For centuries, Leh was an important entrepôt on a transHimalayan trade route, mainly between the Punjab in
India and Chinese, or East, Turkestan (today China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region). It was probably a Silk Route feeder in Classical times, and it was certainly active from the medieval era into the 20th century.
Its main counterpart on the Chinese side was the oasis town of Yarkand.
Silk yarn, of course, was one important commodity, along with indigo, jade, bullion, leather, cannabis, opium and cotton clothes. Ladakhis were also involved in trading with
Tibet, especially the pashm wool that was vital to the Kashmiri shawl industry. Shorter-distance trading and bartering involved mainly salt and barley. In addition to the established trails west to Kashmir, south to Lahaul and east to Tibet, a variety of routes led north from Leh and the adjoining region. Their use was governed by season and stamina, and usually involved between four and six passes. Most northern routes to Yarkand funnelled up via the main Karakoram Pass at 5,578 metres, a month-long march of 700–800 kilometres.
Horse, mule and yak caravans faced intense cold and exposure, lung-shredding altitudes, rivers in spate, occasional flash floods, rock falls, glacier-blocked valleys and even stinging flies. Local complications included oscillating demand, professional brigands from Hunza (now in Pakistan), extortionate duties imposed by the Maharaja of Kashmir and periods of instability in Xinjiang. The trade, then, constantly ebbed and flowed, but by the late 1930s was in firm decline. China’s civil war, leading to the Communist victory in 1949, was the final nail in the coffin. The very last trans-Karakoram caravan – consisting in part of trapped Ladakhi merchants finally escaping
Yarkand – crossed to Leh in 1953.
58 www.geographical.co.uk JANUARY 2011