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28th September '2008
Gilgit Transport Road
(This route which linked Kashmir to Silk Road through the picturesque Gurez valley has been totally forgotten!)
 

The demand for opening of all the traditional routes from valley to neighbouring countries has been pending for long. The closure of these routes had completely changed the complexion of the valley dwellers and they have become claustrophobic especially during last couple of decades. One has been feeling imprisoned in a natural prison created by towering mountains all around the valley with only one entry/exit towards Delhi. In 2005, after half a century this isolation was broken by opening the famous Jhelum Valley Road for limited passenger traffic. Even though this opening has been more symbolic with just a fortnightly bus than the normal movement across the Line of Control which one had expected with the passage of time, yet it was a good beginning and in real terms a watershed. Now after three years the route is being opened for trade which used to take place along this road from ancient times.

 

Recently there has been hectic activity for reviving the traditional trade along Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Road and across Poonch-Rawalakot divide. We have now graduated from “Cross Border Terrorism” to “Cross Border Trade”! Restarting the trade along the Jhelum valley road which had fallen in disuse after 1947 was a historical necessity. Reopening the road would be letting the nature take its normal course. But in essence it would be reviving the recent history and not the ancient one! Kashmir has had very active trade connections along some other routes right from the earliest times. Some of these routes figure in almost all historical records of ancient Kashmir. There used to be trade routes to China, Tibet, and Central Asia. The famous Silk Route also had branches coming right into the Kashmir valley. Starting from Leh, the most frequented route was along Nubra valley across Karakoram Pass which connected to Yarqand. Another route which had a holistic connection was to Lhasa in Tibet which was the spiritual seat of the monastic Buddhism.

Lamas from Ladakh used to go to Lhasa for higher studies in Buddhism and in fact, the head lama of Hemis monastery got stranded there when the Chinese moved into Tibet. There has been tremendous amount of effort put in by all concerned to convince the Chinese to re-open this route for trade as well as passenger travel as it also leads to the holy Mount Kailash and lake Mansarovar, the source of River Indus. However, the Chinese for obvious reasons have been very reluctant to open doors to Tibet. Same is the status of Karakoram pass route which used to be the normal route for Hajj pilgrims from Yarqand. May be after relations between India and China further improve and the differences in regard to the long pending border dispute get sorted out, these routes too may get opened up.

 

Two of the most frequently used routes from Kashmir side are the Gurez-Gilgit and Kargil-Skardu trails. Kargil and Skardu apart from trade relations were physically related being part of the Balti homeland, the Baltistan. There are 7,000 families on both sides which are related to each other and have been separated since 1947. This route too had been on the agenda for opening but there seem to be still some hiccups probably on the other side? If this route could be opened up for unrestricted travel, it will give an unprecedented fillip to foreign tourism in both parts of the greater Ladakh. The foreign tourists on either side can extend their travel by crossing from one side to other and vice versa. The number of tourists would get automatically doubled which would boost up the economy of the entire area. It would be the dream safari of the future with some of the highest mountain peaks of the world visible all along.

One of the routes which was fully operational till 1947 was the road from Kashmir to Gilgit through the picturesque Gurez Valley. This route has been completely forgotten. It was called the “Gilgit Transport Road” which was used frequently by the British army to supply its garrison in Gilgit. Sir Aurel Stein in his book, “Ancient Khotan” describes the route which he took to travel from Kashmir to Khotan. “The ' Gilgit Transport Road', which I was authorized to use for the first portion of my journey, from Kashmir to Gilgit, dates in its present form only from the years 1890-92, when the placing of an Imperial garrison in Gilgit and in the adjoining valleys leading towards the Eastern Hindukush necessitated the construction of a military road fit for laden transport during at least a portion of the year. But the route which it follows, between and over the high ranges separating the Kashmir Valley from that of the Indus, is marked out by nature as the most accessible line of communication from Kashmir to the Dard territories northward, and there is historical evidence to prove its use at an early period”. According to Stein this route was of great significance to Chinese.

 

The records of Tang Dynasty of Chinese rulers have preserved some glimpses of Gilgit history and illustrate the value which had always been attached by them to the route connecting Gilgit with Kashmir. According to Stein the route to Gilgit used to be a rough and difficult and supplies had to be carried by labourers which was a difficult task. He further states in his account that, “the placing of a small Imperial garrison in Gilgit in 1890 was rapidly followed by the construction of the ' Gilgit Transport Road', with all the resources of modern European engineering, and by the introduction of systematic transport arrangements under the control of the Indian Commissariat Department. These changes have made it possible to dispense altogether with human labour for transport purposes, and have greatly reduced the risk with which the use of this route, whether for the annual provisioning of Gilgit, or on occasion of military emergencies, was always beset from breaks of the road, premature snowfall, and similar incidents of Alpine travel”.

From the narrative it is clear that the road to Gilgit from Kashmir via Gurez valley was not only important for trade to Central Asia but was also essential for the defence of the valley by the garrison stationed in Gilgit itself. The road fell into disuse after the Indo-Pak conflict of 1947. It was totally closed to traffic. This is the most direct and the shortest route to the Northern Areas of Pakistan from Kashmir and is also the nearest link to Central Asia through the Karakoram Highway. The road takes off from Bandipore on the banks of the Volur Lake and crosses the 12,000 foot high Razdiangan pass to descend into Gurez valley. From Dawar, the headquarter of Gurez it proceeds to Bunji, Astor, and thence to Gilgit. Now that everyone is talking of reviving traditional routes of Kashmir, it will be worthwhile to explore the possibility of re-commissioning of this historic link also. It will not only provide a direct link to Central Asia but would also open up Gurez and Tulail valleys which have remained unexplored and unexploited so far. This area has tremendous potential for the development of international level tourism. A beginning in this regard has already been made by the State Tourism Department last year by throwing the area open to foreign tourists. It is hoped that the authorities presently engaged in identifying various traditional routes of Kashmir for throwing these open for trade and travel will consider this historical road and make it once again functional at the earliest.

 
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