THE OLD SILK ROUTE
Ladakh, a vast landmass with peculiar landscape, environment, religion and culture, surely stands out to be the first choice of any adventure loving traveler and serious researcher. Due to the mountainous terrain, Ladakh is cut through by valleys and river systems creating smaller sub-regions. These sub-regions have their substantial contrasting geographic and climatic conditions that have impact on the life and livelihood of its inhabitants. Thus all the regions of Ladakh have their own unique identity. Each forms an ethnic cluster with varied dialect and customs. On the Northern side of Ladakh falls the Nubra valley which runs almost parallel to Indus valley. On the eastern side are the high-altitude plains of Changthang and on the southern side is the secluded valley of Zanskar. The western side is the valley of Lower Ladakh which is greener and warmer than the rest of Ladakh.
Opened up for the tourists only in year 1994, Nubra valley is situated to the north of Leh across Ladakh range which one crosses via Khardong-la, the highest motorable road in the world. To the north the valley is walled by the mighty Karakoram Range. The valley of Nubra is narrower than that of Leh with wide plain river-bed, through which the river Shayok flows meandering. Nubra served as the connection point between Central Asia and South Asia when the famous Silk Road was in use. The sixty-day journey on the Ladakh route connecting Amritsar and Yarkand through eleven passes was frequently undertaken by traders till the third quarter of the 19th century. It was from Nubra valley that this route traversing two major passes in the Karakoram Range connected Kashgar on the famous Silk Route. These once formidable passes, during the ‘Great Game’ period were seen by some Britishers as back-door route into India by the Russians, in the late nineteenth century. As recently as 1950 a traveler wrote: ‘Never once until we reached the plains were we out of sight of skeletons. The continuous line of bones and bodies acted as a gruesome guide whenever we were uncertain of the route.’ In The Lion River, a history of the exploration of the Indus River, Jean Fairley writes: ‘Nothing grows along the Karakoram route and the traveler must carry all the food he needs for himself and his beasts. Pack animals, overloaded with trading goods at the expense of fodder, have died in this pass in their millions.’ However, this route was never a usual threat of invasion, as the principal gateway leading to British India was Herat and Kabul.
Leh as an important commercial entrepot, situated as it was at the centre of a network of routes from the Punjab (Amritsar and Hoshiarpur), Kashmir (Srinagar), Baltistan (Skardu), eastern Central Asia or Xinjiang (Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan) and Tibet (Gartok and Lhasa), was not precisely on the path of the famous Silk Road.
Although one of the oldest of the world’s greatest highways, the Silk Road acquired this evocative name comparatively recently, the phrase coined by a German scholar, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, in eighteenth century. However, it was Chang Ch’ien, a Chinese traveler who is said to be the father of the Silk Road. He traveled, a century before the birth of Christ, to the west including Samarkand, Bokhara, Balkh and learned of existence of distant places like Persia and Rome etc.
A little misleading name, for not only did this great caravan route across China, Central Asia and the Middle East consisted of a number of roads, but it also carried a good deal more than just silk. The road started from Ch’ang-an, present-day Sian, and struck north-westwards, passing through the Kansu corridor to the oasis of Tun-huang in the Gobi desert. Further passing through Jade Gate or Yu-men-kuan it bifurcated around the Taklamakan desert with both the routes rejoining at the foothills of the T’ien Shan at Kashgar. It then continued westward, in the Pamir, the ‘Roof of the World’ into the Soviet Central Asia, right up to Mediterranean coast via Khokand, Samarkand, Bokhara, Persia and Iraq. There were many feeder routes. One of such important feeder roads originated from the southern end at Yarkand which after passing through the Karakoram pass, the ‘Gates of India’, reached Leh and Srinagar (Kashmir). At Yarkand caravans would branch to India (via Ladakh) or proceed to Afghanistan.
Silk Road could have probably gained its traffic during China’s ‘Golden Age’ during T’ang Dynasty (618-907 AD). As the traffic on the Silk Road increased, the oasis towns on this route flourished and began to rank as important trading centres in their own right and no longer remained merely a staging and refueling posts for the caravans passing through it. Some even gained sway over others. In the central part, ceaseless struggle ensued between the Chinese traders and elements who threatened this economic artery of the region. There were barbarian tribes, warlords and looters, all eying on the shares of trade, even at the cost of plundering the entire caravan including exterminating the traders. As the security of the caravans came under increasing threat from these pirates, many of these flourishing oases, particularly after the T’ang dynasty, declined and even disappeared completely including many Buddhist monasteries, temples and buildings with magnificent art. Many were engulfed by the sand of Taklamakan. By fifteenth century, most of the oases were converted to Islam. Travelers however, rarely traveled throughout the length of about nine thousand miles. Things were bartered or sold in the towns on the way. The China- bound caravans were laden with gold and other valuable metals, woolen and linen textiles, ivory, coral, amber, precious stones, asbestos and glass. From China caravans bore furs, ceramics, iron, lacquer, cinnamon bark, rhubarb, bronze objects, weapons and mirrors.
From Leh, the winter route to Yarkand, also called the Zamistan, took the Digar La or the Chang La, and followed the narrow and winding valley of the Shayok, negotiable in that season when the river ran low due to the intense cold. After crossing the Karakoram pass, traders would start the descent towards Yarkand, following the course of the Yarkand River and passing through Kugiar and Karghalik (estimated 530 miles). Mir Izzet Ullah travelled by this route in 1812 and was the first to publish some details about it. The summer route or Tabistan, via Nubra, crossed a total of six passes: Khardong La, Thulanbuti La, Saser La, and the Karakoram, Suget and Sanju Pass (estimated 480 miles). Another route, via Chang La, the Chang Chenmo valley and the Lingzi Thang plains joined the summer route at Shahidulla (estimated 506 miles), but this was not in regular use. A possible route through Baltistan seems to have been in occasional use in the 17th century, but the glaciers of the central Karakoram made it unsuitable as a regular trade route. Ladakh did not produce substantial article of trade apart from pashmina and apricot. Among the commodities traded through Ladakh were saffron, spices, opium, cannabis, pashm, shawls, carpets, tea, tobacco, yambo (silver ingots), gold, felts, silk, leather, wool, brocades, velvets, precious stones and horses. In the 1860s Britishers saw brisk traffic on Ladakh-Yarkand road and even sent men to map out the region on the other side. The route was in use till 1940s. However, in 1949, China closed the border between Nubra and Xinjiang, blocking old trade routes including Silk route.