The Skeleton Trail in Ladakh

The famous Silk Route was also dangerous for the caravans

January 17, 2019 03:43 pm | Updated January 18, 2019 04:40 pm IST

Diskit Monastery

Diskit Monastery

The world’s first international cultural phenomenon took place through the ‘Silk Route’ that connected the Yellow River Valley of China, India and Persia, going beyond Turkey to culminate in Rome and Syria in the West. This 6,500 km-long trade route had many trails from interior destinations joining the main highway. One important branch that joined at Yarkhand, the Gateway of Central Asia, was located at the tri-junction of China, India and Pakistan. This was the Southern route from the Himalayan towns of Leh and Srinagar. The six Passes from Uttarakhand Himalaya and those from Lahul and Spiti met at the Leh-Lhasa Road.

It was an arduous passage as the Ladakhi traders had to cross over the Khardung La at 5,359 metres. They journeyed from the head of the Nubra valley through the Sasser La at 5,411 metres across the Depsang Plains at 5,376 metres to reach the cold desert of Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) at the easternmost point of the Karakoram range and finally over the Karakoram Pass at 5,540 metres before they could reach Yarkhand.

In spite of the harsh climate and the inhospitable terrain of the Himalayas, apart from the fear of being looted by bandits and dacoits, every year, hundreds of caravans embarked on this long journey that took several months. This Pass is still strewn with bones and skeletons of pack animals that died due to lack of vegetation. It is popularly known as the Skeleton Trail. The notorious peaks of the Karakoram, the Momosthang Khangri and the Padmanabha group of peaks tower around this trail.

The caravans carried shawls, indigo, tea, muslin, food grains, cotton, silk, saffron, dry fruits, hashish, opium and works of art from the Western Himalaya. Precious and semi precious stones, gold dust, herbs, musk, salt and pack animals came from Tibet. Countries lying on the Silk Route have influenced the economic and cultural fabric of each other. Greek, Roman and Persian influence is evident in the Indian crafts of carpet weaving, calligraphy and cuisine.

Islam made its foray through the sufis into this Hindu kingdom and went as far as China while Buddhism travelled into Central Asia establishing itself, impacting the religious, social and ethnic culture of the trading countries. Arabs took the knowledge of mathematics and medicine from India and China and gave us Algebra. The Bactrim Camel still roams around the Nubra Valley reminding us of this past age.

The Silk Road that began in the second century, thrived for 1,600 years until the Ottoman Empire closed trade with China in the 14th Century.

The writers are ace photographers known for their travelogues

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