A Winter Night on the India-China Himalayan Frontier
A Winter Night on the India-China Himalayan Frontier
The Line of Actual Control between China and India traverses through the Kailash range which is visible from Chushul village. It was the theatre of conflict during the 1962 Indo-China war and it was also one of the sites of friction in 2020 CRISIS GROUP / Praveen Donthi
Our Journeys / Asia

A Winter Night on the India-China Himalayan Frontier

Ladakh, a barren, frigid plateau facing Tibet, is one of India’s most vulnerable spots in its decades-old border dispute with China. In the winter months, as Crisis Group expert Praveen Donthi found, it is also one of the least hospitable places on earth.

I woke up feeling as if I was under the rubble of a collapsed roof. It took me a couple of seconds to realise that I had to move the layers of heavy blankets on top of me to breathe easy. I groped in the dark for my cell phone to check the time. It was 11:20pm – only an hour since I had fallen asleep. I had thought it would be much closer to dawn. Suddenly, I was alert, my mind in overdrive. I couldn’t be sure what I was feeling, even as a frigid draught came in from a window covered with a thick transparent plastic sheet. I was supposed to be cold, but all I felt was numbness. Was the air so cold that I couldn’t feel it? Or was it the thin air at this high altitude that was making my senses dull, my breathing difficult and my thinking slow? I looked at my friend, as if searching for support – he was fast asleep, or so I thought. I was in Chushul, a Himalayan village on the India-China border in Ladakh, at a height of 4,282m (14,050ft), where temperatures fall as low as 40 degrees below zero Celsius in winter. It was 17 below that night, which turned out to be the longest of my life.  

Ladakh, which faces Tibet in China, is one of the most inhospitable places on earth, and something of an oddity in India: in the world’s second most populous country, where even smaller provincial cities are home to millions of people, the region has an average of just four inhabitants per square kilometre. Well-off Indians from other parts of the country come here on road trips during the brief summer months in search of adventure on the Himalayan plateau. Many Indians imagine these borderlands as places for conquest, especially Ladakh, which boasts some of the highest motorable roads in the world. I had personally taken three such motorcycle rides to Ladakh in the past. I remember feeling like an ant on the rim of the earth while traversing the lunar landscape, a powerful sensation that has stayed with me ever since.

Above: Taking a flight is the only way into Leh when the high passes close down due to snow in the winter. The flight crosses the Great Himalayas and the Trans Himalayas before landing in Leh, November 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Praveen Donthi

The World’s Highest Battlefield 

Ladakh is not a place to be afraid of loneliness, but the perfect destination for anyone who wants to embrace it. Observing those who live here offers a lesson in survival. Everyone is at the mercy of Mother Nature in this cold desert, and people who venture this far up – whether residents or vacationers – are always willing to go out of their way to help out their fellows. Travel here feels philosophical and metaphysical. Or maybe, as a friend once half-jokingly said, it’s the thin air that makes us feel fragile and vulnerable. Whatever the reason, I long to come back to these majestic mountains every summer. 

This visit, however, was my first during winter, and it felt like I had arrived on a different planet. At an altitude of 3,524m (11,562ft), Leh, the quaint capital city, is the unlikely nerve centre of India’s strategically most important region. Bordering China and Pakistan, two countries with which India has complicated relations, Ladakh is often referred to as the world’s highest battlefield. The poplar trees, usually filled out with green or yellow leaves, now looked barren and mysterious, rising up against the intense blue sky. The sun felt strangely close to earth, the light was blinding and the thin air freezing cold. The surrounding peaks, which I remembered being a million hues of brown, were powdered in snow. The town, which I had seen bustling in the summertime, seemed half asleep. Leh’s population trickles down to only a few thousand during the winter months, when the passes are snowed in and Ladakh remains accessible only by air. It was however heartwarming to see young Ladakhis reclaiming their city in the offseason. Their joie de vivre lent a cheerful ambience to the handful of cafés and restaurants that were open. In the summertime, the locals, apart from those who work in the tourism industry, are invisible.

