Gemstone mining in Pakistan dates back to the ancient times when the caravans travelling through the Silk Route bartered goods against the precious stones in Northern areas of present day Pakistan. The legendary Silk Route entered Pakistan along the banks of river Indus from far eastern valleys of Skardu and traversed through the mountainous regions ultimately leaving through the Wakhan gateway into Central Asia.
Interestingly, the mining techniques utilized back in those days are still prevalent to this day albeit with little improvement. The hardware which predominantly consisted of metal crowbars and sledge hammers have now been replaced by pneumatic drills operated via portable air compressors. These heavy machines are sometimes carried both by mules and miners to altitudes as high as 2000 vertical meters deep into the gemstone mines.
Pakistan Explorer team had a chance to dig deeper into the indigenous mining fraternity in the northern areas only to find out that much of the gemstones mines are owned and operated by the locals and government has little or no jurisdiction over the operation or produce of these mines.
Travelling along the Gilgit-Skardu road along the banks of river Indus, small hamlets like Shengus and Stak Nala have a rich concentration of gemstone mines, producing high quality Peridot, Topaz, Aquamarine and even Emeralds. Old mining techniques, however, are delivering considerable damage to the gemstones obtained through these outdated techniques.
Our guide, a resident of Shengus, informed us that the ownership of these mines is decided on first-come-first-serve basis, meaning whoever pitches first hammer on a potential mine location has absolute ownership of that mine and its produce.
Normally a potential mine location is ascertained by digging along the fault lines in the rock formation. These fault lines which are clearly visible and mark the pressure point of two different rocks during ancient tectonic movement. This is typically the region where different minerals and rocks turn into gemstones or Metamorphic Rocks when they are subjected to extreme pressure and temperatures. For instance, Limestone turns into Marble when subjected to extreme pressure. Similarly, Sandstone into Quartz, Carbon into Diamond, Coal into Graphite etc. Almost all of these Metamorphic Rocks are found along the pressure zones distinctively visible with white lines on the rock formations.
Through locally installed wenches, Pakistan Explorer team crossed over to the other side of the Indus into the lawless Bunji district of Kohistan to further explore the mines. Deep into the gorges and along the dried up flash flood channels, the miners have built small settlements comprising of compact burrows like structure using rocks and stones. These burrows are used for residential purposes during the mining season and are abandoned when the work is finished.
Often the mines are located on a vertical rock wall with straight drop into the raging Indus and can only be accessed via harnesses and ropes utilizing all the absurdly wrong ways of using the gear. There is no emergency medical assistance available and death by accident during mining season is a common occurrence.
Later, our guide took us to his humble abode where he revealed a treasure trove of gemstones loosely secured in old newspapers and paper bags. Specimen as big as 6-inches still attached to mother stones were on display and for sale in small shady shops which they called showrooms.
Apart from what was on display, every local resident had another stockpile of gemstones safely tucked away in their homes away from the general public and only for the high-end foreign clients often seen roaming in these valleys.
Some of the precious gemstones obtained from this area include Peridot (Golden and Champagne), Aquamarine (blue and white), Topaz, Emerald, Tourmaline, Apatite, Sphene, Morganite, and Quartz.