The Great Game: Anglo-Russian encounter at the borders of Pamir, Hindu Kush and Karakoram

The last act of the “Great Game” or “Большая Игра” (Bolshaya Igra), was played where the Tsarist Empire, the British Empire and the Chinese Empire joined in one of the highest and, at that time, one of the most inaccessible places of the planet. There, bristling with giant mountains, Pamir, Hindu Kush and Karakoram ranges converge.

English translation of a Bernard Grua’s article published on Agoravox: “Le Grand Jeu : rencontre anglo-russe aux confins du Pamir, de l’Hindou Kouch et du Karakoram”

Karakoram Range near Kunjerab Pass between Pakistan & China — Photo Bernard Grua
Karakoram Range near Kunjerab Pass between Pakistan & China

There, at the end of the nineteenth century, passionate explorers, at the risk of their lives, faced extreme altitudes, deadly winds and colds, snow-capped passes swept by avalanches, rocky defiles threatened by flash floods or by devastating landslides. These military men, officially on availability or on hunting permits but, in reality, cartographers, spies, even diplomats, were, in their time, part of a small elite celebrated by the very honorable Geographical Societies of London or Saint Petersburg.

Today, Britain has gone. Russia is gradually pushed away by a Chinese dragon reborn and exiting its borders. The Great Game, an amazing page of history, is forgotten. The same goes for the men who wrote it. Their exploits do not enter into the construction of any national discourse either in their countries of origin or in those of their particular peregrinations. Nowadays, foreign visitors are led to rever myths without real content or evidences of a silk route rather than to a breathtaking epic, however not so distant, and which would remain documentable locally. The framework of these inconceivable adventures is of course always there with its routes, its vertiginous abysses, its black rocks (Karakoram), its sparkling summits, its powerful glaciers, its tumultuous rivers, its isolated villages and its pastures of altitude.

Black and white photographs taken along the Karakoram Highway will attempt to evoke, very partially, its grandeur. They will also try to recall the determination of those who have devoted their best years, even their last breath, to roaming these inhospitable places. Which, despite all the threats, kept captivating them.

Kunjerab Pass, the door of high Chinese Pamir

Leaving China, coming from Kashgar or Tashkurgan, we enter Gojal, the upper part of Hunza Valley, via the Kunjerab Pass located at 4,693 meters. This presents a typical Pamir topography. Bordered by glaciers and rounded peaks contrasting with the sharp ones of Karakoram, which are revealed later, it is a wide plateau with short grass, where, mainly on the Chinese side, yaks graze in summer.

Alpine meadow (“pamir”), Pakistan side, Kunjerab, 4,693 meters — Photo Bernard Grua
Alpine meadow (“pamir”), Pakistan side, Kunjerab, 4,693 meters, and rounded peaks bordering it to the West — On the right, in the photo, the arc of the Chinese border
Peak and glacial moraine west of the pamir of Kunjerab (Pakistan side) — Photo Bernard Grua
Peak and glacial moraine west of the pamir of Kunjerab (Pakistan side)
Summit, glacier and moraine west of the pamir of Kunjerab (Pakistan side) — Photo Bernard Grua
Summit, glacier and moraine west of the pamir of Kunjerab (Pakistan side) — At the foot of the scree in the foreground, on the right, see the two tiny silhouettes giving the scale
Close-up view of a glacier, west of the Kunjerab pamir (Pakistan side) — Photo Bernard Grua
Close-up view of a glacier, west of the Kunjerab pamir (Pakistan side)
Summits, glacier and moraine, east of the pamir of Kunjerab (Chinese side) — Photo Bernard grua
Summits, glacier and moraine, east of the pamir of Kunjerab (Chinese side)

From the pamir of Kunjerab to Sost, at an altitude of 2,800 meters, a large drop plunges southwards through tight laces on the side of a scree or through dark gorges framed by huge mountain sides.

Summits seen, towards the South and Pakistan, at the top of the descent of the Kunjerab — Photo Bernard Grua
Summits seen, towards the South and Pakistan, at the top of the descent of the Kunjerab
The road and the river seen from the tight switchbacks descending from the pass of Kunjerab towards Sost — Photo Bernard Grua
The road and the river seen from the tight switchbacks descending from the pass of Kunjerab towards Sost
Glacier and outlet between Kunjerab and Sost — Photo bernard grua
Glacier and outlet between Kunjerab and Sost
The Kunjerab river above Sost — Photo #BernardGrua
The Kunjerab river above Sost

Gojal, Upper Hunza Valley, bordered by Afghanistan and China

Once, during summer 1889, Francis Younghusband, near Shimshal Pass (between China and the northeast of the kingdom of Hunza), 4,735 meters, met Captain Bronislav Grombchevsky. They shared meals, vodka and brandy. The Russian officer showed the map he had in his possession. Younghusband was shocked by the advance of his competitor and opposed the continuation of his armed expedition to Leh through Ladakh, already under British control. As a result, confining his winter exploration between Ladakh and Tibet, Grombchevsky lost all his luggage and his horses. He and his team survived with difficulty.