The central market of Leh wearing a deserted look in the winter, November 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Praveen Donthi

Unlike on my previous trips, setting up meetings turned out to be particularly difficult; everything seemed to take longer than usual, as if winter had somehow slowed the pace of life. But I was determined to pursue the idea I had in mind when taking off from New Delhi to visit a border area that had recently witnessed clashes between the Indian and Chinese armies. I zeroed in on Chushul, which the Indian armed forces refer to as the “Chushul bowl” or “Chushul subsector”, a point of friction between the two huge, nuclear-armed neighbours. 

In the summer of 2020, Indian and Chinese units were within firing range of each other for a while at a few places along the border, including here on the Chushul heights, after a deadly nearby confrontation in which India lost at least twenty soldiers. That May skirmish, in which soldiers of the world’s two largest armies fought with bare hands and wooden clubs, throwing each other into an ice-cold river below, was the worst incident along the 3,488km India-China border for over half a century. It has profoundly altered the bilateral relationship. Almost two years later, what seems like an endless series of military and diplomatic talks haven’t managed to ease the tensions; on the contrary, each country has deployed more troops on its side of the border.

Just before reaching Chushul village on the Line of Actual Control, an undemarcated border between India and China, November 2021 CRISIS GROUP / Praveen Donthi

As Beijing and New Delhi blame each other for territorial encroachments along the unmarked frontier, there is a real risk that tensions in Ladakh could flare up into something larger. The international border, though it exists on maps, is hard to put your finger on when you’re there. Its official name, the Line of Actual Control, makes clear that perceptions differ on the two sides as to where it lies, leaving room for perpetual disputes. 

States in Asia got their fuzzy international boundaries from colonial administrations. The India-China border dispute is a classic example of that legacy. India’s British rulers had signed a boundary treaty with Tibet in 1914, which came to be known as the McMahon Line. In 1947, newly independent India inherited the colonial administration’s treaties, including this one. But when China invaded Tibet in 1950, the buffer zone that had existed between the two Asian giants vanished, paving the way for the 1962 Sino-Indian war. That conflict resulted in a humiliating defeat for India, with China seizing Aksai Chin, which until then had been part of Indian Kashmir. Since then, the unresolved disputes have been a thorn in the side of bilateral relations, eventually leading to the present-day crisis.

Into the “Forward Protected Areas”

I started planning for a possible visit to the area as part of my research on the India-China border dispute. But everyone I spoke to tried to dissuade me. While Leh has become a tourist destination, the border areas are truly remote and getting there is difficult. Many told me that after the May clashes, the government is hypersensitive about visitors to the area; some assured me the army would turn me back at the first checkpoint. Everyone also warned me about the unforgiving cold at that altitude in the middle of winter. Some told stories of tourists who went to sleep but never woke up, or of others who wound up suffering from acute mountain sickness and cerebral edema. Two days before my scheduled departure, I also heard that journalists had been sent back, their effort to reach the border thwarted, even though they worked for pro-government media outlets. But I had to take a chance. Until recently, non-local Indians had to apply for an Inner Line Permit to visit these “forward protected areas” along the border, but in a move to underline India’s sovereignty over these lands after the territorial dispute resurfaced in 2020, the government scrapped the rule and replaced the permit with an “environment fee”, which I paid. Then came one last piece of friendly advice from a local: “Don’t stay the night”. 

We started around 5am for Chushul, about 250km from Leh. Given the terrain, that distance makes for a six- or seven-hour drive. As soon as we exited the regional capital, our car was the only one in sight. Driving over the stark plateau, it felt as if the entire landscape, the product of complex geological phenomena taking place over millions of years, was in deep winter slumber. Nobody was manning the checkpoints so early in the morning and, to my relief, we crossed all of them without being stopped. We climbed the Chang La pass at 5,361m (17,590ft) and entered the Shyok river valley. We were moving along one of the three routes the caravans of the old Trans-Himalayan Silk Road used to take from Srinagar, in Indian Kashmir, to Yarkand, in China’s Xinjiang province. Back then, travellers referred to the Shyok as “the river of death”, because its waters had swept away so many men and pack animals trying to ford it. It was a journey into deep silence. The river was frozen over and the air trapped below the ice looked like an explosion of confetti. 

