Gilgit: Warm ties between Pakistan and China may have predisposed businessmen from Khyber to Karachi to trade with Pakistan’s northern neighbour, but here in Gilgit, there is another factor that makes the local traders looks north: Proximity.
The northern territory of Gilgit-Baltistan or GB, as it is locally known, borders China. The picturesque valleys of GB are where traders stop on their way to China across the border or returning from there. It is no surprise, then, that there is surfeit of Chinese goods in the local markets. And the one place that specializes is all things Chinese is the NLI market.
“Business is good because we deal in Chinese goods that people like and are easier to import from China,” says Rehmanullah whose shop has a variety of made-in-China items including beauty products and toiletries. “The reason buyers prefer Chinese goods is that they are cheaper compared to Pakistani items.”
Named after ‘The Northern Light Infantry’ or NLI regiment of Pakistan army, the market is where one can find Chinese goods from clothes to calculators. It is a favourite haunt for the technology savvy youth that like to look good wearing a Tissot wristwatch or brandishing the latest iPhone. It doesn’t matter if they are the first or second copy – fakes designed after the originals – as long as they resemble the real thing.
“China has made fashion egalitarian and affordable,” said Azhar, a tourist from Islamabad, who bought himself a cool pair of Ray Bans only for Rs 1400 ($14). “They also sell originals here but who wants a pair for Rs 20,000 when you can get one much cheaper.”
Rehmanullah, the young trader in the market, says his clientele consist of local men and women but tourists from Karachi and Punjab that usually flock the region in summer to escape the scorching heat of plains double the business. Most of the tourists that visit the region – nearly 0.6 million this summer, according to the GB tourism authorities – turn up at the market for shopping, says Rehmanullah.
“I try to visit the market for a few things whenever I come here,” said Akram Khan, a British national of Pakistani origin. “I have bought a couple of gifts for my family. It gives you some satisfaction when you take home goods that are foreign-made.”
With over 700 shops, the NLI market is situated at the heart of Gilgit city, the capital of Gilgit-Baltistan, a mountainous region with a population of 1.5 million people. Gilgit is about 600 kilometers from the Pakistani capital city of Islamabad.
The traders in Gilgit – connected to mainland Pakistan through long and arduous mountain roads or unreliable flights subject to weather conditions – would rather step across the border to get their goods than undertake the 1900 km journey to the port town of Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial heart, for 27 hours.
The market was built in 1992 to support families of soldiers and officers of the Northern Light Infantry. NLI is an infantry regiment of Pakistan army based in Gilgit, with the primary responsibility to protect the strategic northern areas that touch China, India and Afghanistan. The infantry, a paramilitary force till 1999, has a long history traced back to the native militia and scouts infantry raised by the local rulers of the region in early 20th century and trained by the British Indian Army. It was last in the news for its role in the 1999 Kargil War with India for which it was awarded the “Presidential Colours” and turned from a paramilitary force into a regular army unit.
When the army first started building the market, businessmen from the neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province already trading in Chinese goods like crockery, clothes, electronics, garments and toys jumped at the opportunity, knowing the market would be a hub for China related trade. Of the 300 shops constructed in first phase, over 80 percent were hired by businessmen from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“We started business here when he market was first opened,” Rehmanullah, who belongs to Khyber Pakhtunkwa, told News Lens.
In time, the market expanded with investment from the local businessmen. Today, nearly half of the shops in the market are run by businessmen from outside. An equal number of them have proprietors that are local to Gilgit-Baltistan.
“The prime objective of construction of NLI market was welfare of families that lost their loved ones for the country,” said Muhammad Nageen, an honorary lieutenant who is also caretaker of the market.
Besides two hostels, four army public schools are being run with the income from the market. The schools provide free education to orphan children of martyred soldiers and officers. At the heart of the NLI market is a memorial to martyrs of Gilgit Scouts.
The NLI management plans to expand the market in future but they don’t have exact figures of the locals and nonlocals that have rented the shops. “This is something we will be doing in future to keep the record straight,” Nageen tells News Lens.
Until recently, most of the trade between China and Gilgit-Baltistan took place via Karakoram Highway (KKH), the fabled Silk Road. It is the highest paved international road in the world connecting China and Pakistan across the Karakoram mountain range, through the Khunjerab Pass, at an elevation of 4,693 metres (15,397 ft). Due to its high altitude and the difficult conditions under which it was built, it is often referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
However the formation of an accidental lake – now known as Attabad Lake – due to a massive landslide in 2010 severed the land connection between the two countries for five years. About 24 kilometers of the highway were submerged in the lake disrupting traffic on KKH that connects China’s Xinjiang region with Pakistan’s Gilgit–Baltistan.
In the wake of the Attabad disaster that displaced 6000 people from local villages, all trade shifted from the Sust town in Gilgit-Baltistan to Islamabad. Sust is the last town inside Pakistan territory bordering China and a dry port for goods from and going to China, with Pakistani immigration and customs departments based there. While this hasn’t affected the business here, there are traders who prefer to get their goods through mainland Pakistan.
“We bring most of the Chinese goods via Islamabad,” says Khair Khan, a trader-shopkeeper who sells imported coats, jackets and travel bags. “The customs duty on imported goods at Sust dry port is higher compared to other places.”
The sale of warm clothes peaks from October to March when the region – home to the some of the highest mountain peaks including K-2, the second highest in the world – freezes over.
My business is good throughout but it gets better October onwards,” says Khan, who is from Swat in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.