THE HINDU RUSH, the Pamirs, the Karakoram and the Great Himalaya: these, together with their subsidiary ranges, form the great rampart which divides the Indian sub-continent from the rest of Asia. Divides; but does not cut off. Every so often in the crest-line of the mountains there is a dip, which allows communication between the economic zone of India and that of Central Asia. Over the centuries, these passes became the flow-lines for innumerable commercial transactions: for the long distance trades in high-value low-bulk luxury goods like silk and precious stones, dye-stuffs and spices, opium and charas (hashish), between the great entrepots of Central Asia and Tibet: Bokhara and Samarkand, Kashgar and Yarkand, Shigatse and Lhasa; and those of the Indian plains: Rawalpindi, Amritsar, Delhi and Patna. Equally, they facilitated the subsistence trades in locally produced salt, foodgrains and wool between communities living on both sides of the great divide.

It is the outer buttresses of the Hindu Kush, the Suleiman range and the Safed Koh, stretching north-northeast from Baluchistan to the Pamirs, that form the sub-continent's northwest frontier. As well as numerous lesser passes, these are slashed by two great openings, the Bolan and Khyber passes, both of them long and narrow, but not high enough to attract heavy snow, and thus open all round the year. In days gone by, they were imperilled less by any great natural difficulties than by the lawless character of the tribes of the surrounding mountains. In the mid-19th century, indeed,trade-caravans were said to avoid the Khyber, since the tribe that controlled it, the Afridis, even when subsidized by the Amir of Afghanistan, would by no means refrain from plundering passing merchants. The latter accordingly preferred to take two neighbouring but more difficult passes, the Tatra and the Abkhana, which were controlled by the more compliant Mohmands. The Powindahs, nomadic Ghilzai Pathans migrating and trading between central Afghanistan and the Indian plains, mostly took various middle routes linking Ghazni in southwest Afghanistan with Dera Ismail Khan on the Indus.

The final slopesof Rangrik Rang

5. The final slopesof Rangrik Rang Article 10 (Graham Little)

North face of Rangrik Rang.

6. North face of Rangrik Rang. Article 10 (Harish Kapadia)

With camels along the Surukwat river.

7. With camels along the Surukwat river. (Aghil range). Article 14 (B.Odier)

North of the Khyber, the topography gets more complicated, as the Hindu Kush approaches the Pamirs, the valley of the Indus narrows, and east of the river the Great Himalaya makes its climactic statement in the awesome Nanga Parbat massif. Any caravan trading between India and the countries to the north that had to make the crossing in this region — or indeed for several hundred miles to the east — would be forced to negotiate not one but several passes. Deciding to take the Swat route, it would leave the Punjab by the Malakand pass which was, like the Khyber, open all year, and fit for laden animals. From Swat it would continue by the Lowarai pass into Chitral, and on into Badakshan, the northeastern province of Afghanistan, by the Dora pass. Although these two led through high mountains, spurs of the Hindu Kush, neither was in the most formidable league of difficulty, as compared to some of the passes in the Himalaya and Karakoram; the Lowarai however was snow-bound for several months every winter. The Dora was regarded as one of the easier Hindu Kush passes, closed by snow only in the very depth of winter, and at other times negotiable by laden horses. It was much used by caravans not only to and from Badakshan, but between destinations as far apart as Bokhara and Peshawar. Chitral and Badakshan were linked by three other passes, all steep and difficult, covered with snow throughout the year, and impassable to laden animals. They were the Kharteza, the Nuksan and the Agram, and they were said to be frequented mostly by petty traders from Badakshan, who took back as the principal commodity of their trade, slaves purchased from the Chitral ruler.

The Pamirs, the Bam-i-Duniya or 'roof of the world', are less a range or chain and more a knot of mountains andhigh-altitude steppes, from which radiate four mighty ranges — the Hindu Kush, the Tien Shan, the Kun Lun, and the Karakoram. It is also a multiple watershed, dividing the uppermost reaches of three distinct river systems:

  1. The Oxus and the Jaxartes (Amu Darya and Syr Darya) draining into the Aral Sea;
  2. Major tributaries of the Yarkand river which eventually, as the Tarim, lose themselves in the sands of the Takla Makan, the desert bowl at the heart of eastern Central Asia (Sinkiang); and
  3. Several feeders of the Indus river system — the Chitral and Gilgit rivers — at the start of their journey to the Indian Ocean.

