The Yarkand River: Tracing the Ancient Silk Route

The Yarkand River, also known as the Yarkent River or Yeh-erh-ch’iang Ho, is a river located in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of western China. Originating in the Siachen Muztagh of the Karakoram range, it flows northward until it reaches the foothills of the Kunlun Mountains. The river then changes course, flowing northwest and receiving the waters of the Shaksgam River, also known as the Keleqing River in its lower course, originating from the glaciers of the Karakoram range.

The Yarkand River continues its journey, cutting through the Bolor-Tagh mountains and forming an oasis in the Tarim Basin. This fertile oasis sustains the Yarkant county and neighboring areas, including Taxkorgan, Yecheng, Poskam, Makit, and Bachu counties.

In ancient times, the Yarkand River valley was an essential segment of the famous Silk Route. Traders and travelers followed this route from Aksu through Maral Bashi (Bachu) and Yarkand to the city of Yarkand itself. From there, the route crossed the Bolor-Tagh mountains and continued through the river valleys of Yarkand and Tashkurgan, reaching the town of Tashkurgan. The route then traversed the Karakoram mountains via one of the western passes to reach Gilgit in northern Kashmir and eventually extended to Gandhara, near present-day Peshawar.

With the Arab conquest of Khurasan in 651 AD, the primary Silk Route to western Asia was disrupted, elevating the importance of the South Asian route. Gilgit and Baltistan gained prominence in Chinese chronicles, and China invaded Gilgit in 747 AD to safeguard its routes to Gandhara and resist Tibetan influence. However, Turkic rule later prevailed in Gilgit.

During this time, alternative trade routes may have emerged, connecting Yarkand with Ladakh via the Karakash Valley. The region of Hunza, bordering Xinjiang and housing the passes through the Karakoram range, eventually became an independent state. Conflicts with Gilgit and neighboring Nagar became frequent.

The rise in the significance of the Ladakh route can be seen through the raids into Ladakh conducted by Mirza Abu Bakr Dughlat, who took control of Kashgaria in 1465. His successor, Sultan Said Khan, launched a full-scale invasion of Ladakh and Kashmir in 1532.

The Yarkand River played a pivotal role in the movement of goods, ideas, and culture along the ancient Silk Route. While modern developments have altered its course and flow, the river’s historical importance endures as a testament to the enduring human spirit of exploration, trade, and cultural exchange in the vast landscapes of Central Asia.

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