Tuesday, 10 May 2011

On the Trail of the Great Game in the Hindu Kush


Travelling through Northern Pakistan in the footsteps of George Hayward

Originally published in Globe, the magazine of the Globetrotters Club, May 2011


On a bright autumn morning I set out walking along the Yasin Valley, high in the Hindu Kush Mountains in the wild borderlands of northern Pakistan. Stark, iron-grey slopes rose on either side towards a cobalt-blue sky. In the lower reaches of the valley the poplar trees were flaming brushstrokes of copper-gold in the sharp sunlight, and the voices of children and the bleating of goats carried on the still air.
My destination – the end-point of a year of research and travel – lay twenty miles ahead in the little hamlet of Darkot, last settlement before a high pass that led towards Afghanistan. I was travelling in the footsteps of the 19th Century British explorer George Hayward, heading for the spot where, in 1870, he was brutally murdered while trying to reach the Pamir Mountains.
I had first come across brief accounts of Hayward’s strange story in books about “the Great Game”, the cold war of spying and exploration fought between Russia and the British Empire in the turbulent spaces of Central Asia in the 19th Century, and had been fascinated ever since. Like all the explorers who travelled in the region in the heyday of empire, Hayward straddled the boundary between espionage and scientific endeavour. But unlike his contemporaries – men with stiff upper lips and flying moustaches – he was somehow more modern, more intense. The motives for his murder remain a mystery to this day.
The first journeys in my quest to find out more about this intriguing figure had taken me to the British Library and the Royal Geographical Society in London. But once I had leafed through Hayward’s letters, squinted at the squiggles of his spidery handwriting, and rifled the reams of conflicting reports on his death, I had hit a rockier road.
For three years, in his desperate attempts to reach the Pamirs, Hayward had criss-crossed the high mountains of Asia, passing through the Karakoram in winter without a tent, being held hostage in Kashgar and falling out with the Maharaja of Kashmir, before finally coming to a sticky end in the Yasin Valley.
Over the course of four wonderful months 140 years later, I rode rickety buses through Kashmir, hitchhiked across Ladakh, crossed Xinjiang during a total communications black-out enforced by the Chinese government, and now, finally, I was approaching my goal.
I had been to Pakistan before, but this was my first return since the recent turmoil which has tipped the troubled nation to the very brink of the abyss. Coming in the footsteps of a fellow countryman who was beheaded by the locals didn’t, I had to admit, seem like the luckiest of pilgrimages, but in the ten days since I arrived on the stomach-churning Karakoram Highway from China I had met nothing but warm welcomes and hot cups of tea. The ramshackle town of Gilgit, capital of Pakistan’s far north, had been a place of firm handshakes and wild polo matches, and the Hunza Valley had been achingly beautiful. Yasin itself was a place of sharp light and gifts.
It was late afternoon when I shambled into Darkot, a cold, stony village of flat-roofed houses beneath scored brown slopes. A ragged glacier curved to the west and the trail to the pass that Hayward had been trying to cross when he was killed bent away to the north.
But today Darkot seemed a world away from the political troubles of both the 19th century and the modern era. Gaggles of friendly children led me to the house of the local schoolmaster, Mohamed Murad. He was completely unperturbed by my arrival and invited me to stay the night, though he later told me I was the first foreign traveller to visit Darkot for more than a year.
After plying me with fresh bread and salty mountain tea Murad and another kindly teacher named Abdul Rashid led me to the spot where Hayward was killed – still known today as Feringhi Bar, “the Foreigner’s Valley”. It was a strangely beautiful spot, a patch of goat-cropped grass beneath a buckled apricot tree with the mountains all around. There, in the company of Murad, Abdul Rashid and a local farmer called Badal Beg I was treated to an impromptu picnic and a taste of the warm hospitality for which the rugged uplands of northern Pakistan are rightly famous.
It was, I decided as I sipped my tea looking out across the high peaks of the Hindu Kush, a fitting end to my pilgrimage…
©Tim Hannigan 2011
The full story of George Hayward’s wild life and violent death – and of Tim Hannigan’s own travels in Hayward’s footsteps – is told in Murder in the Hindu Kush, published by the History Press. You can find out more about the book at www.murderinthehindukush.com.



Geoff said...

cant wait to read your book tim...will post a comment when done...thanks

Tim Hannigan said...

Thanks Geoff, hope you enjoy it!

Geoff said...

Must`ve been an amazing journey for you Tim,as it was for me. Loved your little joke about George leaving town followed by two pairs of old Bhoots!
A really good read,thouroughly enjoyed it and recommending it to everyone....well done!

Tim Hannigan said...

Hey, thanks Geoff, that's absolutely awesome, really glad you enjoyed it. The idea all along was that it should be, first and foremost, a "good read", so I obviously got something right!

Anonymous said...

Hi Tim,

It was nice to go through your blog. I just came across two of your articles; one of it was there on Epoch Times. it was beautifully written. I would also like to read your book, as I am the resident of Yasin-Valley (Pakistan). May I know when had you visited darkot? I guess, the said teacher mentioned in your story is not basically from Darkot, rather from an adjoining village of it. Anyway, waiting to read your book.

Yasin- Gilgit baltistan

Tim Hannigan said...

Hi Naveed - absolutely great to get a comment from someone from Yasin! You are from a very beautiful place.
I'm glad you enjoyed the articles; hopefully you'll also enjoy the book.

I was in Yasin in October 2009. I've actually been to Gilgit-Baltistan four times over the last ten years, but though I'd been along the Gilgit-Chitral road twice before, I'd never been to Yasin itself before.

The teachers - yes, Abdul Rashid is from Gartens; Murad lives in Darkot itself. I also satyed with Ghayas Ali in Sandhi.

Anonymous said...

That's really nice. I had sent you an e-mail, but you haven't replied yet..

Anyway, thanks for writing a very nice articles that depict the true picture of my area. I'll comment here in detail after going through your book.