Although commerce surmounted every obstacle, even one as formidable as this tortured complex of mountains, here there could be no easy routes, nor does it seem likely that the passes of the southern Pamirs were frequented on a regular basis by the caravans, with the possible exception of the Baroghil. This relatively easy pass afforded a route from Yarkand and Kashgar in eastern Turkestan, via the Wakhan valley of the Pamirs, into Chitral, from where it followed the Kunar, a tributary of the Kabul river, down to Jalalabad, the northern gateway of the Khyber. It was said to be open for all but a couple of months from December to February, when the Baroghil was blocked by snow.

East of Chitral, there was in the 19th century, no major trade route in regular use for close on 500 km, from the Baroghil to the Karakoram pass. The Karakoram route was undoubtedly the most taxing of all the major routes, its various branches breasting the Karakoram and the Kun Lun by a minimum of four passes, some of them heavily glaciated, all but one over 4500 m, and the highest a giddy 5580 m. It was a month's march, give or take a couple of days, from Leh to Yarkand in south Sinkiang; and to reach Leh the caravans had already to have undertaken a month's journey from the plains, taking either the Rawalpindi-Srinagar-Kargil route, or that from Amritsar via Hoshiarpur, the Kulu valley, and the four high passes — Rohtang, Baralacha, Lachalung and Taglung.

In the 1860s and 1870s the British authorities — briefly excited by the prospect of using the trans-Karakoram tradeas a means of countering supposed Russian ambitions in eastern Central Asia — attempted unsuccessfully to open up a new route between Leh and Yarkand. The line they chose was east of the Karakoram pass, and took the Changchenmo valley, and the high altitude plateaux of Lingzithang, before dropping down to the Karakash river. The inspiration for this arose partly from rumours of a former 'royal road', said to have been in use during the Mughal period, largely for the trade in jade and agate from the quarries on the upper Karakash. From Najibabad at the foot of the mountains in western Uttar Pradesh, this had crossed the Great Himalaya probably by the Niti pass, and carried on via Gartok, Rudok and past the jade quarries to Khotan, easternmost of the great commercial cities of Sinkiang. There was also said to be an even more easterly route from Rudok direct to Khotan, 'over vast plains, where water, grass and wood are obtainable at every halting-place', and on via the settlements of Polu and Keria; but that the Changpa, the region's nomadic herdspeople, were under orders from Lhasa to prevent any outsiders from using it.

Between the major passes carrying the caravans of the long distance trades, there was a spider's web of shorter routes, over lesser known and often more difficult passes, serving the needs of local communities. This was true not only of the relatively low ranges between the sub-continent's Northwest Frontier Province and Afghanistan — which south of Chitral rarely reach 4500 m — but equally of the 'gap' between the Baroghil and Karakoram passes which, comprising Hunza and Baltistan, contains some of the highest peaks and mightiest glaciers in the world. Formidable terrain indeed; but then the eastern Karakoram in Ladakh, which was traversed by an important trade route, was only marginally less so. Why, it may be asked, did the trade with eastern Central Asia — by and large — flow by the hideously difficult Karakoram route, and not by Hunza and Baltistan? What was the nature of the routes through these two territories? And who was it that used them?

The Hunza Routes

East of the Baroghil, the main passes were the Darkot and the Ishkoman into the Yasin territory; and — where the Pamirs give way to the Karakoram — the Kilik, Mintaka, Khunjerab and Shimshal into Hunza. A problem with many of the Pamir and Karakoram passes was the glaciers. The southern approach to the Ishkoman pass, for instance, was found by British intelligence agents in 1876 to be blocked by the advance of a lateral glacier, whose 60 m wall of ice made a barrier impossible to negotiate. The Darkot was also a very difficult pass.

The Hunza passes were easier, especially the 4755 m Kilik; mid-19th century traders, indeed, reported them to be passable for laden horses, and open throughout the year. Earlier this century, the Kilik pass was the mail-route between India and the British consulate at Kashgar, crossed by the runners with almost unfailing regularity.*But up to the last decades of the 19th century, Hunza presented a different kind of problem. The Shimshal, easternmost of the Hunza passes, was in regular use by raiders in the employ of the Mir of Hunza whose job it was to ride out swiftly along the valleys of the Oprang and Yarkand rivers on the northern flank of the Karakoram, and plunder the caravans on the Leh-Yarkand route. As well as booty, these marauders were in the habit of taking captives to sell as slaves, not only from the members of the caravans, but also from among the nomadic Kirghiz who inhabited the valleys of the northern Karakoram and the Kun Lun. The Shimshal was no doubt an appropriate spot to be selected as the headquarters of these licensed brigands, as it was nearly cut off from Hunza proper, the Shimshal valley to the west of the pass narrowing to a gorge impracticable for even unladen ponies, and difficult for men unless they happen to be experienced mountaineers. In recent years a track has been blasted through the gorge; before that the only feasible approach to Shimshal from Hunza was by a circuitous march over another pass, the Karun Pir.

