History

India’s ancient gateway to central Asia


In the spring of the year 1889, a rather unusual application for help was received by the Darbar (King’s court) of the princely state of Kashmir, in British ruled India. What was unusual about this application for help was the fact that the applicants, generally known as Kirghiz people then, were not even citizens of the princely state of Kashmir, but actually were inhabitants of a place called ‘Shahidulla’ in Chinese Turkistan. The region of Chinese Turkistan ( presently known as Xinjiang) lies just east of the Ladakh region of Kashmir. These Kirghiz people essentially were traders and carriers who regularly ran pack animal caravans between Leh (a city in Ladakh) to Yarkand and back. A new threat had emerged for the trade caravans as Kanjut tribesmen from the state of Hunza (Presently in the Pakistan occupied part of Kashmir) had started increasingly, raiding and looting the caravans. The traders had initially applied to the Chinese authorities for protection from these Kanjut raiders. The request was however refused by the Chinese authorities. Because of this, these Kirghiz traders had now made a petition to the Kashmir Darbar.

Kashmir Darbar immediately forwarded this application to the Britsh Government of India at Shimla. Sir Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of the Government of India then, decided to undertake an exploration on the northern frontier of Kashmir and chose a young British officer, Francis Edward Younghusband to lead a team of Gurkha soldiers for the job. Francis Younghusbnd and his team, consisting of 19 men, mostly of Kashmir and Balti origin, made all their preparations at Leh and finally left on the expedition on 8th of August in that year. After traveling for eleven or twelve days through one of the most grueling and tough terrain on the face of the earth, the team reached a very desolate and barren mountain pass.Francis Younghunsband describes this mountain pass with these words.

The crossing of the Himalaya by the main caravan route to Central Asia over this pass is about as dreary a piece of travel as I Know. The part through Kashmir is delightful. After that and especially over the pass itself, the scenery is inexpressibly dull and as much of the route lies at an altitude of about 17000 feet and the pass itself is nearly 19000 feet. There is a good deal of that depression which comes from high altitudes. And even in August the temperature was low enough at night for small streams to be frozen. It is a hateful journey. “


The place which Francis Younghusband is trying to describe, is the famous Karakoram Pass which lies exactly on China-India Border. History tells us that Francis Younghusband carried out the task assigned to him successfully well and the Karakoram pass trade route became quite safe for the caravans after this. Francis Younghusband was later sent to Tibet to carry out an important assignment in British-Tibet war. However we shall leave that part of the history and return to the Karakoram pass itself.

Mr. C.P Skrine was British Counsel General during 1920’s and was located at Kashgar in Chinese Turkistan (Today’s Xinjiang) . He was obviously very familiar about the trade and travel routes between Ladakh, Northern kashmir and Chinese Turkistan. He writes.

Before going further, I must explain the situation as regards the roads, which connect India with Chinese Turkistan. At their best, that is most of the way up to the furthest British outposts, they are well engineered pack (mule) transport roads from 3 to 6 feet wide, made and maintained by Indian Public works Department. Beyond the outposts, the road degenerates rapidly into a stony caravan track winding up to gorges and along the precipitous mountain passes of the Karakoram, till the great divide is reached.”

He refers to the natural barrier created by Karakoram mountains, between Indian subcontinent and Central Asia as the great divide. He says further

There are few alternatives even among these exiguous paths. The tremendous barrier formed by the HinduKush and the Karakorams can only be pierced at three points that is to say by the Chitral(Presently in Pakistan) , Leh and Gilglit (Presently in Pakistan occupied Kashmir) routes. The second route which goes from Srinagar to Leh and thence across the Karakorams to the Yarkand is the route mostly used. It is, I believe, by far the highest and the most difficult trade route of the world.”

