SONAMARG, India (AP) – High in a rocky Himalayan mountain range in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, hundreds of people are working on an ambitious project to drill tunnels and build bridges to link the valley of the Kashmir in Ladakh, a cold desert region isolated half the year due to massive snowfall.
Ladakh, of strategic importance, shares de facto borders with Pakistan and China and currently depends on air supply for about six months a year.
Authorities say a 6.5-kilometer (4-mile) tunnel, the first of four, has already been completed and will make the resort town of Sonamarg accessible for the first time during the winter months. Sonamarg marks the end of the conifer-covered mountains before Ladakh begins to cross the rocky pass of Zojila Mountain.
The last tunnel of the $ 932 million project, approximately 14 kilometers (9 miles) long, will bypass the difficult Zojila Pass and connect Sonamarg to Ladakh. Officials say it will be India’s longest and tallest tunnel at 11,500 feet (3,485 meters).
“It’s not like other construction work. It’s a great learning experience, ”said one of the workers, Tariq Ahmed Lone, as he helped a drilling machine.
Indian and Chinese soldiers have been engaged in a sometimes violent stalemate in the Karakoram Mountains of Ladakh for more than 16 months along their de facto border, called the Real Line of Control. The two countries stationed tens of thousands of soldiers there, supported by artillery, tanks and fighter planes.
Indian military planners regard the tunnel project as extremely important for Ladakh. Experts say it will offer logistical flexibility to the military and give them operational and strategic mobility.
Politicians also see an opportunity in the project.
The Zojila part of the tunnel is due to be operational in 2026, but India’s Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari said during a visit to the project site on Tuesday that he hoped work would be completed before the elections. General 2024.
“It’s a challenge that I know, but I have no doubts that they can do it in time,” said Gadkari. “Obviously we would like this to be over before the election.”
Associated Press videographer Umar Meraj contributed to this report.