In this, the Shimshal echoed the general problem of the Hunza route. Hunza's own link with Gilgit — and thus with the rest of the world to the south — is again through a precipitous and narrow gorge, through which the Hunza river rampages in an unfordable torrent. In winter, when the water is at its lowest level, the river-bed is just about passable with unladen horses. But until the British constructed a road in the wake of their campaign of conquest in 1891, all carriage along it had necessarily to be on men's backs.1 If the descriptions of 19th-century travellers are anything to go by, it would seem highly doubtful whether the Hunza gorge could ever have been in regular use by trade caravans.


  1. The forcing of the Hunza gorge in the epic campaign of 1891 was perhaps the most spectacular British success during the long-drawn-out rivalry with Russia in Central Asia lasting most of the 19th century, which is popularly known as the Great Game. As I have mentioned above (p. 38) the British did for a few years around 1870 toy with the idea of using the trans-Karakoram trade with East Turkistan as a lever against the Russians. Throughout most of the 1870s and the 1880s, a succession of British and Russian intelligence officers, prominent among them Francis Younghusband, were prowling the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs and the Karakoram, probing the passes — Baroghil, Ishkoman and Darkot; Kilik, Mintaka, Shimshal and Mustagh — to discover whether any of them might possibly constitute a route for the invasion of India from the north. The conquest of Hunza, whose ruler maintained an ambivalent position between the British, the Dogra rulers of Kashmir, the Russians and the Chinese, was the culminating event in this process.


Even so, it is conceivable thai on occasion a trader coming from Kashgar or Tashkurgan might be forced by circumstances to enter Hunza by the Kilik or the Mintaka pass. For his onward journey — assuming that he escaped the attentions of the Shimshal brigands — the only possible alternative to the perilous path down the gorge would be to take the Hispar glacier into Baltistan. This offered a choice of two routes. One followed the Hispar glacier up to its head, then continued over the Hispar la and down the Biafo glacier to Askole on the Braldu, one of the main branches of the Shigar river, from where it was a five days' march down to Skardu. This route was described in 1892 by members of the Conway expedition as a long and tiring march over 160 km of ice, but presenting no technical difficulties. The alternative line turned south off the Hispar on to the Haigatum glacier, by which it approached the 5275 m Nushikla; crossing the pass it took the Kerolungma and Chogolungma glaciers down to Arandu, at the head of the Basha, the other main affluent of the Shigar river, from where Skardu could be reached in four days.

Both of these routes were certainly in use in centuries gone by for local communication between Hunza and Baltistan. Godfrey Vigne, the first European to visit Baltistan, reported in the 1830s the use of the Biafo-Hispar route by an embassy from the Raja of Skardu to the Raja of Hunza. H. H. Godwin-Austen, who surveyed the Baltistan Karakoram in 1861, states that this was the route by which raiders from Nagar — the principality lying just adjacent to Hunza on the western side of the Hunza river — used to come marauding into the Braldo valley, the last raid having taken place 24 years previously. As for the Nushik la, members of the Conway expedition, the first Europeans to cross it, discovered through enquiry that it was not then (1892) in use by the local people. But the existence of a cluster of shelter-huts at the foot of the pass indicated that at one time it had been a more or less regular route, for local traffic at least. This would probably have been at a period when the configuration of the glaciers had been different, and the going easier. Even so, the long glacier marches involved in both routes would seem likely to have precluded their regular use for caravan traffic.

The Baltistan Routes

Though all the routes north and northwest from Baltistan involved the traverse of glaciers, there are nevertheless clear indications that the Mustagh pass close to K2 did at one time figure on the trade route between Kashmir and Central Asia. The French traveller Francois Bernier, who visited Kashmir in 1663, relates how, the Srinagar-Leh route having been closed by the Ladakhi king Sengge Namgyal some 20 years earlier, Kashmiri merchants bound for Kashgar had started travelling via Baltistan instead. As late as 1820, when the Leh-Yarkand route was well established as the main artery of trade, the English pioneer Moorcroft took it as common knowledge that formerly the traffic had gone via Baltistan. In his early weeks at Leh, when it was still uncertain what attitude the Ladakhi authorities were likely to adopt towards him, he reckoned that an effective way of putting pressure on them was to threaten to revive the old route. 'You know full well that Balti was the ancient line by which Commerce was carried on from the eastern part of the Country with Yarkund and Budukshan and you may readily foresee the consequences of its revival.' Both Vigne and Godwin-Austen confirm this, Vigne remarking that 'the path down Muztak is one of the best ways to Yarkund, and was formerly much used by saudagurs or merchants in their journeys to and from Kashmir', even though it was open only from May to September. The reasons for it having been abandoned, according to these travellers, were the hostility of the local people; the dishonesty of the porters; or — perhaps most pertinently — the nearness of the onward route north of the Mustagh to the Shimshal pass headquarters of the Hunza brigands. This was what Thomas Thomson, who wintered in Baltistan in 1847-48 was told; he adds that the route 'was described to me as an exceedingly difficult road, lying for several days over the surface of the glacier'.

