Our car zoomed along the Leh-Srinagar NH1 Highway with the Ladakh Range sprawling in the south and the Karakoram Range in the north. The snow clad peaks stood out in shocking contrast against the brown and barren landscape, and there was not a patch of green anywhere to soothe our sights. Amidst the thorny bushes, a vibrantly hued Yellow-billed Blue Magpie and a Chukar Partridge hopped along in search of food, while square military barracks and adventurous bikers on Royal Enfields were the only reminders of human habitation.
Lost, imbibing the peace and quiet of Ladakh, we had covered around 50 km in euphoric delight, when my driver suddenly slowed down. Confused, I anxiously enquired if anything was wrong. He gave me a warm smile and moved his hands off the steering. To my utmost amazement, I saw the car moving uphill at a steady 20 km per hour (as per the speedometer). I noticed a Border Road Organisation’s signage indicating “Magnetic Hill –The phenomenon that defies gravity” on the left side. An engraving ‘Magnetic Hill’ on the mountain wall repeated the message. I learnt not only do vehicles travelling on the road experience the magnetic attraction of the hill but aircrafts too feel the tug, according to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). Hence, pilots are advised to fly at a specific speed and height above this hill to avoid any inconvenience.
According to local folklore, the phenomenon is the result of a pathway that led straight to heaven. Deserving people would be automatically pulled up, whereas the non-deserving would never make it, no matter how earnestly they tried.
In actual fact, the magnetic hill is located on a stretch where the layout and deceptive fields of reference create an optical illusion wherein a slight downhill slant appears to be an uphill one. Thus a vehicle left on its own will appear to be moving uphill. There is a concept of optical illusion in neuroscience, which means that you either see something that is not there at all or you see things differently from what they actually are. The phenomenon can actually be attributed to a completely or near-total obstructed horizon.
Since our mind and vision normally use the horizon as a reliable reference to decide on whether a particular gradient is straight or slanting, an obscurity in the horizon makes it difficult to judge the slope of a surface. If the horizon is obstructed, our minds can often perceive things to be horizontal or vertical when they are actually not. The short stretch of the road that appears to be uphill is actually downhill and this is why cars gain momentum. Of all the enchanting sites in Ladakh, the Magnetic Hill at 14000 feet has a special mystical attraction for all since ages and continues to hold sway even today.
As we proceeded further, we sighted the Indus running through the gorge alongside the road. Originating from the Changthang desert in the Himalayas, the Indus emerges as a full-blown river in Ladakh, changing its colours from emerald green to teal and shining cyan as it flows into the Kashmir valley and onwards into Pakistan.
Draining the arid Ladakh terrain, the Indus serves as a lifeline for Ladakh’s shepherds and farmers, especially since Ladakh gets just two to three inches of rain per year. As we drive on, the majestic confluence of Indus and Zanskar leaves me awestruck.
It is the valley of Nimu which sports a perfect blend of colours, across the skies and downwards along the rivers. Zanskar, originating in the range by the same name, runs through the spectacular Zanskar Gorge. In winters, avid adventurers revel in the frozen Zanskar for the ‘chadar’ trek. The mud laden Zanskar merges into the shiny blue Indus from the north-eastern direction. The glossy blue sky, and the barren mountains make the confluence of the crystal clear Indus and the turbid Zanskar an outstanding sight. In summer, (March-early September) the turbulent Zanskar forms a plume into the relatively tranquil Indus. But in the freezing winter (September-February), the tempestuous Zanskar slows down and freezes while the Indus picks up speed.
Prayer flags always add to a touch of magic to Ladakh, providing an ancient backdrop to modern day lamas who walk around with iPhones! All through, I saw prayer flags hung in sequence–blue, white, red, green, yellow or in reverse against the clear azure skies creating a mesmerising effect. Each colour represents an element—sky-blue, wind -white, fire-red, water-green and earth-yellow, and the prayers scrawled on the flags are for the winds to carry to spread the message of peace and happiness.
As we whizzed past scenes of schoolgirls clad from top to toe walking back home, birds flying over patchwork fields and tiny hamlets interspersed with bulldozers engaged in widening roads would emerge before us from time to time.
Contrary to general belief, the rugged topography of Ladakh has nurtured a thriving trade along the famous ‘silk route’. This trans-Himalayan trade saw caravans negotiating winding routes through hazardous passes carrying wool, cloth, opium, spices, skins, coral, turquoise, gold, and indigo until the first few decades of the last century.
The withering trade between Leh and Yarkand (China) finally died a silent death in the late 1950’s when China occupied Tibet and sealed its borders with Ladakh.
For those who have always imagined what it was to visit a lunar landscape, the silk route of NH1-D, along the Srinagar-Leh highway is the perfect destination. Carved into the Greater Himalayas, these pleated moonlands are the result of soil erosion and the draining out of glacial lakes that once existed. It was a surreal experience to see houses precariously perched on these moonlands at Lamayuru, around 125 km from Leh, immediately after Fotu La, the highest pass on the Srinagar-Leh highway. The glacial lakes are believed to have drained out through cracks in the hills during the time of Buddhist scholar Neropa.
During the day, the Ladakhi landscape changes its colours with the rays of the sun, from rock green, to ochre, and then to blue. But the blends of colours around the rivers and mountains in the barren landscape take on a heavenly hue at night, when the full moon and a thousand stars light up in the vastness of the curvaceous moonlands.