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Debunking the myth of the Silk Road

Salman Rashid |

Eos recently carried an article on the journey of some people along the Silk Road. One of the accompanying images in the mentioned article has a man and a woman standing in front of a sign saying  “Old Silk Road”. The location of this sign is somewhere between Gilgit and Hunza. That the classic Silk Road ever entered what is now Pakistan by way of Hunza is patent rubbish. But if people repeat the same falsehood a few times, let alone over decades, it becomes established truth.

The great East-West trade route originating at ancient Chang’an (modern Xian) to connect China with the Levant and further was first called ‘Silk Road’ by the 19th century German geographer and scientist Ferdinand von Richthofen. At Anxi, west of Chang’an, this road split into two. One carried on due West through Turfan and Khokand to Samarkand. The other went to Dunhuang where it again split into two. One of these reached Kashgar via Aksu while the southern branch looped through Khotan to Kashgar.

While Kashgar and Khokand were also connected, another connection swung slightly south from Kashgar to make Bactra that we today know as Balkh in Afghanistan. Throughout the long and creative passage of time, we do not find any evidence of a major or even minor trade road swinging south from Kashgar to cross the Hindu Kush Mountains to enter Hunza.

We do know of one Indian connection from the Silk Road. This route led from Srinagar, through Kargil and Leh (the chief town of Ladakh) to climb the 5,655-metre high Karakoram Pass to descend on the Turkestan side for a very long and tedious journey to Kashgar on the Silk Road via Karghalik and Yarkand.

In her masterful work The Silk Road, Frances Wood tells us of a Kashmiri Buddhist monk travelling this way to the famous monastery of Chang’an. There he assisted his Chinese counterparts in translating Buddhist texts from Indian to Central Asiatic languages. The year of the Kashmiri master’s travel, as recorded by Wood, is 284 CE. That a common traveller was going this way can only mean that the Karakoram Pass route was well-frequented at that early age.

Another book, the delightful Himalayan Letters of Gypsy Davy and Lady Ba, records the adventures of an upper-class and very erudite husband and wife. In the 1920s, this couple – together with a friend or two – spent several lazy years simply travelling around in Baltistan, across Deosai and into Ladakh. The book comprises the letters this endearing and educated company sent home.

While they were encamped one winter on a hill outside Leh, one of their companions, a young man called Roger, crossed the Khardung Pass lying north of Leh en route to Karakoram Pass. On the far side of Khardung Pass in Khardung village, Roger saw in a warehouse felts, hashish and hundreds of bolts of silk destined for the marts of India.The point is that Chinese silk and other goods were coming down to the subcontinent by way of the Karakoram Pass east of Gilgit-Baltistan.

On the other hand, we have accounts of Gilgit and Hunza from the mid-19th century. Yet not one of them tells us of storehouses anywhere along the road coming down from Hunza stored with silk. We hear of absolutely no trade of silk in Gilgit. Had the famous Silk Road extended down into this region, Gilgit, which is situated at a strategic spot to become a trading centre, would have been a hotbed of the silk trade.

Yet we never hear of silk being traded either in Gilgit or Hunza. Nor, too, do we hear of it coming any further down by the Indus Gorge. And we do not hear from any 19th-century explorer that the road connecting Gilgit to the northern passes was known as the Silk Road.

When work on the Karakoram Highway (KKH) began in 1959 it was just that: Karakoram Highway. And it remained the Karakoram Highway through the long years it was under construction and even after completion in 1979. That year, the road was opened only for official use.

Tourist traffic was first permitted on the KKH in the early 1980s. With that a lot of tour operators came into full play to exploit the potential of what was billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World – a high-altitude road built under extreme conditions ranging from the arctic in winter to a sizzling 50 degrees Celsius in summer. But we, as a nation, have been nurtured on all sorts of lies from our very inception and it now seems impossible for us to exploit a truth.
Tour operators in tandem with the bureaucracy of Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation simply ignored the fact that KKH was a feat of heroic accomplishment. Its construction had cost us a significant amount of human life, both Chinese and Pakistani. This is even today confirmed by the several cemeteries sprinkled along its length. And then there was the huge financial cost of the undertaking. These were the aspects that KKH should have been celebrated for.

Instead, our ignorant tour operators resorted to plain white lies. For them the greater glamour of the Silk Road was too attractive. They mendaciously labelled KKH the Silk Road. Once you broadcast an attractive lie, especially to an ignorant nation, it becomes gospel. Instead of celebrating the road for its true glory, it was given the supposititious status of the Silk Road.

Delve into newspaper archives to dig out the title Silk Road prior to 1983 and you draw a complete and total blank. Neither in government records nor in local histories do you hear of the Silk Road in our Gilgit-Baltistan region before the 1980s. The attractive falsehood, found good currency very quickly, however, and soon there were Silk Road Hotels and Silk Road bus companies.

The original pony track between Gilgit and Hunza — which became a jeep road back in the 1950s and whose remnants one can still see strung out on the right bank of the Hunza River as one heads north of Gilgit – became the old Silk Road. After the recent upgrading of the KKH, the National Highways Authority (NHA) has put up a sign (the very one featured in the article I refer to at the outset) pointing to the old pony track as the Silk Road.

It is well known that Pakistani officialdom has never been famous for sensibility and it was only expected from the NHA to grab the available falsehood. But the sad thing is that even the Aga Khan Foundation fell to this great lie and they also have a sign along KKH calling it the Silk Road. That having been said, it needs be conceded that a place like Hunza could not have existed in a vacuum. It was only natural for it to connect southward to Gilgit and northward to Kashgar. But there was no major trade this way, least of all of silk.