There were in fact two Mustagh passes. The original one lay at the head of a tributary of the great Baltoro glacier; but when — in the early decades of the 19th century — shifts in the ice rendered it impassable, the Raja of Skardu, Ahmed Shah, ordered a search to be made for a new route, and an alternative pass was discovered some ten or twelve miles to the northeast, approached by the Punmah glacier. Although Godwin-Austen, to whom we owe this information, was optimistic that the new route could be made fit for ponies — stating in fact that ponies and yak had often been brought across from Yarkand — his account of his own attempt on it gives a very different impression. The glacier, riven with crevasses, 'was making most disagreeable noises — crunching, splitting, and groaning to an awful extent — caused by the vast body of ice, two miles across, here forcing itself through a channel only a quarter of a mile broad, and with an increased slope.' The only way his party could proceed safely was by roping up, and threatening clouds followed by a blizzard obliged them to retreat 150 m below the pass. As far as he was aware, by this time (1861) the Mustagh route was in use only occasionally, by a handful of Baltis settled in Yarkand, when they came to visit their native villages. One such group that he met — as if the natural hazards of prolonged glacier-travel were not enough — had been obliged to 'travel by night and hide away during the day, on account of the robber tribes'. A couple of years later, Frederic Drew encountered the survivors of another such group, which had not been fortunate enough to escape the marauders. 'Nearly all had been captured to be sold as slaves, and of the goods, horses, and cattle nothing was recovered.' The pass, according to Drew, was open for only a short time in summer; the first snowfall concealed the crevasses, and then it became dangerous. If horses were taken, they had often to be jumped over the crevasses with the help of ropes, held by teams of eight men in front and eight behind. Moreover, once they had been brought over from the northern side, they could not go down to the villages until the approach of winter, when the water level in the streams fell enough to make their valleys passable. From 1863 till Drew's later visit in 1870, no party had essayed the route in either direction.

Seventeen years later, in September 1887, towards the end of his epic journey from Peking to Srinagar, Francis Younghusband stood on the crest of the old Mustagh pass, after a nightmare march of three days up the broken surface of the Sarpolaggo glacier. The way forward into Baltistan led down an ice-slope 'as steep as the roof of a house', after which there was a rocky precipice, then another ice-slope down to the glacier. It looked on the whole distinctly unpromising. As he contemplated the prospect, two men whom he had sent to reconnoitre the 'new' Mustagh pass returned with the news that, though formerly practicable for ponies, it was now quite impassable owing to the accumulation of ice. Unwilling to accept defeat, Younghusband decided to send his ponies back, and round to Leh via the Karakoram pass, while he attempted the descent of the Mustagh with a few picked companions. Roped, but without proper boots or any equipment apart from an ordinary pickaxe, they did manage to accomplish the descent safely, and after a three-day march down the Baltoro glacier and the Biaho river, they reached Askole. Where the tributary glacier down from the pass joined the main Baltoro glacier, they found an old hut, confirmation that at one time this had been in use as a route on at least a semi-regular basis. But a route for caravans? Certainly not the line Younghusband and his party were obliged to take - a sheer precipice of friable rock which would surely have been an impassable barrier for laden porters, and out of the question for pack animals. When the pass was open, the trail must have led over a less steep gradient, perhaps taking the line up to the head of the glacier, which, by the time Younghusband saw it was covered by an icefall.

In 1922 B. K. Featherstone, trying the new Mustagh pass, was thwarted by the refusal of his porters to take him up the Punmah glacier. He believed nevertheless that the pass was in occasional use by the local people, when the ice conditions were favourable. After Younghusband, the only recorded foot-crossings of either Mustagh pass seem to be those undertaken by the Italian expedition led by the Duke of Spoleto to explore the upper Baltoro and the Shaksgam valley in 1929.2


  1. In 1989 a French ski expedition reached the new Mustagh pass, via the Biafo glacier and the Skamla; they crossed it, and returned over the watershed by the old Mustagh pass, ski-ing out along the Baltoro glacier.


