The Karakoram Pass played a significant role in the flourishing trade on the Silk Route between India-China and Central Asia. The pass was shut down and trade stopped in 1949 when Xinjiang became a part of People’s Republic of China. Leh was a busy cosmopolitan commercial town, with traders from Central Asia, Kashgarh, Yarkand, Kabul, Tibet, Kashmir, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh who stayed on for one or two months after their exhausting journey. The trade, through the Karakoram, influenced the dress, food and dance forms of Ladakh. On the other side of the Pass, “Chini Bagh” at Kashgarh (the residence of the British Joint Commissioner of Trade), “Gurdial Sarai” and “Kashmiri Kucha” (street) at Yarkand, where Indian traders used to stay, still remind us of the magnitude of commerce that took place. The Bactrian camel (double hump) of Nubra valley is a relic from Xinjiang. A generation of people in Nubra still speaks the Uyghur dialect. Food served in some of old streets of Leh has a distinctly Central Asian flavour.
Central and popular
At 18,250 feet, Karakoram was one of the highest trade routes. Now, a motorable road exists through Khardungla (18,680 feet) and Turumputila up to the base of Saser Kangri. Thereafter, a track moves over to camp sites of Murgo (in Yarkandi, also known as the gateway of death), Burtsa, Kazilangar, Deptsang la, Daulat Beg Oldi (the Indo-Tibetan Border Police post named after a Xinjiang caravan leader who was buried here) and finally to the Karakoram Pass. Notably, the India-China boundary at the pass is not disputed; it is indicated by two heaps of stones at a distance of 50 feet, one Indian, and the other Chinese. It is an eight day-trek from the picturesque Nubra Valley to the Karakoram Pass. It is not possible to get lost there — the trail of bones and skeletons of men and animals constantly remind the weary traveller of the ruggedness of terrain and weather. But in spite of those drawbacks, the Karakoram Pass remained popular due to its centrality and affinity with Ladakhis.
The Silk Route, through which passed Chinese merchandise, notably silk to Rome, is a primary axis of transportation through the heart of Asia. A number of auxiliary axes feed into the Silk Route. An important feeder route from the lower Himalayas was from Hunza via Sarikol into Xinjiang via the Mintaka Pass. This route is now a part of the Northern Areas of Pakistan. Another more important route was via Karakoram from the Leh-Nubra valley or Leh-Changla pass-Shyok Valley.
Pakistan has always enhanced its strategic power much more than its economic and scientific potential by making full use of its geostrategic location. It was at the 1955 Bandung Non-Aligned nations conference that President Ayub Khan and Premier Chou en Lai met for the first time and later concluded, in 1963, the historic Sino-Pakistan Boundary Agreement. Earlier, Pakistan Army engineers had built a Indus Valley road to Gilgit. Later, Pakistan concluded an agreement with China to transform this road into an all-weather dual carriageway all the way up to the Mintaka Pass. Completed in 1969, the Karakoram Highway pushes north through Islamabad, Gilgit and crosses the Karakoram range through the 16,000ft Khunjerab Pass. The highway abandoned the Mintaka Pass because of its proximity to Russia and the road is now closer to and strengthens the Xinjiang-Aksai Chin Western Tibet road. Approximately 10,000 Chinese and 15,000 Pakistani engineers and army troops were employed in building the road with 80 bridges. The road was hailed by the London-based Financial Times as “China’s new trade outlet to Africa and Middle East” in the Pakistan Himalayas via a “modernized ancient silk route” (quoted by Dawn, Karachi, April 30, 1971).
India should negotiate with China to open the ancient trade route for mutual gain. India enjoys historic popularity with the people of Central Asia and Xinjiang. Most of the merchandise sold by Pakistani traders across the border in China is of Indian origin. The economy of Ladakh, which has traditionally depended on trade, would thrive with the opening of the Karakoram Pass. Ever suspicious of links between militant Uyghurs and terrorist outfits in Pakistan, China would have no such fears regarding Ladakh. There are immense possibilities for the revival of an ancient Buddhist connection and for two-way tourism to ancient Buddhist sites in Central Asia and India. Ladakh Buddhists long to visit the “Thousand Buddhist caves” at Dunhuang in Xinjiang. The Karakoram Pass has also been a traditional Haj route from Xinjiang. Pilgrims can take advantage of direct Haj flights from Srinagar. As strong cultural bridges already exist, we have to revive them by resuming trade through the pass.
Karakoram can also act as a gateway for hydrocarbon pipelines from Central Asia. The planned Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI) from the city of Shymkent must pass through disturbed and insecure areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another pipeline from Kazakhstan, which would also pass through the same territory, is being conceived. The security of the pipeline would always be in doubt despite local government guarantees. The route from the Central Asian countries via Xinjiang and the Karakoram Pass would be more secure. There is another advantage, most of the hydrocarbon pipelines in Central Asia are on an east-west axis. A pipeline through Karakoram, at least up to the pass, would have an east-west line. It would be economical and technologically easier. China is already planning an oil pipeline connecting Gwadar Port with Xinjiang along with the Karakoram Highway. India can make a beginning by proposing a comparatively secure pipeline through Xinjiang and Karakoram. It would be a good confidence-building step by both countries.
It may be argued that the economic viability of the Pass is not great, especially through the all-weather motorable roads over the Khunjerab Pass; through here, a truck from Kashgarh can get to Karachi in five days for seven months in a year, compared to 12 through the Karakoram Pass.
The author would argue that the opening of the Karakoram Pass would hugely benefit the people of Ladakh and Xinjiang. Tibet, as a source of merchandise, has not been successful as Chinese goods are available from Nepal.
The commercial potential of central Asian carpets, silk, leather goods, dry fruits in India and the direct export of Indian goods to Xinjiang would be very high. The popularity of Indian and Xinjiang goods and the revival of ancient cultural links make a good case for opening the Karakoram Pass for trade. Once done, development of infrastructure for traffic and energy pipelines, and other benefits will follow.
(Virendra Sahai Verma is Hon Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, and an Indian Army veteran.)