| Ladakhi girls weave carpets inside a workshop in Leh. (Reuters)
Leh, Oct. 30 (Reuters): Sonam Stobdan, a 79-year-old farmer, wistfully remembers a time when Muslim traders from the Chinese town of Yarkand would arrive on horses and camels laden with carpets, shoes and jewellery.
After hawking their goods in the bazaars of Buddhist-dominated Ladakh, the Yarkandis would sell their horses for Rs 50 and then travel onwards on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Death was once an accepted part of trading on these routes which included crossing the Khardung La pass, where the world’s highest road has been now built at 18,380 feet.
Frostbitten travellers were regularly abandoned and those whose food ran out boiled and chewed leather from their boots. Six decades on, Stobdan and many others in the remote high-altitude desert of Ladakh hope for a revival of cross-border trade with China and movement of people into Tibet.
The vast Himalayan borders between India and China slammed shut after a Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 and a brief border war three years later.
But a thaw in relations between the world’s two most populous countries has raised hopes in Ladakh — also known as little Tibet — of an end to its isolation from its nearest neighbour.
“Our region was at the crossroads for a long time,” said Stobdan, recalling the caravans that halted in the Ladakh plateau on the southern stretch of the old Silk Road connecting Asia with Europe.
“If the route is open, the market will be much bigger,” he said, speaking at his home in the main town of Leh.
India and China have been struggling for half a century to agree on demarcating their border — which stretches from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh — but have yet to make much headway.
But they have made much faster progress in boosting economic ties, prompting both sides to look at opening up new routes to encourage cross-border trade.
The two nations, which are home to about 40 per cent of the world’s population and are among its fastest growing economies, have boosted trade from a paltry $300 million a decade ago to $5 billion in 2002-03.
In June, India and China agreed to open a new border trade route along the eastern stretch of their rugged Himalayan border between Sikkim and Tibet. Two other trading posts already exist along the central and northern parts of the frontier.
“There is no reason why Ladakh should be denied this facility. Trade has been our lifeblood for a long, long time,” said Thupstan Chewang, chief executive officer of the Leh Hill Development Council.
“Our only livelihood through the ages has been subsistence agriculture and trade with Central Asia,” Chewang said.
He has repeatedly urged the Indian government to reopen the old trading route through Demchok on the Ladakhi side and Tashigang on the Tibetan side.
For decades, people from Tibet brought tea, prayer wheels, porcelain and boots. And from Ladakh, went pashmina wool, yak butter, dried apricots and carpets.
Much trade still continues despite the official ban on crossing the border, but nowadays the goods are smuggled across the vast and largely uninhabited frontier.
“At the moment there is no border trade, but there is smuggling and everyone knows that,” said Chewang.
As proof of this, the streets of Leh — capital of Ladakh since the 17th century — are cluttered with kitsch curio shops selling everything from Tibetan handicrafts to prayer wheels, dance masks to Chinese-made mountain boots and toys.
India has also been asking China to reopen an old Hindu pilgrimage route to Tibet through Ladakh as an alternative to a more hazardous path on which people have died in the past.
The Kailash Mansarovar lake can be reached by a relatively simple two-day journey from Ladakh through the border outpost of Demchok. But with the border closed, pilgrims have been forced to undertake a hazardous 15-day trek from further south.
“In Ladakh you can drive up all the way to Kailash. This is ideal for older people and women,” said Chewang.
Beijing has not yet agreed to the proposal to allow pilgrims to go through the area.