“ There is nothing new in world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

Ashraf, with his keen eye for tourism, sees many interesting possibilities

(Mr. Mohammad Ashraf, 65, was born and raised in Srinagar. He attended the S.P. High School and the S.P College before joining the Regional Engineering College at Naseem Bagh in Civil Engineering. However, he changed his career to adventure sports like mountaineering and skiing, completing his training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling and Gulmarg. He also completed a diploma in French language from the Alliance Française in New Delhi. He joined the J&K Tourism Department in 1973, rose to become its Director-General in 1996, and retired in 2003 after 30 years of service. He has been associated with the Adventure Sports at the national level and was recently re-elected as the Vice-President of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, the apex body of adventure sports in India, for two years. To commend his efforts in introducing rescue measures in Kashmir Mountains, he was awarded “Merite-Alpin” by Swiss in a special function in Les Diablerets in 1993. He continues to be a member of the Governing Council of IMF and is also the President of Jammu & Kashmir Mountaineering & Hiking Club.)

Reviving the “Aerial” Silk Route

From October 15 to 18 the Centre for Central Asian Studies of the University of Kashmir organised an International Conference on the Revival of Silk Route. A number of academicians, experts, and diplomats from various Central Asian countries participated in the deliberations. These included Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Many research papers were read out. Normally one would have expected a conference focused on Kashmir but it was more Central Asia centric. Out of 7 sessions only one two hour session was devoted to links between Kashmir and Central Asia. All the speakers in this session were Kashmiris. We have all been hearing about the caravans travelling between Kashmir and Central Asia in the past. Every Kashmir has a fascination about Central Asia and the Silk Route. It would have been interesting to know about the reminisces if any of the good old days, as well as the present day views about Kashmir of the people from Central Asia. This may have to wait for another conference preferably more focused on Kashmir’s links with Central Asia which the authorities of the Centre may like to organise sometime in future.

The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes that extended across Asia, linking powerful civilizations such as Rome and China. This trade route was originally established between Rome and China during the Han dynasty of Chinese rulers. The Chinese exported mainly silk textiles, and also medicinal herbs, carved jade, and a wide variety of luxury goods; they imported not only horses, but also glassware, raw jade, gold and silver, and other luxury goods from the western regions of Eurasia.

The early trade on the Silk Road followed a pattern that was to hold throughout the era of caravan trade, which was that trade was carried out mainly by intermediaries, and goods changed hands several times during the course of a journey between China and the Middle East. Caravan drivers and their animals customarily travelled back and forth over one particular segment of the route, perhaps loading goods in one oasis and unloading them again at the next before heading back in the other direction with new goods. One odd result of this is that the two greatest empires of the classical world, Rome and Han China, were in regular trade contact but were still almost entirely ignorant of each other. After 15th Century with the start of sea routes, the Silk Route lost its importance.

There were three offshoots of the route which touched Kashmir. One was across the Karakoram Pass through Nubra valley of Ladakh. Another was through Gilgit and Gurez and the third one was through Afghanistan, and entered Kashmir through Muzaffarabad along the Jhelum Valley Road. The caravan trade along these routes continued right till 1947 as there was no sea access between Kashmir and Central Asia.

During the Chinese Revolution a large number of Muslim refugees from Turkistan came to Kashmir through the Karakoram pass. They stayed on here for sometime and then migrated to Turkey which conferred citizenship rights on them. The Indo-Pak conflict and the subsequent ceasefire totally isolated Kashmir from its northern neighbours. All the cultural and trade links were severed.

The present generation is totally unaware of the close cultural and ethnic links which Kashmiris have with the people of Central Asia. Some Kashmiri students who have been going to Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan for studying medicine also speak of these close cultural resemblances. Now that the Governments of India and Pakistan have initiated revival of these links as Confidence Building Measures, it will be worthwhile to explore the possibilities of re-connecting Kashmir to Central Asia.

In the present technological age it may not be worthwhile to restart the caravan trade but such caravan trips could be an interesting tourist attraction. However, there are practical possibilities of conducting surface trade along the Karakoram Highway which has already developed as an important trade route between Pakistan and Central Asia/China. There are two connections to the Karakoram Highway from Kashmir. One is through Muzaffarabad and other is along Kargil-Skardu route. Both are workable. The link through Gurez to Gilgit has been in total disuse since 1947 and may take sometime to revive. There is a regular bus service between Gilgit and Kashgar and the journey takes 16 hours only. If a truck and bus service is started from Kashmir it will take three to four days from Kashmir to Kashgar. There are a number of travel agencies operating Central Asian tours from Samarqand to Islamabad via parts of the Silk Route. The tourists land in Samarqand and after travelling through Central Asia they fly out from Islamabad. We could bring these groups right up to Srinagar and arrange their flights out of here. The reverse trip can also be planned. The surface link may take sometime to sort out various formalities including border crossings and logistic details.

However, there is now another link which has started becoming both popular and practical. That is the “Revival of Aerial Silk Route”. According to Imtiaz Muqbil, the author of a Tourism Website, the Chinese are going ahead at full speed to convert Urumqi Airport into an International Airport to make it a hub of the proposed Aerial Silk Route. He states in a recent article, “The globalization of the world economy has made a significant impact on the transportation of goods, as well as that of passengers, because air travel reduces distance through its speed. At a June 2006 meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Central Asian States and China launched a proposal for an East-West air corridor. This plan aims to reap the benefits of the central geographic location of Xinjiang and of the Central Asian states, and to create an “aerial Silk Road”. Urumqi, by 2015 will be able to accommodate over 16 million tourists and foreign businessmen, and to manage 150,000 takeoffs and landings annually. To give rise to an aerial Silk Road, several Chinese, Japanese, and Korean harmonization projects and carrier alliances — along the lines of what is now happening between European airlines — have been proposed.

We have a similar situation in Kashmir. In the past, Kashmir used to be trade and cultural hub in this part of the world. With the starting of International Flights from the Srinagar Airport expected shortly, Kashmir can once again become a hub for trade, finance, and tourism. Most of the Central Asian as well as Persian Gulf capitals are only two to three flying hours from Srinagar. One of the participants of the recent Conference from Tajikistan informed me that Coolab, the place where Shah-I-Hamadan is buried has an important International Airport. There are many flights to Moscow taking local labour there. He was of the opinion that if a direct flight is started between Srinagar and Coolab, a large number of Kashmiri Muslims would like to pay their reverence at the shrine of this Saint who in real terms has been an “Apostle of Kashmir”. There are umpteen possibilities for tourism as well as trade between Central Asia and Kashmir.

The Centre for Conflict Mediation and Resolution of the United States Institute of Peace based in Washington had commissioned a study regarding the Kashmir conflict. The Institute has released in September a special report about “Making Borders Irrelevant in Kashmir”. The report analyses the possibilities and practicalities of managing the Kashmir conflict by “making borders irrelevant”—- softening the Line of Control to allow the easy movement of people, goods, and services across it. It would be very useful if the Institute further enlarges the scope of these studies to include Kashmir’s link with Central Asia. The University of Kashmir’s Centre for Central Asian Studies could collaborate in such studies. Food for thought for the concerned authorities!