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The mystery of Silk Road through Gilgit-Baltistan


Masud Ahmed

OCTOBER 8, 2018

There is a story before the birth of Christ, a Chinese named Chang Chien was sent on a mission to the western region of China by Emperor Wu-Ti. This journey is considered one of the most important missions in history as it resulted in birth of the Silk Road. Another important discovery was Ferghana (Uzbekistan) and its fast, large and powerful horses as compared to the weaker and slower Chinese horses. The emperor realised that Ferghana horses would be ideal for cavalry warfare against the troublemaking Huns. Chang is the person who opened routes westwards linking imperial China with Imperial Rome and he is described as the father of Silk Road. Silk route in Chinese is translated is ‘SichouZhi Lu’ and in Uyghur ‘YipekYdi’. Silk was a major form of currency for some early Chinese dynasties and was also used for soldiers’ salaries. During the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) when facing economic difficulties and unable to mint bronze coins, three commodities were recognised as currency; bronze coins, grains and silk. Soldiers stationed in the North West region of China were paid in silk. The Chinese were indeed the first people in the world to make silk as early as 4000 BC. Besides silk, chemicals, spices, metals and leather products, glass and paper were also common trade commodities. China bound caravans were laden with gold, woolen and textiles, ivory, amber, precious stones which was not manufactured in China until the Fifth Century. Majority of items were bartered or sold at the oases towns on the Silk Route. The route originated from Xian which was called Changan (capital of China for a long time). About the place where the route ended there are different viewpoints, some claimed that it ended in Samarkand (Uzbekistan), while some said Rome. The route was linked with the south of Xinjiang through what is now Pakistan and India then by sea to Roman Egypt. According to some it was the old Roman town of Camulodunum where a piece of silk was found. The term Silk Route is a recent name and it was referred by locals as the route to Samarkand or northern or southern route around Taklamakan Desert. In 1877, Baron Ferdinand Van Richthoten coined the term ‘Silk Route’. He was a prominent geographer who worked in China from 1868 to 1872 and produced a five volume atlas. He also produced a coloured map that depicted the route between China and Europe in the Roman times. The first written description of the Silk Road was by Zhang Qian (113 BCE) a Chinese envoy to Central Asia in second century, during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han Dynasty. He was surprised to see Chinese goods and merchants in Central Asia. In the markets of Bacteria (Afghanistan, Uzbekistan& Tajikistan), Qian saw cloth that had been manufactured in the Chinese province of Sichuan, several thousand miles away. Silk Roads refers to all the different overland routes leading west out of China through Central Asia to Syria and beyond. Various groups of people moved along these roads, including artists, craftsmen and missionaries.

After a thousand years, in 1907, the famous explorer, archaeologist and scholar, Aurel Stein followed one of the routes taken by the people living in Grandhara region (Jalalabad to Taxila with Peshawar in the center and Swat in the north) to the Taklamakan desert. He started his journey from Tragbal Pass (Kashmir), Burzil Pass (Astore) and crossed into China at the Mintaka Pass then onto Kashgar, Khotan and Niya. While on this route on the Gilgit Road, Stein saw inscription left behind by ancient travelers on the rock walls. In Shitial (along Indus River) an inscription was found written in the ‘Sogdian’ language of Samarkand. According to this text, the travelers’ destination was Tashkurgan.

Inscriptions in Iranian, Chinese, Tibetan and Hebrew languages were also found along the Indus River (Karakarom Highway).

According to professor Ahmed Hassn Dani, Silk Road originated from Changan (Xian), the North West of China, passed through Gobi desert westward to Dun-huang where it bifurcated into two, one route passing through Tarim Basin, Aksu on to Kashgar and the second followed the southern edge at the foot of Kunlun to Khotan, Yarkand and on to Kashgar

According to Stein, migrants from sub-continent who travelled to the Kroraina in the Second and Third Centuries followed the rivers, Indus and Hunza. In the 19th and 20th Century, travelers used to enter China through the Mintaka Pass. The first migrants came from the Gandhara region to the western regions and settled in Niya. These refugees brought Buddhism to China and also the Kharoshti script and writings. Marco Polo claimed to have travelled the entire length of Silk Route in late 13th Century. According to professor Ahmed Hassn Dani the Silk Road originated from Changan (Xian), the North West of China, passed through Gobi desert westward to Dun-huang where it bifurcated into two, one route passing through Tarim Basin, Aksu on to Kashgar and the second followed the southern edge at the foot of Kunlun to Khotan, Yarkand and on to Kashgar. The journey westward was either over the north of Pamir towards Samarkand or across small valleys south of it through Wakhan, Badakshan and onwards to Bacteria, north of Hinukush in the valley of Oxus. It is the center route on the southern route that the path goes across the Kunlun towards Karakoram region, opening a passage for trade to Indo-Gangetic plains. On the south it crossed Muztag River and after passing through Shimshal reached the main channel of Hunza River.

