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Published: August 17th 2010
Hands of Time
During the time of heightened tensions between the two great superpowers, Russia and Britain, agents were sent by both sides to the lands sandwiched between their ‘spheres of influence’ to gather intelligence of the regions and to thwart the efforts of their counterparts. Such agents on the British side were military men on what was referred to as shooting leave so as to be able to disown them in the event of their capture. But other men, civilians, who were not constrained by foreign policy made important steps in intelligence and reconnaissance.
This was a time when courage, determination and resourcefulness were attributes to a man’s character and especially useful in these often precarious and politically charged situations. After making the long overland journey from Arabia a British independent traveller arrives in Asia. He left Beirut on the shores of the Mediterranean, a British lake, crossing Anatolia and the Caucasus Mountains to the Caspian, a Russian lake, to the desert lands of the Turcomen.
He finds the local Turcomen friendly to his cause and proceeds by special escort to the capital. By fastest means he makes his way through the great deserts to the Khanate cites of Khiva, Bokhara,
Samarkand before visiting Mazar-i-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan. Here he finds that the locals are divided in opinion over the British occupation, some seeing it as invasion and others as a liberation. Despite there being some bad feelings toward the foreign occupation he is received cordially, having to answer the usual questions of “Are you a Muslim?”, which he chooses to not lie against as further questions of the Muslim faith may lead to unfavourable conversations. This invariably would lead to more questions such as “Do you eat pork?”, his journal describes his response to such questioning. ‘In light of such interrogation it is a wise idea to skirt around the subject without breaking one’s own moral code or the truth; allowing for a far more believable and refutable tale at the end of it all. A suitable answer to “Do you eat pork?” might be, “In England it is true that some eat pork but it is considered by many to be a dirty animal and not good for one’s person.” ’
He then hastily makes his exit to avoid trouble in the Uzbek Khanates and heads to the wide Kazakh steppe, collaborating with a veteran of the Great
Game simply known as ‘The Dutchman’ on the passes into and out of Kashgaria, the Pamirs and Tian Shan Mountains. After going their separate ways with promises of eternal friendship and wishes of safe journeys he takes a southerly route into Tian Shan Mountains.
A major gap in their findings was to prove his magnum opus, the Torugart Pass linking Kashgar, currently in a Chinese finger puzzle and the Tian Shan mountain peoples of Kyrgyzstan, currently with the firm hand of Russia on their shoulder.
He spent a number of months in these mountains speaking with the locals under the guise of the assistant to a wiseman building a great establishment in the interior of the country. It seems unlikely that he had any direct implication over the toppling of the Russian supported leadership, however, he was there to see it decline and collapse entirely shortly before leaving the country. He was quite openly negative towards the former regime although he also criticised the southern regions breaking out in inward fighting and not channelling it towards the far greater dangers of its mammoth neighbours.
He departed these lands by seeking out and crossing the Torugart Pass. It being
both unmapped and deadly; there being many hostile agents in the borderlands as well as altitude, snow and remoteness to contend with. But without such reconnaissance, future agents may have fallen into Russian hands. Instead of being able to make their way back to India via the relatively well travelled Karakorum Highway they would have to go the far more treacherous route through the High Pamirs, a barren region that even the expansionist Russians did not bother to occupy, without crop or vegetation for the entirety of the year.
At some expense but accompanied by a Hungarian observer with a penchant for languages they were able to talk their way through the various obstacles that lay before them. Firstly, in the provincial town of Naryn none of the locals were willing to take them to the top of the pass, eventually one was persuaded to make the treacherous journey to the snowy pass, but refused to take them any further. Luckily contact had been made to a friendly agent in Kashgar who was willing to escort the party through the Chinese side of the pass safely, for a princely sum. They began there trip but not before making their way
to the great caravanserai of Tash Rabat. In his words “A marvellous spectacle that any man lucky enough to be traversing these great mountains should enjoy at least for one day relaxing in its remote charm.” Alas for them, they spent but a few hours, simply making preparation to reach Kashgar by nightfall.
The going was slow but eventually reaching the top they changed escort. Disaster almost accompanied the trip as they were forced to hand over any documentation they were carrying including all the intelligence accrued over the past 10 months. Fortunately critical sections of his logs had been sewn into the lining of his jacket to avoid detection.
All the information was returned and he safely presented it to the British Consulate were he was reprimanded for his unsanctioned actions but simultaneously yet surreptitiously given a hearty handshake and thanks for his efforts.
Adapted from Peter Hopkirk's A Great Game
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