Many years later, Younghusband, having got a peerage, being the president of the Royal Geographical Society, received a letter from Grombchevsky, sent shortly before his death. After having been decorated many times under the Czarist regime, after having attained the rank of lieutenant-general and held important positions, Grombchevsky was dismissed and so ill that he could not leave his bed. The Bolsheviks had deprived him of all his possessions and exiled to Siberia, from where he managed to escape and to join Poland from which his family originated.

The Passu peak, 7,478 meters, and its glacier not far from Gulmit, 2,465 meters — Photo Bernard Grua
The Passu peak, 7,478 meters, and its glacier not far from Gulmit, 2,465 meters, place of the meeting between Francis Younghusband and the Mir of Hunza, Safdar Ali

After leaving Grombchevsky and carrying out his own explorations, Younghusband headed, in November 1889, towards the southwest in the direction of Gulmit, 2,465 meters, near Passu, 2,500 meters. He met with Safdar Ali, the Mir (king) of Hunza to warn him against his relations with Grombchevsky (it has been said, without it being possible to confirm it, that the establishment of a Russian post was planned in Karimabad). Safdar Ali was also urged to stop sending his subjects for looting via the Shimshal Pass. The latters attacked caravans traveling to Xinjiang from Ladakh via the Karakoram Pass, 5,540 meters.

Secondary peak of Passu peak — Photo Bernard Grua
Secondary peak of Passu peak

These two requests were without effect. It is true that China was not pushing hard in this direction. Indeed, China had no desire to see Indian tea invading its markets. For his part, Safdar Ali was probably trying to raise the stakes between what he believed to be rivals fighting over his favors.

“He thought that the empress of India, the tsar of Russia and the emperor of China were the chiefs of neighboring tribes” (Younghusband).

He was, in any case, oblivious to the extreme susceptibility of the English people regarding access to passes and corridors that could eventually lead Russian troops to the Indian Empire. The potentate preferred to multiply boastfulness, insults and requests for bribes.

The cones, also called Passu Cathedral, or locally Tupopdan, 6,106 meters, seen from Hussaini — Photo Bernard Grua
The cones, also called Passu Cathedral, or locally Tupopdan, 6,106 meters, seen from Hussaini, 2,435 meters, on the Younghusband route between Passu and Gulmit.
Passu cones, 6,106 meters, seen from the village of Passu, 2,500 meters — Photo Bernard Grua
Passu cones, 6,106 meters, seen from the village of Passu, 2,500 meters

In August 1891, at Bozai Gumbaz (Afghan Pamir), 3,800 meters, Francis Younghusband found himself facing Colonel Yanov and his Cossacks. The meeting was particularly cordial. Reciprocal invitations were exchanged. A toast was offered to the Czar and Queen Victoria. However, Yanov said that the entire Pamir was, now, the property of Russia. He prohibited Younghusband to return directly to Gilgit through Afghan territory, claimed by Russia (before, presumably, crossing Irshad pass, 4,979 meters, then Chapursan Valley). Younghusband had to access the kingdom of Hunza by China. Maybe, he went through Kunjerab pass?

It is not impossible that the imposed detour was a retaliatory measure taken because of the turpides previously inflicted on Grombchevsky. This event, however, pushed British Russophobia to new heights. It brought to its maximum the tension between Russia and Great Britain. Through military preparations, the latter obtained the Russian withdrawal from the Afghan Pamir and decided to lock its control over the state of Hunza by sealing the fate of Mir Safdar Ali.

Zoodkhun (Gojal, Pakistan), 3,300 m, in the foreground, village of the Chapursan valley — Photo Bernard Grua
Zoodkhun (Gojal, Pakistan), 3,300 m, in the foreground, village of the Chapursan valley after the descent of the Irshad pass, 4,969 meters, at the bottom right of the photo, coming from Bozai Gumbaz (Pamir Afghan). In 1891, Colonel Yanov prohibited Younghusband from taking this route.
Hindukush peaks bordering the southern Chapursan Valley at Zood Khun (Gojal) — Photo Bernard Grua
Hindukush peaks bordering the southern Chapursan Valley at Zood Khun (Gojal)

Karimabad, the ancient capital of Hunza kingdom in the heart of Karakoram

On his own initiative, Safdar Ali would work on creating the pretexts leading to his loss. In winter, in the absence of the Gurkhas locking the Shimshal Pass, he resumed his deadly assaults on the caravans between Ladakh and Xinjiang. He believed that Russian and Chinese forces would fly to his aid, if necessary. He even began to attack neighboring communities and Kashmiri possessions. In November 1891 the British went on the offensive, attacking a bunch of military works from Nagar and Hunza as they headed upward north from Gilgit. Safdar Ali fled from Baltit Fort (Karimabad, 2,400 meters) and took refuge in Kashgar (Xinjian). The British detachment replaced him with his half-brother, Muhammad Zafim. The latter reigned from 1892 to 1938. The state of Hunza and the neighboring Nagar were incorporated into the British Indies. Furious, the Russian foreign minister, Nicolas de Giers, exclaimed:

“They slammed the door in our face.”