When the sun came out brilliant over the snowy peaks, the sound of the ice melting in the river below felt like the heartbeat of some sleeping giant.

CRISIS GROUP / Praveen Donthi

When the sun came out brilliant over the snowy peaks, the sound of the ice melting in the river below felt like the heartbeat of some sleeping giant. From a distance, I could see Chushul in the foothills of the Kailash range. We drove past the army checkpoint at the village entrance and managed to find a homestay. In winter, the only guests in this area are normally truck drivers passing through with freight. The plan was to spend the night and head back via the villages along the Pangong Tso lake, which is divided between India’s eastern Ladakh and China’s western Tibet, and has been in the news over the last two years as a major point of contention. Satellite images show that, even with the bilateral talks under way, China is building a bridge across the lake on its side to facilitate troop movement. Chushul is also one of the five designated locations along the Line of Actual Control for formal meetings between the two countries’ border personnel. 

The “Chushul bowl” is part of the Changthang region, which means “northern plain” in Tibetan, though it is located in eastern Ladakh. Its Tibetan name made sense, however, once I realised that Changthang is an extension of Tibet’s northern steppe on the other side of the border. It was another reminder that inherited colonial borders do not reflect the region’s socio-cultural identity. 

Winter here lasts between six and eight months, and villages are often dozens of kilometres apart, nestled along the rivers so that residents can grow a few fruit trees and plots of vegetables. Yet, though it looks arid, this region was a vital economic artery for hundreds of years. From the second century BCE until the fifteenth century CE, the Silk Road, a network of trade routes, extended for about 6,500km, connecting China to the West via India and Central Asia. Merchants exported silk from China, giving the road its name. Other traders plying the route carried all sorts of goods including indigo, spices, tea, carpets, wool, corals, cannabis resin and salt. Ladakh’s main contribution to that trade was the world-renowned luxury fibre cashmere, which comes from the undercoat of the Pashmina goats reared in Changthang. When I visited, the herds had gone in search of winter pastures, but I spotted some delicate goat pashm, as the precious material is called, stuck to the dry stumps by the roadside. 

From Chushul village, I could see most of the strategic places I had been reading about when researching the border dispute, making things much more real. Between Magar hill and Gurung hill is the Spanggur gap, named after the Spanggur Tso lake, which the international border splits in half. The Spanggur gap is one of India’s vulnerable points; breaching it would allow Chinese troops not just to enter Chushul, but also to roll up the main road up to Leh, on which I had arrived, and from which they could reach the rest of India. 

In 2020, this area was a site of fast-moving military manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre. While troops normally pull back from the Line of Actual Control in the winter due to the extreme weather, that year an estimated 100,000 Indian and Chinese soldiers remained deployed throughout the winter months, for the first time since the 1962 war. 

It is often said that the Indian army has lost more soldiers in the area to the altitude than to conflict

Mountain peaks on the higher reaches get as high as 5,480m (18,000ft) – an environment so harsh that mountaineers call it “the death zone”, where human cells cease functioning due to lack of oxygen. It was hard to imagine hundreds of thousands of soldiers stationed in these wilds. While I knew it before leaving New Delhi, being here made very clear that this military situation has no parallel in history. It is often said that the Indian army has lost more soldiers in the area to the altitude than to conflict with the states it faces across the border – China and Pakistan. Not just acute mountain sickness, but also high-altitude pulmonary edema, deep vein thrombosis and cerebral venous thrombosis are vicious killers. So are the mental illnesses that go along with the physical discomfort and the extreme isolation. The Indian army euphemistically refers to this reality as “daily attrition”, and never reveals the number of casualties its troops suffer while posted in the region. 