Karakoram Pass from Indian side

Karakoram Pass from Chinese Side

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Karakoram Pass from Kadapa Pass

Karakoram Pass lies exactly on the China-India border, just north of Aksaichin area, illegally grabbed by China in an military invasion carried out by her in 1962. The saddle shaped pass is at a height of 18172 feet and is 148 feet wide. This is the reason for which, this pass is called as the highest pass on any trade route in the world. What is surprising is the fact that in spite of being at such a height, it never snows heavily in this pass, even though extremely biting and piercing cold winds and snow blizzards are always experienced . The entire region in the vicinity of Karakoram pass is totally barren, bleak, desolate and devoid of any vegetation or grass any time of the year. Younghusband further describes the Karakoram scenario as

It is a wonder that mountains at so great an altitude above sea-level and forming, as they do, a watershed between India and Turkistan, shall have no signs of snow upon them. The only reason I can think of to account for it, is that behind this range and between it and the ocean, from which the rain comes, are other far more lofty mountains which intercept the moisture and as there are no deep trough like valleys in which the little snow that does fall would collect and be present in form of the glaciers, but only little shallow valleys where the snow would lie, where it fell in thin coating over the surface of mountain and soon melt under the rays of Sun.”

Since this trade route joined Leh with Yarkand and subsequently with Kashgar, places which have always been on the Silk route, trade caravans had been traveling on this route for at least last 3000 years. The goods that were commonly traded on this route, included items like wool, silk and silk cloth, Russian leather, Spices, salt, Gems, Gold dust, felt and Tea. According to figures available for the year 1846, about 300 mounds (6000 Kg) dried fruits were exported, 2400 mounds of Lena shawl wool and 5000 mounds of sheep wool was imported in Leh market. This gives a good idea about the volumes and quantities of goods that passed Leh through this trade route.


C.P.Skrine describes in details about the arrangement made by Kashmir state to facilitate the trade on this route. “ The Kashmir state takes great interest in this road and it is carefully organized. The pack transport road from Srinagar over Zoji La to Leh is kept in excellent repair. British Joint Commissioner in Ladakh looks after the interest of traders of Leh and Srinagar. Stores of state grains are kept open at various points along Yarkand road for sale to caravans at fixed rate and trade is encouraged in many ways.”

The landscape and scenario seen by a caravan traveler on North (towards Yarkand) and South (towards Leh) sides of the Karakoram pass is radically different in many ways. On the north side, a traveler engaged in traversing the sharply downward slopes, would see the barrenness and desolation reducing rapidly. Younghusband has described the north side landscape in these words.

Descending the northern side of the Karakoram pass, we passed the spot where poor Dalgleigh (A scottish trader) had been murdered by an Afghan in previous year and saw the memorial tablet. No more dreary spot could be imagined. From Karakoram pass we traversed a region only less desolate than that we had passed on the southern side and after crossing Suget pass, 17600 feet high, we descended rapidly to Shahidula. ”


This does not mean that the North side of Karakoram pass is a fertile region. Even Shahidula was just a camping ground without any facilities. Maharaja of Kashmir had built a small fort at this place in 1864 and a garrison stayed there for about 2 years, after which the area was vacated by Kashmir armed forces. Chinese later occupied it. Today the ill famous Xinjiang-Tibet road passes through Shahidula before crossing into Indian territory of Aksaichin, which is in possession of China. Youngshusband has described Shahdula in these words.

“At Shahidula there was the remains of an old fort, but otherwise there were no permanent habitations. And the valley, though affording that rough pasturage upon which the hardy sheep and goats, camels and ponies of the Khirghiz find sustenance, was to the ordinary eye very barren in appearance, and the surrounding mountains of no special grandeur. It was a desolate, unattractive spot.”

Shahidula at present

On the southern side of Karakoram pass, the landscape remains equally barren and desolate till the traveler could cross the Saser pass and descend into the Nubra valley. Just 16 miles south of Karakorama pass, the last Indian army post of ‘Daulat Beg Oldi’ or DBO is located. There is also a runway for planes to land and take off at this place. About 30 miles south of DBO a traveler would come across one of the largest area of plains, named as Depsang Plains. Younghusband describes this area in words of disgust.

Of all parts of the world, this is the most Godforsaken and dreadful in any way. The plain itself is over 17000 feet and consists of an open expanse of gravel, bounded by dull,barren hills. Across it incessantly sweep winds of piercing cold. To add to the gloom, the plain is strewn with the bones of the animals, who have succumbed to the strain of carrying load at these great heights. ”

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Depsang  Plains

Since the Karakoram pass was always negotiable any time of the year, for almost 10 months every year, caravans moved between Leh and Yarkand almost without interruptions. Though the Northern part of the route going to Shahadula remained the same, there were different routes for summer and winter from Leh to DBO. The winter route, which was less popular for obvious reasons, went along Leh-Digar Pass- Saser Brangza- Chong Kamden glacier base-Gapshan to DBO. The summer route, which was most popular, went along Leh-Khardung La- Nubra valley to Sasoma-Saser pass- Chongthash-Murgo-Burtsa-Depsang Plains-DBO. Besides caravans, this summer route was also used by many Xinjiang Muslims to go to Mecca every year.


