There are two main highways that connect Ladakh to the rest of India, but they are closed for at least four months every winter
Ligen Eliyas deftly turns the excavator's hydraulic arm to push a huge boulder into the Zanskar river below in a cloud of dust, clearing another bit of land for a strategic highway that India is hurriedly building near the Chinese border.
The construction site near the hamlet of Chilling in the Ladakh region is around 250km west of the area where Indian and Chinese troops are locked in the most serious confrontation in decades.
But when ready, the road will provide the only year-round access to large parts of Ladakh, including the border zone. That will go some way to bringing India on par with China, which has a network of roads and helipads on its side of the border.
"It will become a lot easier for the army after this road is finished," Eliyas said, with parts of his face and khaki uniform caked in fine stone dust.
The protracted standoff in the remote western Himalayan region erupted into a bloody hand-to-hand clash in June in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed and China suffered an unspecified number of casualties. The Asian giants fought a brief but bloody border war in 1962.
The 283km long Nimmu-Padam-Darcha (NPD) highway, where Eliyas is working, is expected to be completed in three years, officials said. It highlights the efforts by India, which have been redoubled after the latest tensions, to develop key infrastructure - roads, tunnels, bridges and airfields - along the unsettled 3,500km border with China.
The road will link up with an 8.8-km tunnel that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate in coming weeks, opening the snow deserts of Ladakh to the rest of the country all year round.
There are two main highways that connect Ladakh to the rest of India, but they are closed for at least four months every winter. The only way urgent supplies are sent to Ladakh during these months is by air.
With thousands of its troops amassed at the border and no sign of a drawdown, India is now pushing harder to blast and smash its way through the Himalayas.
The frenetic construction itself has become a thorny issue this summer with the Chinese complaining that the Indian activity in the mountains was destabilizing, Indian officials said. But China built its infrastructure in the area years ago, and it needs to be matched, they said.
China's Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Matter of hours
China's network of roads and railways, logistics depots and helipads mean that it can move troops to forward areas in a matter of hours, said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a distinguished fellow at New Delhi think-tank Observer Research Foundation.
For India, it would take days to match those deployments, she said.
Conceived in 1999, India's NPD project moved at a glacial pace till work picked just a couple of year ago, said N K Jain, a commander in the state-run Border Roads Organization (BRO).
Since then, the BRO has built some 100 km of the NPD project, and constructed 11 of the 15 major bridges on the route. "Our work is happening at double the speed in the last two years," Jain said.
New drilling machines that push dynamite sticks deeper and faster into hard rock to blow them apart have improved the speed of construction, said B Kishen, a BRO executive engineer who is supervising the project near Chilling.
On a recent afternoon, dozens of workers cleared debris from a freshly blasted section of the road. A few kilometres away, another group crouched under an excavator as explosives went off to clear land for another section of the highway.
Work will continue through the bitter winter, when temperatures drop to below minus 40°C and biting winds at altitudes above 11,000 feet make road construction even more challenging, Kishen said.
The government has identified 73 strategically important roads along the Chinese border, of which 61 are with the BRO, running over 3,300km. A parliamentary committee report in March noted that 75% of the work under BRO had been completed.
The full network of roads will cut down travel time between key Indian military bases, allowing for quicker mobilization of troops and ease patrolling in some forward areas, an Indian official said.