Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

In the Pamirs

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Late in the summer of 747, the population of Baltistan, then busily engaged in bringing in their ripe apricots and fodder for the long, harsh winter ahead, would have been surprised by the flurry of activity taking place in the fort of Skardu. They would have made little sense of the clamour, the gathering together of everything the garrison owned, and the worried, even frantic looks on the faces of the Tibetan soldiery. Something drastic was afoot; but the common folks had no idea what it was.

Even as September rolled up, a great flood of soldiers seemed to burst forth from the west. The very same Tibetan soldiers, who the elders remembered had marched west, defiantly singing their battle songs only four decades earlier, limped up along the gorge of the Sindhu River. Battered men, wounded in battle, bleeding to death from arrow or sword wounds, they came as if some floodgates had opened somewhere in the west. In the absence of Balti chronicles we do not know if these people knew what had happened. But the court of the T’ang emperor in Chang’an recorded history as it unfolded. From those documents we learn that the ten thousand strong cavalry led by the Korean general Kao Hsin-Chih having set out of Chang’an in March 747, had its first engagement against the Tibetans in Wakhan in August.

The Tibetans were routed. They fled south across the Broghal Pass and over the Darkot Glacier into the Yasin Valley. General Kao’s soldiers however balked at the sight of the sheer icy descent down the south side of the glacier — a condition true to this day. Perhaps from the intelligence gathered from captured Tibetans, the general had known of glacial conditions and aware that most of his Chinese troops had never been on a glacier, might have foreseen just such a situation.

Very cleverly and in secret, the general sent some of the locals ahead to meet him and his army at the top of the Darkot Pass. These men were to pretend to be natives of Anu-yueh and feign welcome for the liberating army with the news that the going was not hard at all. Sir Aurel Stein, the Hungarian-British archaeologist, finds in Anu-yueh the ring of Arniya. This was the name, he tells us, that Yasin went by even as late as the early 20th century.

The ruse worked. Advancing to the far side of the So-yi River (present day Ghizer) at Gupis, General Kao ordered destruction of the bridge. This was a precaution against the Tibetans resuming their garrisons in Wakhan: if they opted to return after the Chinese withdrawal, they would have to rebuild the bridge — a daunting enough task in those days. Then he went in pursuit of the fleeing Tibetans. But he never caught up with them. At Gilgit, the triumphant general turned north into the gorge of the Hunza River. It was a harrowing journey along a treacherous mountain path back to Tashkurghan and Kashgar en route to a jubilant entry into Chang’an.

The rout of the Tibetans in Wakhan, their garrisons in the Ghizer River valley as well as in Gilgit was so complete that their governor in Skardu seems to have lost heart. The flurry of uneasy activity that local people witnessed in late August 747 was sign of the impending emptying of Baltistan of the Tibetans. And as soon as the soldiers, defeated and broken from the rout in the high Pamirs, limped into Skardu, a general evacuation took place.

Before September was half through, Baltistan was emptied of its Tibetan warlords. Surely, this epoch-making event was recorded in local annals. And surely over the generations and through the dynasties that ruled over Baltistan, these histories were preserved. We know that Raja Ahmad Shah, who came to the throne of Skardu in 1800, maintained a sizeable library. Surely some of those ancient works were preserved in this collection.

In the 1840s, the Dogras annexed Baltistan after a brief war. The royal library was one of the buildings that were sacked. The history, not only of the Tibetans and their withdrawal, but of everything else went up in smoke. The Tibetans were forgotten, only their language and gene pool remained to educate the anthropologists of the 20th century and to earn for Baltistan the name ‘a living anthropological museum’.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Channan Pir


posted by Salman Rashid @ 08:00,


At 17 August 2014 at 08:34, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

Masterpiece. I was recently on a visit to Kargil (India) and could see the Tibetan gene pool in the local population. Also during a drive to Zanskar (India) from Kargil, spent a night in a village, where people speak the Balti language and still have ancestors in the Skardu (Pakistan) area.

At 18 August 2014 at 05:55, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Amardeep. I was aware of some villages in Kargil where Balti is spoken. thank you for confirming it.

At 18 August 2014 at 19:36, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very nice read.
Why were only the Tibetan warlords cleansed from the area? Why not the Shins, Burusho, Kohistanis etc., just curious. Also can you please share the details of the Tibetan gene pool you referred to? Assuming you meant Baltis. I don't expect them to be any different from the other Dardic speakers, following the same cline based on their geographic location.
Also can you please point to a source where more details on Korean general Kao Hsin-Chih commanding a Chinese army can be found, seems a bit farfetched, but history is full of hard to believe things.

At 21 August 2014 at 11:54, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

The Tibetans were pushed out by the Chinese because they were threatening Chinese interests in Turkestan. Modern Balti people and their language represent Tibetan influence. For further reading on Kao Hsin-Chih's military adventure refer to Aurel Stein's "Ser India"


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

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