A 150-year-old trade route between India and Tibet has been given a new lease of life as a tourism destination after skilled labourers renovated the ancient stairway in a daring feat 11,000 feet above the sea level in extreme weather conditions.
The 142-metre long wooden stairway or skywalk known locally as Gartang Gali, is situated in Uttarakhand’s remote Nelong Valley. It is believed to have been built by the Pathans along Jad Ganga river on a very narrow and rocky hill to facilitate business between traders in Uttarkashi town and those in Tibet.
The stairway was operational until the Indo-China war in 1962 and the Nelong Valley was subsequently closed for the outer world. The government decided to reopen the valley in 2017 following which plans were firmed up to renovate the ancient skywalk.
Close to Indo-China border, the Nelong Valley is no stranger to icy winds even at noon. Complicating the assignment of the local contractor, the entire area was covered with snow till as late as May. Pushing against the elements in just the two months of June and July, the workers executed the project with a new-found respect for ancient Indian engineering.
“A team of labourers who were daring and had worked in inhospitable conditions finally executed the project,” said contractor Rajpal Bisht, who is now treated as a local hero. “Rebuilding the stairway was once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is beyond imagination how people decades ago managed to carry logs and drilled rocks to erect the stairway,” he said.
For Bisht and his team, the biggest challenge was managing and carrying logs vertically up to the site. The area falls under the Gangotri National Park, a protected area and home to snow leopards.
“We were not permitted to lift even a stone in the national park. So I managed wooden logs from Dehradun. Initially, robust Nepali labourers would ferry them on shoulders for around 1.5 km,” Rajpal said, adding that they later used mules to ferry the logs.
He said the workers were tied together with a belt so that they could place logs in between the holes and cracks of the rocks. A single mistake would have proved fatal. But the risk was worth it for Bisht & Company who feel elated when visitors and tourists share snaps from the new skywalk.