At an altitude of almost 15,000ft, the residents of Chushul village make their way across the bleak and unforgiving territory of the Indian state of Ladakh.
With unwieldy and overstuffed duffel bags, rice sacks, heavy fuel cans and bamboo canes strapped to their backs, they trudge upwards to a Himalayan mountain peak known as Black Top, where hundreds of Indian army tents are stationed on the horizon.
The 100-odd men, women and young boys are not making this arduous journey out of kindness. In the coming winter months, temperatures here will drop to –40C. The villagers fear that if they do not help the Indian army secure their positions along the mountain ridges bordering China – and help prepare the troops for the harsh winter ahead – their village might soon be under Chinese control.
“We want to help the Indian army to secure their positions immediately,” said Tsering, a 28-year-old volunteer from Chushul. “We are carrying supplies to them, doing multiple rounds in a day, to ensure that the army doesn’t face too many problems.”
Chushal, a hamlet of around 150 households, is one of the closest habitations to India’s disputed border with China in eastern Ladakh. Since May, Indian and Chinese troops have been engaged in an increasingly aggressive dispute over their poorly demarcated Himalayan boundary, known as the line of actual control (LAC).
In June, the situation escalated into a violent, high-altitude clash in which 20 Indian soldiers, and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers, were killed in a hand-to-hand battle between the two sides, the worst loss of life on the border for more than four decades.
On 29 August, just a few miles from Chushul, another face-off broke out between India and China troops. There were no casualties that night, but shots were fired by troops on the border for the first time in 45 years.
At a meeting in Moscow last week, the defence ministers of India and China released a joint statement agreeing to “disengage as soon as possible” along their border. It followed at least five rounds of high-level military negotiations that have gone nowhere, with both sides continuing to insist the other is violating sovereign territory.
But, according to the villagers, there is little evidence of disengagement on the ground. Over the past week, Indian troops have continued to build up along the border. A convoy of Indian army vehicles has continued to bring supplies and ammunition to troops camped in posts along the border, and around 100 diggers have been brought in for the construction of roads and buildings, to further secure India’s position along the border.
“It’s very clear that both sides are planning to stay there for winter; they seem to be anticipating that there will be no diplomatic outcome,” said Manoj Joshi, a security expert at the Observer Research Foundation.
“The reality is that China does not want to settle this because it is a convenient way to keep India unsettled and weakened, by entangling them in an expensive military operation along the Himalayan border that is far beyond their means.”
This week, the villagers of Chushul have continued their non-stop efforts to bring supplies to the troops on Black Top. There is no road access to the mountain ridges that have become the new frontline. They spoke of their worries about the coming five months when the whole area becomes almost completely cut off by snow, ice and lethal avalanches.
“The area where the recent face-off took place is yet to have a road, let alone the infrastructure,” said Tsering. “How long will the army keep supplies going like this?”
She was echoed by Konchak Tsepel, another villager. “The new places where China has engaged the Indian army don’t have proper living conditions. The army is being put up in tents. I don’t know how they are going to build infrastructure good enough to live, when there is no road.”
Experts says India had not been prepared for a drawn-out battle along its mountain border, which shows no sign of easing off. It now has just a few weeks to make sure the four divisions currently deployed in Ladakh, numbering around 40,000 troops, are prepared to hold their positions against China over winter.
The Indian military has been spending billions on defence along its China border, including a $400m new tunnel into the mountains in Himachal Pradesh, but maintaining the tens of thousands of troops in this high-altitude desert is a complex and costly task. The region doesn’t have proper communication channels and electricity hasn’t yet reached many villages. Meanwhile, China’s defence budget is three times the size of India’s.
Tashi Chhepal, 60, a retired Indian army captain who has served in the region for more than three decades, described how over the winter, “at some posts our contact with the outside world would get cut off for even five months at a time”.
He said: “Everything would freeze like a rock and we would stock supplies for the entire winter. For those months we would rely on tin-packed food. The connectivity is still as bad. Nothing much has changed in years.”
Pravin Sawhney, a former Indian army officer, said India had been taken by “complete surprise” with China’s recent aggressions along the border and were now on the back foot. “China is far superior,” added Sawhney. “They have got the fibre optic internet right to the edge of the battle space.”
An Indian army major general, Amrit Pal Singh, the former chief of operational logistics of the Leh region, said the logistics of moving troops and supplies to the area as winter sets in was a challenge unlike any other for the Indian military. “This is the most isolated battlefield in the world,” he said.
By Hannah Ellis-Petersen and Aakash Hassan