The Shaksgam valley, looking southeast to the north Gasherbrum glacier.

7. The Shaksgam valley, looking southeast to the north Gasherbrum glacier. Article 14 (B.Odier)

Northwest face of K2 with the north ridge in the centre.

9. Northwest face of K2 with the north ridge in the centre. Article 14 (B.Odier)

The Eastern Karakoram: Routes for Caravans?

Although they can never have been in regular use by the caravans, there is scattered evidence that in earlier centuries local traffic occasionally followed several difficult glacier routes in the eastern Karakoram, taking off from Khapalu in Baltistan, and emerging at various points on the regular Leh-Yarkand route. These would have crossed the mighty Siachen glacier, or even followed it for part of its length, approaching it by either the Kondus valley and the Siala, or the Saltoro valley and the Bilaphondla. One way of proceeding would have been up the Siachen glacier to its head, and over either the Indira col to the Urdok glacier, or the Turkestan la to the Staghar glacier. From there, travellers would have had to cross the Oprang (Shaksgam) river and the Aghil range — an easy passage by the Tatar la and the Aghil Depsang — and follow a tributary down to the Yarkand river at Khapalung, a stage on the regular trade route. Alternatively, the occasional party setting off from Khapalu in Baltistan and bound for Yarkand might, on reaching the Siachen glacier, have crossed it to the Teram Shehr oasis, and carried on up the Teram Shehr glacier, over the Italia col at its head, and on to the Rimo glacier. The Rimo is a watershed glacier, from which flow the headwaters of both the Shyok and the Yarkand rivers; the party would therefore have another choice, either to take the northern tongue down to the Yarkand river and on to Khapalung, or the southern tongue, enabling them to get on to the upper Shyok branch of the regular trade route at Gapshan.

The first traveller to have left a record of the route over the Karakoram pass was Mir Izzet Ullah in 1812; as he passed up the Shyok valley, above Saser Brangsa, his guides drew his attention to the Kumdan glacier which, they told him, was part of the route 'from Kashmir to Yarkand, by Baltf. At the same time they mentioned rumours of 'a shorter route, avoiding the ice mountain, but the people of Tibet (i.e. Ladakh) keep it a secret'. The reports of recent climbing-cum-exploration expeditions in the eastern Karakoram confirm the existence of a relatively easy route from the Siachen glacier, via the South Terong and South Rimo glaciers to the uppermost Shyok; there is also access from the South Terong to the Chong Kumdan glacier, though the col between them seems to be close on 6000 m.

Rumours similar to those recorded by Mir Izzet UUah were heard by later travellers in the region, from Vigne in the 1830s to Giotto Dainelli 100 years later. Both T. G. Longstaff, the first explorer to establish the limits of the Siachen glacier, in 1909, and Fanny and William Workman who surveyed it thoroughly two years later, found disused shelter-huts on the approach to it by the Bilaphond la, while the Workmans found other structures on the glacier itself. But they had grave doubts as to whether the Siachen could ever have been a stage on a regular caravan route. The northern side of the Indira col was la perpendicular snow-wall, 5,000 to 6,000 feet' and corniced at the top; and though the Turkistan la might 'with considerable difficulty' be tackled by porters 'under proper European leadership', they reckoned it was no-go for caravans. All they were prepared to concede was the faint possibility that the Bilaphond la and the lower Siachen might have been in occasional use as a short-cut between the upper valleys of easternmost Baltistan, and Nubra.

Giotto Dainelli, who reconnoitred the Saltoro and Kondus valleys in 1914, and surveyed the Siachen in 1930, felt on the other hand that these valleys and glaciers might well have constituted a trans-Karakoram route in past centuries. According to one of his informants, the headman of the village of Tagas on the Saltoro river, the Saltoro valley had, up to the time of his grandfather, been a regular channel for the exchange of goods with Yarkand. In the Kondus valley he was told that the venerable Syed Ali Hamdani, who brought Islam to Baltistan, had on different occasions used both the Kondus and the Saltoro routes. More than that, at the same period — perhaps the end of the 16th century — marauders from Yarkand used to cross the Sia la, and plunder the villages of the Kondus valley. When the villagers turned to the Syed for help, his prayers caused the Kondus glacier to advance, blocking the route of the raiders.

