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But most of all, this is an adventure story that is just plain fun to read.
A suggestion to readers who are not very familiar with the geography of central Asia would be to have on hand some good maps as the ones Hedin draws are quite limited and often fail to give the perspective that may be desireable.
At certain moments in the book, especially (in my opinion) the discussions of the Lama Rinpoche, who vows to remain walled inside his cave for his entire life, Hedin's narrative reaches the heights of great literature, placing his work, I believe, among the greatest travel or exploration writings ever produced.
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Hopkirk tells the intriguing tales of the various adventurers, diplomats, and missionaries who made the earliest attempts to reach Lhasa, most of whom didn't make it. While mostly unsuccessful in reaching their ultimate goal, these hardy souls still had incredible stories to tell and contributed immensely to the sparse knowledge of Tibet's geography and culture. Included are some unexpected goodies like the story of the indestructible Pundits from India who literally counted the steps they took, plus the earliest deadly attempts to conquer Mt. Everest. The book ends rather depressingly with the story of China's brutal occupation in the 1950's, which ended Tibet's self-imposed isolation once and for all, after which the Chinese closed it off even more tightly because of political paranoia.
Throughout the book, Hopkirk offers some key insights into ancient Tibetan culture and their homegrown brand of extreme Buddhism. As a result we find that Tibet was never the spiritual paradise of pure thought and devotion that modern celebrity Buddhists try to tell us it was, before the outside world screwed everything up (we see that not even the Dalai Lama makes that claim). You may be surprised by the fierce, if naïve, warlike tendencies of the Tibetans, even their monks. The only problem with this book is Hopkirk's tendency to hold back on many stories. He starts to describe some very interesting tales, like the harsh ordeal of the lone female missionary Susie Rijnhart or the mysterious Japanese spy Narita Yasuteru, only to abruptly claim that the conclusions are outside the scope of the book or more extensively described elsewhere. This is a rather frustrating tease from the author, especially since this book is not that long and there is surely room to spare. But that's the only misstep in this most enjoyable book. (Note: for the much larger story of this region, in which Tibet played a small historical part, see Hopkirk's later masterwork "The Great Game.")
This time it's the story of the race to be first in Lhasa - even though the Tibetans asked no one to come and gave no one permission to enter their country. An international cast of Russians, North Americans, the French and the British all attempted to win. Hopkirk's tale of heroism and derring-do then ends with the tragic days of the mid-twentieth century when China invaded and Mao's Red Guard fanatics tried to destroy everything that stood in the way of total domination.
Most travellers entered Tibet incognito, either as private travellers hoping to evade detection, and win the prize of being first to enter the sacred city, or in the service of their military or religious masters. All failed, until the legendary Sir Francis Youghusband fought his way there - in true Great Game style - as the head of a British army battalion sent to head off Russian imperial advances into Tibet.
Of course, the Tibetans didn't want the Brits telling them what to do and conflict broke out. These days, the manner of the British victory at Guru - in the modern day Indian state of Sikkim - would be the subject of an international enquiry.
Many of the other tales are also tragic ...Others are heroic. Most spectacular of all were the 'Pundits' - British trained Indian's spies - who entered Tibet disguised as holy travellers and spent years spinning their prayer wheels, counting every pace and mapping every corner of the country for their colonial masters. It's amazing what you can learning from boiling water.
But the final thoughts that linger are those that wonder why the British, after having spent so much energy defeating the Tibetans, then turned turtle and abandoned them in their hour of need. The United States, by then the world's dominant power, stood by and did nothing either.
It's a melancholy ending to a truly classic work of art that has you groping for the travel maps and the hiking boots. Once again, Peter Hopkirk has managed to spin an enormously enjoyable story about a page of history that very few know anything about.
Watching the Dalai Lama rail against China on the BBC will never be the same again.
Hopkirk has done incredible research: his bibliography is an impressive 15 pages. And even though he has a wealth of material to cover, he makes sure that the whole presentation is interesting to the reader. He tells a complete story, but expands on issues and events that are both important and interesting. As a result, the exploits of men like Conolly, Stoddart and Burnes come into clear focus against a backdrop of intrigue and, often, duplicitous ness, across a little over 500 pages.
Not unexpectedly, Hopkirk's account tends to be favor the British point of view slightly. Even so, he's quick to point out mistakes and torpedo unjustified accusations on both sides.
I found this book an easy and quick read, completing it in across about four days. While it progresses in roughly chronological sequence, it could easily be read piecemeal if the reader desired. The book kept my interest well, and didn't ever seem to wander aimlessly. I must believe that this is the authoritative account of the subject, and I can recommend it unconditionally, whether this is a subject area of interest for you, or you just want an interesting book to occupy your time.
