Until the beginning of the 8th century CE, Baltistan was a country inhabited by the Indo-European Shin tribe. This was a time when the superpowers of the region were China and Tibet, both vying for supremacy in High Asia. Only shortly before, the Chinese had ousted the Tibetans from what is now the Chinese province of Xinjiang. But then the T’ang Dynasty was briefly interrupted by the New Zhou Dynasty (690-705) and Chinese imperial aspirations were laid low for the time being.
Emboldened by the situation, the Tibetans began to expand westward. They annexed Ladakh and following the Sindhu River reached Baltistan. For the next five decades this country remained under their firm control. Intermarriages between the new comers and the original tribes were common to such an extent in the next fifty years that there arose a race of a fine mix of Aryan and Tibetan blood — the current people of Baltistan. It was for this reason that an anthropologist of the mid-twentieth century called Baltistan ‘a living anthropological museum’.
The original Shina, the language of the Shins that sounds so very like Kashmiri and Punjabi, was almost completely swamped out of existence by Tibetan. Modern Balti, spoken over most of Baltistan, is therefore an archaic form of Tibetan. Shina continues to hold out in pockets across the country, however.
Aside: until some years ago Balti was under threat. Then one proud Balti — and he has my deepest gratitude — Hussain Singghe, worked very hard to revive the old Tibetan script. It is now coming back into vogue and signs in the streets of Skardu and Khaplu are frequently written in the old script.
Not content with holding Baltistan alone, the Tibetans expanded westward. They took Gilgit and advancing along the Ghizer River, went up the Yasin valley. The head of this valley, north of the little village of Darkot, is blocked by a huge mass of snowy mountains. In their midst there hangs a glacier among several others which can be traversed due north to reach what we now know as Upper Chitral.
The icy grip of the Darkot Glacier gives way in the north to an area that suddenly reminds one of the title Bam-e-Dunya — Roof of the World — that the high Pamirs are known by. Here on the fringe of the Pamirs, the landscape consists of rolling downs, lakes and peaks which, after the jagged towering crags of the Yasin valley, seem deceptively low giving one the impression of being on the roof. The rock wall to the north is cleaved by a saddle that has for a very long time been known as the Broghal Pass.
It was to this country that the Tibetans came by way of Yasin and Darkot. Then across the 3,800-metres-high saddle of Broghal, they reached Wakhan, the home of Tajik and Kirghiz herdsmen. Here in the bleak and wind-scoured landscape where the Oxus River is but a piddling stream, the Tibetans established a large garrison to stake out their claim to the land.
Time went by and far away in the east, China was once again peaceful under the brilliant new T’ang king Xuanzong. Turkestan was in control and the Chinese knew that their adversaries, the Tibetans, had annexed Baltistan and maintained a garrison in the high Pamirs. If they were permitted to remain in this region, the hardy warriors of the Tibetan highlands were very likely to attempt to sneak into Turkestan by, in a manner of speaking, the back door.
That was not acceptable. And so in the winter of 746-747 the capital of Chang’an (Xian on modern maps) saw a flurry of meetings between the emperor and one of his most able generals, Kao Hsin-Chih. Interestingly, the general was not Chinese but Korean. If the western border was to be secured, the Tibetans, it was resolved, needed to be routed from their Wakhan strongholds. General Kao, so the emperor ordained, was to lead a cavalry division, ten thousand strong, mounted to the man, into the vast tundra of the Pamirs to overthrow the Tibetans.
And as the snows of winter gave way to the verdure of spring in the year 747, the emperor’s army gathered under the watchful eye of General Kao Hsin-Chih in the fortress of Chang’an.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 27th, 2011.