Winter Highways: The Wait of Baltistan

click to return to small screen layout. click to return to small screen layout.
  • A passenger bus carrying villagers and goods falls victim to a heavy snowstorm. The bus is on its way to one of the highest passes in the world, Khardung la(5359m). Bus service to Baltistan drops to once every two weeks during winter.

  • Indian army trucks pass through the Karakorum Road, one of the world’s highest, during a snowstorm. Once every month, trucks carry food and medical supplies to the other side of the Karakorum Mountains.

  • Looking over the Shyok valley is Tyakshi, the last village in Indian Baltistan before the bend where the Shyok River crosses the border into Pakistan.

  • Due to high insurgency rates in the border villages, army personnel constantly inspect the village and nearby areas.

  • Winter temperatures drop to -30 degrees Celsius and the highest mountain passes close down for weeks. With fewer food imports available, hens are an abundant yet limited source of meat and protein available in Baltistan’s villages.

  • Overwhelmed with nostalgia for the days when siblings, parents, and friends were once united, men and women still recall, gaze into the distance, or close their eyes in search of hope. A man perches on an old wall looking over the Shyok valley where the Shyok River enters into Pakistani Baltistan after passing Tyakshi village.

  • There is less work in the winter for domesticated animals like horses, donkeys, and yaks. They follow the sun during the day and are left free to find grazing lands for themselves.

  • A Balti boy wandering on National Highway 1D on a snowy day. Strangely in the last five years, Balti villages have seen 11 suicides of children aged 12 to 20. The younger generation does not want to do agriculture; their only alternative is working for the army as porters taking medicines and food supplies through the Karakorum mountains, but hardly anyone wants to do the work their parents did.

  • Every year on January 26th, in observation of India's Republic Day, Balti villagers gather to listen for announcements from the Indian army.

  • Without proper medical care, a few children die in Baltistan’s harsh winters every year. Abida and Rashida at home as their mother cooks for them in a typical Balti household.

  • A flawed education system over the last 40 years has condemned Balti youth to futures as low-ranking army soldiers. To find work outside of Baltistan is nearly impossible. Here, Naseer hanged himself on an apricot tree outside his home six months after this image was taken. He was 12 years old.

  • A child peeks from behind the door of an old house made of apricot wood as his father leaves for work.

  • There were few men in the villages when Baltistan was annexed to India. In last four decades the imbalance has grown drastically and Balti women far outnumber men. Due to this imbalance many women are unmarried and it is common to find families where a man has married two or more women.

  • Samina Bi lost one eye when a shell exploded outside her home during the Kargil war between India and Pakistan in 1999. She is wearing a traditional pearl headpiece, symbolic of her marriage.

  • At 83 years old, Tai is the village’s oldest resident and assisted a doctor 50 years ago in Pakistan before Baltistan’s annexation to India. Due to the lack of doctors in the area, Tai provides the only medical care and midwifery to the villagers.

  • Comment
  • Tweet
  • Share
  • Email
  • Print

Winter Highways: The Wait Of Baltistan

Baltistan is a mountainous region straddling the Northern India–Pakistan border, adjacent to the disputed territory of Kashmir. During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, the Ladakhi Scouts, an infantry regiment of the Indian army specialized in mountain warfare, took control of several villages of the Baltistan region in Pakistan. Since then, a part of Baltistan remains under Indian control.

On the night of December 13, 1971, Major Chewang Rinchin of the Ladakhi Scouts and his troops ceased fire after reaching the village of Tyakshi. The Scouts had just captured five villages and a total area of 804 sq. kilometers in the Baltistan region of Pakistan.

The Indian Army’s incursion into the Pakistani territory was called off because the then-ruling party of the bordering Indian region of Ladakh no longer wanted Baltistan. They thought seizing more land would weaken their political position in the state, as their ethnic identity would be wedged between two Muslim regions, Kashmir and Baltistan.

The people of the captured villages went to sleep in Pakistan but woke up in India the following morning.

After forty years of isolation, Baltistan reopened to the outside world in the summer of 2010. I went there the following year to work as a high school teacher during the worst forty days of winter, but education was not what Balti kids needed. Instead, they suffered from the burden of a prolonged denial of any fulfillment.

In Tyakshi, Bogdang, Turtuk and other remote Balti villages on Indian soil, faces and wrinkles of the elders weighed heavy with the untold stories of their past. They yearned to talk, to lay bare the rich history they have shouldered for so long. They showed a frustration that stiffened into a deep-rooted helplessness. With the army as their only prospect, the children of Baltistan were caught on a melancholic seesaw between a sorrow for the past and a longing for a better future.

Village elders reminisced about their days in Pakistan, about the trees they used to play under, and the rocks they sat on talking for hours. Nobody knew if their family in Pakistan was alive, nor remembered the faces of their sisters and brothers. Gradually, the imagination of the Balti people was left without a past, an essential part of their identity.

The wait of Baltistan is the tale of a forgotten clan separated by time yet deeply rooted to the land. It is the journey of a neglected people and their forgotten land, whose stories of an unfathomed past still haunt their present.

About the Author

Narayan Kaudinya is a documentary photographer and filmmaker. His father is a teacher and mother runs a primary school where Narayan teaches.

Share

  • Comment
  • Tweet
  • Share
  • Email
  • Print

3 thoughts on “Winter Highways: The Wait of Baltistan

  1. Samaira Agha says:

    This is a beautiful story Narayan Tushar Kaudinya. I never knew it was also published here. Very happy to see it. Its a marvelous and very important documentation of the Balti people just after they came to light. Very glad to chance upon it.

  2. Amanda Hanks says:

    Very intriguing story. Beautiful photographs of an old tribe #Narayan Tushar Kaudinya ! Looks so much different from every day India we see in photographs.

Tell us your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

In association with the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs