Friday, January 3, 2014

New Roads to Tibet for 2014?

Ladakhi Traders in Gartok in the early 1900s
As the New Year starts, The People's Daily reports that during a recent Economic Working Conference of Tibet Autonomous Region, it was announced that the track-laying process for the Lhasa-Shigatse railway had been completed and the line will be opened to traffic in 2014.
The Chinese newspaper asserts: "The Lhasa-Shigatse Railway is the extension line of Qinghai-Tibet Railway which is the world's highest railway. Its construction was started in 2010 and the total length of the railway is 253 km. It is planed that the railway starts from Lhasa in the east and ends up in Shigatse, by way of several stations including Tohlung Dechen, Chushur, Nyemo, Rinbung and Panam."
The People's Daily draws a parallel with the construction of Metok highway which ended "the history of China's last [county] inaccessible by roads". The Communist mouthpiece adds: "the high-level [sic] highway connecting Lhasa and Nyingchi has been under construction." Further, the number of cities linked by air has increased from 9 to 48.
After reading this, I came across a report written in the wake of the Younghusband expedition to Tibet in 1904. The British Colonel had sent a fact-finding mission, led by Capt. C.G. Rawling, to Western Tibet, (north of today's Uttarakhand and Himachal) to explore the possibility to open 'trade routes' between British India and Tibet.
In his report, (The Gartok Expedition including the Brahmaputra, the Sutlej and Indus Valleys and that portion of Tibet which lies tot the West of Gyantse), Captain Rawling of the Somersetshire Light Infantry, describes what needs to be done by the Government of India to open up (and secure) its borders with Tibet.
Trade routes into Western Tibet from India with comparison and suggestions.
Western Tibet is by no means a closed country to the natives of the southern slopes of the Himalayas, and these people pass in and out by many paths and many passes.
The principal roads are:-
(1) From Srinagar (Kashmir) through Leh, Ladak, up the Indus Valley to Gartok, and so to Lhasa by the chief road in Tibet. This road is mainly patronised by Ladakis, Kashmiris, and men from Chinese Turkistan.
(2) From Kulu over the Shangrang La, into the Chumurti country, and from thence to Gartok.
(3) From Simla, up the Sutlej valley to Shipki, through the Chumurti country or up the Sutlej, to Gartok.
(4) From Badrinath over the Mana Pass (17,890) to Toling.
(5) From Almora through Jashinath and Niti, over the Niti Pass (17,000) to Gartok.
(6) From Almora through Milam, over the Untadhaura Pass (17,590 feet), to Gartok.
(7) From Almora. up the Kali river valley, over the Lipu Lekh 16,750. to Pu-Rang and Gartok.
As it is absolutely necessary that one or more good roads be constructed alone trade routes from India into Tibet, a comparison between each of these roads is here made in order that the best may be chosen...
Today, 110 years later, most of these roads are closed (except no 3 and 7)which have been reopened in a small way in the 1990s).
After giving more details on the trade opportunities and the length and difficulties of each route, Rawling concludes:
To sum up therefore I recommend the following:
The immediate completion of the Simla-Shipki road. This should be taken in hand at once, and should be completed before the Tibetans have time to change their minds as to the reading of the Lhasa Treaty [signed by Younghusband in Lhasa in 1904 to open up Tibet to Trade].
Crossing the Sutlej near Shipki (Sven Hedin)

II. The construction of the Almora Lipu-Lekh road. This is most important, as it strikes directly at the main road of Tibet, that between Lhasa and Gartok; besides leading straight to Manasarowar and Kailas Parbat. [the Indian pilgrims going on the Kailash Yatra will suffer again in 2014 on this road, if the  Yatra is not canceled like in 2013]
III. As soon as the two roads mentioned above are finished, the Niti Pass road should be made, and as it can be done at a small cost, it will well repay the expense. The completion of this road will enable the traders and pilgrims to enter Tibet by one route. and return to India by another.
A glance at the map will show how every district of Western Tibet will be reached with ease by traders from India if these paths are turned into roads suitable for mule transport.
The Leh road from Kashmir taps the Rudok district and the Indus valley.
The Shipki road passes into the heart of the Chumurti country.
The Lipu Lekh road runs into the Purang valley, the Manasarowar Lake basin and the head waters of the Brahmaputra.
Both for political and commercial reasons, I consider that advisable to construct these roads with as little delay as possible. for the Tibetans, since the defeat of the Kashmir General, Zorawar Singh, in 1842, have always believed themselves invincible, and though they have probably changed their opinion since the entry of the Tibet Mission into Lhasa, yet it is certain that, if there are no good communications into the country from India, the priests will attempt to shut up the country again. These roads could never be of any value to the enemies of the Empire, for the land to the north forms a far more serious obstacle to cross than any part of the Himalayas.
Post and telegraph distances to Gartok from Simla by different routes.
Simla to Gartok via the Sutlej valley and Shipki.
Simla to Poo [Kinnaur district], 18 marches. At Poo, there is a British post office with a weekly post. From Poo to Shipki, 2 marches.
From Shipki to Gartok, 12 marches. Total number of marches from Simla to Gartok, 32 marches or about 350 miles. Time for a letter to reach Gartok from Simla. about 15 days.
Srinagar to Gartok via Leh.
Srinagar to Leh 18 marches or 250 miles;
Leh to Gartok, 18 marches or about 200 miles. Total from Srinllgar, 36 marches or 450 miles.
From Simla, the post takes three days to Srinagar and five to Leh, and from Leh if a dak was arranged eight days; total from Simla 16 days. Leh, however, has a telegraph office, so with changes of ponies, a telegram would reach Gartok in seven or eight days by this route.
Gyantse to Gartok 51 marches, or a total distance of 697 miles.
This distance is covered by the Lhasa. Government's messengers in 19 days.
Gyantse, however. is distant from Simla about nine days by post, therefore a letter will take from Simla 28 days. At Gyantse, however, there is 91 telegraph office, consequently a telegram to Gartok by the route should only take 19 days.
The Gartok-Simla line via Shipki is, however, the safest of these routes for the present, but delays are likely to occur in winter on account of the passes being deep in snow. Should Thakur Jai Chand, Trade Agent at Gartok, require to forward an important communication to the Indian Government, it would be advisable to send a. duplicate letter via Gyantse. This, however, should be well sealed, for if it contains news regarding the Lhasa. Government, it will probably be tampered with on the road.
A great program!
Of course today, trade with Tibet is not the first preoccupation of Government of India, but if, for defense purpose, some of these 110-year projects could be taken up by the Border Road Organization, India would have made a Great Leap Forward to defend its border ... and eventually to reopen the old trade and pilgrimage route in Tibet.
It should not be so difficult. India and China are friends: aren't they?
In the meantime, China continues to rapidly develop the infrastructure on its side of the Himalayas.

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