New Journey through Old Silk Road
By Sabyasachi Ghosh Dastidar
By Sabyasachi Ghosh Dastidar
From the time the 1,500 kilometer Karakoram Highway (KKH) was opened three decades ago connecting China’s Xinjiang (Sinkiang) Province with Pakistani Kashmir my wife Shefali and I have been planning to travel through that highway. This modern road follows the old Southern Silk Road connecting China with India, Central Asia, Persia and Europe crossing the 14,000-16,000 feet high Khunjerab Pass – border between Xinjiang and Kashmir. KKH traverses through the Karakoram Range of the northern Himalayas, is one of the longest, picturesque highways of the world. (Pakistan-controlled northern Kashmir is now called Northern Areas with remainder of the small Pakistani Kashmir, west of Jammu & Kashmir State, is known as Azad Kashmir.) KKH is undeniably one of the most spectacularly beautiful passages of the world. It follows rivers down deep gorges at times 5,000 to 10,000 feet deep, finally it follows Indus River. From a distance the road looks like a fine line drawn on the side of mountain slope.
Like the ancient travelers we too started our journey at Xi’an in east-central China – her imperial capital for 1,400 years. Xi’an proudly describes herself as the end of the Silk Road connecting her with Europe and India. Our journey also connected the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China; a conference on the 150th anniversary of the First War of (Indian) Independence (Shepoy Mutiny) of 1857 organized by Peshawar University of Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan; a pilgrimage to Nankana Sahib and a trip to the Indus Valley City of Harappa, both in Pakistani Punjab. We ended our trip in India, crossing the Wagha-Atari Pakistan-India border. Our pilgrimage to a Hindu Mandir in Lahore had to be abandoned as our Lahori guide informed us that the last Hindu Mandir — Jain Mandir — was demolished a few years ago.
The Southern Silk Road has two distinct parts: one travel within China and the other within Pakistan, including Northern (Kashmir) Areas. Now the 8,000 kilometer land journey to India can be completed in less than a month, instead of years in the ancient times. For Indians the most difficult task is not the journey itself — which is costly and grueling no doubt — but getting a Pakistani visa that would allow one to enter the country through Wagha-Atari border and exit through Sost check post in the Northern Kashmir to enter China is close to impossible. Our American passports made life much easier. (Most countries of the world do not require Americans to have visa, sometimes even passport, but India, Pakistan and China require both.)
We traveled westward starting in Beijing, China’s capital, then on to Hohhot, capital of Inner Mongolia. From there we headed to Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. Xi’an has become a tourist Mecca because of recent archeological find of 2,000-year old terracotta warriors. From Xi’an we traveled to Urumqi in far western Xinjiang, now called Uighur Autonomous Region, bordering Central Asia and Kashmir. From Urumqi we went 1,000 kilometers southwest to Kashgar or Kashi near Kashmir and Tibet. From Kashgar one day’s bus drive took us to Taskurgan 300 kilometers away for an overnight stop and for Chinese customs and immigration, still 120 kilometers from the Pakistani Kashmir border at 16,000-feet high Khunjerab Pass. From that border it is still another 86 kilometers to Pakistani customs and immigration at the first Kashmiri village of Sost (Sust), inhabited by Ismaili Shias, surrounded by high treeless mountains covered with snow and glaciers of stunning beauty. From Sost a 3-hour trip took us through Karimabad and Aliabad in Hunza region 90 kilometers away. After enjoying Rakaposhi Mountain at Karimabad we went to Gilgit, North Kashmir’s capital, and another 3 hour in 100 miles of mountainous road. Gilgit is a beautiful town surrounded by mountain, and for a time was a center of Shia-Sunni conflict, and before that anti-Hindu-Buddhist and anti-India jihad. The town center proudly displays an Indian air force helicopter captured during a war with India. If Shia dominated upper Kashmir was relaxed, men and women walking at ease, Gilgit was opposite without any woman on the street, and beauty parlors hidden behind unadvertised homes. North Kashmir seemed to be a place where every second man has Pakistani military link — past or present.
Our next stop was Abbotabad, Northwest Frontier Province, over 500 kilometers of Himalayan Mountains away and a 14-hour journey from Gilgit that took us past a snow-covered Nanga Parbat looking like a diamond against a blue sky; afterwards to Lahore, and on to Nankana Sahib, Harappa, Wagha-Atari, and finally India. Pakistani immigration officer informed us that “you must be among 16 or 17 crazy foreigners, who have done this” journey, while the Indians said “you must be the first Indians.”
