The old Hindustan Tibet road at an altitude of 12,000 feet in the mountainous terrain of Himachal Pradesh is steeped in history. This road was a part of the ancient Silk Route to China forming a peripheral trade centre where products like musk, borax, wool, livestock, dried fruits and precious and semi-precious stones were traded in Tibet, Kashmir, Ladakh and Yarkand ever since 1300 BC. Local traders also used the other passes on this treacherous landscape like Lukma La, Gongma La, Yamrang La, Gumarang La, Shimdang La, Raniso La and Keobarang to name a few. Traders from Himachal Pradesh who lived in the Baspa valley and its adjoining areas used the Yamrang La pass and Cho Gad valley to reach Tibet.
The road was first laid by the then British Governor General of India, Lord Dalhousie who wanted to create trade ties with Tibet and proposed to construct the Hindustan Tibet road in 1850. The then Commander-in-Chief Sir Charles Napier was appointed for this difficult task because of his stellar contributions to the East India Company. Sir Charles Napier designed the route and set about using the immense machinery at his disposal in the 19th century and styled it as the Great Hindustan Tibet road.
Another reason given for the commission of this road was that as there was a rampant system of unpaid forced labour called begari which was prevalent in the hilly regions for transporting timber, goods as well as government assignments, Lord Dalhousie wanted to improve the conditions of the roads these men traversed.
The construction of the road was quite a challenge as it is located on one of the highest mountain ranges in the world. The road is surrounded by a punishing austere landscape of mountains, deep gorges and valleys with many nerve-racking twists and turns and drops into an unfathomable abyss. The road extended as far as Karin Khud, that lies beyond the territory of the former princely state of Rampur Bushahr in 1886 and in 1927, extended to a little beyond Namega, which was the last village of the Indo-Tibet border.
It is said that before India’s independence in 1947, the road was divided into two parts – the old road extended from Narkanda to Sarahan, via Baghi, Khadrala, Sungri, Bahili, Taklesh, Dararaghati, and Sarahan. The half-tunnels carved through the rocky cliffs of Khimring Dhankh are considered to be the largest stretch of rock tunnelling done for a road.
This 500 km scenic road stretches from Ambala to Kaurik, passing through the foothills of the Shivalik range, Shimla, Kingal, while following the banks of the Satluj river, Rampur, Poari, Pooh and running along the Spiti river between Khab and Sumdo. As the road nears the border town of Khab, it runs for a short distance through Namgyal up to Shipki La pass where it ultimately enters Tibet. The road however ends about 90 kms before the border as the rest of the road is under the control of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. The Indian section of the road ends at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The 335 km stretch from Kalka to Wangtu is under the control of the Himachal Pradesh Public Works Department while Border Roads Organization has authority from Wangtu to Kaurik.
The old Hindustan Tibet road is definitely not for the faint-hearted and is perhaps one of most adrenaline pumping experiences one will have in their life. The road is a remarkable feat of human effort and the beautiful mountains, crisp air, stunning visuals interspersed with myriad colours and the natural beauty of the landscape makes up for the arduous and sometimes back-breaking journey.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)