Sixteen years later, Dainelli returned to the Karakoram, to survey the Siachen glacier. Like the Workmans before him, he was much struck by the oasis of Teram Shehr at the junction of the Siachen and Teram Shehr glaciers. It was covered with grass and thousands of wild flowers, and was home to butterflies, grasshoppers, locusts, caterpillars, spiders, and a few species of birds like pigeon, crow and blackcock. Ibex too were numerous; but he found no trace of the stone circle filled with heaped up ibex horns, reported by his predecessors. He strongly favoured the hypothesis of a route up the Teram Shehr glacier and over the Italia col to the Rimo glacier; his discovery of cairns on the approach to the Italia col, and a human jawbone just beyond the snout of the North Rimo glacier seemed to confirm that his glacier route, 'the natural and probably the shortest, though by no means the easiest', was at one time actually in use as a means of communication between Baltistan and Yarkand.

The Glacier Routes: Their Nature

While the evidence for a middle route across or along the Siachen glacier, linking Baltistan and Yarkand, remains sparse and circumstantial, there can be little doubt that in past centuries the glacier routes over the Mustagh, Hispar and Nushik passes were in more or less regular use; and that the Mustagh pass was from time to time an important channel of commercial communication between Kashmir and East Turkestan. Yet the experiences of successive generations of European travellers, from Vigne — who reconnoitred the Saltoro valley in September 1835, and was obliged to turn back after a night spent sheltering from a blizzard in a dry stone enclosure on the Bilaphond glacier — to the climbers of the present day, make it abundantly clear that these are all exceedingly difficult routes. Today, apart from the military of India and Pakistan, confronting each other on the highest battlefield the world has ever known (the prize, presumably, being control of the passes), it is only the occasional party of climbers or skiers who have any desire to set foot in the wild desolation of glaciers, passes and peaks that is the eastern Karakoram.3 Nor would they dream of planning an expedition without an elaborate support structure of supplies and equipment — ropes, ice-axes and crampons, down jackets, sleeping bags and high altitude tents — or without years of experience behind them. How then are we to suppose than the merchants of yesteryear, or the poverty stricken villagers of Baltistan, with access to only the most rudimentary kinds of equipment, could have been essaying these routes on any kind of a regular basis ?


  1. In the last 20 years or so, the sponsoring of climbing expeditions has been used by India and Pakistan as a symbol of their competing claims to the east Karakoram. Pakistan invented the tactic, and between 1974 and 1979 it sponsored some 13 foreign expeditions, mostly Japanese and Austrian, which attempted peaks to the west and southwest of the Siachen glacier. Japanese parties even crossed the Siachen glacier on three occasions to make first ascents in the Teram Kangri and Apsarasas groups. By the end of the decade the Indian authorities had got wise to the manoeuvre, and retaliated by organizing expeditions of their own. The ascent of Teram Kangri II by an Army expedition in 1978 marked the start of Indian mountaineering activity in the Siachen area; and in 1981 and 1984 Army expeditions successfully tackled peaks to the west and southwest of the glacier. In 1986 an Indo-American expedition climbed Sia Kangri at the glacier's head, but was obliged to abandon a possible route via the Indira col on account of artillery shelling from both sides. Since then, expeditions have confined themselves to the Rimo, Mamostong, Chong Kumdan and Apsarasas groups; they have ail comprised Indian teams, both civil and military, some with foreign participation. In 1980 an American expedition did a lengthwise traverse of the Karakoram on skis, getting on to the Siachen glacier from Baltistan via the Bilaphond and Lolophond glaciers, and skiing the length of the Baltoro, Biafo and Hispar glaciers to come out into Hunza.


In the first place, it may be assumed that, over the centuries, the only regular and sustained use there may have been of these routes was for local communication, between Baltistan and Hunza-Nagar, or Baltistan and the Shaksgam and Raskam valleys north of the Karakoram, or Baltistan and Nubra. Such communication might be for the purpose of embassies between neighbouring rulers; or of raids on the Baltistan valleys by marauders from Hunza or Nagar; or of visits to their home villages by Balti emigrants to Yarkand. None of these purposes involved the transport of any large bulk of merchandise or other baggage; so it seems likely that the regular flow-line of trade between Kashmir and Punjab on the one hand, and east Turkestan on the other, must always have been the Leh-Yarkand route over the Karakoram pass. Although it was long, difficult and dangerous, leading for 12 or 15 days through uninhabited mountains at altitudes of more than 4500 m, this route had three supreme advantages over any of the lines through Baltistan. In the first place, it was not a single route so much as a complex of routes, the different lines of march being appropriate to the weather conditions of different seasons. Secondly, it was further from the Shimshal pass stronghold of the Hunza brigands, and therefore less subject to their depredations — though not at all times free of them.