After the 1962 Sino-Indian war China built KKH connecting Kashgar with Islamabad. Now China is widening the highway to reach Gwadar Port in Baluchistan, near Iran. KKH is one of the engineering marvels that both Chinese and Pakistani builders are proud of. It is also one of the longest mountain highways of the world with unending beauty that follows numerous passes, bends, glaciers and deep valleys. It offers breathtaking beauty with landscape, color and contour changing every moment.
The Chinese Silk Road:
In 2007 August Inner Mongolia was celebrating “60 Years of Autonomy” that we saw on Beijing TV, yet it was hard to find an indigenous Mongol in Mongolia. They have been displaced by aggressive Han colonizing. After 60 years it is barely 10% Mongol. It is so disparate that a young man would whisper in English to complete strangers “I am the only Mongol here, rest are Chinese. I want to be your friend.” Local Chinese proudly pointed out how well they are compared to the neighbor, poor Mongolian Republic. Demographic colonization has changed Uighur Autonomous Region too. Uighurs and other natives are now a minority visible in distant towns, desert and remote villages. Both Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang are bilingual regions, but when asked of Mongol language in Mongolia people just laughed at that question. If Chinese Emperors had unified the diverse Chinese people with one script 2,000 years ago, Communist rule has Sinified China 2,000 years later with Han relocation. Non-Hans exist on TV, folk shows and among officials. It seems a similar linguistic transformation has taken place in Pakistan: Urduization of the nation. In India even the small groups demand native language instruction — sometimes elites inventing a past that never existed — but in Pakistan from remote Kashmir to the hills of the Frontier and Baluchistan to Indus Plains people have accepted Urdu as their sole mode of instruction and upward mobility, much like post-Sinified China. Is it the Hindu mind that always agitates for pluralism in every sphere?
The Pakistani Kashmiri Silk Route:
Reaching Sost crossing Khunjerab Pass felt like “home again.” Language, food, ethnicity and hot tea created that. We looked “local” except for our clothing, especially Shefali’s hiking outfit, gave away our foreign identity. Even a military-run Pakistan felt free as we received Pakistani, Indian and foreign media as opposed to state-controlled one view in China. Our entry to Kashmir was extremely difficult as KKH was flooded 15 kilometers from the border. We had to climb a mountain to get to the other side where a Pakistani bus waited for our journey. Climbing a mountain at that height was one of the most difficult tasks that we ever did in our travel through 75 countries. The entire bus load of passengers — Pakistani men returning after buying goods in China — extended help to their Bhaia and Bhabiji. This warmth was extended till the Indian border. Every Pakistani would first ask if we were Hindustani and then if Hindu. We were the first Hindu in flesh-and-blood many were seeing, but they were gracious all along. At Sost while extending his welcome a hotel owner would tell us matter-of-factly — while watching Indian TV — how he went to Bangladesh in 1971 to fight Indians and kill Hindus (and was interred in Hindu Uttar Pradesh as a POW.) A lady sitting next to Shefali on a bus from Aliabad to Gilgit would insist that we stay with her family instead of hotel that we booked. We ended up staying with Professor Shakila’s family in Lahore whom we met at Peshawar conference. She took it upon herself to cancel our hotel. At home her mother would say that “it must be God’s blessing that we have Hindu guests at our home.” At the conference participants seem to be unusually delighted when Shefali wore her sari and I my Bengali sloka-printed boutique bush-shirt. (Those were the only formal outfit we carried on this backpack-type trip.) Complete strangers reminded that the outfit is their heritage too, but after 1947 dress were communalized.
We visited bazaars, restaurants, hotels, bus stations and barbers on a regular basis. Life was normal except for places without women. In 2007 people expressed their frustration to strangers on nation’s socio-politics, displeasure of rising fundamentalism, militarism, political instability and their concern for young giving up on their nation. Ironically the person who was glorifying extremism was a Westerner convert born in Communist East Europe. Yet at the same place a young journalist would ask for help to save a Shiva Mandir in Peshawar, one of the two remaining temples there. He told, “As Indian Hindus do not help other Hindus, can you help us?” (We did, whatever he suggested.)
After leaving Sakila’s Lahore home we were native again in Amritsar, her mother’s former home. At the Indian side Dr. Singh, a Lahore refugee, waited for us to welcome from “his ancestral home” and took us for a chana batora lunch to make us feel back home again. We then offered prayers for our dreams coming true and for two devotees in Pakistan at Durgiana Mandir (Hindu Goddess Durga Temple) and Swarna Mandir (the Sikh Golden Temple).
From: Bengal Engineering College Alumni Association Journal, 2008
For pictures, see another post.