Karakoram Philately

The Wikipedia article on Mandi, a town in today’s Himachal Pradesh, refers to it as being once “on the trade route between Yarkand and Ladakh to Hoshiarpur.” There is an echo of this old route in the J&K stamp record:

If the lower line of the Persian on the cover below is to be believed, the cover originated at Yarkand, an oasis town near the edge of the Tarim Basin in Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang today, but forever Sinkiang to old stamp collectors). The letter saw delivery at Hoshiarpur some 55 days later. These two-month caravan treks on this dreadful and soul-destroying route suffered sad loss of animals through natural hazards, ill-treatment, and plain old hardship. Bandits also infested the high passes. The route was also something of a drug-runners’ line.

Yarkand to Leh to X to Hoshiarpur. Dated at Yarkand on 20 safar 1308 ~ 5 October 1890, the letter must have been borne across the 18,000' Karakoram pass and reached Hoshiarpur in India on 29 November, a total of 55 days and 1 anna. The pair of ¼a adhesives were affixed on 12 November 1890 at Leh where the letter entered the relative security of the J&K and British postal systems. The Dogri on the reverse contains 3 maghar 1947 ~ 17 November 1890, somewhere en route post-Leh, pre-Hoshiarpur. Do we read X = Mandavi (an old name of Mandi) in the Dogri notation? (Just grasping.) It would appear that the sender had British postal stationery at hand in anticipation for that final costly 17 days of the journey.

Three spellings: (left) az maqām yārkand ~ from station at Yarkand (from preceding cover) and (right) 9 māh sāvan az yarqand, a detail taken from a cover we saw on the internet before we knew about Yarkand and so missed bidding on it. Thus dated 23 July 1889, it took 69 days and a 1a red to reach Hoshiarpur. And yet a third spelling yarkant awaits us on the item below:

Third spelling Yarkant. An 1886 Yarkant to Leh to X to Hoshiarpur cover. The despatch date, if present, is not evident to us. The stamps were added on 27 October at Leh and the letter arrived at Hoshiarpur on 7 November. Again there is Dogri dating on the reverse that was added somewhere midway along that final leg of the journey, on 17 kātik 1943 ~ 1 November 1886. This is a rapid trip as these Yarkands seem to come. Rafts could sometimes be used to speed travel, but whether the mails ever took advantage of such we do not know.

The natural alternative, Yarkand-Leh-Srinagar, which was known as the “Treaty Road” after a commercial treaty signed in 1870, might also show up in the stamp record if we are vigilant. In any case, the trendy crowd does Karakoram Philately, and it behooves every Kashmir collector to rummage his Leh covers for more Yarqands or other exotic stations that have not so far been recognized in the J&K literature.

Here’s a map of the Chinese Turkestan section of the route, where Leh is off the map at the bottom. The more important names that show up going north from Leh (and still off the map) are Khardung La, Sasoma, Saser La, and Karakoram itself at 18200'. The route crosses over to the equally high Suget La (we’re on the map now) and just about to face a precipitous drop of nearly 7000' to Shahdulla below at only 11500'. A most welcome halt many days hence was had at bustling Karghlik, and finally Yarkand at a civilized 4000'.

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