By Mohd Hussanan
Last year in October when I visited Baltistan, I met Haji Ghulam Ali. Haji Ali is a celebrity from Kamangu Village of District Kharmang. Although he is 86 years old, he is healthy, physically active and looks younger in appearance. He attributes his wellbeing to earlier involvement with sports like archery and polo, and consumption of pure yak butter and roasted barley flour which he mixes together to make a snack called 'Khulak'. Haji Ali invited me to dinner at his house in Kamangu. His family prepared traditional Balti dishes of marzan, sha-chu and srub-balay. Before the meal, he took me to his personal room. He displayed a range of items, accumulated a long time ago when he was a young trader. These items included shawls made of pure pashmina, necklaces and other ornaments made of turquoise, traditional Balti boots Lham and robes Gonchas, traditional copper and bronze utensils, and several horse back saddles with embroidered edges.
Haji Ali collected these items from various parts of Ladakh, Tibet, Kashmir, Yarkand and Simla where he traveled on a regular basis to trade. As he explained, "Farm work consumed four months. For the rest of the eight months of the year, I was always on the road. Those were the days when we could travel without restrictions and hindrances. Trade earned me ten times more than farming. It exposed me to different cultures and civilizations. I learnt a lot about the world from traveling."
My curiosity made me ask, 'Why didn't you travel to west to places like Chitral, Peshawar and Punjab?' He replied, 'Well, up until 1978, Baltistan was cut off from the west as glaciers and mountains separated us from Gilgit, Chitral, Punjab and Peshawar. Baltistan is naturally connected with Ladakh. At that time, only a route through Deosai mountains gave us limited three months access to Gilgit during the summer. On the other hand, we have four traditional trade routes used for thousands of years that lead to Ladakh, Kashmir and Tibet. Baltis would flock to places like Simla, Dehra Dun, Kulu Manali, Dharamsala, Dalhousie, Mussourie, Srinagar and Purang. Leh, Zangskar and Kargil were our cities of trade, the way Skardo is today. Baltis could find daily wage labor in these cities and people like me could barter their goods for other needed products like tea, salt, pashmina, wool, turquoise and much more. We were all very prosperous and happy during those times. We had the freedom to travel and earn a good living.
To my question of how road blockage and partition of J&K impacted local economy, he said, "our economy degraded severely after partition and the closure of roads. We remained cut off from the rest of the world until 1978, when the first road was built connecting us to Pakistan. During that time, we were solely dependent on farming. Baltistan is a barren land and farming alone cannot support our needs. The government set up rationing and we went to civil and military depots for cereal, tea, salt and rice. Sometimes, aero-planes would air-drop supplies. We were totally dependent on government subsidies. After the trade roads were blocked, thousands of people became impoverished and took refuge in Skardo town. Our villages were abandoned. Many villagers still live in Skardo as they do not have the means of survival in their villages on the Indian border. Even today, economic activity is not steady. Our total economy is dependent on a single road linking Baltistan with Gilgit and Pakistan. Every year, avalanches and landslides obstruct this road and goods and supplies from Pakistan are cut off for weeks. During road blocks, everything becomes so expensive that the government starts rationing and many people go hungry. Only opening the traditional trade routes of Baltistan towards Ladakh and Kashmir can bring back prosperity to the region."
He placed his hand on one of the saddles and said, "These saddles have carried me all the way to Tibet and Changthang. I used to trade dried fruits, cereals and vegetables on horseback. Changthang Valley of Ladakh has the finest quality of wool and pashmina. Sometimes, Chang traders would bring superior breeds of yaks, dzo and dzomo, and Baltis would buy them instantly. On the other hand, Ladakh consumed Baltistan's quality fruits and vegetables because produce did not grow well in the high altitude of Ladakh. We all benefited from each other in those days."
The pashmina shawl that he brought for his wife was still in good shape. After the death of his wife, he didn't let anyone touch it. It was wrapped in a bag with some moth-balls. Similarly, ornaments and jewelry made of turquoise, dzi and other precious stones, which he bought for his mother and wife, were also packed safely in his closet. 'My mother and wife were always excited when I left for Ladakh and Tibet.' With a thoughtful smile on his face, he said, 'I brought them turquoise jewelry every time I returned."
Haji Ali desires to see all trade routes open between Ladakh and Baltistan. Thousands of divided families continue suffer since the partition of J&K and the closure of roads. He wants to go to Kargil and see the children of his late sister who married a teacher from Suru, Ladakh. Haji Ali especially worries about the people of Baltistan's Shingo-Shigar and Gultari valleys. "These valleys are naturally a part of Kargil district. Before partition, it took them just two hours to reach Kargil by an all-weather road. Today, they spend 13 hours on dirt tracks to reach Skardo. In the winter when snow restricts their ability to travel, people are left in God's hands.
With tears rolling down his cheek, he said, "The division of J&K and wars have done so much damage and nothing good. Our natural trade routes are closed. Our economy suffers. Our families and loved ones are separated, causing great heartache. With our routes cut off towards Ladakh, I feel as if I am trapped in a cage. I am a trader and a traveler. For Baltistan's economy, these roads mean a lot. I want to see them open again before I die.
After dinner, I left Haji Ali sahib's house, contemplating whether the governments of India and Pakistan would consider his thoughts and hopes. I believe that positive action from both governments in this regard can help reunite families and communities, and reestablish economic prosperity for this backward and poverty stricken region of J&K.