The Indian Spy in Kashgar – Part 2/3

Path to Yarkand

(Approach to Yarkand. A sketch by Robert Shaw)

(Read Part 1)

In December 1868, Mirza left Badakshan towards Kashgar. The winter travel was not easy on him or his porters or the animals. Some days both the men and animals suffered from shortness of breath which made them slow and insensible. Once they walked for 9 miles and found that fresh snow had erased previous tracks leaving them stranded. That night they had to sleep in the snow.

Many centuries earlier the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang had a similar experience with his retinue and dozen people died in the cold. In his travelogue, the monk wrote about the steep and dangerous roads, the cold and biting wind, as well as the fierce dragons that molest travelers. The precaution, he suggested, was not to wear red garments or carry loud-sounding calabashes.

If the snow storm did not get Mirza, robbers could have. Near Kulm-Tashkurgan, they were attacked by bandits who wounded two members of Mirza’s group and stole some of their goods. He also could have been discovered as a spy. In Fayzabad one of his men ho did not want to travel in the intense cold denounced him as an infidel and spy. Mirza had to shut him up with a bribe.

In Kulm-Tashkurgan a man who looked European joined Mirza. Thinking that he was a European Mirza almost told him the truth, but then the man spoke  perfect Persian and Mirza kept quiet. Once when a Kirgiz man saw him use the compass and was suspicious Mirza escaped by suggesting that he was just trying to point it to Mecca.

Mirza soon reached the point where the Amu Darya split into two branches. One John Wood from the British Navy had come this far in 1838. Since Wood had explored the northern route, Mirza took the uncharted southern route.  Crossing the Pamirs he reached the Tashkurgan fort.

From this point everyone would treat the stranger as a suspect. It started with the Governor of  Tashkurgan fort who wanted to inspect Mirza’s goods to verify his credentials.  Mirza was able to get past that by offering some gifts, but still the Governor would not let him travel alone; he was to travel under the Governor’s escort to the nearby Kashgar.

In January, he resumed his march to Kashgar. He reached there in February and probably was relieved to see shops selling bread, hot tea and sour milk. It was much better than eating frozen meat in inhospitable locales. Even the landscape was refreshing with orchards of fruit trees and mulberry groves.

The city which was built between the two branches of the Kazul river was fortified with watch towers at regular intervals and had  houses made of sun burned bricks and flat roofs. It had quite a few mosques too. The residents resembled a Benneton Ad: among the 16,000 families were Turks, Tajiks, Afghans, Kashmiris and Hindustanis. Though it was banned, the people ate opium, sang and danced. The women were required to wear a black or white burqa and show only their eyes.

Yakub Beg
Yakub BegKashgar then was ruled by Yakub Beg. Beg had started as a servant of the Khan of Khokhan — some accounts call him a dancing boy — and rose to be the Governor of Ak-Musjid. As Governor, he allowed the Russians to settle there without the knowledge of the Khan and probably by taking a bribe. He then fled to Bokara in Uzbekistan and lay low for three years till he gained favor with the new Khan.  The new Khan sent him to help in driving the Chinese out of Kashgar and other oases which he did. By then the Khan had developed his own problems with the Russians. Since there was no one to chaperon Beg, he went rogue and declared independence.

Though he was a man of simple manners, Beg was suspicious of everyone; he had spies around in his country.  Always armed, he was afraid of being murdered. He was generous and divided his spoils among his followers and also  fed a large number of people after daily prayers. He was a strict Muslim; He prayed five time a day also mandated that everyone do so. He also kept away from wine, women and opium.

The region was divided among his friends and relatives and no accounts were kept. So long as Beg got his share, he did not bother them. Quite a few people went for the Hajj hoping that they would be less bothered by the officials due to their title. Some went for the Hajj and absconded.

The Englishmen

Around the time Mirza reached Kashgar, unknown to him two other Englishmen had reached there with different motives.

Robert Shaw was a tea planter who lived in the Himalayan foot hills. He had moved to India at the age of 20 after ill health prevented him from joining the Army. From traders who had been to Kashgar, he knew that Indian tea could have a market there since the Chinese were kicked out. British officials were prohibited from traveling beyond the borders, but since Shaw was a private citizen, he decided to look for new markets in Kashgar.

Shaw left Leh on September 20, 1868 with a caravan. But following him was another Englishman, an ex-army officer named George Hayward whose goal was to explore the passes between Ladakh and Kashgar as well as the source of Amu Darya for the Royal Geographical Society. Hayward knew about the travel ban, but did not care and disguised himself as a Pathan and left.

As Shaw was traveling, he got news of Hayward. Shaw had invested much into his business trip and did not want another Englishman jeopardizing it. So he sent a note to Hayward asking him to turn back. But Hayward was not a man to turn back. Finally they met over a camp fire and Hayward decided to give Shaw a two-week start to Kashgar. They did not part as friends and they did not part as enemies.

Shaw reached Yarkand and soon was joined by Hayward; the smart Hayward told the border guards at Yarkand that he was part of Shaw’s caravan. But in Yarkand, they ignored each other, but kept an eye on each other as well. Keeping an eye on both of them were the authorities at Yarkand, who were waiting for instructions from Kashgar. When Shaw finally left Yarkand and reached Kashgar on Jan 4th 1869, he was the first Englishman to do so; he reached before Mirza.

Now that all the actors had arrived, it was time for the Kashgar drama to start

(To be continued)

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