Travelling on the Hindustan-Tibet Road was a marvelous experience. I was astonished by the sheer effort it took to build this road.
The Hindustan-Tibet Road Connects Communities to Trade
While traveling along the Hindustan-Tibet Road, I was astonished by the sheer amount of effort that was put into its construction. It is incredible that they built the road with hand tools, without the help of modern machines.
Construction of the Hindustan-Tibet Road in Himachal Pradesh began in 1850. It was quite the challenge, as it is located on one of the highest mountain ranges in the world.
The half-tunnels, manually carved through rocky cliffs, speak volumes of the determination and dedication that the workers who built the highway had. The tunneling through the huge rocks at "Khimring Dhankh", a cliffy region of the Hindustan-Tibet Road, is still considered to be the largest stretch of rock tunneling for a road.
This 500-km road, stretching from Ambala to Kaurik, is often erroneously called National Highway No. 22 (NH 22). It passes through the foothills of the Shivalik Range, Shimla, Kingal and then runs along the Satluj Rive and passes through Rampur, Poari, and Pooh. From Khab to Sumdo, the road runs along the Spiti River. The 335-km stretch from Kalka to Wangtu, is under the control of the Himachal Pradesh Public Works Department, while from Wangtu to Korik, it is under Border Roads Organisation's jurisdiction.
The road once connected the formerly princely state of Rampur Bushair, the main entry point to Tibet. Over the years, however, it fell into disuse and was abandoned due to strained relations with China.
The road is gaining attention as a reliable alternative to NH 22 so that the local economy and trade with Tibet—through the Shipki La border post on the Indo-China border—could be revived.
That is why the road is now being repaired and reconstructed—the strata of the Hindustan-Tibet Road is more stable than NH 22.
The Route of the Hindustan-Tibet Road
This road has been featured on the History Channel as one of the “deadliest roads” in the world. Built in the 19th century, the Hindustan-Tibet Road, also known as the Silk route, begins from Ambala in Haryana as an offshoot of National Highway 1.
It runs through Punjab for 40 km in a section known as Ambala Chandigarh Expressway. From Chandigarh, it runs north towards Zirakpur and meets NH 64. Thereafter, it goes to Panchkula-Pinjore-Kalka and then enters Himachal Pradesh at Parwanoo.
With the change in the terrain, it becomes a mountainous road full of hairpin bends and continues north-east up to Solan and then goes northwards to Shimla. There, it joins NH 88, where it repeatedly crisscrosses the Kalka-Shimla railway, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From Shimla, it heads northeast towards the Tibetan frontier.
About 569 km from Delhi and 28 km from Sangla, the Chitkul village in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh is the last inhabited village on the Indian section of this road before the Tibet border.
The road passes through the border town Khab and then runs for a short distance through Namgyal up to the Shipki La pass, where it ultimately enters Tibet. The Indian section of the road ends at the Line of Actual Control.
In reality, the road does not lead to the actual border. It ends about 90 km before the border—the rest of the road is under the control of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Indian paramilitary force guarding the frontiers.
The Kinnaur District
The main part of the Hindustan-Tibet Road passes through Kinnaur valley. It follows the bank of the Satluj River and finally enters Tibet at the Shipki La pass.
Reckong Peo, the capital of the Kinnaur district, is about 235 km from the state capital Shimla. It is bordered by Tibet in the east and is the northeastern-most district of Himachal Pradesh. The valleys of the Satluj, Spiti and Baspa rivers are neighbored by three high mountain ranges in Kinnaur; namely, the Zanskar, the Himalayas, and the Dhauladhar.
The district was opened to foreigners and the outside world in 1989.
The History of Old Hindustan-Tibet Road
The road was built under British rule in order to create trade links with Tibet and to help the government access and monitor far-off regions beyond its control.
The British Governor-General of India, Lord Dalhousie (1848-1856), commissioned the construction work of the Hindustan-Tibet Road in June 1850.
It is important to mention that the timing of construction coincided with the historic "Younghusband expedition" to Tibet.
Sir Charles Napier, the then Commander-in-chief of the British Army in India, designed the map of the road. All the resources and immense machinery at the disposal of the East India Company were used in the execution of the project. Hence, work on the Great Hindustan-Tibet Road began, which continued for the rest of the second half of the nineteenth century.
Why the Road Was Constructed
There were various reasons for constructing the road to Tibet. At that time, a system of unpaid forced labor called "begari" was prevalent amongst the hilly states of Himachal Pradesh. These unpaid laborers were forced into all types of work, such as transporting timber, goods, and even government documents to Shimla.
Governor-General Lord Dalhousie was greatly disturbed by this system and wanted to improve the conditions of the road these men traversed. Therefore, during his own trip to Kalpa in Kinnaur, he commissioned the construction of the Hindustan-Tibet road to develop trade ties with Tibet.
Where Does the Road End?
The southwest end of the road is in Ambala in Haryana, while the northeast end is in Khab in Himachal Pradesh. Starting in Kalka, the first section went up to Sanjauli at Shimla and, by 1860, was used for vehicular traffic. After that, a 560-footlong tunnel was constructed.
