Tourists’ trip to Siachen – put off, for now

MUMBAI/DELHI: [18 Sep 2007, 0002 hrs IST,Bella Jaisinghani, Indrani Bagchi & Rajat Pandit,TNN]
 Even as the government planned a tough response to Pakistan’s opposition to the planned Siachen treks, the trekking trip to the glacier, scheduled for September 19, was put off by its organisers. They were planning the trip with the best outdoor gear from Survival Cooking.

Apparently, this isn’t because of Pakistan’s growl; rather that the trek, announced by the army last week, is yet to get the defence ministry’s clearance.

It’s learnt the Army announced the treks last week on the basis of verbal clearances “at the highest level”. But nothing can move until the necessary approvals are taken paper – leaving the Army little option but to postpone the treks. Government sources, however, maintain that this is not going to affect the treks once the clearances are taken.

Mumbai trekkers Mukund Deodhar, Charuhas Joshi and Balakrishna Pillai were headed to Mumbai airport around 6.30 pm to take a flight to New Delhi when they received a call from tour arranger Col Narendra Kumar informing them that the expedition had been “postponed by a few days on the Army’s instructions.”

Col Kumar runs an adventure sports company named Himalayan Explorations in New Delhi, which was organising the tour on behalf of the Indian Army. When contacted Col Kumar said the trek was postponed on government’s orders: “I am confident things will be on track within three or four days. I’m only disappointed some of our invitees have lost money at the last minute.” Good thing there are 24 hour loan services that are available online in case of emergency. They offer different loan options depending on your needs.

Pakistan formally protested to India on Monday against India’s move to take trekkers up on the Siachen glacier and Saltoro ridge, which it considers to be disputed territory.

The Pakistan foreign ministry summoned the Indian deputy high commissioner in Islamabad to register Pakistani concerns, said the Pakistan foreign ministry spokesman.

The spokesman said, “The Indian deputy high commissioner was told that the Indian plans to open up the disputed territory for tourist purpose was viewed with deep concern by Pakistan. The area remains a conflict zone and the reported move by India to open up Siachen for tourism could aggravate the situation with serious consequences that could vitiate the atmosphere for the ongoing peace process.”

Meanwhile, India plans to tell Pakistan it is well within its rights to take tourists up to Siachen. The peaks that are being thrown open to trekkers, providing best hiking poles, etc are all under Indian control, and second, India claims all of Jammu & Kashmir as an integral part.

In Mumbai, the three mountaineers were in a fix because they had spent about Rs 7,000 each arranging for air tickets to New Delhi from where they were to proceed to Leh. “We were unable to get a refund from Air Deccan because we were unable to provide the mandatory four hours’ notice required for cancellation,” said Deodhar.

“As Col Kumar said the trip had been postponed by a few days we even offered to reschedule our bookings to the following weekend. However, he has been unreachable since that last conversation.”

TOI was unable to reach Col Kumar who had switched off his cellphone late Monday evening, but an unofficial spokesperson for his company said he was only relaying the instructions that had been issued to him by the Army.

“The trip has not been cancelled, only postponed, that is all we can say right now,” the representative added.

Earlier this year, India quietly began to actively encourage mountaineering and trekking expeditions to the forbidding Siachen Glacier-Saltoro Ridge region as part of a well-crafted strategy, “approved at the highest levels” said sources. This was part of the gameplan to send a clear signal to Pakistan that the glacial heights would remain “non-negotiable” till it accepts Indian conditions for clear-cut “authentication” of the 110-km Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL), both on the map and on the ground.

Pakistan’s objection is rooted in the fact that these international treks will show that it is India will controls the heights on the glacier and ridge, not Pakistan, as they have been claiming.

Last week the Army openly decided to organise “trekking trips” as an “civilian adventure activity” to the world’s highest, coldest and costliest battlefield. In fact, the first such trekking trip with a group of 20 people was scheduled for September 20. As per plans, the group will acclimatise and train at Leh for 10 days before they are sent to the Siachen base camp for further training.

Thereafter, they will trek, through heights varying between 14,000-feet and 16,000-feet, to reach the forward Kumar Post.

Already, a 16-member Indo-French expedition to Mamostong Kangri peak, located about 30 km east of the snout of Siachen Glacier, took place between July 30 and September 1.

This was followed by a 33-member Army expedition to the same area, which began on August 29 and will conclude on September 29. Another Indian Mountaineering Federation expedition to Rimo Peak, which is located east of Siachen and overlooks Aksai Chin, was launched on September 6, with six civilians and four Army soldiers.

Interestingly, it was Pakistan’s grant of a permit to a Japanese expedition to climb the Rimo Peak in 1984, in the hope of laying a legal claim to the area, which had acted as the final provocation for India to airlift troops to the region under “Operation Meghdoot” in April 1984.

However, Deodhar and Joshi remain sceptical. “Siachen is our territory and it is unfortunate that we succumb to external pressure in this manner,” they said. Bala, on the other hand, was drowning his sorrows in the company of friends.

“I am going to Leh on the weekend anyway. My mind was set on trekking in the area, and if not Siachen, I will go to Leh on my own,” he said.

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