The periphery is now in demand, and the Baltis have got ideas.cr
Billed a primitive place, unchanged, isolated, remote, with the greatest concen tration of high mountain peaks in the world and the longest glaciers outside the polar areas, Baltistan actually has for centuries been the crossroads for trade and for Asian religions: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. (Baltistan´s ´capital´, Skardu, or Iskaraldu, is said to have been founded by Alexander and the name of the town derived from the name he is known in this part of the world, Iskander/Sikander.) Despite their illustrious past, however, the Baltis today remain at the periphery of the Pakistani nation-state, their voices smothered under the cries of the plains Pakistanis.
Baltistan is more easily recognised in the West than it is in Pakistan itself.The adventurous Pakistani tourist who makes it up the Karakorum Highway to Gilgit in his 800 cc diminutive Suzuki car (the Mehran) and then along the Rondu gorge to Skardu is more impressed by the number of Westerners about than by the mountains. They delight in having their photographs taken with foreigners.
Distance, however, is a limiting factor, for it is a two-day trip to Skardu and few city bred Suzuki owners will risk their cars on the weather-plagued roads. When planes do fly during patches of good weather, foreign tour groups manage to command priority as they spend hard currency.
But distance does not prevent all desirable consumer goods from making it to Skardu´s bazaar. Imported soft drinks, Pakistani soft drinks, confectionery and chocolate biscuits are all available at premium prices. Like Namche Bazaar in the Nepal Himalaya, Skardu´s shops stock a variety of imported tinned foodstuffs and clothing sold to local merchants by departing climbing expeditions.
Barley and bitter buckwheat, the two crops traditionally grown at high altitude, have now been supplanted by higher-yielding wheat. What is not grown locally is imported from the plains at subsidised rates. Cash-cropping steadily creeps northwards, as turnips and cabbages are grown in rotation with the now widespread potatoes. Was George Orwell correct when he said in The Road to Wigan Pier that a change in diet was more important than a change in dynasty? The eclipse of barley coincided with both the importation of subsidised wheat and the assumption of central control over the petty rajas of the region.
Goats and sheep, once kept for their role as dung machines to replenish soil fertility, are now sold for meat in the bazaars. While yaks roam the high altitude pastures well above 3000 metres, the demand for meat is such that old oxen – some even obtained illicitly from India – are trucked up from Punjab and slaughtered in Skardu.
The net result of the conversion to a cash economy has been that the local Baltis are much more at the mercy of outside middlemen. These traders, mostly Chilasis from further down the Indus or Pushtuns from elsewhere in northern Pakistan, often clash over commercial territory, or the monopoly over brokering certain products. Periodic clashes between outsiders and locals are common. In the increasingly sectarian politics of Pakistan, these altercations take on a more sinister tone because the intrusive traders are Sunni Muslims and the Baltis are mostly Shias.
The Canadian cultural geographer Ken MacDonald has documented how Baltis were perceived by Europeans at the turn of the century. Their image then was of a people who hardly belonged to the human race. That model has now changed.
From being colonial dependents of the British a hundred years ago, in addition to being the subjects of local petty despots who forced them into corvee labour and tithing, MacDonald sees the Baltis now becoming the subjects of the ´neo-colonialist´ – the foreign tourists, trekking groups and climbing expeditions, as well as world travellers checking out another place in their Lonely Planet guides.
The direct exposure to foreigners whose goal is the Karakorum mountains, along with increasing direct links to extra-territorial culture through satellite TV, means that Baltis can leapfrog over the efforts of Islamabad to make them obedient servants of the state. Foreign attention means they now have a global clientele to lobby for their interests, and access to global culture raises aspirations for a consumer lifestyle far beyond their current capabilities. Both the local elites, many of whom are remnants of the petty states, and the military-administrative officials (in substantial numbers because of the continuing carnage in Kashmir) now have to deal with sophisticated Baltis who can get by in English, French, German and a smattering of Japanese.
The Baltis, almost singularly identified because of their Tibetan language connection, now find it possible to promote their ethnicity by the territory they occupy. Once seen to belong to the locational periphery, the frontier, by the British (and one might add, by their ´primitiveness´), and on the political periphery by the dominant Punjabi culture of Pakistan, the Baltis are capturing the attention of the outer world through their accessibility from roads, airwaves and the skies.