Portering Relations and Transcultural Interactions in Northern Pakistan

Department of Geography

Portering Relations and Transcultural Interactions in Northern Pakistan


Pakistan's Karakoram mountains are often described as among the world's highest and least accessible. Yet most Karakoram societies are located close to ancient trade routes, including the famed Silk Road. And since the mid 19th century (between 1835 and 1876), Karakoram communities have had regular visits from European soldiers and adventurers, many of whom sought to explore those territories that were removed from well-travelled trade routes. To this day many foreign visitors to the Karakoram (from adventure tourists to rural development workers) seek experiences that cannot be found in the main towns. To a large extent, these visitors to and through the Karakoram relied (and often still do) on local porters (coolies, "sherpas") to transport them and their possessions through rugged and roadless terrain, and to the tops of mountains. For much of the history of European and pre-European contact portering arrangements were mainly subsidiary to traditional corvée obligations to local chiefs. Throughout the 20th century a more autonomous economy of portering emerged, which nevertheless retains elements of its origins in corvée labour.


The research project is motivated by an awareness that, given the above, portering relations have significantly shaped - perhaps dominated - transcultural (insider/outsider) interaction in the Karakoram region. This is especially true of the British period, but also of times before and since. Our main goal, therefore, is to demonstrate how contact structured by portering relations has shaped transcultural interactions in the Karakoram region, historically and presently, and to describe the geographical constitution of those interactions. By transcultural interactions we mean the material relations of contact, and the ideological representations, or discursive formations, that each group takes away from an interaction and brings to subsequent interactions. Four explicit objectives inform the overall goal:

  • to describe the instrumental political economy of portering in two settings within the Karakoram region, from European contact to the present (e.g., porter regulation, recruitment, remuneration, working conditions, modes of resistance);
  • to delineate the historical development of specific discursive configurations, indigenous and external, as they provide instrumental portering relations with an ideological context (e.g., communalism, honour, hospitality, masculinity, femininity, clan solidarity, racial superiority, imperialism, civilisation, capitalism, science);
  • to explain how new discourses (e.g., adventure tourism, sustainable development, indigenous self-determination) recreate portering as a critical site for shaping relations of contact; and
  • to delineate, at a micro-scale, the spatial distribution and geographical constitution of transcultural relations - both material and ideological - in two Karakoram villages (e.g., spatial sites of interaction, contestation, domination and resistance).

The work my co-investigators (Ken MacDonald and Kathryn Besio) and I  have been undertaking since 1995 to achieve these objectives contributes a theoretically informed and empirically based geography of contemporary transcultural relations and transcultural discourses in the contact zone. While studies outside of the discipline are frequently implicitly geographical, our study makes explicit the geographical constitution of these relations and discourses. To the extent that an analysis of portering provides a microcosm from which to gain insight into other areas of North/South discursive interaction, it informs geographical understanding of North/South struggles more generally. In addition, the research comprises the only detailed comparative and regional-scale examination of transcultural relations in the Karakoram region, and one of the few studies of portering. Far from purely academic, the knowledge we create is useful for those Pakistani and international organisations, and indigenous communities, who seek to manage adventure tourism to the advantage of Karakoram societies.

Trekking porter - Baltistan
Trekking porter resting - Baltistan, Pakistan