Thirdly, it involved at most only a couple of days' march over glaciers. By some freak of mountain configuration, the Karakoram east of Rimo and Siachen, though by no means glacier-free, had sufficiently long stretches without glaciers to make it a route fit for the regular passage of laden animals. This was even more true of the line taken by the caravans in winter, when the river-valleys were passable, and glaciers could be avoided altogether. There was another consideration. Even on the summer route, the glaciers that could not be bypassed — those on the Khardungla and the Saser la in Ladakh, and the Sanju Dawan over a spur of the Kun Lun in Sinkiang — were not deep in the mountains, but were within reach of villages; or at least, in the case of the Sanju Dawan, of encampments of nomadic Kirghiz. The people of these settlements supplemented the income from their fields or livestock by the hire of yak to passing caravans. It is not impossible to take laden horses across glaciers at altitudes of over 5000 m; but the enterprise is fraught with enormous risk of damage to the animals, and enormous stress for their drivers. Yak take both altitude and glaciated terrain in their stride; they were used to open a path through the snow and ice at the start of the trading season; and also to relieve the horses of their loads, so that they could be led across without encumbrance.4 The Baltoro and the Punmah glaciers were much too deep in the mountains for this facility to be available to caravans passing by Baltistan.

Or indeed any other facilities. The details given by Younghusband, one of the few travellers with an extensive knowledge of the Karakoram's northern flank, and summarized in the route-book of the Survey of India, make it clear that, though north of the mountains the Mustagh route scored over the Karakoram pass in the matter of grass for the animals, it was in all other respects a more desolate trail. The number of days for which a caravan would have to carry all its own supplies of food for the men and grain for the horses was much greater at 21 than that for the Karakoram pass summer route (only 12), or even the winter route (17). When the object of the exercise was to shift as much merchandise as economically as possible, every extra pound of supplies that had to be carried represented a diminution of the trader's profits, so this made a material difference.


  1. There has been a motorable road across the Khardungla for at least 20 years, taking a line that avoids the glacier. Work is now in progress to open a motorable road to the foot of Saser la.


Even when the ice-conditions on the Mustagh passes were at their most favourable, it seems likely that — other things being equal — all these considerations would have tilted the scales decisively in favour of the Karakoram pass. It was only when other things were not equal, when the Leh-Yarkand, or the Srinagar-Leh route was closed for one reason or another — as in the mid-17th century when the king of Ladakh banned all intercourse between Ladakh and Kashmir — that the route over the Mustagh pass was brought into use. When conditions returned to normal, then the traders moved their operations back to the Leh-Yarkand line. Yet the evidence of Moor croft and Vigne shows that the period or periods during which the trade had been diverted to Baltistan had been long enough to remain in people's memories for years or even centuries.

As to the riddle of how these difficult glacier routes could ever have been used by the trade caravans, the answer is probably that, at the times they were in such use, they were less difficult than they became later. The Karakoram glaciers are notorious for their sudden and unpredictable changes, and these could make all the difference. It is usually assumed that the closure of any route must have been caused by the advance of a glacier, which blocked the old line of advance, and this was certainly true in some cases. The upper Shyok branch of the Karakoram pass route, indeed, was closed for long periods by the advance of the three glaciers impinging on it from the west, the Chong Kumdan, the Thangman and the Aq Tash. At times the Chong Kumdan dammed the river completely, leading to enormous and devastating floods when the ice-dam burst. The same also happened with the Biafo glacier and the Braldo river. But this may not have been the only way in which changes in the glaciers affected the viability of the routes. Eric Shipton, who knew as much about mountains as anyone, suggested that some glacier routes may be relatively easy during periods when the glaciers are expanding, when their surface tends to be fairly smooth. It is during the periods of retreat that the surface breaks up, and the routes become impassable. This could happen not merely over centuries or decades but within the course of a few years. In 1899 the snout of the Biafo glacier was observed by Zurbriggen, a member of the Conway expedition who had trekked down it from the Hispar la in 1892. He is reported to have said that 'the changes in the glacier at this part were such as one would not believe could take place in seven years. It had receded greatly and become much more crevassed and broken, and passage was now barred, where it had then been easy.'

