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Trading routes to China across the Himalaya and attendant ranges - Kibithoo to Karakorum

Trading routes to China across the Himalaya and attendant ranges- Kibithoo to Karakorum

The Himalaya are 2700 kms or so long and about 300 kms wide range between the Big Bend of the Tsangpo in the SE and the Big Bend of the Indus in the NW. This immense chain had first to be crossed to trade with China. There were other ranges sandwiching the Himalaya to be crossed. From the Tsangpo bend just across Yingkiong district in Arunachal in the north east till Lipu Lekh pass on the E.Kumaon-Tibet border the Himalaya stand unchallenged. But further west from Lipu Lekh Pass in Uttaranchal to near Demchok in Ladakh runs another 700 kms or so long range north of the Himalaya called the Zanskar. Beyond is the approximately 800 kms long Ladakh or Kailash range that starts from Mount Kailash and ends NW of Leh. Across this range, from within the first V bend of the Shyok, and to the NE of it starts the about 800 kms long Karakorum range traversing the north of the sub continent in a largely E to W direction. Karakorum means black rock but a better name would have been Muztag, which means white and is the dominant colour here. In the NE of India a subsidiary range of the Himalaya, starts at the Brahmaputra bend from across the border in Yingkiong district of Arunachal Pradesh and carries on under different names till beyond Kunming in SW China. Trade routes to China pierced this topographical tangle in countless places.

Kibithoo, in Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh, is the easternmost and lowest direct route into Tibet, China. Karakorum pass in the north of Ladakh is the highest usable route to Sinkiang, China.

The greater portion of Tibet's population lives in the 100 to 160 kms broad belt to its south on either side of the Brahmaputra, the Satluj and the Indus. Beyond it are the Transhimlaya which are a series of ranges like Nyen Chen Tang la and Surnge which have many high passes over 19,000 ft. Across is the 4500 – 5000 m high lake-dotted plateau called the Changthang, where salt, good wool and gold used to be in plenty. The south eastern part of Tibet being the most populous, trade used to head for those parts. The most scenic, most interesting geographically, and the most exciting trade routes, however, were through western Tibet. Perhaps because the Tibetans a century and more ago were not keen to encourage trade through Jelep la or Nathu La or Bum La in large volumes. Today its different. The Chinese want to reopen many trade routes. With Pakistan they got quick access (in four days to Karachi port) for Kashgar and Yarland in Sinkiang by piercing a 7 month open road through the Aghil and Karakorum mountains and over the Khunjerab pass. They would be delighted when they get access to Kolkatta through Nathu La in Sikkim and so would the people in Sikkim and West Bengal.

Some of the trade routes from NE to NW to Tibet & Sinkiang are listed below. Of these only 2 are functioning officially but both countries goods continue to flow across the borders from several places. {Nearest collection of dwellings in Tibet are in italics & are underlined }:


