The last caravaneer

Nicholas Nugent on a diary-based memoir that charts an enthralling but bygone trans-Himalayan journey and trade route

To the east of the northern Indian city of Leh stands a milestone marking the distance to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa: 852 miles, or 1371 km. Nothing extraordinary in that except that this route – one can hardly call it a road – links Ladakh, India’s ‘Little Tibet’, with the capital of ‘big’ Tibet, now an autonomous region of China, across the world’s highest mountain range, the Himalayas.

Tibetan Caravans: Journeys from Leh to Lhasa by Abdul Wahid Radhu, published by Speaking Tiger, New Delhi 2017
Tibetan Caravans: Journeys from Leh to
Lhasa by Abdul Wahid Radhu, published by
Speaking Tiger, New Delhi 2017

Photographing this milestone recently I started to wonder about the route and its difficulties. It barely shows on a map, crossing as it does desolate terrain and treacherous mountain passes, suited only for pack animals. I had in fact already travelled by road the first part as far as Pangong Lake, 4420m high. The larger part of this beautiful lake lies within Tibet.

Returning to Leh across the 5602-metreKhardung La (pass), I bumped into academic and writer Siddiq Wahid, whose father’s memoirs of the journey have been published. Tibetan Caravans: Journeys from Leh to Lhasaby Abdul Wahid Radhu is a delightful account of a once fascinating journey and trade route. I say ‘once’ because the journey is no longer possible for a combination of political and commercial reasons.

Radhu’s journey took place in 1942, before his son was born, and was one of the last in a series of what had been biannual tribute caravans inaugurated as long ago as 1684. Known as the Lopchak, this was an occasion for the citizens of the outer reaches of Tibet to pay homage to their leader, the Lhasa-based Dalai Lama. Yet Radhu and his family were not Buddhists but Ladakhi Muslims, known as Ladak-Khache, sometimes described as Kashmiri Tibetans, since the family were variously based in Lhasa, Leh or Srinagarand traded between these cities as well as to Kalimpong along the quicker route to Lhasa via Sikkim and Nathu La, which took a mere 10 days.

Leh was, in the author’s words, ‘an important crossroads of the caravan tracks of central Asia’. The journey from there to Lhasa took two-and-a-half months and on this occasion involved 250 pack animals, mainly mules. Ten animals bore the tribute goods and the remainder were loaded with privately traded items, including sheep’s wool, gold dust, dried apricots and semi-precious stones. At the time Tibet’s main trading partner was India, which in return received Chinese brick tea and yak wool.

The Lopchak’s importance is signified by the offer of accommodation en route at no cost to the caravanners – all part of the tribute being offered to the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet. The author’s own father had died on an earlier Lopchak, trapped in a snowstorm, and was buried in the mountains between the upper reaches of the Rivers Indus and Brahmaputra, which both rise in Tibet.

1942 was a time ofpoliticalturmoil. It was the final stages of the Great Game being fought between Russia, Britain and China for control of the heart of the Asian continent. The Second World War was engulfing Europe and South East Asia. China’s own civil war would follow with Mao Tse Tung’s Communists taking power in 1949, while British India was preparing to split into two independent states. Ladakh was to become ‘a place of strategic importance’ as India and Pakistan fought for control of the northern regions – effectively, for its borders with China.

The Radhu family was affected since they also had a trading base at Yarkand in Xinjiang, the part of China immediately to the north of Ladakh across the Karakoram Pass, from which they were being expelled as China extended its reach westwards, eventually consolidating control over both Xinjiang and Tibet. Ultimately the Radhus would move out of Lhasa as well,opting for Indian citizenship at the redrawing of regional borders, though as Muslims from Kashmir some family members chose Pakistan.

MILESTONE: Sign marking the distance from Leh to Lhasa
MILESTONE: Sign marking the distance from Leh to Lhasa

Helped by an introduction by his son titled‘Life in the Borderlands’, Abdul Wahid Radhu tells a rich historical tale based on the diary he kept on that 1942 trek, in fact several stories: his own upbringing and education in Srinagar and then Aligarh Muslim University; how the Radhu family earned the right to run the Lopchak caravan. The journey itself is the most powerful part, though the book sadly lacks a map and the reader is advised to have to hand one embracing Ladakh and Southern Tibet: only in that way can you truly imagine the difficultly of leading a caravan of mules through the Himalayas, an epic journey by any standards.

Most familiar to Indian readers will be the trek around Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar,which are sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus. Chinese authorities allow Indian pilgrims to visit the area once a year, almost the only permitted border crossing between these two neighbours.

We read of the little known Tibetan Muslim tradition – about150 families living in Lhasa Shigatse and Tsetang – a small minority in a land of Buddhists. Even Buddhismis losing its demographic advantage in a land now settled by Han Chinese who have, for example, made Lhasa a commercial centre, so different from 75 years ago.

There is insight, too, into the formation of the still hotly disputed princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1846, which Siddiq Wahid sees as an episode of the famous ‘Great Game’ for imperial control of territory in the middle of Asia.Communist China’s takeover of Tibet and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India along the ‘quick’ route to India in 1959, which are also chronicled,can be seen as a final chapter in that same saga.

There is so much history in this book and also plenty of geography, especially for those who enjoy reading of remote, little known and still inaccessible places.

Nicholas Nugent, a writer and broadcaster specialising in Asia and the former Soviet Union who worked for the BBC World Service., has visited both ends of the former Lopchak caravan route on what is now a closed path

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