Interestingly, the end of the Soviet Union has refocused the spotlight on many regions discussed in this book. If you find that you remain interested in the topic after reading it, I recommend following up with Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy MacLean or Journey to Khiva by Phillip Glazebrook.
I found myself reading late into the morning, at times I couldn't put the book down. Most of the time I had heard of the places and people involved but a lot of this story was new to me. The narrative read like a novel, gripping but informative, never boring and full of information, breathing life into history in a way that is hard to find now-a-days.
This is a great book and I fully agree with the quote on the front cover of the book by Jan Morris "Peter Hopkirk is truly the laureate of the Great Game." If you ever wanted to learn something about this large and remote area then this is the book to start with. If you enjoy military history then this book has it, if you enjoy historical accounts of exploration then this book has it, if you just enjoy good history then this book has it all.
The story of Britain and Russia carving out their Empires in India, Afghanistan and the surrounding areas is truly fascinating and I was amazed at the brave and resourceful men who carved their name in history during this period. Most people have heard of the Khyber Pass and places like Chitral however I had never heard of the Pamirs and Karakorams mountain ranges or of the Kerman and Helmund deserts nor of some of the fierce and warlike tribes that lived in these areas.
After reading this book I yearn for more information about this region and I intend to buy the rest of Peter Hopkirk's books. I would rate this book one of the better ones I have read this year and to finish my review I would like to quote Byron Farwell from his review in 'The New York Times':
"Those who enjoy vividly told tales of derring-do and seek a clear understanding of the history of the emerging central Asian countries will find this a glorious book."
This book is not a "complete" history of the topic: it is told mostly from the British perspective, the Afghans come across poorly, and way too many of the characters are described only as "brilliant, multilingual and resourceful young subalterns." It is not particularly critical of the sources, either, but that's okay, because there's no particular pretension to Historiography here. (This is about spies and explorers and adventure--not about deconstructing anything.)
But Hopkirk's greatest success comes in introducing the reader to the subject matter and providing fodder for the imagination.
One caveat: Do not look at the photographs before you read the book!
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A situation like this fitted perfectly the kind of 'investigative reporting' adventures that Frederick Burnaby craved. In 1876, this 33-year-old captain in the British army took leave of absence, and set out for Khiva. The journey involved a ride of over one thousand miles in well below freezing conditions across steppes and wastelands.
On his return, Burnaby wrote 'A Ride to Khiva' and it instantly became a best seller. A well-educated man, proficient in many languages, and a keen observer of all he encountered, his account still ranks as one of the great adventure classics of literature.
I am grateful to the neighbor who lent me this book, and can report that reading it has provided many hours of fascination. Burnaby died ten years after writing this book, supposedly during a massacre in the Sudan. Keen Internet browsers might find reference to a recent revelation that throws doubt upon the truth of the official account of his death.
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This volume picks up the story with the Russian Revolution. Again, Hopkirk does an excellent job of out lining the players, the global politics, and how it all impacted on this traditional "crossroads of the world". Here, the focus is on Lenin, and Russia's (successful) attempt to claim/re-claim Central asia as its own.
My criticisim is that the story is not nearly as gripping as a story as was the Great Game. There are superb vignettes, but the overall narrative is simply not as good.
However, if you want to know why Russia was willing to dvote a decade (1980 to 1990) to its war in Afghanistan, which set the stage for the Taliban and Al Queda, then I know of no better book.
For a start there's the psychopathic White Russian general, Ungern-Sternberg, the "Mad Baron", who believes himself to be the reincarnation of Genghis Khan, and who dreams of conquering Russia at the head of a Mongol army. There's Enver Pasha, the former Ottoman Minister of War recruited by the Bolsheviks, but soon betraying them in pursuit of his dream - a new Turkish empire in Central Asia. For Britain the greatest threat comes from the new Russia of Lenin and Trotsky, once more playing hard at the Great Game, eager to undermine Britain by striking at India. There are Chinese Warlords, defeated White Russian armies, Muslim rebels, bandits, an ambitious Afghan king, secret agents, Tibetan bandits, and always the possibility of a British expedition.
At the geographical centre of all this is the Chinese province of Sinkiang - a land surrounded on 3 sides by soaring mountain ranges, at its heart the world's most inhospitable desert, littered with lost cities. Between mountains and desert lies a ring of walled towns where travellers cross with a single step from an arid expanse of sand and gravel into a world of trickling streams and shady groves. Along the ancient Silk Road between the towns trudge trade caravans of camels, donkeys, huge-wheeled carts and the occasional motor car or lorry. In the towns among the narrow streets, crumbling buildings, and bustling markets Indian traders watch, sending reports back to British India...
