Across the bleak mountains and the inhospitable heights of Ladakh, where Indian and Chinese troops are now locked in a standoff, it is difficult to believe that a 500-year-old trade on the old Silk Route between Leh and Yarkand in China’s Xinjiang, was thriving as recently as the late 1940s. From Leh, traders from Punjab and Kashmir set off in caravans to Yarkand with horses laden with tea, saffron, spices, shawls, and indigo, while from the other side came traders with precious stones, carpets, brocade and silk.
From the 19th century onwards, as the Great Game unfolded between Britain and Russia for influence in Afghanistan, central Asia and neighbouring regions, several British and European travellers began to undertake expeditions into the ‘heart of Asia’. They mapped the region, learnt the languages of the locals, studied their cultures, sketched the landscapes and the flora and fauna, even as they sussed out its potential for diplomatic and commercial benefits.
The last of these explorers, and perhaps most curious of them all, was Nicholas Roerich, the famous Russian painter who was accompanied by his wife Helena and their Tibetologist son George. The Roerichs had moved to America before the Russian Revolution. The mission was apparently financed by the Roerich Museum in New York. The final destination was Tibet.
Mystery and intrigue surrounded the mission from the start. Travellers or spies? Soviet spies, or Americans? Or just crazies, in search of the mythical Shambala? The expeditioners established a base in Darjeeling, and first made forays into Sikkim. Roerich senior made an impression from the start in his monkish-Buddhist robes and Chinese cap. Later the party took a train from Howrah to Rawalpindi, and from there across Murree to Srinagar by road. A halt of three months in Srinagar went by in preparations for the journey ahead through Ladakh to Xinjiang, and through mainland China into Tibet. The expedition lasted five years. It was keenly followed by the US, Russia, Britain, Germany, France, and in the east, Japan.
The Leh to Yarkand leg of this expedition traversed the region that is presently the cause of tensions between India and China in Ladakh. The journey is recorded by George N Roerich, in his 1931 book Trials to Inmost Asia: Five Years with the Roerich Central Asian Expedition (Yale University Press).
What leaps out through the book’s pages is the easy confluence of the East and West, of Islam and Buddhism, and to a lesser extent, Hinduism, in this hardly inhabited, tough terrain. Caravans are crossing each other all the time with different looking men and women, who speak many different languages. At one point, the Roerich expedition passes a caravan with pilgrims from Yarkand bound for Mecca via Srinagar and Bombay.
In Leh, for instance, the “two principal bazaars of the town are thronged by a multicolored crowd”. There are Turks from Turkestan with their bales of merchandise. Tibetan nomads brought pashmina to sell to Kashmiris, there is silk from China and Khotan. The returning caravans “carry loads of European-made goods: products of Manchester looms and Bradford woolen mills, British and German dyestuffs… and Indian products and spices, such as saffron, which is exported in great quantities from Kashmir to Turkestan and Tibet.”
After buying 30 horses from a Karghalil caravaneer, and 36 more from an Afghan trader (at the price of Rs 76 each for a horse), and accompanied by a small army of Ladakhi porters, the expedition set off on September 19, 1925. Their first difficult ascent was Khardung La, now a selfie spot. It takes them five days to cross Nubra valley and reach the foot of Sasser La, one of the most difficult mountain crossings in the region, even though at 17,500 ft, it is lower than the Karakoram Pass.
Roerich’s description of the glacier-covered Sasser La is true to its reputation. Carcasses lie across it. Blizzards blow. Ditched merchandise lies in a heap. Perhaps because of the difficulties of crossing it, traders left their wares, secure in the knowledge that they could collect them later.
This is where the Border Roads Organisation hopes to construct a “glaciated road” to provide an alternative link between Leh and Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO), India’s forward post at the foot of the Karakoram Pass. At present, the two are connected by the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie Road, inaugurated last year, and now in Chinese sights, after the intrusion of PLA soldiers into what was previously an uncontested part of the LAC in Galwan Valley.
Beyond Sasser La is Shyok, the river and valley, Depsang Pass and the Depsang plains. On the 11th day of their journey from Leh, the expedition crossed over Karakoram Pass, which at 18,694 feet “was very gradual and the pass itself was more like a low ridge on the surrounding high up”. Roerich does not mention Galwan Valley, or DBO, though the expedition would have crossed both points on its way to the Pass. DBO, named after a sultan of Yarkand, figures in earlier expeditions as a stopping point for caravans. It is unclear when Galwan Valley got its name. Recent articles say it is named after a Ladakhi of Kashmiri descent called Ghulam Rasool Galwan, who was part of many expeditions in the region.
Today, Google Maps will show a reimagined version of the Silk route — the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative — that has already begun to take shape in the formidable network of highways through China that meet at Kashgar in Xinjiang. Some branch off into central Asia, while one, numbered G314, heads south to link up with Pakistan’s Karakoram Highway that cuts through Gilgit-Baltistan, territory claimed by India as part of the erstwhile state of J&K. To the east is the G219 from Tibet to Kashgar, through Aksai Chin, built in the 1950s before India noticed that China had nibbled off J&K’s eastern ear. East to west, Galwan to Siachen, is 80 km max. It’s enough to set the heart racing. In other circumstances, this area could have been romantically described as the place where India meets China and Pakistan.
Post-script: The Roerichs settled down in Naggar, in Himachal Pradesh. After his father’s death, George and his mother moved to Kalimpong where they lived until 1956, before moving to the Soviet Union. The younger son, Svetoslav, married Indian actor Devika Rani. They moved to Bangalore where they lived a very public life until their deaths.
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