Kashgar to Kargil: Imagining a Silk Route safari

A Canada based travel agency, Bestway Tours and Safaris organises a 24 day Safari from Yarqand to Hunza, which has become very popular with foreign tourists from many parts of the world. It is a cultural tour of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, and Pakistan. Extracts from the online brochure of the tour make a fascinating reading. The ancient Silk Road was most significant in Central Asia, Chinese Turkistan (Sinkiang) and Northern Pakistan (India of pre-partition days). The 24 day Safari traverses the most important parts of the Silk Road. The journey has been tailored to bring back the memories of the bygone days. The bazaars, camel routes, sand dunes, majestic mountains, intense culture, and ancient peoples. It is a fascinating and unforgettable tour which begins at Tashkent where the participants arrive by International flights and ends in Islamabad wherefrom they again take off back to their home countries. After exploring the cities of Samarqand, Bukhara, and Khiva, the tourists reach the great game centre of Kashgar. From here they drive to Tashkurgan, Hunza and Gilgit. Kashmir’s great king Zain-ul-Abidin (Budshah) spent seven years in the court of Tamerlane at Samarqand. Tamerlane is considered to be the founder of Uzbekistan. In ancient times the journey from Samarqand would take months on the backs of Bactrian camels and horses. Now the journey can be performed in a matter of days in luxury cars or coaches. The journey from Kashgar to Gilgit can now be completed in only 16 hours by luxury coaches, which operate thrice a week. Both Chinese and Pakistani authorities are planning to start the service on a daily basis shortly. Kashgar, locally called Kashgi, is a city where time seems to have stood still. One finds walking through the narrow lanes of old town, a scene from the bygone days of the Arabian Nights with a culture that has remained intact stocked with people whose lifestyle is being friendly. Amongst the most popular professions include coppersmiths, blacksmiths, carpenters, jewellers, and cobblers all using tools that are at best antiques. Miles from nowhere, mid-way between Rome and Beijing, this exotic oasis used to be the last outfitting station on the centuries-old Silk Road. Trade remains in bygone style, at least on Sundays, when the entire community gathers at the world’s liveliest market. Known as “the pearl on the Ancient Silk Road”, the Sunday Bazaar is dotted with stalls here and there. Throughout the bazaars, one finds shopkeepers that sell almost everything while others specialize in local produce, arts and crafts, garments, knives, timber, coal, and animals. The two most important landmarks of Kashgar are the Id Kah Mosque, the largest in China and the Abakh Khoja’s Tomb, the most revered monument, which is an architectural marvel. The journey from Kashgar along Karakuli Lake and Muztag-Ata Mountain is dramatic. Tashkurgan the border town of Turkmenistan inhabited by Tajiks is the next stop before entering Pakistan through Khunjerab pass. The road to Hunza is a beautiful drive, with majestic views of the high mountains of the Karakoram and the distant Pamir Mountain Ranges. Hunza is most famous for the longevity of its people, due to the simplicity of their lifestyle and natural diet, combined with the unpolluted mountain air. Tibetan traders referred to the beauty of this humble paradise as “Shangri-La”. James Hilton was probably inspired by Hunza to write his famous novel, the “Lost Horizon of Shangri La”. Sometime back a team of German Scientists had declared it to be the only cancer free place in the world. En route to Gilgit one can witness what is surely the most spectacular view of the majestic Rakaposhi peak. One feels so close to the peak yet it takes days of trekking before one can reach the base! The glacier of the peak almost touches the road and there are a number of tall pines on the mountain. The Pak-China memorial to honour the memories of those workers who sacrificed their life during the construction of the Karkoram Highway is just before reaching Gilgit. There is also a historical rock carving of Buddha at Kargah. From Gilgit the tour goes through Chilas, Abbotabad, and Taxila to reach Islamabad where it finally ends. It would take only eight hours from Gilgit to reach Kargil if the road was open. The travel from Gilgit to Skardu is four hours and from there one can reach Kargil in four more hours. Instead of ending in Islamabad, the tour could end in Leh or Srinagar. A jeepable road already exists from the Line of Control to Kargil. A longer variation of the tour (about one week to ten days) could go from Skardu to Khaplu, Turtuk, Deskit (Nubra Valley) across Khardungla (the highest motorable road in the world) to Leh, Kargil and finally end at Srinagar. It would be a tour combining History, Culture and Adventure in one go. The travel from Kashgar to Kargil would be only two to three days with a night halt at Gilgit. In the ancient times, there was regular traffic between Kashmir and Yarqand. Leh was an important hub on this route. The Leh-Yarqnd route was open throughout the year. From Leh the caravans would go through Nubra valley across Saser La and Karakoram pass in summer and during winter they would reach the base of the pass near Daulat Beg Oldi over the frozen Shyok River.

The restoration of trade between China and India through Nathu La in the North east has thrown open the possibility of getting most of these ancient trade routes re-opened soon. According to some reports, the Foreign Secretary is visiting Leh shortly to assess the possibility of opening the Leh-Lahasa route across Demchok for trade and pilgrimage. Opening of this route will reduce the present three week long pilgrimage to Kailash-Mansarovar through Uttranchal involving difficult mountain trekking to less than a week and that too all the way by four wheel drive vehicles. While attention is being paid to opening up the links between China and India, one should not forget the most important link to the Central Asia. Both Kashmir and Ladakh have had historical and cultural links with this region. Technically it is feasible to restore all these links whether through Kargil to Kashgar or Leh to Yarqand. However, the only hitch is the political climate in the region. If only the politicians could understand that blocking free movement across borders worsens the climate, we would have had peace long time back! The more we restrict and confine people within artificial borders, the more and more tensions rise. Free movement of the people in this entire region could give a tremendous boost to trade and tourism which would restore the “Historical and Cultural Health” of the people artificially separated from each other for more than half a century. Some years back, as Vice-President of Indian Mountaineering Foundation, I had the good fortune of visiting the Pakistani side of Kashgar-Gilgit safari, courtesy Alpine Club of Pakistan. Combined with the Ladakh side, it can be termed to be the most dramatic high altitude safari in the world. During my recent visit to Nubra valley, the elder brother of the local tourist officer reminisced about the good old days of Leh-Yarqand trade caravans. There used to be year round trade and interaction with Central Asia and China. Restoration of these ancient cultural links could change the complexion of the whole area and usher in peace and prosperity, which has eluded us due to last six decades of isolation. Whether we will be able to undertake the dream Safari from Kargil to Kashgar in our own lifetime depends upon the political leaders. Let us pray they do see the “Vision of Peace” and make us realise the dream soon!


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