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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.

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. The track sweeps across dun ridges and boulder-strewn gullies, where the trout-rich river is an intense cobalt blue.

Kelly's route forked up the Ghizr River through small gorges and shallow defiles, where the villages are smaller and more austere. After pausing at Khalti, a beautiful slender lake formed around 13 years ago after a flood, we took our Jeep up a moraine spur beyond Chashi to the deep-set Phandur Lake. Kelly had also expected to find the lake here, but the year before his expedition it had drained away when a natural dam collapsed. It was near here, in the early April snow, that Kelly's problems began.

After an episode in which he had to coax back 100 Yasin coolies who had bolted one night, Kelly took his men onto the freezing, narrow plain near Teru, where the snow lay belly-high to their mules. "The wind and cold had peeled the skin off our faces till it hung in flakes," wrote Beynon of the frostbitten men huddled in the open. He reported that for a few rupees, a local mullah-cum-charlatan offered 'infallible charms' against the terrible weather. But the trail was vague and the mules got stuck. Makeshift sledges for the vital seven-pounders barely worked, so the guns had to be dismantled and carried in pieces, 50 metres at a time.

On my journey, I travelled in August and found more favourable conditions. Women with tall pillbox hats tended sun-ripened fields at Barsat, and timid marmots fled across boggy meadows at Langar, the valley at the foot of the pass.

The 16-kilometre stretch up over the Shandur Pass and down to the first Chitrali village at Sor Laspur was the worst for Kelly's men. Unwilling to suck snow, they grew parched, and when the sun shone they were blinded by its glare. As we followed the rutted track, our wheels spun, splattering mules loaded with shepherds' kindling. While it wasn't an especially steep climb, our driver gunned the engine with gusto for his final whooping thrust to the 3,753-metre pass.

Shandur Top, as the locals call it, undulates gently for several kilometres, with two lakes and a rudimentary Chitral Scouts checkpoint. There's a small grandstand where the annual Gilgit-Chitral polo tournament is held; with a skyline teased by the jagged peaks of the Hindu Raj and Hindu Kush, this is surely among the world's most spectacular polo grounds. One of our passengers had family here for the summer grazing, so we diverted to a cluster of crude shepherds' huts, where we hunkered down behind stone walls and lunched on fresh rotis dipped in butter-cream and curd.

The Chitralis never expected Kelly to cross the pass. And when he made it through, the morale of his men rose for a variety of reasons. Having left the domain of the Maharajah of Kashmir, a Hindu, the British fell they could once more eat beef. And at Sor Laspur, some villagers were 'politely requested' to leave their homes and billet officers.

On they marched by the Laspur River and, after a skirmish at Chokalwat, they relieved a minor siege at Mastuj. At last there was a sense that they had the initiative. Set in a broad, open valley, Mastuj tries hard to be a town. Its crumbling fort--which Beynon reckoned could be brought down with a good kick--is now occupied by the aged son of Robertson's mehtar.

Though put to flight, the Chitralis believed they still had an ace up their sleeve. They retreated to Nisa Gol, about an hour down-river, close to a rickety bridge that crosses a bottleneck of surging water. Here, a sheer-sided 75-metre ravine was long considered an example of impregnable 'Fortress Chitral'. On 13 April 1895, about 1,500 of the Chitralis waited here for Kelly's men to arrive. Despite the difference in numbers and the enemy's Snider rifles and stone breastworks, Kelly came at them, scaling ladders and all. Two hours later, with a mere six dead and 16 wounded, they had breached Nisa Gol.

Today, Jeeps still drive gingerly here as the track creeps across unstable scree. Back on the vast, sloping alluvial fan dotted with crops and orchards, there are terrific views of 6,550-metre Buni Zom and a distant Tirich Mir, at 7,706 metres the Hindu Kush's highest peak.

Shortly before Buni village, the tarmac resumes, a velvety ribbon of road weaving high above the Mastuj River all the way to Chitral. The relief force detoured from the main route near here, having heard turnouts of a blocked trail and ambushes. Later, they saw their comrades' bodies on the shoals and floating down-river, victims of the skirmishes that had first galvanised the British. Then, two days short of Chitral, a messenger rode in to camp. The besiegers had fled. Having almost succombed to fire and a tunnel-mine, the fort was finally free.

Although the campaign was over, there was a feeling of disappointment. Beynon felt the fleeing Chitralis gave "just cause for complaint by not playing the game". But Robertson's men were undoubtedly relieved. Rations were very low--they had been forced to eat their horses--and the latrines were putrid. Despite spirited resistance, personified by the Sikh sepoys rigging a Union Jack from their turbans, morale was sapped by 47 days of siege.

In the rosy afterglow, the tenacious Sikhs, both those who had been trapped in the fort and those who had toiled with Kelly, were commended in a decorations ceremony. "From a career point of view," writes Peter Hopkirk in The Great Game, "Chitral was clearly a good place to have on one's CV."

Today the old fort is still Chitral's largest building. But the ul-Mulks have built a modest hotel beside it, and Chitralis are now obsessed with a different kind of game: polo. Late one evening I heard celebratory gunfire rattling off the hills. The police had been playing the Scouts and I wondered who had won. "Here in Pakistan," quipped a local man, "the army always wins."

The Great Game

Lieutenant Arthur Connolly of the Bengal Light Cavalry first coined the phrase 'Great Game' in the 1830s after an extraordinary and dangerous overland trip back to India via the Caucasus, Persia and Afghanistan. He was among the first members of a clandestine operation to gather intelligence on Russian influence and designs on the vast unmapped lands between the Russian and British empires. As their respective frontiers edged closer, India itself began to look vulnerable.

The urgency of the game's play ebbed and flowed according to politicians' agendas and relations between the powers. Connolly's adventure was inspired in part by the dreams of Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I to conquer India, and then Russia's own exploits in the Caucasus and Persia. In Britain and India, the hawks believed in a 'forward' proactive policy of befriending and/or conquering frontier rulers, while the doves favoured 'masterly inactivity'--letting the inhospitable terrain thwart perceived Russian designs on India on the cheap.

Published in 1901, Rudyard Kipling's Kim reflected public awareness of the Great Game. Army officers, surveyors disguised as pilgrims, sportsmen and adventurers--all willing to risk their lives in remote, sometimes desolate places--were among the players. Their playing fields included places that few in Whitehall had heard of or could locate on maps. Despite the gravity of what was at stake, the game often took second place to the larger European picture. Indeed, there were times when it all seemed almost unreal. "It was the fate of empires apparently waiting on the word of some illiterate chieftan, or hanging on the outcome of a battle fought by rock climbers," wrote John Keay in his 1979 book The Gilgit Game.

The 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention more or less ended the game. Some argue it merely changed its tone and evolved into the Cold War. Today, however, there is talk of a new Great Game based around oil, gas and narcotic wealth in Central Asia.
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Author:Grover, Amar
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2003
Words:1976
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