The 228-mile stretch from Shimla to the Shipki La pass on the Indo-Tibet border goes up to Shipki village in Tibet. It is the same Shipki La pass through which Heinrich Harrer, Austrian mountaineer and author of Seven Years in Tibet, came to India.
The Significance of the Road
The mule track that was built and maintained by the British caught the attention of Lord Dalhousie, but the area had long been part of the ancient Silk Road to China.
Products such as musk, borax, wool, livestock, dry fruits, and precious and semi-precious stones were traded along the route to reach Tibet, Kashmir, Ladakh, and Yarkand, ever since 1300 B.C.
For national trade, the local traders also used other passes, such as Lukma La or Gongma La, Yamrang La, Gumarang La, Shimdang La, Raniso La, and Keobarang. Traders from Himachal who lived in the Baspa valley and its adjoining areas went through the Yamrang La pass and the Cho Gad valley to reach Tibet.
Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer
I found the book Seven Years in Tibet to be quite an interesting travelogue. Translated into 53 languages, Seven Years in Tibet is an autobiographical book about the real-life experiences of Austrian mountaineer Henrich Harrer during his stay in Tibet between 1944 and 1951. This was during the Second World War and coincided with the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese People's Liberation Army in 1950.
The book recounts the story of the author and his friend's escapade from a British internment camp in India. They traveled across Tibet and reached the capital Lhasa, where they lived for the next seven years. The book provides a detailed description of the contemporary life and culture of Tibet.
In 1954, the book became a bestseller, and about three million copies were sold in the US. Two films based on the book were made in 1956 and 1997. Additionally, the David Bowie album Earthling contains a song titled “Seven Years in Tibet”.
In 1948, Harrer became a salaried official and a court photographer for the Tibetan government. His job was to translate the foreign news. He introduced ice-skating to Tibet and, following a request from the 14th Dalai Lama, made a film on it. He eventually became a tutor and friend of the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama praised the work and said that the book was the most important contribution to the Tibetan cause. It introduced millions of people to the life and culture of Tibet.
In Seven Years in Tibet, Harrer wrote:
“Wherever I live, I shall feel homesick for Tibet. I often think I can still hear the cries of wild geese and cranes and the beating of their wings as they fly over Lhasa in the clear, cold moonlight. My heartfelt wish is that my story may create some understanding for the people whose will to live in peace and freedom has won so little sympathy from an indifferent world."
The Making of the Hindustan-Tibet Road
In 1886, the road extended as far as "Karin Khud", about 6 km beyond Chini, the territory of the formerly princely state of Rampur Bushahr. In 1927, it was extended a little beyond Namega, which is the last village on the Indo-Tibet border.
The road remained of great economic and strategic importance and was an international trade route between the state of Rampur and the rest of northern and central Asia.
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 development of this national highway from a bridle path to a blacktop all-weather road was a long process. Many laborers lost their lives while cutting the rocky mountain with overhanging canopies of rocks. The significant work done by Gurkha laborers on this road will be remembered for a long time.
The Importance of the Road
Today, the road is the lifeline of the Solan, Shimla, and Kinnaur districts. It also connects the Spiti valley and the outer Seraj areas of Kullu district with various state highways.
It is due to this road that new townships have been created in Reckong Peo, Bhavnagar, Jhakri and Jari, and you it'd be impossible to recognize the old towns of Theog, Narkanda, Ani, Nirmand, Rampur, Pooh, and Tapri.
The road has brought about a transformation of social services, which were previously unheard of in the area and enjoyed only by the people of the plains. This includes services such as education centers, shopping complexes, residential houses with modern amenities, and health institutions.
Today, all interior and fertile areas of upper Shimla are connected to the Hindustan-Tibet road through feeder roads.
The widening and tarring of NH 22 has brought about a great change in the nearby population's standard of living. Trucks laden with fruits and goods can be seen moving along this road day and night when previously, only mules were used.
Trade on the Hindustan-Tibet road began in 2004, when India and China revived bilateral relations. As a result, the traders from Kinnaur have made several trips to China. Surprisingly, not even a single trader from Tibet has visited the Indian border villages since then.
The Indian traders carry spices, oil, jigger, tea leaves, and utensils to the Shipki village through the Shipki La pass at the height of 4444 meters above sea level. These items are in great demand in Tibet. They return with the items like shoes, jackets, crockery, goats, and Chumurthi horses, which are sold in Rampur during the Lavi fair.
Landslides and Avalanches on the Road
Nature likes to express its discomfort loudly, and the road often gets blocked by landslides and rockslides during heavy snowfalls and rain. The road from Solding Nullah to Sumdo is prone to avalanches—the stretch falls in the Great Himalayan Zone and receives about 150 cm of heavy snowfall every year. The "Malling" area is a constantly sliding area, which affects the connection of Lahaul and Spiti districts. It has thus become essential to identify the landslide-prone stretches by conducting the study of all hill slopes along the NH 22.
The Geological Survey of India has researched the road alignments and the stability of the slopes along the highway. It has carried out various investigations on the stability of the Hindustan-Tibet road, and the safety of various hydroelectric projects situated in the Great Himalayan Zone.