India and China might be looking eyeball to eyeball on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh but there is deep yearning among people here to see traditional routes to China and Central Asia reopen, a move, which they believe can even end the ongoing border hostilities.
Haji Abdul Razaq (82), a retired teacher-turned-historian of Nobra valley, 160 km north of Leh, recalls that in the pre-50s era he would easily travel with his father to Gilgit-Baltistan, now in Pakistan, and Yarkand, a town in China's Xinjiang. The route was a gateway to the Central Asia too.
"Leh and Nobra were major halting points for traders coming from Central Asia. My father was in-charge of one of the stores on the Silk Route. From trading of jewels to rubies to carpets to stones, the route turned Ladakh into a cultural melting pot," recalls Razaq, who still possesses rare stones and jewels traded through the Silk Route.
The trade was active even 13 years after the country's Independence till 1958. "After 1960s war with China, the routes were closed once and for all. The wars with Pakistan and China have divided many families and snapped cultural ties with the Central Asia. They closed Ladakh for the outside world," said Razaq, hoping to see the trade buzzing once again in near future.
PRIZED POSSESSIONS: TWO-HUMPED CAMELS
Nobra valley's prized possessions, two-humped camels are last living memories of the Silk Route. "These camels were first brought by Turk traders to Nobra through the Silk Route in 1870. It was on way back that they would sell injured camels to locals at affordable prices," said Razaq, whose family was the first to possess a bunch of two-humped camels.
From just 20 camels in 1960, locally known as Yarkandi camels for having their origin in present Xinjiang province in China, the number has swelled to 150 now.
A major tourist attraction, around 20,000 tourists have already had two-humped camel safari on the sand dunes of Nobra this year, flipping local tourist economy significantly. These camels are shorter and fatter than their counterparts found in the plains of the country.
DEMAND FOR OPENING TRADITIONAL ROUTES
The murmurs for reopening of all traditional routes --- Kargil-Skardu, Turtuk-Gilgit-Baltistan and Leh-Xinjiang --- are getting shriller with each passing day.
"The reopening of the route will open a new chapter for the entire region. Tourism and trade will have the Ladakh region back as the corridor to many civilisations. Economy will get a boost," said Tsewang Rigzin, a councillor representing Desket area in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. Most council members support the demand.
Rigzin hopes that the reopening of trade routes will help make borders disappear from the minds of people.
"There is likelihood that the opening of routes will bring down the hostilities between India and China," he added.
Ladakh's prominent leader Nawang Rigzin Jora, a senior Congress leader and state minister, also favours opening of the Ladakh region to the outside world.
"Even today, as one travels on the route, there are human and animal skulls in the shape of caravan lying on the ground," said Jora.
While the unattended skulls are signs of the dead Silk Route, its revival can refashion the region's future and its fortune.