Originally published in Humsafar, inflight magazine of Pakistan International Airlines, January 2012
The minibus turns another corner on the narrow mountain road, and the valley opens ahead. The Ghizr River is a turbulent, cobalt-blue streak between smooth boulders; stark, iron-grey slopes rise on either side to snow-streaked ridges, and long lines of poplar trees line the irrigation ditches. The clear sky, arching over everything, is the colour of lapis lazuli.
From my seat in the minibus I peer out at the hard, stirring landscape. I am deep in Gilgit-Baltistan, heading west towards Gupis and the Yasin Valley. This wildly remote region, where the world’s three highest mountain ranges – the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush – lock together in a knot of sparring ridges, is Pakistan’s mountain fastness.
For decades trekkers, mountaineers, photographers and cultural tourists have journeyed here to take on testing trails and perilous peaks, or to seek out warm welcomes and old traditions in remote villages. But I am here in search of history, for Gilgit-Baltistan was the crucible of one of the most fascinating chapters of the 19th century, an episode steeped in romance, intrigue and adventure. I am heading deep into the Hindu Kush to trace echoes of the Great Game.
The Great Game – a term popularised by Rudyard Kipling – was the period of imperial rivalry between Britain and Russia in Central Asia when spying, soldiery and science were stirred together into a heady brew of adventure. From the early 1800s both powers expanded their reach into the region, by stealth as much as by outright conquest. The area that now forms Gilgit-Baltistan lay at the very crux of the entire Asian mountain system. It was a wildly remote region, but to have knowledge of its rivers, its passes, and its chieftains was to have the upper hand in the colonial game-play. And so a steady trickle of European and local travellers snuck into the region with hidden compasses and secret orders. They were spectacularly hardy men who crossed mountains with minimal equipment, shrugged off the threat of assassination, and spent months or even years away from home, just to bring back some titbit of information of interest to politicians and geographers.
The Great Game was a wildly adventurous episode, a boys’ own adventure story made real. And today, more than a century after the game came to an end, a hint of the old romance still endures in the mountains of Pakistan’s far north.
My journey had begun in Gilgit, the town that has always been the hub of these mountains. Today it is the place where the Karakoram Highway meets other tenuous roads, east to Skardu, and west to Chitral. It is also the terminus for one of the world’s most spectacular air journeys – PIA’s mountain-hopping flight from Islamabad.In the heyday of the Great Game, however, getting here usually required a 22-day trek from Srinagar, across the Burzil Pass and the Deosai Plateau, and down the hair-raising Astor Valley. The first foreigner to record a visit came in 1866. He was a gloriously eccentric figure called Dr Gottlieb Leitner. A short-statured German academic, he had arrived in the area to study the languages, and made it to Gilgit with nothing more than three jars of Bovril in his pockets. Leitner was the first to sample the hospitality which still makes Gilgit-Baltistan legendary amongst travellers today. The locals treated him to a feast of roast sheep, and a rousing display of traditional music and dance; it was enough to convince him, and he spent the rest of his career championing their cause against the machinations of the distant masters of the Great Game.
Gilgit has grown exponentially since Leitner’s day, but wandering its bustling bazaars, I discovered that the frontier atmosphere and the old hospitality still endured. At every turn burly men with fair skin and pale eyes – a legacy, the locals like to claim, of lost legions of Alexander the Great – called me aside to drink sweet milky tea and chat.
The streets were a colourful chaos of gloriously decorated Suzuki minivans and buzzing motorbikes. Vendors pushed carts loaded with apples and pomegranates, and the smell of fresh bread and sizzling kebabs wafted out from the smoky chaikhanas. Here and there a stern, upright soldier or policeman trotted through the crowds on an elegant polo pony – for Gilgit is a stronghold of the unruly mountain version of the Game of Kings.
In the decades after Leitner a long litany of eccentric travellers, most of them British, visited the area around Gilgit. There was John Biddulph, the first British resident of Gilgit, who spent several lonely years there compiling reports and laying out rose gardens in the 1870s; he was followed by the Lockhart mission, a military expedition of stern men with plus-fours and magnificent moustaches, who sketched and surveyed their way up and down the same valleys that would tantalise trekkers of later generations. And then there was one of the best known of all Great Game figures, the mighty Sir Francis Younghusband.
Younghusband entered Gilgit-Baltistan through the back door, scraping across the Muztagh Pass in the Karakoram. He wrote of the view from the top of the pass that “For mountain majesty and sheer sublimity that scene could hardly be excelled”. Anyone who sees the high peaks of this upland wilderness today would have to agree with him.
Younghusband was bound for the fabled kingdom of Hunza for negotiations with its ruler, the Mir. His visit perhaps marked the highpoint of the Great Game – a Russian agent, Grombchevski, was loitering in the same area, and had also been courting the Mir, and the stakes were high. Ultimately it was the British who gained the upper hand. By the turn of the 20th century the Great Game was over, and the Gilgit region had been thrown under the rule of the Maharaja of Kashmir and his British suzerains.
But even so, in the villages and on the mountainsides of Hunza it is still easy to imagine the era when shadowy groups of men crept over the passes with small yak caravans and hidden map-making equipment.
My own journey into Gilgit-Baltistan was in the footsteps of one of the most mysterious of all Great Game figures. Three years after Leitner a strange, intense 31-year-old Yorkshireman named George Hayward arrived in the region. He had been sponsored by London’s Royal Geographical Society to explore the Pamir Mountains, but his previous attempts to get there – through the Northwest Frontier and Xinjiang – had been thwarted. Now he was trying to get through the passes beyond Gilgit. After wanding into the stormy political waters of the region Hayward found himself on the wrong side of just about everyone – the British, the Maharaja of Kashmir, and the locals. He was murdered in circumstances that have never been properly explained at the head of the Yasin Valley, west of Gilgit in 1870.
And so now, many decades later, I am tracing his final journey. It has taken me deep into some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen, along the banks fo the Ghizr River, west from Gilgit towards the Shandur Pass, and then north into the remote, otherworldly Yasin Valley.
In Hayward’s day this was an independent kingdom; today it is still a world apart. The lower regions of the valley are thick with poplar and willow trees, their autumnal leaves glowing like molten copper in the sharp mountain sunlight. As I explore the small, stone-walled villages that dot the valley, the local people welcome me into their homes. I am treated to a spot of traditional culture at a village wedding, with the same kind of music and dance Leitner saw almost 150 years ago, and given sweet pomegranates and juicy apples at every turn.
The very last part of the journey takes me north along the valley to the tiny village of Darkot. This was the place where Hayward died – and the exact location of his death is still remembered by the locals: they call it Feringhi Bar, “the Foreigner’s Valley”. Hayward’s visit may have ended in catastrophe, but mine turns out very well indeed, with a warm welcome that Leitner would have enjoyed, and a mountain view that Younghusband would have appreciated.
Sitting high above the valley I look out on a sweep of rugged peaks, the white curve of a glacier, and a series of tantalising passes – west to Chitral, east to Ishkoman and Hunza, and north towards the Pamirs. History may have moved on, and the Great Game may be over, but the mountains have not changed.
© Tim Hannigan 2011