficial, one has to wonder what the long-term impact on the important value-added tourism activities such as trekking will be.

These are only two small examples of the work that is being carried out to open up and connect Ladakh to ‘mainland’ India, driven by both tourism and the military’s need to have reliable, year round supply lines to the northern border areas. Within ten years the complexion of the region will change dramatically, as it has over the last ten years. Hopefully the aspects of the area – its natural beauty, remoteness, the challenge of getting there and its alluring exoticness – which draw outsiders into sustainable and high-yield activities such as trekking will not be lost in that process. If you don’t want to miss seeing this amazing place before it changes beyond recognition, we suggest you put Ladakh on your list and get there sooner rather than later.