The Worst Trade Route in the World
Came across this inocous looking Envelope cover during one random search on the Net while trying to know more about Mail runners in the Himalayas, you know the guys who used to take letters / Posts during the 19th century.
Looked at it closely it and the writings on it in Persian, English and Dogri in Takri script got me more interested. And then I read on it. It was letter sent from Yarkand in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang (Sinkiang) or East Turkestan as it was known at that time to someone in Hoshiarpur in Punjab. There was a constant trade from Hoshiarpur to Yarkand via Mandi, through Kullu Valley onto Leh and onwards to Yarkand. It was in my opinion the hardest trade route in the world. (Thanks to kashmirstamps website for this invaluable photo and details)
A large quantum of the trade was carried on through the classical trade route from Ladakh to Yarkand in the Tarim Basin in Turkestan of the old ( Xinjiang Province of China at present ). The traders from Ladakh took to Yarkand (which served as the gateway to Central Asia) items like Shawls, Indigo, Tea, Corals, Muslin etc. On the other from Yarkand into Ladakh (and further into Kashmir and North India) came in Silk, Precious Metals, Costumes, Jewellery and oddly Russian currency towards the end of the Nineteenth century.
Now the letter this Envelope contained was posted on October 05, 1890 and it was delivered at Hoshairpur on November 29, 1890 after a total of 55 days. It entered the Bristish India Postal system once it reached Leh, which it did on November 12, 1890 and the Dogri stamps/writings were affixed on November 17, 1890 somewhere on the way which is speculated as Mandi but I seriously doubt anyone could get from Leh to Mandi in 5 days. So that place remains a mystery. Also it seems to be at a point under Dogra suzerainity which Mandi never was. My best guess is that it was somewhere in the Ladakh but where exactly is a mystery.
To understand the dynamics of the whole journey from the Hoshiarpur to Yarkand you need to consider that it involved crossing the Dhauladhar Range, the Great Himalaya itself, the Karakorams and finally the Kun Luns itself. It involved crossing over 10 Passes, some of which are the highest in the World. It also included crossing the extremely inhospitable Depsang Plains. If ever there was a difficult “trade route” this was it. Infact one English gentleman called it the “Worst Trade Route in the World”
Most of us are familiar with the Route from Hoshiarpur to Leh. Form the plains upto Mandi into the Kullu Valley and then upto the first great Pass, the Rohtang La. At around 13000 ft Rohtang may be dwarfed by some of the other passes which come later but with the amount of snow it received it came with a reputation. No wonder it derived its named from “A pile of Corpses”. After crossing into the vertically dramatic Lahaul Valley the route went upto the the Baralacha La, lying on the water shed of the Great Himalayas. After the getting into the Trans Himalayan Ladakh region the route crossed the Lachulang La and the Tangang La after crossing the Plateau known as the More Plains. And then we got to Leh.
Leh was the midway point in some ways and as such was full of businessmen from both ends of the Route and places in between as well as traders from Kashmir who came up through the Zoji La Pass. Leh was a busy trade town at that time with a mix of Yarkandi, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Tibetan, Europeans as well as the very interesting Arguns (these were people born out of mixed marriages between Yarkandi and Kashmiri traders and local Ladakhi women) people besides the local Ladakhis.
The great passes that had to be crossed in this great trasnverse starting from the Leh side included the now “world famous” Khardung La. From the head of the Nubra Valley started the descent into the second Pass, Sasser La,at 5411 m. From this pass the route descended into the Depsang Plains. From the Depsang Plains, which are as desolate as any place on the planet with an average elevation of 5300 m the route headed over the Karakoram Pass which stood at 5540 m. The Karakoram Pass was/is totally bereft of any kind of vegetation and lot of the livestock just gave up. It is said that the path up the Pass is still strewn with hundreds of bones and skeletons of pack animals that just gave up and died. After crossing the the Karakoram Pass the route went towards the relatively easy Suget La.
After crossing the easiest pass on the route, Suget La, ~ 5500, which was in the Kun Lun mountains the route descended into the staging post of Shahidullah which offered some rough pastures for the load animals to refuel. It is interesting to know the British considered Shahidullah as the frontier of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and not the Karakoram Pass as some others assumed it to be.
After Shahidullah came the last pass before descending into the plains of Central Asia, the Sanju La at 5364 m. From this Pass the mountains gave way and the trade route made its way into the fabled city of Yarkand.
Of course this letter came in the opposite direction and I tried to get a transalation done from a friend (Thanks to Seema Bhatt for helping out here). In Persian the letter says “Lifafa dar Zila Khas Hoshyarpur ba nazre Lala Sahib Mela Das Hangame naik mosool howa. Az muqam e Yarqand az janabe Samad Joo Soofi. 20th of safar 1308 Safar.” The meaning with all the Persian respects and adab, means that the letter is addressed to one Lala Mela Das of Hoshiarpur and it is sent by Janaab Samad Joo Soofi. The sender in all probability was a Kashmiri trader based in Yarkand, guessing from his surname but as with a lot of Punjabis earlier the surname of Lala Mela Das remains a mystery. I checked up with a friend, who’s ancestors also used to trade with Yarkand, also from Hoshiarpur if he knew of this gentleman but till now ive drawn a blank.
Anyways this just goes to show what all is revealed when one digs into a simple old enevlope. The people/ the route it took/ the language/languages used/ the scripts/ the dates/ the reason etc etc. Truly something worth getting into the depth of.
For me the quest will continue as I plan to visit Yarkand some times in August I guess as I have always been fascinated by the Trans Himalayan Central Asian towns which were at the end of the Silk Road from our side and have a glimpse of the Worst Trade Route in the world. Yarkand, Kashgar, Khotan, Tashkurgan and of course the Karakoram Highway are all on my list
Additional inputs from : When Men and Mountain Meet : The Explorers of the Western Himalayas 1820 – 75. This has to be one of my favorite books on the Himalaya.
Photo from the kashmiristamps website