The most formidable part of the summer route was always crossing the Saser Pass. This pass is always snow clad because of the vicinity of the Memostrong glacier near by. Even though Younghusband did not find this pass very difficult to negotiate in 1889, the crossing of Saser pass has been best described by Harish Kapdia, a well known Indian mountaineer. He says.

We camped about 2 kilometers before the pass, at a usual camping ground. The condition of the weather on the morning you have to cross the pass is crucial. If it is cloudy, the snow does not consolidate hard enough and mules will sink in. As it is, one has to make a midnight start, which we did. But after one hour the mules were sinking in the snowfield. Our ponies began to weaken and many were limping and several kept collapsing sadly and hopelessly. There were blood marks on their legs. We had to stop. Back we went to the camp.”

Younghusband also warns about Saser pass

On the day after we crossed it (Saser pass) a terrible squall of snow and rain overtook us, and on looking back I saw the pass hidden in a cloud as black as night; and it is because of these terrific storms that the pass is so much feared.”

The weather at saser La changes so fast and quickly that one may have to wait for days before a successful attempt could be made to cross the pass.

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Saser Pass

Karakoram trade route is perhaps the only gateway to Indian subcontinent, which unlike famous Khyber or Bolan passes was never used for any military invasion till 1962. In 1962 a Chinese force attacked Indian observation posts near DBO area. A major Chinese assault on 19/20 October over ran all the Indian observation posts in that area. Since then the international line of actual control runs just east of Depsang plains with all eastern territory including Aksichin area firmly in Chinese hands. However the Chinese had occupied Shahidula and the northern part of trade route in 1949 itself and had stopped all caravan trade going through since then. After 1962, the Karakoram pass and the adjoining areas became strictly no entry for all non military personnel. After 2002, government of India has started allowing mountaineering expeditions in the DBO area and few teams have made it to the Karakoram pass itself in all seasons of the year.

Durng last 3000 years, countless numbers of pack animals have died on this trade route due to extreme weather, heavy loads and difficulty to breath. Someone has erected a memorial right in the middle of the Karakoram pass with the skulls and bones of such pack animals. Mountaineers visiting the pass write about their differing emotions, after seeing this memorial. To me it is a symbol of the human nature to fight against all odds and succeed.

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Memorial at Karakoram Pass

What could be in future for Karakorama pass and the Yarkand-Leh trade route? Since 1962 , the pass is hardly visited by anyone except military personnel. Besides, China and Pakistan have constructed another road in 1990, joining Hunza (Pakistan occupied Kashmir region) with Kashgar in Xinjiang through what is known as Khunjereb Pass. With this alternative route available, is there any future for the Karakoram route? Mr. C.P. Skrine, whom I have quoted in the beginning, mentions about this Hunza route.

A shorter and less arduous route from Gilgit is available to Kashgar via Mintake pass and Chinese Pamirs. (Mintake pass is very similar to Khunjereb pass but is located North of it.) For several reasons this route is not practicable for trade or other regular traffic. For one, the gorge of Hunza river between Baltit and Misgar is in many places quite impossible for loaded ponies and all the luggage has to be carried in 50 pounds packs on back of few porters besides law and order situation in the region and thirdly because of the difficulty of supplies.”

It is obvious that the situation today is not the same as it was in 1920 , when C,P.Skrine wrote this. However facts about the geographical terrain are valid even today. Hunza river gorge is very narrow and unstable. This has been proven at the beginning of 2010 when a large landslide has blocked the river and formed a huge lake in which 25 kilometers of the Khunjereb pass highway have submerged. Effectively, this highway has become unusable since last 8 months.

I however feel that the significance of Karakoram trade route is far more important for India. For many years, general thinking in India was that karakoram and saser passes are the routes which could allow Chinese invaders into Indian subcontinent. This was true to certain extent up to 1984, when the mountain ranges west of karakorams were not controlled by India. Now with Saltoro ridge, firmly controlled by Indians, Karakoram and saser passes could be considered as gateways which would let Indians out to the central Asia.

