Magazine article Geographical

Taking the High Road: In the Late 1800s, the Hindu Kush Was the Setting for One of the Most Heroic Events of the Great Game. Amar Grover Visited Northern Pakistan to Retrace the Remarkable Journey Taken by a Small British Army Contingent to Rescue Their Comrades-in-Arms

Magazine article Geographical

Taking the High Road: In the Late 1800s, the Hindu Kush Was the Setting for One of the Most Heroic Events of the Great Game. Amar Grover Visited Northern Pakistan to Retrace the Remarkable Journey Taken by a Small British Army Contingent to Rescue Their Comrades-in-Arms

Article excerpt

Gilgit is a major staging post in the heart of Pakistan's Northern Areas. Many travellers stop here to break up their journey along the Karakoram Highway between China and the hot Punjabi plains. Most mountaineers bound for K2 head east from Gilgit to Baltistan. A few head west into Chitral in the Northwest Frontier. While long and rough, this last route is among the most exhilarating in Pakistan. The scenery alone would justify the trip, but I was also drawn to Gilgit by its association with one of the more colourful episodes of the Great Game.

Perhaps more than any other, the 19th century was a period of geographical expansion, as the world's superpowers scrambled for unclaimed territory. In Central Asia, British India and Russia vied for control of the land between the empires. Into this remote and hostile mountain environment went spies charged with exploring the lie of the land and the movements of the enemy.

Having established an agency in Chitral in 1889, the British sought allies among locals leaders in order to establish some sort of foothold. However, their plans were set back in 1892, when the death of Aman ul-Mulk, the mehtar or ruler of Chitral, sent the region into chaos. Over the next three years, power changed hands numerous times as Aman's sons turned on each other. The British were wrong-footed at almost every turn. Frequent acts of fratricide and treachery were bedevilled by Afghan and Pathan pretenders while the Russians lurked menacingly nearby in the Pamirs.

In an effort to regain control, the British political agent in Chitral, Major George Robertson, appointed a token mehtar, 14-year-old Shuja ul-Mulk, and occupied the ul-Mulk's fort in Chitral with a garrison of around 500 Sikh soldiers. What seemed at first to be a deft move soon turned to disaster. His occupation offended the Chitralis, and the pretenders closed in and laid siege to the fort. The government sent thin reinforcements to diffuse the situation, but when they were ambushed and killed and their ammunition seized, the British began to worry that the unrest might spread along the frontier.

Relief forces were rushed into action, 14,000 from the south near Peshawar and just over 500 from Gilgit led by Colonel James Kelly. The Peshawar contingent may have been larger, but Kelly's force proved the more effective. Their heroic 250-kilometre march to Chitral via the Shandur Pass stirred the press and enthralled the public.

Drawn by the fascinating accounts of British imperial history in this region, I decided to travel the Gilgit-Chitral road, which today almost exactly follows the route taken by Kelly's men.

In the 1890s, Gilgit was a tenuously held outpost of the empire. Today, for all its hustle and bustle, it remains isolated, linked to the outside world by a single surfaced road and a daily flight. Ten kilometres west of town, the tarmac gives out as barren ridges loom over the foaming Gilgit River. Poplar avenues herald small villages and shade patchwork fields. Across the river at Sherqila stands a small watchtower, the remains of an ancient fort whose 19th-century ruler excelled at polo. It's here that Kelly spent the second night of the journey.

The bulk of Kelly's men were sikh 'pioneers', essentially road-builders. For speed, they did without tents and wore sheepskin coats against the cold. They carried Martini-Henry rifles, picks and shovels, and the Mountain Battery dragged two heavy guns.

'Political teas' with local headmen lubricated their progress. Published accounts of their remarkable journey reveal a mood of almost surreal nonchalance. "Good eggs and bacon will carry a man through a long day most successfully," wrote one of Kelly's officers, a Lieutenant Beynon.

Several suspension bridges now span the Gilgit River, linking forgotten valley kingdoms such as Ishkoman and Yasin At checkpoints, bored policemen oversee arbitrary registration procedures Simple dhabas, or eateries, rustle up skillets of tasty okra, dhal and potatoes, all served with piping-hot naan bread. …

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