JIM GILCHRIST, Scotsman
EVEN in the 21st century, the very mention of the Silk Road is enough to evoke images of winding caravanserai bearing sumptuous fabrics and spices between China, India and the Mediterranean; of the wandering Marco Polo and fabled cities along the way – Kashgar, Tashkent, and James Elroy Flecker's "golden road to Samarkand".
A conduit not only for trade but also for migration, culture and the spread of Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, the Silk Road may have declined in importance over the centuries, but an agreement signed last weekend between China and India could signal a renewal of activity along at least one of its ancient routes, as well as flagging up a significant warming of trade relations between Asia's two mightiest economies.
The focus of this significant breakthrough is centred on a less than propitious location, the muddy and desolate Nathu La pass, 14,000ft above sea level in the Himalayas, which connects the small Indian mountain state of Sikkim with Chinese-occupied south Tibet. Amid bulldozers, guard huts and corrugated iron warehouses, curious tourists have been taking photographs of Indian troops busily road-building, their Chinese counterparts beyond the wire equally industrious, so that the border crossing, which once carried an offshoot of the Silk Road between India and Tibet, could re-open to traffic. A historic agreement between India and China, signed in Lhasa on Sunday, opened the high pass to traffic yesterday for the first time in 44 years, since the two-month border war which flared up between the two countries closed it in 1962. Since then, the troops of both countries have viewed each other with suspicion across the frontier wire. Sikkim only officially became part of India in 1975, while China claimed it had been annexed illegally and only recognised the territory as part of India three years ago.
Initial trade is expected to be tentative and mainly local. The trucks of livestock, iron ore and electrical goods which, it is hoped, will eventually rumble through the pass may sound decidedly less romantic than the silks, gold, ivory and other exotic wares once transported along the Silk Road, but the Sikkim state government predicts that by 2015 the value of the trade through the pass could be as much as $2.8 billion. Commentators reckon that figure is somewhat optimistic, particularly given the state of the 35-mile road through the mountains to Sikkim's capital, Gangtok. However, officials on both sides of the border are hailing the event as a significant improvement in historically strained relations.
Christy Ferndandez, an official in India's ministry of commerce, describes the resumption of cross-border trade – seen as reflecting a more pragmatic approach taken to territorial disputes by the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and his predecessor, Atal Vajpayee – as "a great historic event, not only for enlarging trade, but also for greater relations between the two great countries".
In the Tibet Autonomous Region, as China calls it, the government vice-chairman, Hao Peng, told a news agency: "The re-opening of border trade will help end economic isolation in this area." Peng added that if only some 10 per cent to Sino-Indian trade makes use of the pass, it could still represent as much as a billion dollars a year.
"The opening of the Nathu La Pass has great diplomatic value," says Dr Marc Lanteigne, lecturer in political science and international development studies at McGill University in Montreal. "However, its effects on trade will be minor at least in the short term. Although there is a great deal of pressure from entrepreneurs in both countries for trade expansion, geographic conditions – the two states share a not-easily traversable border – and the need for both sides to better understand each other others' economic fundamentals and trade patterns will be the initial obstacles.
"Nevertheless the transportation/communications networking possibilities of the region, including the Nathu La Pass, does have the potential to create a stronger regional sense of community, which may be matched by stronger trade flows later."
Others, perhaps recalling China's strike across the Himalayas in 1962, have voiced concern at the re-opening of the pass. Maloy Krishna Dar, a retired director of the Indian Intelligence Bureau, told the South China Morning Post that India is simply inviting trouble. "Chinese spies and agents on subversive missions will find it easier to slip in through Nathu La," he warned, adding that India's counter-intelligence will rise significantly as a result of the re-opening. "The Chinese will stoke insurgency, monitor troop deployment along the disputed border and gain access to vital installations."
In the meantime, Indian and Chinese troops at Nathu La appear to be on better terms than they have been for decades, posing near each other for photographs, as customs posts are dusted down and 21st-century tourism essentials such as a cyber café and the world's highest cashpoint are installed.
Until now, for four decades the only contact between either side has been through their indefatigable postmen: every Sunday, China's Ye Ling is permitted to pass through the wire to India to deliver his mail under close scrutiny, while on Thursdays, his Indian counterpart, Mr Thaman, is allowed through in the other direction. Ye Ling has been ascending to the Border post on horseback for 17 years now, resorting to scrambling up on foot when snow defeats even his horse. The new road being built through the pass should make life much easier for both postmen.
Approached by one of the world's highest navigable roads, and impassible in winter, when temperatures drop to around -25C, the pass is just one of many offshoots from what was always a network of Silk Road routes, rather than one main trade highway – thousands of miles of interconnecting routes, skirting inhospitable areas such as the notorious Taklamakan Desert (which some translate as "go in and you don't come out"), and the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges. This mesh of routes through central Asia connected Chang'an (Xi'an today) in China, with Antioch, Asia Minor and well beyond, stretching for some 5,000 miles and linking the great civilisations as they flourished – China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Persia and Rome. Alexander the Great's incursions into central Asia helped develop the route (even today, the natives of the Hunza Valley in the Karakoram are said to be direct descendents of Alexander's army), while the Romans, who referred to China as the land of the Seres, the "silk people", may have come in contact with silk as early as their Parthian campaigns of 53BC. They later became so besotted with the fabric that the senate attempted to have it prohibited, on both economic and moral grounds, as it was considered the height of decadence.
The Silk Road wasn't named as such by the Romans, who never ventured as far as China, but by the 19th-century German scholar Ferdinand von Richthofen. And its trade was by no means confined to silk: its caravans carried gold, ivory, precious stones and glass to China, while furs, ceramics and items of jade, bronze and iron came the other way.
The great Mongol expansion of the 13th and 14th centuries gave the route a new lease of life, and it was during this period the Venetian explorer Marco Polo became one of the first Europeans to travel the route, introducing westerners to the Far East through his writings. Technological innovations which found their way westwards along the route included printing, gunpowder and the compass.
The collapse of the Mongol empire, and the development of alternative maritime links, saw the route slip into decline, but interest in the network's possibilities – and in the pass at Nathu La – was ren
ewed during the "Great Game", as the power struggle between Britain and Russia along the border territories of colonial India became known. In 1904, under orders from the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, the imperial adventurer, Colonel Francis Younghusband, led a heavily armed military mission into Tibet – a supposed "legation" to forestall Russian influence. He revived the old route across the pass, which became an important commercial link between India and Tibet during the early part of the 20th century.
Trade across Nathu La took off again after India gained independence in 1947. Despite China's invasion of Tibet in 1950 and until the 1962 conflict, droves of people and packhorses used the pass daily. The Silk Road, however, has long been an avenue for much more than commerce and political adventure, and recently its rich cultural diversity has been showcased by the celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma, with his acclaimed Silk Road Ensemble, uniting musicians from China, India and elsewhere along the ancient route.
During the mid-18th century, India and China accounted for more than half of the world's manufacturing output. A century before that, the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz wrote: "Everything exquisite and admirable comes from the East Indies … Learned people have remarked that in the whole world there is no commerce comparable to that of China." His words may take on a new resonance as the world's two fastest-growing economies link up across the rocky pass at Nathu La.