For the Locals, a Shrinking World

The Indian state tends to look at Ladakh through a security prism, with scant consideration for local people such as the pastoral nomads of Changthang. Nomadism is hard to reconcile with the territorial foundations of a modern nation-state and its capacity to regulate its population, especially on the borders. Cartographers drawing imaginary lines of possession can never come close to the intimacy with which the nomads know and talk about the land. But the pastoral nomads of Changthang, who move around with their rebos (tents made of yak hair and skin) have had no choice but to come to terms with the concept of borders. “In the past, we used to go up to Kegu Naro to graze our livestock”, an elderly man in Chushul told me. “Later, the Indian army started stopping us at Dumchele, and now they don’t allow us to go there, either”. But then his tale takes a twist: “Dumchele used to be ours but now it is with China”. 

A map of the journey from Leh, the capital city, to Chushul village on the Indo-China border in Eastern Ladakh. Disclaimer: All locations are approximate. India and China have differing perceptions of the Line of Actual Control. CRISIS GROUP

I later looked for these places on the map. The old man’s narrative tallies with other accounts, and sheds light on the manner in which China has been regularly pushing on the border in recent decades. “In the absence of Indian activities, Chinese traders arrived in Dumchele in the early 1980s and China gradually constructed permanent roads, buildings and military posts here”, writes Phunchok Stobdan, a former Indian diplomat from Ladakh. The author lists other grazing spots lost to China over the years: Nagtsang in 1984, Nakung in 1991 and Lungma-Serding in 1992. These areas are a lifeline for the pastoral nomads in winters when everything dries up in the valleys. But when the Chinese army moves in, or when the sides deploy extra troops due to border tensions, as happened in 2020, they find their world shrinking. 

The situation on the other side of the Line is somewhat different: over the past decades, China has settled its nomadic people in the border villages of Tibet with decent infrastructure, including in contested areas. The case of Dumchele is in that regard quite revealing of Beijing’s strategic approach to establishing de facto sovereignty over areas India also claims, through a combination of military operations and settlement. After taking control of the Dumchele grazing spot, the Chinese army also allowed it to become a trading post where a winter fair took place annually for a period of months. This trade, which involved people from all over Ladakh informally crossing over to Tibet, was never legally authorised, but enjoyed the tacit support of the People’s Liberation Army, which has a border post nearby. Chinese consumer goods therefore entered from Dumchele and are now ubiquitous in Ladakh homes. The elderly man told me that the Chinese traders readily accepted Indian currency at the fair in the past, but stopped in 2016 when the Indian government abruptly cancelled and replaced some high-denomination notes with new ones.

Dumchele’s winter fair was interrupted after the 2020 border clash. In its absence, the people of Changthang have to go all the way to markets in Leh, where goods are more expensive. 

Above: Indian Army convoy ascending the Chang La pass at an altitude of 17,590 feet in Ladakh, November 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Praveen Donthi

While it has maintained roads to facilitate troop movements, India has largely neglected the border areas in Ladakh. Rising border tensions have however prompted a rethink, especially as China has built infrastructure more quickly on its side since the 2020 clash. In Chushul, the locals joked that the post-2020 Chinese threat was a blessing in disguise, as road construction and electrification of border villages is now speeding up. Yet they also point out that Tibetan nomads on the Chinese side are better off. Indeed, the Indian administration is struggling to meet the locals’ demands for basic facilities such as medical services in these remote villages. 

One of the biggest hurdles for improving infrastructure in the area is China’s sensitivity to any initiatives on the Indian side, which Beijing tends to see as fortifying New Delhi’s claim to disputed territory. Some observers actually suggest that it was India’s building of a new road close to the border that triggered the 2020 clash. The elderly man also recounted how, a few years ago, the regional government had agreed to villagers’ request for a cell phone tower in the area, but the army objected at the last minute, worried that the Chinese might react negatively. “We went on a protest march and the Chinese soldiers came on top of the hill to see what the noise was all about”, he told me. The young councillor of Chushul, Konchak Stanzin, has been vocal about such problems. When the villagers were not allowed to graze their cattle in 2021 even after both armies had disengaged from the area, he pointed out to the media: “This area is not frequented by the Chinese grazers much; the army should not set a precedent by not allowing the Indian grazers at these locations. Before you know it, this might become a permanent arrangement, much to our disadvantage”. 