  1. Dibrugarh-Tezu-Walong-Kibithoo (at 1371m - it is the lowest crossing point into Tibet from India)-Kahao- along the Lohit river which enters India here-Rima, a large town, just 10 kms or so away from the border- Chamdo (3243 m). The famous Rima Gap where within 100 kms the Salween, the Mekong, and the Yangtse flow is not far from here. This the shortest {Tinsukia to Tezu = 137 kms; Tezu to Hayuliyang=103 kms; Hayuliyang to Walong=103 kms; Walong – Kibithoo= 30 kms; Kibithoo-Kahao=1.6 kms} and will be the fastest route to the Tibetan border from the Indian plains once the bridge over the Lohit near Tezu is finished. Its already taken 20 years! Reviving of this trade will immensely improve the economy of this area.
  2. Dibrugarh-Ledo-Pangsau Pass (937 m)-Mytkina (Burma)- Kunming (Yunan, China). The WW II Ledo road to Kunming already has a solid foundation. It requires clearing of trees growing on it and resurfacing and it will be ready within a couple of years. Both Kunming and Calcutta are about 1700 kms by road from Ledo.
  3. Dibrugarh-Roing-Anini-Mipi-Yongop La or Zeklu La- (all around 3000m) to Shuden Gompa (4175 m approx) ; (To the Idu Mishmis here Tibet is known as the place where the rivers are silent).
  4. North Lakhimpur-Along-(or directly from Assam via Passighat too) –Yingkiong-Tuting (590 m)-Gelling (1220 m)-Kepang La (1915 m) directly N of Gelling or Guyor La (1760 m) via Bishing and Korbo - Kemteng-Gya Dzong (2775 m)(Shimong Adis who inhabit this region are Lhobas in Tibet. In the village of Mankhota (1120 m) on the Yangsang chu near the border live some Khamba families from Tibet )
  5. North Lakhimpur-Along-Mechuka (1890 m): means place of medicine water that rises from the snows - up the Yagyap chu- Nepar la or Nyug La (4700 m approx.)-Migyitun-Kyim Dzong (There's a Kaying-Tato-Mechuka motor road now); (Pachakshiri Membas who inhabit this region are known as Moinbas in Tibet)
  6. North Lakhimpur-Dapporijo-Nacho- Taksing (2400 m)-Limeking-Lhontse Dzong (This was one of the routes through which till about 40 years earlier amongst other goods Tibetan ornaments esp. brass carved bells known locally as majes used to be got- now its textiles on rare occasions)
  7. Tezpur-Bomdila- Tawang-Bum la (4332 m)-Tsona Dzong (this is very close to Bhutan and Chinese goods in large quantities are being brought in through adjacent Mele La in Bhutan. Lhasa is about 600 kms away.)


  1. Gangtok-Nathu la (4420 m)- Yatung in Chumbi valley-Paro Dzong-Gyantse-Lhasa (3607 m). The closest port for Lhasa is Kolkatta only about 1400 kms away. The Chinese are keen on opening up the Nathu la route. From Lhasa Shanghai is more than 4000 kms away. Yangon about 2500 kms.
  2. Gangtok- Giagong- Kongra La (5231 m)- Khamba Dzong (4637 m)-…Shigatse


  1. Pithoragarh-Tawaghat-Garbyang (villages on this route that were dying have revived and old houses are looking sturdy once again. Some old customs of serais in homes have started again) -Lipu Lekh (5453 m) (This is one of the two official trade routes open now. The Customs station is at Garbyang 30 kms before Lipu Lekh)- Taklakot (where now there is an Indian and Nepali market)-Darchen
  2. Munsiari-Milam (a large village of attractive houses with patiently and tastefully carved doors and windows that was inhabited till 1982 is now abandoned and a lot of history is over)-Unta Dhura-Topidunga (4500 m) (till this point foreigners are being allowed in for treks)-Kungribingri La (5357 m)- Gyanima mandi- Tirthapuri (which is on the River Satluj)-Gartok (on the Lhasa-Sinkiang highway & on the River Garlung, which is a tributary of the Indus). Soon after this trade route was closed in the 1960s Milam was evacuated and is now a ghost town.
  3. Joshimath-Bara Hoti Plains-Niti Pass (5060 m)- Dapa Gompa-Tralung-Misser-Tirthapuri Gompa;
  4. Joshimath-Badrinath-Mana pass (5608 m)-Tsaparang-or Totling Gompa-(to Gartok also)-or Tralung Uttarkashi-Harsil-Jadh Ganga valley- Tsangchok la-Tsaparang-Gartok


