Hunza matters – Ordering and bordering between old and new Silk Roads

Since the mid-19th century, boundary-making in the Pamirian Crossroads had involved the redefining of contested spheres of influence between Great Britain and Russia. This ordering and bordering resulted in increasing exploration activities, followed by military missions.

Remote mountain microstates that had enjoyed a comparatively high degree of autonomy from their immediate neighbours – Badakhshan, Kashgaria and Kashmir – became centres of geopolitical attention, bones of contention, and testing grounds for bilateral loyalty. In the Karakoram, incorporation of the Hunza Valley into the British-Kashmirian realm followed a successful military intervention, control measures and a strategy aiming to establish indirect rule. The colonial project has significantly affected living conditions in the Hunza Valley until today.

‘Hunza matters’ addresses the transformation processes from four perspectives. First, the physical infrastructure and its transformation are analysed from an accessibility and road perspective. Significant efforts were expended on opening up the mountain passes for cross-boundary exchange. Initially, pack animals and porterage were involved in covering difficult mountain terrain and crossing high passes. Major expeditions such as the Croisière Jaune failed in their attempts to cross the Karakoram via the Hunza Valley in 1931. Prior to the advent of motor transport, blueprints for daring geostrategic projects emerged, shedding light on early plans for connecting British India with China by motor road in order to provide logistical support to General Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang in the final years of World War II. It would take much longer than envisaged to construct the Karakoram Highway: it opened in 1978 and connected South with Central Asia by a modern artery. The latest stage of infrastructure development is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, again leading through the Hunza Valley: literally the Karakoram Highway 4.0. Second, environmental resource exploitation and connected utilisation strategies have changed over time. Emphasis has shifted from a predominantly agriculture-based economy providing a substantial share of local sustenance towards a market-oriented income generation including extractivism, remittances and services. Third, bordering and ordering is strongly linked to actors and factors that provide the context for power relationships in a challenging environment where distance and remoteness could be perceived as strongly interrelated with hierarchical power structures, religious affiliations and levels of freedom and intervention. Fourth, new light is shed on prevalent myths that are associated with the Hunza Valley. Beginning with Alexander the Great and the Silk Roads, a certain opaque perception is connected with peculiar traits and an exceptionalism that is rooted in narratives about culture contact, longevity, peace and justice. A developmentalism discourse attributes modernity and progress to a unique constellation based on equality and community spirit, neglecting the impact of migration and multilocal household settings. Finally, interested parties have developed a Chinese occupation narrative that has existed longer than the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.  All four perspectives are displayed on the basis of archival evidence that has been collected from a wide range of sources, augmented by empirical material collected during four decades.

Hermann Kreutzmann

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