The inscriptions found on rocks in Hunza are one of the earliest sources of historical account available during the first millennium

A route from Yarkand River would follow its tributary of Tashkurgan River and reach the town of Tashkurgan, from where it branched in two. One route goes towards Wakhan and the other to Kunjerab. It was the Wakhan route that could be reached directly from Gilgit, Chilas or Chitral over high passes. Another old connection was across the Kilk Mintaka Passes over the opening of Misgar village and onward to Hunza. The Mintaka Pass has an opening towards the Chinese Empire on the East and Tsarist Russia on the North West. According to Dani the Chinese cities of Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan and the Pakistani cities of Gilgit, Taxila, Peshawar, Lahore, Multan, Thatta, Sukkur, Rohri and Bambhoron were the port towns of Mediterranean Sea and all fell on this great route of the past. Today Pakistan is linked with China through Karakoram Highway with Kashgar being the focal point to Gilgit. Rock inscription at Chilas were written by travelers and pilgrims in the First and Second Century. Hunza was no doubt a transitory point as it was used by caravans, travelers and invaders. The inscriptions found on rocks in Hunza are one of the earliest sources of historical account available during the First Millennium. According to the famous book Rajatarangini (river of the kings), a link between Kashmir and Xinjiang, and with the kingdoms of Khotan and Kashgar existed since that ancient time. The shortest route at that time was through Astore, Gilgit, Hunza and Tashkurgan. The Ganish village in Hunza is a thousand-year-old village that also won the UNESCO Asia Pacific heritage award. Reportedly this was one of the major stops on the Silk Road. Three famous Chinese pilgrims are known to have visited the Gilgit region. FaHien started his journey on 400 AD from Changan in Shen-Si to Tashkurgan then crossed Tsungling and entered the Sub-Continent through the country of Toli (Darel valley of Chilas) and to Udyan (Swat). The journey from Khotan to Udyan took 99 days. The second pilgrim was Sung-Yun who also arrived at Khotan than to Yarkand and to Tashkurgan and Misgar village (Hunza) and after crossing Mintaka Pass, went onto Udyan (Swat). The third pilgrim was Hsuan Tsang who went to Samarkand and Bokhara and to Oxus then onto Udyan. His return was across the Pamirs via Kashgar, Yark and onward along the southern route. Another Chinese traveler and monk Che-Mong crossed Pamirs, travelled through Gilgit and entered Kashmir through Burzil. In the later part of the 8th Century, envoy WuKang followed the route to Yasin to Gilgit and India. The Gilgit route was indeed an important link between Sub-Continent and Tarim basin in China. Mintaka, Kilk, Darkot and Baroghil passes were the entry points to ancient India. Some also call the route to Kashghar from Gilgit as Silk Route. This route starts from Gilgit along River Hunza and reaches Passu village and from there, crosses Hunza River towards the Kilk Pass, enters Taghdumbash of Xinjiang and then crossing River Tashkurgan, enters the town of Tashkurgan. From there it goes towards the town of Shindi and from there one route leads to Yarkand and the other to Kashgar.

In the late 19th Century a regular fortnightly postal service existed between Gilgit and Kashgar via the Kilk Pass in summers and the Mintaka Pass in winters. According to Philipp VonZebern in his book Between Gandhara and the Silk Roads, a connection was found from Marakanda (Samarkand) the center of Sogdia leading directly towards the South East. Excavations at the River Oxus, at Swat and in the Indus Valley show Bronze Age migration of tribes that took place through these routes. About 3000 inscription and more than 20000 petroglyphs were discovered along the Karakoram Highway according to an estimate done in 1986.

According to Philipp, the Chinese army who advanced into the mountainous terrain in 747 AD, abducted the ruler of Bolor (Gilgit) and took him back to China. After that Bolar was considered as a Chinese military district. Another famous trade route went through the Karakoram Pass (18176 feet), starting from Srinagar, through Kargil and Leh to Yarkand, Khotan and ending at Kashgar. The Karakoram Pass was used extensively by caravans of trades from Yarkand to Leh through the Naubara Valley. Leh in Ladhakh was a British frontier post and was situated on trade route to China and Central Asia. The trade route was frequently raided by Kanjutis (people of Hunza) as mentioned by E-M Knight in his book Where Three Empire Meet and also by Captain Younghusband in his writings Report of Mission to the Northern Frontiers of Kashmir in 1889. According to them, the great hunting ground for Kanjutis was great trade route between Leh to Yarkand over Karakoram Pass and many other caravans from Sub-Continent to Central Asia were looted. The Chinese and Kashmiris were unable to stop these raid and Kanjutis were considered invincible. Once Captain Younghusband asked Mir of Hunza to stop these raids on trade route, he categorically told him that unless a large subsidy was allowed to him, they would continue raiding the caravans as it was their legitimate source of income. In 1891, the state of Hunza was attacked under the command of Durand in order to forestall a possible Russian invasion of subcontinent through the passes of Pamir, Hindukush and Karakoram. Afterwards, the British asked China to do away with its influence over Hunza. Under the Tang dynasty the Silk Road enjoyed its golden age and was finally abandoned under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the Silk. It is evident from the above historic facts that besides the link of Karakoram Pass there were routes which passed through Hunza to Central Asia and Sub-Continent. Therefore, there is no doubt that the Silk Route did pass through Gilgit Baltistan.

Published in Daily Times, October 8th 2018.


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