Well, there it is, and as I have said before, you must get this book! The gripping narrative just makes you unable to put the book down until you have finished, and then it forces you to read it again! Get this book quickly!
The action centres around immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution, just when the new soviet state was most intent on exporting revolution to the rest of the world. Hopkirk is at his best when he introduces Russia's nemesis in Central Asia - a certain Colonel Frederick Bailey, 'Great Game' hero and butterfly collector. Totally bonkers, in a truly British way. It's so exciting that you can scarcely believe that it's true - apparently it is.
Bailey, a british agent from the Raj, is sent to Central Asia to foil Soviet attempts to expand their empire south. Along the way he evades hit squads, execution chambers and even manages to circulate amongst the enemy by joining their own secret service and working as a double agent. About half way through, Bailey evenually gets back to India and drops out of sight - much to the frustration of the Soviets, but not before one final shoot out at the border post.
Hopkirk then sets off on another romp from Moscow to the Pacific Ocean, detailing the struggle between the Whites, the Reds and their respective supporters in the international community. This time there are multiple players -: the Soviet Comintern, Indian Communists, Turkish Nationalists, White Russians, British agents fighting for the Whites and some very, very cruel members of God's creation. Everything swirls around in a vast game where everyone is out to grab what they can from the dismembered Russian empire.
Almost everyone in here will be new to most readers - with the exception of Mikhael Borodin - but that shouldn't detract from an excellent piece of story telling. This is history the way it should be written. Five Stars is five too few.
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Is it being British and longing to know how a nation of bunglers can ever come so close to ruling the universe? Or is it the sheer romantic lust for wide open spaces and seeing things no one has ever seen before - except of course the ones who live here? I don't know, but By Jings Foreign Devils on the Silk Road is about as romantic as you can get.
It's about the race to steal the treasures of north-western China at the turn of the twentieth century. Sir Aurel Stein, a Brit. of Hungarian birth, and Sven Hedin, a Swede with a bit of thing for dictators, began a thirty year competition to find and save for posterity the ninth century Buddhist art work that had lain under the sands of the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts for the best part of a millennium. It would change the West's understanding of Central Asian history and their linguistics for ever.
After Stein and Hedin there came the ever-brilliant French, the determined Germans and a very strange bunch of Japanese 'holy men' come spies. A Russian or two arrived a little late and the final curtain came down on an headstrong Yank who didn't quite get what he'd bargained for when the Chinese decided enough was enough.
All set off from Kashgar and travelled by camel into no man's land in search of cities long forgotten and swallowed up in sand dunes. Not a satellite phone between them, they all managed to return with cart loads of precious art works and magnificent scrolls which they 'found' in desert oases and religious retreats guarded by monks who were up for a bribe or two. All met the McCartney's of Kashgar, those mad English nutters who ran a hilltop listening station in true Great Game style. (Yes the ones in 'Setting the East Ablaze' and the one's with the bathroom called 'Victory'). All steered by the stars and all had life threatening disasters involving frostbite and a bandit or two.
By the end you'll realise why Stein and Pelliot aren't names worth mentioning next time you're passing through Chinese customs. The Chinese, funnily enough, aren't too pleased at being reminded they all stood by and watched while wave after wave of expeditions left their territory with priceless artefacts - some of which were destroyed in WWII bombing raids while others lie stacked in boxes under the cobbled streets of Bloomsbury in London.
It's a gripping tale and one which reminds us that the world is very different now. You just can't ride a donkey into someone's house and rob them any more. How sad.
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The exploits of Colonel Bailey show that the kind of military man that we read of in Rider Haggard and John Buchan's novels really did exist. He would not have been out of place joining an Indiana Jones expedition. He really was an Edwardian action man writ large - bold, resourceful, uncomplaining and considerate of those endangered by his presence.
He is almost a caricature of the quintessentially British officer muddling through to triumph. He comes across as a talented amateur jack-of-all-trades - no James Bond he! He was a fair linguist but, as luck would have it, only had a smattering or no knowledge of the languages of the nationals he pretended to be: Serbs, Austrians, Romanians etc.
He certainly comes across as fearless. On one occasion he nonchalently reads a copy of The Times that he has "borrowed" from a Bolshevik officer in the room next door who had been sent to hunt for him. English sang froid is much in evidence as he casually mentions the executions of numerous people with whom he had been in close association. This guy had more lives than a dozen cats.