  1. Sangla-Chitkul-Yamrang La (5487 m)- {or Uttarkashi-Harsil-Lamkhaga La-Yamrang la}-Tollingmath-or-Tsaparang-Gartok. From colonial times till 1950 duty used to be levied on goods crossing the border. This had forced people to use little known & dangerous routes like this one, which passed through a valley nick named Chor Gad.
  2. Kalpa-Moirang-Khimokul la (4331 m)- Tsaparang- Shangtse-Gartok.
  3. Shimla-Kalpa-Pooh-Shipk la (4000 m) (on the Hindustan – Tibet road and for centuries was one of the 4 most prominent trade routes along the entire border. It is open again. This is the 2nd route which has a Customs station and is right on the pass)-Shipki vlg.- Kuukh (earlier parts of Spiti and of Western Tibet till Tsaparang-Tolingmath were part of one kingdom known as Kuukh)-Lopchak bridge-Karkuncham (Hqrs of Chumurti distt.)-Nortok [where there's a 18th C stone marking a trade treaty between the kings of Rampur Bushair (where the Lavi fair, attended by traders from Tibet, Central Asia and our plains used to be held every November) and of Kukh]- or Tsaparang or Gartok. This route continued to be used even after 1962.
  4. Kalpa-Pooh-Sumdoh-Kaurik- in an isolated part Tibet which is the only one across the Zanskar range- Ramdo in the NE and Chagla Sumdo in the north on the Pare Chu thence SSE for about 70 kms to Gartok or 50 kms NNW to Tashigong where the river Indus meetsthe Garlung, and which is 35 kms by motorable road from Demchok in Ladakh. {Another approach via Chumar (see #22 ) in Ladakh} Difficult terrain and this route is good for local trading only.


  5. Leh-Nyoma (4207 m)-Dumchulle (4412 m)-Rudok on the south bank of Nyak Tso, which is a continuation of Ladakh's Pangong Tso, Leh-Nyoma-Demchok (4322 m)-Tashigong and along the Indus to the east to Thok Yalung gold fields (16330') in Tibet's Changthang or High Plateau.
  6. Leh-Nyoma-Tiggar-Kyun la (or via Hanle too)-Chumar on the Pare chu river which flows into Tibet from here (this leads to an extremely isolated & backward corner of Tibet for which getting supplies from India will be most convenient.)- Chagla Sumdo.
  7. Leh-Nyoma- Tcahaga- (& also via Chang la-Chushul to)- Tchaga la (5060 m)- Rudok.
  8. Leh- Khardung la-Nubra-Saser La-Daulat Beg Oldi-Karakorum (5579 m) –Balti Brangsa- Wahab Jilga- Kashgar and Yarkand in Sinkiang, which are now being supplied with a lot of their essentials through Mintaka pass on the Karakorum highway from Gilgit in Pakistan. It is also the shortest way to a sea port for this part of China.) It was a difficult 32 days trek to Yarkand and 40 days to Kashgar from here.Yet about half a hundred caravans used to go every summer and autumn in both directions. During those days it made economic sense to have trade links with North India through KP as it was the most convenient route – even for Haj pilgrims who preferred to go via Leh, Srinagar, and Bombay. These days the Sinkiang highway to Pakistan over the Khunjerab pass gets a truck to Karachi in 4 days from Kashgar for 7 months of the year. This has reduced the economic viability of the Karakoram pass route, which if reopened with a motorable road, can be of only local significance but could be an outlet for jade from Khotan. Other routes in Ladakh are more favourable and are still popular for cross border trade. Rudok about a days drive now from Leh is a very big town, and it could get lot of its essentials from India rather than from thousands of kilometers away from China.

It is in Ladakh that the affects of Chinese economic offensive can be brazenly seen. At the Moti Market in Leh Chinese goods are sold in about 50 shops. In the Changthang the Changpa shepherds tending their pashmina flock close to the border buy Chinese jackets, jeans, cutlery, confectionery, torches and thermos flasks from bazaars located conveniently nearby. And officialdom still has not woken up.

