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Of Captains and Khans

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Many years ago, when it was possible to do such things, I hitchhiked to India. I travelled through Iran and Afghanistan, saw the Great Buddhas at Bamiyan, and rode through the Khyber Pass on the roof of a brilliantly painted truck with my hair blowing in the wind. Later, as the world changed and carefree travel became more difficult, I came across Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game (1990) and was thrilled to read about the adventures of the first western travellers to those regions in the nineteenth century.

Of course, those travellers were more serious-minded than I was, and their travels were often a matter of life or death. The young men (they were invariably men) whose tales Hopkirk tells, mainly British and Russian, operated in Central Asia and up into the Pamirs as explorers, spies, mapmakers, soldiers, and often all four at once. Many wrote books which Hopkirk brilliantly synthesizes, describing their successes, scrapes and disasters, and he also dug deep into Foreign Office and other archives. It’s gripping, page-turning stuff, as colourfully written as fiction, with a cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter. It’s also a revelatory depiction of the behaviour of the colonizing powers in an era when they believed the world was theirs for the taking – and of some of the occasions on which they met with their comeuppance.

The story encompasses places that I was fortunate enough to visit some years after that first youthful trip, such as the marvellous cities of the Silk Road. It begins with Prince Alexander Bekovich, sent by Peter the Great in 1717 to propose an alliance with the Khan of the glorious, pink-walled city of Khiva. The Khan however had other ideas. Many years later my Khivan guide Ali gleefully showed me the place on the Great Gate where Bekovich’s head had been hung.

The impassable deserts and mountain wastes of

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Many years ago, when it was possible to do such things, I hitchhiked to India. I travelled through Iran and Afghanistan, saw the Great Buddhas at Bamiyan, and rode through the Khyber Pass on the roof of a brilliantly painted truck with my hair blowing in the wind. Later, as the world changed and carefree travel became more difficult, I came across Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game (1990) and was thrilled to read about the adventures of the first western travellers to those regions in the nineteenth century.