The elderly man had other complaints besides disappearing pastures and the striking lack of infrastructure. He said the army and government do not trust the locals, presumably because they share a social, religious and cultural heritage with the Tibetans across the border. “As a strategy, the Chinese encourage their nomads [to move into the area] and provide facilities so that they can come with their livestock and mark the territory as their own. On our side, we have to take several clearances, have to show our ID cards, our livestock are counted, and even then, sometimes we are not permitted”, Stanzin explained. 

The Rezang La war memorial, near the Line of Actual Control between India and China, has been revamped and inaugurated in November 2021 amidst ongoing border tensions between the two countries, November 2021 CRISIS GROUP / Praveen Donthi

While regaling me with stories about border life, the elderly man accompanied me to the Rezang La war memorial, a few kilometres away. The monument commemorates the Indian soldiers killed in a battle during the 1962 war. For years, it was only a small marker, but the government upgraded it to a grand complex in four months’ time as the war’s sixtieth anniversary approached, even as the border crisis continued. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had inaugurated it a couple of weeks before my visit. “To the sacred memory of heroes of Rezang La, 114 martyrs … who fought to the last man … against hordes of Chinese on 18 November 1962”, reads the plaque at the arched gate to the vast courtyard. The Indian flag flies high at the centre, surrounded by small Buddhist prayer flags floating against a background of black hills covered in snow. 

Battle memorabilia such as guns and shells are on display in a corner for the odd visitor to this isolated spot, along with three-dimensional maps and photographs. The hurried upgrade of this memorial in the middle of nowhere seems to be part of India’s posturing amid the renewed border tensions. Standing at the gate, I could see nothing but a sea of undulating brown sand, with bald brown mountains rising in the distance. Only a few army trucks moving across the landscape breached the silence. 

Above: The hilly part of Kailash Range in Eastern Ladakh, visible from the Rezang La war memorial. This is strategically the most consequential area in Eastern Ladakh. Breaching it would give access to Leh and the rest of India. The 1962 Indo-China War was fought here. This was also a site of contestation in the summer of 2020, November 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Praveen Donthi

It’s Day-to-Day Living That Wears You Out

Around 4pm, we decided to head back. Back at the homestay, I was amazed to spot three kinds of birds on the leafless trees nearby: robin accentors, black-throated accentors and oriental turtle doves. I wondered how these delicate creatures could survive the subzero temperatures, especially with no sign of food.

In the evening, the homestay owner lit a heater contraption that runs on kerosene, but he cautioned us he couldn’t keep it on at night as it would consume all the oxygen in the room. We had dinner and decided to sleep early, coiled up under many layers of thick blankets. I woke up merely an hour later, and I could not find sleep again. Around 2:30am, my friend started complaining of a persistent severe back pain. We spent the next three hours checking on each other. Recalling the warning I’d received in Leh and the army’s “daily attrition”, I was far more anxious than cold. Well accustomed to the climate, our Ladakhi driver was, on the other hand, fast asleep. We heard him wake up twice, stepping out into the bitter cold to start the car engine so that it wouldn’t give us trouble in the morning. 

At the sight of the first rays of light behind the mountains to the east, we woke him up and left immediately. The air was gelid. Looking toward the rising sun made me feel better. Outside the village, three Tibetan wild asses, known as kiang, their coats shining bright in the early morning light, stopped to look at the car before galloping ahead. Half an hour later, the sun grew stronger and my friend’s back started feeling better, as if by magic. The car radio started playing his favourite Leonard Cohen song: “By the rivers dark / I wandered on / I lived my life / In Babylon”. I knew the lyrics, and they were a source of instant relief, as if I was coming back to known territory after the anxiety that had plagued me throughout the night. As we rode home, I thought of the extreme conditions in which the thousands of soldiers were spending the winter on both sides of this lost border. A quote, often attributed to Anton Chekhov, has never made more sense: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s day-to-day living that wears you out”.