Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Myth of the Silk Road

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After article (Silk Road Part 1) I received an email with two other mails attached. The attachments, one from a woman, the other from a man, were venomous and full of hatred for me. Until this email, I did not know of the existence of these two individuals and am at a loss to fathom the cause of their spite. The great poet Urfi, as quoted by a friend, said not to be concerned with the doings of detractors, for the barking of dogs diminishes not the earnings of the beggar.

That being settled, it has to be said that the point of the piece in question was lost on these persons. The point I was making was that no silk ever came from China to India by the road through Hunza and Gilgit. The fact is that when the Karakoram Highway was first opened in the early 1980s, it was not, I repeat, NOT billed as the Silk Road. The ‘Silk Road’ Hotel in Guilmit (pluse a co8ple more elsewhere along the road) came later as well as the bus service of the same name that does not cross the border into China.

If one were to find Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation brochures from those early days, one would see how the road was being marketed. That the road was a marvel of engineering, dedication and hard work was but a footnote. The information that the building of this fabulous connection, through very difficult terrain under extreme weather conditions — a feat that had cost many lives, both Chinese and Pakistani — was tucked away somewhere instead of being highlighted. The brochures harped on the non-existent silk trade of the road.

For good measure, they even dragged in old Marco Polo. No surprise then that the manager of Marco Polo Inn (again in Gulmit) shared a nugget with me in 1997: Mr Polo was an Englishman who had visited Gulmit in 1860 or thereabouts. While sojourning here, he invented the game of (what else) polo!

In China, the Silk Road trifurcated at Anxi (120 km northeast of Dunhuang). The northern branch passed through Turfan and Kulja (Yining on modern maps) to Khojand (Tajikistan). From Anxi, the other branch made Dunhuang where it further bifurcated. Of these, the central went west to Aqsu (Aksu) en route to Kashgar. The southern route swung southwest from Dunhuang and also made Kashgar by way of Khotan, Karghalik and Yarkand.

Meeting again at Kashgar the two roads then proceeded to unite with the northern branch of the Silk Road at Khojand. Thence onward to the fabled cities of Samarqand and Balkh, Seleucia and Byzantium. And, oh, what a journey it must have been! Nowhere along this great expanse did a branch take off to bring silk, I repeat, to bring silk into the subcontinent by way of Hunza and Gilgit.

There is no denying that one minor road connected Hunza with Kashgar. Until very recent times, in fact, until as recently as 1947, Hunza did look northward to Chinese Turkestan as its closest cultural partner. The road north from Hunza did not go by way of the Khunjerab Pass, however. It went by the pretty little village of Misgar (which has the oldest post office in the entire Gilgit-Baltistan region dating to the 1890s) through the breathtaking beauty of pastures with poetic names like Ronhil, Potehil and Yaram Goz, up over the 4,684 metre-high Mintaka Pass on its way to Tashkurghan.

Even if the road passed through scenery that is beautiful enough to cause heartache, it was not a conduit for silk. Dr Harald Hauptmann, the current master of the rock art in this region, recently confirmed to a friend of mine that there is no evidence whatsoever of silk ever being traded this way.

The silk in India mostly came through China’s Yunnan province of China and through Myanmar. But in 1925, a young hill walker freewheeling around the Karakoram Pass connecting Khotan with Leh and Srinagar saw a large quantity of bolts of silk stored in an inn. Though the Leh-Khotan-Yarkand route was a very busy trade route, this was the first evidence of silk passing this way. Perhaps silk being a common commodity coming this way, earlier local travellers never considered it noteworthy enough to comment on it.

Related: Silk Road Part 1

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Deosai: Land of the Giant, Railway Station Ruk Relegated to Oblivion

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 13 September 2014 at 09:26, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I suspected in Part I, it comes from a 'Derwesh' (verified from the picture in this part). Indightful and referencing it is, loved it. Those beautiful names do induce a heartache, I might be exploring one day, who knows.

At 13 September 2014 at 11:39, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

Salman Ji, what is your view.... Did Nubra Valley (now in India) falls on a Silk route or any other trade route from China. I ask because we find Bactrian camels (not native of the sub-continent) in this valley. Please refer my piece here. I would like to hear your views on this region being on the trade route as is reflected by the presence of these mongolian camels.

At 13 September 2014 at 14:26, Anonymous Mubasher Pasha said...

Of course you'll find venomous snakes and critters traveling along the 'Silk Route'. Don't let that hinder the good work as your knowledge drips down to many thirsty travelers.

At 13 September 2014 at 18:10, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you for the interest, gentlemen.
Amardeep, the Nubra Valley was the way you came down the Karakoram Pass after coming through Yarkand, Kokyar, Ak Masjid, Shahidulla etc. The young man (mentioned above) who saw the silk bales in Leh was at the lower end of this route. The camels come from the Turkestan side.

At 13 September 2014 at 19:44, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

Salman Ji, So would it be right to say that this Silk route existed into India from China, via Yarkand, Kokyar, Ak Masjid, Shahidulla into Nubra and thereafter to Leh and Kashmir. Though I understand this is not the same route currently being popularized as Silh route due to Karakoram highway.

At 14 September 2014 at 03:25, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am an avid reader of your marvellous blog and is indeed a pleasure to read your posts. Great people like you and some others like the owner of blog Danstagoh have kept alive our heritage like no one else.

Before I comment, may I humbly submit that my knowledge is certainly not comparable to yours on the subject and I may be at odds with reality. What I have read is that there were mainly three routes that were followed and that these were included within the folds of the famous Silk Road.

There were three main Silk Roads which split and followed a Northern, Middle and Southern route. Originating in Chang’an, the ancient capital of China, it went along the northern Tien-Shan to Dunhua, the city near the Great Wall of China. There the single road split bordering the Taklamakan desert from the north and the south. The northern way went through Turfan to the Ili river valley. The Middle road (the so-called Southern way) led from Zhang Qian to the southern coast of Lake Issyk Kul- via Khotan and Yarkand, and reached Bactria (northern Afghanistan). There the Southern route split in two other roads: one partially followed River Indus to Pakistan, the other to the West and Merv where it merged with the Northern route. Further it passed via Nisa, the capital Parthia, Iran, Mesopotamia, Bagdad, went to Damascus and reached the Mediterranean.

And finally, the third, the most difficult was called the Northern or the Steppe route. Having crossed the Tien Shan a part of caravans went via Fergana valley and Tashkent oasis to Samarkand, Bukhara, Khoresm and reached the coast of the Caspian Sea. A part of caravans from Samarkand headed to Bactria and after crossing the Kashkadarya valley led to Termez. In addition to the three main roads/routes, there were also other roads by means of which all those three lines were interconnected. And last but not the least, the sea lanes of silk trade.

Also if I may, let me hasten to mention here that silk was discovered at two Indus Valley sites more than 800 years earlier than it was probably used in China. A study conducted in 2009 indicated through a microscopic analysis of archaeological thread fragments found inside copper-alloy ornaments from Harappa and steatite beads from Chanhu-daro, to have yielded silk fibres, dating to circa 2450–2000 BC. This study offers the earliest evidence in the world for any silk outside of China, and is roughly contemporaneous with the earliest Chinese evidence for silk. This important new finding brings into question the traditional historical notion of sericulture as being an exclusively Chinese invention.

Again Sir, let me state without any hesitation that you are doing a great favour to this nation by reminding us all of our rich heritage and traditions which has almost been forgotten by those our helmsmen.



At 14 September 2014 at 11:53, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Came to read this after long absence. Wonderful as always. Keep it up sir.


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