Of course, those travellers were more serious-minded than I was, and their travels were often a matter of life or death. The young men (they were invariably men) whose tales Hopkirk tells, mainly British and Russian, operated in Central Asia and up into the Pamirs as explorers, spies, mapmakers, soldiers, and often all four at once. Many wrote books which Hopkirk brilliantly synthesizes, describing their successes, scrapes and disasters, and he also dug deep into Foreign Office and other archives. It’s gripping, page-turning stuff, as colourfully written as fiction, with a cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter. It’s also a revelatory depiction of the behaviour of the colonizing powers in an era when they believed the world was theirs for the taking – and of some of the occasions on which they met with their comeuppance. The story encompasses places that I was fortunate enough to visit some years after that first youthful trip, such as the marvellous cities of the Silk Road. It begins with Prince Alexander Bekovich, sent by Peter the Great in 1717 to propose an alliance with the Khan of the glorious, pink-walled city of Khiva. The Khan however had other ideas. Many years later my Khivan guide Ali gleefully showed me the place on the Great Gate where Bekovich’s head had been hung. The impassable deserts and mountain wastes of Central Asia separated two great empires – that of Russia to the north and, to the south, India, held by the British East India Company, a formidable force with its own army, until it was dissolved in 1858 and India became the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. For the British the great question was whether a Russian army might cross these harsh expanses and swoop down to take India. Both they and the Russians also wanted to find new markets for trade and to expand their territory and spheres of influence. This made it vital to map these vast regions and negotiate their way around the potentates who ruled them. It was a daunting task, one which needed a specific sort of person to attempt it. You had to be young, fearless, hugely resourceful and so fluent in at least some of the languages of the region that even native speakers wouldn’t realize that you were an intruder, while fully aware that if you were caught your government would disown you. You also had to be familiar with eastern protocol. Lashings of charm were a useful attribute. And sometimes, as in the case of Bekovich, you might have all these qualities and still they wouldn’t save you. The earliest British adventurers, Captain Charles Christie and Lieutenant Henry Pottinger, satisfied all these requirements. Setting out in 1810 to explore the unmapped deserts of Baluchistan, Christie disguised himself as a Tartar horse-dealer, this being a world where horses were all-important and horse-dealers, it seems, two a penny. It took all his resources to avoid exposure which, as Hopkirk reminds us, meant instant death. Eventually he reached the spectacular walled city of Herat, the first westerner ever to do so. He described the villages and gardens with admiration but, as a military man, he thought the city’s multiple moats and massive walls ‘very contemptible as a fortification’. Meanwhile the 20-year-old Pottinger, disguised as a holy man, had set off on a 900-mile journey across Baluchistan and Persia, travelling through the gruelling deserts of Helmand and Kerman. He had a close shave when a boy in a remote village, who happened to have seen the only European ever to have passed that way before, com­mented that this supposed holy man looked just like him. Pottinger and Christie finally met up again in Persia, safe ground at that time. In many cases intrepid young Russians were the first to reach these distant fabled lands. The first to visit Khiva after Bekovich’s ill-fated venture was the 24-year-old Captain Nikolai Muraviev. He arrived in 1819, having joined a camel train disguised as a Turcoman to cross the Karakum desert. He described the prosperous villages surrounding the palaces and well-tended gardens of the rich in Khiva and ‘the great mosque rising above the city’s forty-foot-high walls, its blue-tiled dome, surmounted by a massive golden ball, shimmering in the sunlight’. The Khan, he wrote, was six foot tall with a short red beard and spoke ‘distinctly, fluently and with dignity’. In describing these adventures Hopkirk conjures up caravans of thousands of camels and hundreds of men, crossing and recrossing the desert sands in a stream of traffic so dense that travellers like Muraviev had to wait for the whole train to pass before moving on. The deserts themselves formed a natural barrier – terrible heat in summer, brutal cold in winter, which in 1840 forced a Russian army advancing on Khiva to turn back after losing nearly all its men and camels in one of the worst winters ever experienced. Besides the men on the ground and the Emirs and Khans with whom they crossed paths, the Great Game players included generals and officers, both British and Russian, and the powerbrokers back home who made the decisions. A change of government or of alli­ances could render a man’s work meaningless overnight, while instructions from government might wreck the delicate network of relationships that the spies had painstakingly built up on the ground. A poignant case is that of the mysterious Captain Yan Vitkevich, whom Henry Rawlinson, a young British subaltern, met in 1837 while travelling through the remote borderlands of eastern Persia. Vitkevich’s mission was to woo Dost Mohammed, the formidable Emir of Kabul who wielded power over Afghanistan, the chief bul­wark between Russia and British India. The British officer Alexander Burnes beat him to it and became great friends with the potentate. But as a result of policy decisions back home, Vitkevich found his star rising while that of Burnes fell. Then, virtually overnight, the relationship between Britain and Russia changed again. Unsuspecting, Vitkevich returned to St Petersburg having achieved everything he’d been charged with, including a treaty with Dost Mohammed. But far from being rewarded, he was cold-shouldered. The Foreign Minister Nesselrode declared that he knew of no such Captain Vitkevich – ‘except for an adventurer of that name, who had lately been engaged in some un-authorized intrigues in Kabul and Kandahar’. Vitkevich returned to his hotel room, burned his papers and shot himself. Burnes was another casualty of the swings and roundabouts of government policy. To him Kabul was a paradise, with gardens full of fruit trees and songbirds. In 1836 he established a permanent mission there. But then things started to go wrong. He was forced to relay increasingly hostile and insulting messages from the British government which finally decided to send in troops to replace Dost Mohammed with his more malleable – and useless – half-brother. In the uprising that followed, Burnes was torn apart by a furious mob and the British garrison, attempting to flee to the safety of Jalalabad, was massacred on the road. Another salutary tale is that of Colonel Charles Stoddart, who failed to observe eastern protocol. When he arrived in Bokhara he happened to cross paths with the Emir, Nasrullah. Instead of dis­mounting he saluted the Emir from his horse, an unforgivable breach of etiquette. Shortly afterwards he was thrown into a vermin-filled pit where he stayed until his colleague, Captain Arthur Conolly, arrived to attempt to rescue him. Both men ended up being executed in the public square under the ramparts of Bokhara’s great Ark cita­del, where today you can still see their cells. This Great Game, as it was known (it was Conolly who first coined the phrase), was one of incredibly high stakes, as British and Russian, Westerner and Asian pitted their wits against each other. It was marked by many moments of high drama but also by moments of comedy, as when Burnes met the Grand Vizier of Bokhara, ‘a wiz­ened old man with small crafty eyes and a long grey beard’. Feigning innocence, the vizier asked him if Christians ate pork. Burnes was ready. ‘Only the poor,’ he replied. Next the crafty vizier asked what it tasted like. Replied Burnes, ‘I have heard that it is like beef.’ As Burnes was leaving, the vizier had one last request: to bring him ‘a good pair of English spectacles’ if he ever returned. Little by little the deserts of Central Asia were mapped and the Russians took over the great city states of the region – Khokand, Bokhara, Khiva and finally the fabled city of Merv. The field of play then expanded. The British now worried that the Russians might invade India through the supposedly impassable mountains of the Pamirs and sent men out to survey them surreptitiously. Adventurers like Lieutenant Francis Younghusband headed for once legendary places like Hunza where, high up in the mountains, he met the Russian agent Captain Gromchevsky who entertained him with a fine dinner and plenty of vodka – one of several occasions when Briton and Russian dined together, knowing that the following day they would be adversaries again. Younghusband’s mission was to form an alliance with the ruler, Safdar Ali. The problem was that Ali assumed ‘that the Empress of India [Queen Victoria], the Czar of Russia and the Emperor of China were chiefs of neighbouring tribes’. Most of these khans and emirs had little idea of the strength of the great armies who were encroach­ing on their territory. The Great Game is the story of how much of Asia as we know it today was made, often as a result of misunderstandings, as the British tried to thwart what they suspected was a Russian advance and the Russians reacted to the moves they saw the British making, each trying to outfox the other. Far from seeing the great cities and states of Central Asia and the Pamirs as ancient kingdoms with fascinating cultures, the British and Russians viewed them solely in terms of their strategic value and regarded their monarchs as either trouble­some or compliant. If troublesome they had no compunction in replacing them irrespective of the wishes of the people or the ability of the ruler, as in the case of Dost Mohammed. The Great Game is of its time. Unlike modern scholars, Hopkirk used only English sources or sources translated from the Russian. No Russian primary sources are cited, nor are any from Afghanistan or the various Central Asian states, which also of course had their own cultures and histories. Nonetheless it’s an incredibly gripping, bril­liantly written, unputdownable read. As to what would come to pass in this region – that was beyond any of these stalwart adventurers’ wildest dreams.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 74 © Lesley Downer 2022


About the contributor

Lesley Downer is a writer, novelist, historian and inveterate traveller. She is half Chinese and has spent chunks of her life in India, Japan, China and points east.

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