The book very much brings alive the chaos and casual brutality of the early days of the Bolshevik revolution in Turkestan. Somehow Bailey slips through it all, constantly striving to get intelligence out to Britain. Miraculously he never seems to want for money - we never do learn where it came from or where he kept it.
Bailey was a first class eccentric officer - as evidence of this I offer the fact that, whilst detailing his adventures in a world gone mad, he thinks it sufficiently important and interesting to his readers to catalog the various species of butterfly that he captured and preserved on his travels. He even presents us with a complete list of those taken between the Pamirs, Kashgar and on the road to Russian Turkestan complete with Latin names, and the place, altitude and date they were collected.
Mad dogs and Englishmen indeed!
What Mission to Tashkent is, is a factual account of the Russian Revolution, as played out in Central Asia, where the Bolshevik Russian minority based mainly in Tashkent (now in the independant sate of Uzbekistan) had to overcome White Russian, Moslem and British forces to establish the revolution on Central Asia (the British eventually withdrew, not wanting to become too involved).
In this book, F.M. Bailey, whose previous adventures had involved accompanying Francis E. Younghusband to Tibet in 1904 (on account of the fact he could speak Tibetan), details his journey from India via Kashgar to Tashkent. Once in Tashkent, the book covers the writer's life there, under constant fear of arrest or execution at the hands of the local Bolshevik Provisional Government. His official purpose was as a diplomatic representative for the British in Central Asia, which created much danger for himself, due to the presence of British forces at Ashgabad in Turkmenistan. He also gathered information for the British as to what exactly was happening there, due to concerns that the large number of German and Austrian prisoners of war held in Central Asia could be used to attack British India, if organised into a fighting force by German agents known to operate in Iran and Afghanistan - it was 1917/1918 and Britian was still fighting Germany. He also acted on the British behalf, believing that the British were about to advance on Tashkent and unseat the Bolsheviks in Central Asia, but in the end, this never happened with the aforementioned British withdrawal. The book finishes with his eventual flight to Iran, ending in his escape after a skirmish with Bolshevik troops on the Iranian border.
I found the book to be a thoroughly engrossing read, bar the aforementioned problems with the book's style and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in Turkestan / Uzbekistan and Central Asian history. With it being a factual account, it also makes for a useful insight into what was happening in outlying Tashkent at a time, when everyone else's eyes were focused on what was happening in revolutionary Moscow and St. Petersburg and how the Germans were going to react after the withdrawal of the Russians from the Great War. Highly recommended.
One of the highest ranking pieces in the Great Game was the British intelligent agent Lieut-Col Frederick M. Bailey, who wrote this fascinating book. So if you're a great intelligence agent, why is it so difficult to write a good book? Simple: A good intelligence agent keeps too much unsaid. Information is his stock in trade, so he is very sparing of all the interesting details.
Picture present-day Uzbekistan in the first year of the Bolshevik takeover (1918). No one in Europe had any idea of what to expect from the Bolsheviks. Would they become more moderate in time? Would the Muslim population accept them? Would the White Russians defeat them in battle and restore the Czar?
In the midst of all these swirling theories strode the skinny and extremely canny Colonel Bailey. He set himself up in Tashkent as the official representative of His Majesty's Government but immediately ran into roadblocks. Without informing Bailey, Britain had in the meantime engaged the Bolsheviks in battle near Murmansk and near the Caucasus. That quickly made Bailey persona non grata (which meant ripe for execution in those times).
But how does one arrest a wizard? Bailey immediately went underground and assumed the identity of a Romanian, Czech, Austrian, Albanian, or other POW, of which Tashkent had many from those WW 1 days. He rarely stayed in one place for more than a day or two, though he did manage to develop some loyal contacts, including the US consul Tredwell. For over a year, Bailey eluded capture. During the whole of that time, there was no effective contact with his government; and during most of that time, he was actively sought by the Cheka, or secret police.
The escape from Tashkent was ingenious and dramatic. Bailey got himself hired as a Bolshevik agent under an assumed identity and assigned to Bokhara, which was not yet under Bolshevik control at that time. There, he reached into his inexhaustible supply of money and bought horses, men and influence to allow him to escape south to Meshed in Persia, where there was a British presence.
I wish I knew at every point how the magician pulled a particular rabbit out of his hat, but I'll just have to take that as a given. Today, Bailey is regarded by the British as one of their greatest spies. In Central Asia, he is regarded as an arch-villain who threatened the development of Communism in Central Asia.
MISSION TO TASHKENT is not an easy read, but it is absolutely vital in understanding the forces, many of which still operate in this pivotal area of the globe.