Things are changing fast in Asia. Nathu La, where Guns boomed in not very distant past, has become a busy border trade post for China and India. Is it unnatural to expect something similar for Karakoram pass? China has recently declared that Kashgar in Xinjiang would be made a free trade zone. It is already connected with good roads with Chinese border opening to central asia. On the Indian side, on-going construction of Rohatang pass tunnel in Himachal pradesh state, would connect Delhi to Leh by an all weather road. A good motorable road already exists between Leh and upto base of Saser La mountain. With modern technology, if a difficult route like Khunjereb pass can be made commercially viable,, Karakoram trade route can certainly be made into India’s grand gateway for trade and commerce to central Asia.

Political boundaries always change, but geography remains same along with geographical boundaries. One must remember that Karakoram pass is a natural geographical gateway and is going to remain so for ever. It is up to the Governments of India and China to see that this natural gateway is exploited to the fullest extent. If that happens,without any doubt, the glory and importance of this geographical landmark shall return again.

14 September 2010

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About chandrashekhara

I am a retired electronics engineer. I am interested in writing, reading books. Other hobbies include Paper models, wooden fret work and social networking.

Discussion

15 thoughts on “India’s ancient gateway to central Asia

  1. I was very interested by your documents about Karakoram pass. During several years I have searched
    informations on this site which were difficult to find! The photos found are for us in France unique for no books were published on this subject.
    All these should can cheer touristic travels in this region for the Karakoram mountains,are ,for me, one of the most beautiful mountains in the world!
    Congratulations and thanks
    G.LACY

    Posted by Gregor LACY | April 15, 2011, 9:18 pm
  2. thanks for such a nice information especially with the maps

    Posted by Joseph Michael Jose | July 9, 2012, 8:01 pm
  3. Dear sir,
    I read your blog post on Karakorum with great interest. Just yesterday I completed reading the fabulous book “Wonders of the Himalayas” by Sir Francis Younghusband from which you have quoted. It is my ambition to travel from Leh to Yarkand via Karakorum pass within the next few years. Were you able to visit the Karakorum pass? Can civilians visit the Karakorum pass?
    Regards,
    Vinay

    Posted by Vinay | July 16, 2012, 2:56 pm
    • Vinay –

      Your ambition is really great. Unfortunately at this point of time only civilian groups of mountaineers are allowed to visit Karakoram pass. I would very much like to visit it but it is definitely beyond my physical capabilities. You may contact Himalayan mountaineering groups for a possible visit.

      Posted by chandrashekhara | July 19, 2012, 12:42 pm
  4. Wonderful article! I am studying the information in great deal for an historical novel I’m working on about the Great Game with characters like Francis Younghusband, Gabriel Bonvalot and Bronislav Grombchevsky. Your maps are a very big help.

    Posted by Rachel Bodner | April 17, 2013, 9:20 am
  5. I stumbled upon your article while going through the images of Karakoram Pass and I am very late to comment.. However, after reading your detailed and informative post I couldn’t leave without commenting. Even my geography teacher never explained with so much detail.

    I hope the atleast the Indian govt take interest and show initiative in opening the Karakoram Pass to civilians and tourist thus helping it to optimise its full potential

    Posted by Naaj Rona | February 17, 2015, 5:22 am
  6. It’s so interesting to read this document with factual story, history and geography of Karakoram Pass.
    I am not at all a mountaineer, but may be a little enthusiastic about geographical history. Your vivid article could help me in many ways to understand and realize the area and its history.
    I am surely quite late for you in making this comment.
    My best wishes and Regards.

    Posted by Shyamal Sarkar | May 2, 2015, 12:20 pm
  7. When I, with my wife and a small child, passed through karakoram pass by a caravan from kashgar to Leh in Nov 1953, I had almost lost the way. It so happened that on one day, my stomach was out of order due to which I had been left behind while caravan kept moving on and when I got up after relieving myself, caravan had taken a sudden corner path after going through a running water stream. It is at that point – a “Y” shaped situation – where had I taken the other direction I would have never rejoined the moving-caravan which never stops for anyone. PN Gulati

    Posted by Pn GULATI | July 21, 2015, 6:58 am

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