Hunza River Valley, Nagar (left bank) and Rakaposhi Peak, 7,788 meters, seen from Karimabad — Photo Bernard Grua
Hunza River Valley, Nagar (left bank) and Rakaposhi Peak, 7,788 meters, seen from Karimabad in a southerly direction from where British troops took control of the kingdom in November 1891.

In Baltit Fort (Karimabad), it is possible to see two rifles which are the only Russian weapons, according to local guides, to have been found there by British people, while Safdar Ali had boasted of being in possession of a full arsenal from Saint Petersburg. Queen Victoria’s subjects claim to have observed samovars, one of which is still visible, Russian and Chinese mails, as well as a portrait of Tsar Alexander III. In 1974, the kingdom of Hunza was annexed to Pakistan. It has long been the most peaceful, educated and welcoming part of this country. Today, the Shimshal Pass is as isolated as before but there is still a large summer pasture very frequented by the Wakhis of Hunza. It is also a high place for yak polo.

Karimabad: Ultar Peak, 7,388 meters, overlooking the Baltit Fort, 2,400 meters — Photo Bernard Grua
Karimabad: Ultar Peak, 7,388 meters, overlooking the Baltit Fort, 2,400 meters, taken by the English and from where Mir Safdar Ali fled in November 1891 to Xinjiang
Rapakaposhi summit, 7,788 meters, seen from Aliabad, 2,200 meters — photo Bernard Grua
Rapakaposhi summit, 7,788 meters, seen from Aliabad, 2,200 meters, shortly before arriving in Karimabad from Gilgit
The Rakaposhi, 7,788 meters, and its glacier at Ghulmet (Nagar, left bank of the Hunza river) — Photo Bernard Grua
The Rakaposhi, 7,788 meters, and its glacier at Ghulmet (Nagar, left bank of the Hunza river), 1,985 meters, near Karimabad, coming from Gilgit. On the route of the English troops who, in 1891, took control of the Nagar and Hunza

In 1947, Great Britain packed up. Bridges were cut with the Indian crown jewel which sank into the horrors of partition and its wars, while undergoing two Chinese annexations (Shaksgam and Aksai Chin). In 1991, Russian Turkestan was dismembered at the same time as the USSR by new independent states trying to build an identity and to write a national history, while Moscow still has not completely got rid of its tutelage reflexes towards its “near abroad.”

Bubuli Motin (Lady finger), 6,000 meters, and Hunza peak, 6,270 meters, overlooking West Karimabad — photo Bernard Grua
Bubuli Motin (Lady finger), 6,000 meters, and Hunza peak, 6,270 meters, overlooking West Karimabad

Today, China is militarily present in the Tajik Pamir, in the Afghan Pamir and, of course, in Xinjiang. It has the upper hand on the Karakoram Highway which descends through the entire Hunza valley from the Kunjerab pass. It is the first time, in at least two millennia, that all of the Pamirs have been controlled by one single country. So vanishes the work of the Great Game.

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Looking back at history, we only remember and celebrate bloody battles or conquerors who carried out massacres. They are often idealized for questionable ideological purposes. In one of the ex-countries of the Great Game, these death pulsions go as far as to parade children in strollers, disguised as cannon fodder, for the dismaying pride of their parents. There would be so much better to do. And yet, who mentions the Russian and British heroes example of this incredible competition in the mountains of Upper Asia? Who is inspired by it? Who cares? Their names are not taught. They don’t even have a monument to figure out their efforts and sacrifices. Thus, inexorably, disappears the memory of the legendary men of the Great Game.

Rush Peak Summits, 5,098 meters, north of Karimabad — Photo Bernard Grua
Rush Peak Summits, 5,098 meters, north of Karimabad
Summit, north of Karimabad — photo Bernard Grua
Summit, north of Karimabad

Bernard Grua, Nantes, Bretagne, France — 2019

Link to Bernard Grua’s photo albums of mountains and people from north Pakistan

Notes

Pakistani places mentioned in this text from North to South and down the Hunza River along the Karakoram Highway:

  • Kunjerab Pass leading from Xinjiang to the Hunza valley
  • Sost (with the west departure of the track towards Chapursan valley and Irshad pass leading to Bozai Gumbaz in the Afghan Pamir)
  • Passu (with the north west departure of the track towards the Shimshal Valley and Shimshal Pass)
  • Hussaini
  • Gulmit
  • Karimabad (capital of the former kingdom of Hunza)
  • Aliabad
  • Ghulmet
  • Gilgit (British advanced military base in the late 1880s)

Main information source :

Peter Hopkirk : The Great Game, On secret service in High Asia ; John Murray Publisher (1990).

All pictures are © Bernard Grua and cannot be used without his written approval.

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The Great Game: Anglo-Russian encounter at the borders of Pamir, Hindu Kush and Karakoram — Bernard Grua

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Contributor to French and foreign medias: geopolitics, heritage, history, expeditions | https://bernardgrua.net https://bernardgrua.blogspot.com | FR EN SP GE

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