Related Information:

Chinese have a Singkiang - Lhasa Highway running north of and quite close to very nearly the entire Himalaya from east of Sikkim. Communities on the south of Himalaya in India are keen to resume traditional trade links with China.
There were Trade Agents till 1952 in Tezu in Lohit District of east Arunachal & Rima in Tibet's Pemyangtse or Pemako district.
The following 29 goods can be "exported freely" to China as border barter trade through the only two Land Customs Stations (Garbyang in Uttaranchal and Shipki La in Himachal) open so far along the entire Indo-China border:

  1. Agricultural implements;
  2. Blankets;
  3. Copper Products;
  4. Clothes;
  5. Textiles;
  6. Cycles;
  7. Coffee;
  8. Tea;
  9. Barley;
  10. Rice;
  11. Flour;
  12. Dry Fruit;
  13. Dry & fresh vegetables;
  14. Vegetable oil;
  15. Gur and Misri;
  1. Tobacco;
  2. Snuff;
  3. Cigarettes;
  4. Canned food;
  5. Agro Chemical;
  6. Local herbs;
  7. Dyes;
  8. Spices;
  9. Watches;
  10. Shoes;
  11. Kerosene oil;
  12. Stationery;
  13. Utensils; &
  14. Wheat (Ua & buck).
This is according to India's Export Trade Control Public Notice No. 5(PN)/92-97 issued on 20th of July, 1992.

INFORMALLY there are now many more goods to trade with than could have been dreamt of by the drafters of this notification. e.g. coarse wool, pashm wool, tiger eye & other precious and semi precious stones, gold pellets, daggers, boots, hats, blankets, quilts, jeans, jackets, fur caps, felt hats, inverters, electronic equipment, cycles, foot wear, confectionery, crockery, thermos flasks, raw meat (during winter in Ladakh), saddles, yaks, and horses come into India and liquor esp. rum, medicines (large quantity of Indian medicines go through Kyrghystan and Kazakhstan to Sinkiang), woollen carpets, tea, utensils, petrol and diesel, car parts, tool kits, solar panels, shawls, bicycles & sometimes even cement bags go from India.

In Ladakh the Chinese indirectly finance dumping of their goods by giving long-term interest free credit. They demand payment only after the goods have been sold by their Indian customers. For Indian goods they pay in Rupees immediately on delivery. In Leh's Moti Market, across the road from the spacious campus of the Intelligence Bureau about 50 shops sell largely Chinese goods. Amongst their faithful buyers are uniformed personnel too.

The goods that are now in demand are no longer traditional, and demand for traditional goods like wool is now on a commercial scale. No longer is it only for local use by cross border communities. The routes and methods of carrying these goods is however still largely traditional. Earlier needs were few and localized thus salt e.g. used to be a very important item to be brought in. Now as can be seen from the list above preferences have outstripped basic needs.

Despite our bureaucracy's whimsical reluctance to acknowledge it Indian goods are going to China and Chinese goods are being brought in large quantities all along the border, and China monitors this trade quite closely.

It's not only for Lhasa that the Chinese could be interested in opening up trade routes with India. They want traditional trade routes connecting each part of Tibet that has filial and old trade links with India to be resumed. This way they can ensure cheaper supplies. Providing these from mainland China takes time and is expensive. This situation will not be affected much even when the Sikang – Lhasa rail link is opened.

With the opening of the Lohit Bridge via Wakhro and to the East of Tezu, India now has the ONLY all weather, all year round, road to China via Zayui (Rima) in Tibet. This road links up with those leading to Chengdu (Sechuwan) and Kunming (Yunan). What an immense trade and tourism possibility.

Across the border areas of Sikkim & Arunachal there are more populated areas in Tibet than across the border in the NW and yet very little trade activity. According to an old treaty, people living on either side of the Indo-China border are allowed to go fairly deep into each other's territory. Tho' no Chinese come to our side, many Indians used to go far inside Tibet at least across Shipki La (7 days march inside) till 2002. In 2003 they were not allowed to go beyond Shipki village, which is 1.5 kms inside Tibet. The reason was that people from these nearby villages have become smart. They want to have their yaks and horses hired to take these goods further into Tibet. DATE: 26.1.2005