The caravans traversed the trails of Asia — over plain, desert and mountain range — for close on two millennia. They sought the easy routes where available; but where there were no easy routes between complementary economic zones, they pushed through anyhow. The merchants took the two-month march, from Amritsar to Yarkand, in their stride; or if their courage failed them to go all the way, they could be sure of meeting their counterparts from the other end at the half-way house of Leh. And whenever for some reason the Leh-Yarkand route over the Karakoram was unavailable, why then they found their way over the glaciers of Baltistan. There were adventurous spirits among the local mountain dwellers too, it seems, who saw no reason in a few glaciers to remain cooped up for ever in the backwater of Skardu or Khapalu, Askole or Kondus. Today, the heights of the Karakoram — where they are not the scene of senseless warfare between India and Pakistan — are no more than the playground of people belonging to an urban culture, seeking there the ultimate physical challenge. What a contrast with the merchants, ponymen and porters of the past (to say nothing of the brigands) to whom they were all part of the day's work.


A survey of the trade routes through the mountains to the northwest and north of the Indian sub-continent, with special reference to the glacier routes of the Karakoram. The author was Hon. Librarian of the Himalayan Club and has written the book Ladakh, Crossroads of High Asia.


A: Unpublished papers

  1. Moorcroft Papers: MSS Eur. D/244, D/259, D/262. India Office Library and Records, London.
  2. Parsons, A. E. B: 4Leh to Kashgar 1927'. Typescript in the Himalayan Club Library, India International Centre, New Delhi.

B: Periodicals

  1. Himalayan Journal vols. I, XII, 42, 45, 46, 48.
  2. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. VII, 1843, H. H. Wilson: 'Travels Beyond the Himalaya by Mir Izzet Ullah'.
  3. Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, Vol. XXXIV, 1864. H. H. Godwin-Austen: 'On the Glaciers of the Mustakh Range'. Vol. XXXVII, 1867. W. H. Johnson: 'Report on his Journey to Ilchi, the Capital of Khotan, in Chinese Tartary'.

C: Official Reports

  1. Government of the Punjab: Report on the Trade and Resources of the Countries on the North-Western Boundary of British India. Lahore, 1862.
  2. Survey of India: Explorations in the Eastern Karakoram and the Upper Yarkand Valley. Narrative Report of the Survey of India Detachment with the De Filippi Scientific Expedition 1914. Dehra Dun, 1922.

D: Published Books

  1. Bellew, H. W.: Kashmir to Kashgar — a Narrative of the Journey of the Embassy to Kashgar in 1873-74. London, 1875.
  2. Bernier, Francois: Travels in the Mogul Empire, A.D. 1656-1668, tr. Irving Brock, ed. Archibald Constable, London, nd. (1914).
  3. Bruce, C. G.: Twenty Years in the Himalaya. London, 1910.
  4. Dainelli, Giotto: Buddhists and Glaciers of Western Tibet. London, 1933.
  5. Dainelli, Giotto: Paesi e Genti del Caracorum, 2 vols. Firenze, 1924.
  6. Drew, Frederic: The Jummoo and Kashmir Territories. London, 1875, repr. New Delhi, 1976.
  7. Dunmore, Earl of: The Pamirs, 2 vols. London, 1893.
  8. Featherstone, B. K.: An Unexplored Pass, London, 1926.
  9. Keay, John: The Gilgit Game. London, 1979, repr. Karachi, 1990.
  10. Mason, Kenneth: Abode of Snow. London, 1955.
  11. Mason, Kenneth: Exploration of the Shaksgam Valley and Aghil Ranges 1926. (Records of the Survey of India, vol. XXII). Dehra Dun, 1928.
  12. Mason, Kenneth: Routes in the Western Himalaya, Kashmir, &c. Vol. I Punch, Kashmir and Ladakh (2nd edn.). Calcutta, 1929.
  13. Roosevelt, Theodore and Roosevelt, Kermit: East of the Sun and West of the Moon. London, 1926.
  14. Shipton, Eric. Blank on the Map. Edn. of 1985, part of single volume, The Six Mountain Travel Books.
  15. Spain, James: The Pathan Borderland. The Hague, 1963.
  16. Teichman, Eric. Journey to Turkistan. London, nd.
  17. Thomson, Thomas: Western Himalaya and Tibet. London, 1852.
  18. Vigne, Godfrey: Travels in Kashmir, Ladak, Iskardo, 2 vols. London, 1842.
  19. Workman, F. B. and W.H.: In the Ice World of the Himalaya, London, 1900..
  20. Workman, F. B. and W. H.: Two Summers t in the Ice-Wilds of the Eastern Karakoram. London, 1917.
  21. Younghusband, Francis: The Heart of a Continent. London, 1896, repr. Hong Kong, 1984.
Shaksgam valley.

23. Shaksgam valley. Article 14 B.Odier)

Unclimbed north ridge of Gasherbrum II.

24. Unclimbed north ridge of Gasherbrum II. The Prominent spur is about 2200m in height Article 14 B.Odier)


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