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Dreaming of Khiva – From Bactria to Burnaby

July 24, 2015

Frederick Augustus Burnaby, by James Jacques Tissot. Pic: Wikipedia

So many cities, countries and even continents still to visit. Antarctica for example. Japan, most of South America. Much of Africa. I have a list, which has nothing to do with buckets because I’m not planning to kick one any time soon.

The usual suspects are there: Rio, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Saigon, Sydney. But when you have maybe another fifteen years of active travelling ahead of you, you have to make a decision. Do you cherry-pick or do you immerse?

I have a friend whom I would describe as an obsessive-compulsive traveller. Throughout the thirty-odd years of our acquaintance, she has made it her life’s mission to travel to as many places as possible. If you look at her fridge, you will find the door covered with those little magnets you can buy in every place you’ve visited. Some years ago I sponsored her for British citizenship – she was born in California. In support of her application she was required to provide a list of all the countries she had visited. The list went to several pages.

Before she travels, she researches her destination and plans the itinerary with military precision. We once went on holiday to France with her and her husband. While my family would content ourselves with visiting perhaps a village or a chateau every couple of days, our friend would drag her husband and kids on a route march that would take in at least six attractions in a single day. 30 minutes in this cathedral, an hour in that museum; 300 kilometres of driving in between. She would stride here and there with relentless energy, leaving her exhausted family trailing in her wake.

I often wonder what she gets out of all these fleeting descents into other people’s lives, cultures and experience. How much does she remember of each visit? What effect do the places she goes to have on her outlook, her perception and her wisdom? And why does she do it? To be able to tick off yet another place on her life experience list – because it’s there? I don’t ask, because it feels as if to question her travel bug would be tantamount to questioning her very existence. And anyway, that’s her business, not mine.

Her approach certainly seems to be the embodiment of the classic “American Tourist” stereotype of old: if it’s Tuesday we must be in Paris. And as someone who’s done his fair share of city-hopping, who am I to criticise that outlook in another? On the contrary, I can only admire her awesome stamina and curiosity.

For me, as I’m sure is the case with many others, travel comes in three categories. There are business trips, beach holidays and journeys of exploration. So I go to Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East on business – usually on my own. With my wife I might go to Thailand for a couple of weeks of slobbing out (which more accurately describes my method of relaxing than chilling, the cliché of the decade) in a nice hotel. And where our interests coincide we might go to somewhere like Prague or Istanbul, where we can wander through museums, palaces and side streets, or the coast of Asia Minor, where Ephesus and a hundred other archaeological sites await, untouched as yet by the predations of ISIS.

Unlike my friend, I have no desire to see as many places as time and money allow. I would rather go on journeys that expand my existing base of knowledge, rather than open up a whole new area of superficial interest. For example, if I wanted to make sense of what I might be seeing in Japan or South Korea, I would want to spend time understanding the history of those countries. That would not simply be a matter of looking at a few coffee table books, consulting Wikipedia and then visiting a temple or two. I know plenty about the recent history, but that would not be enough. I would want to read several books, and maybe try to dip my toe into the respective languages. Yes, I would love to see Tokyo and Seoul, but not at the expense of other places that can deepen an existing understanding.

Yesterday I decided that I will go to Khiva, Samarkand and Bokhara. The reason? They are way points on the Silk Road, the commercial and cultural artery that linked China and Europe for much of recorded history. And yes, I would like to go to Homs, Palmyra, Bahgdad, Tehran, Mashad, Merv, Herat and other cities that owed their existence to the caravans that went back and forth between empires that never shared borders. But war and politics currently limit those opportunities.

There are other reasons. When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, he marched on beyond the Oxus River all the way to Northern India before finally heading back to Babylon. But not before establishing the province of Bactria, which encompassed much of modern Afghanistan, but also of Uzbekistan, within whose borders sit the three cities in my sights. For three hundred years, Bactria was the easternmost outpost of Hellenism.


Eucratides, King of Bactria. Pic: Wikipedia

Bokhara was one of the major centres of Islamic scholarship in the early years of Islam. It and other cities of the Central Asian Silk Road played a full part in the explosion of knowledge acquisition that took place in the three centuries of the Abbasid caliphate – the so-called Golden Age of Islam. Samarkand was the capital of Timur the Lame – Shakespeare’s Tamarlane – the Mongol warlord who built mountains out of the skulls of those opposed him as he went about creating an empire stretching from India to Egypt.

And in the nineteenth century the khanates of Khiva, Bokhara and Khokand stood in the way of Russia’s ambition to extend its empire across Central Asia and ultimately to add India to its domains – a desire that underpinned the century-long competition between Russia and Britain known as The Great Game.

Why would someone whose life has been bound up first with the history of ancient Greece and Rome, and subsequently with that of the Middle East, Persia, Byzantium and China, with the history of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and with the geopolitics of the last two centuries not want to visit Khiva, Samarkand and Bokhara?

But why now?

Though each successive layer of history provides its own powerful lure, it was actually the Great Game that has led me to this solemn resolution. Or more specifically, three books. The first, by the travel writer Colin Thubron, was Shadow of the Silk Road. Next was Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, by Peter Hopkirk. And most recently I read A Ride to Khiva – Travel and Adventures in Central Asia, by Frederick Gustavus Burnaby.

Hopkirk and Thubron are contemporary writers. Hopkirk, who died recently, was a distinguished journalist who wrote several books about Central Asia. In Foreign Devils he writes about the efforts of archaeologists and treasure hunters who, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, flocked to the Taklamakan Desert in what is now Xinjiang province in western China. Many of their discoveries had lain under the sand for centuries, swallowed up by the advancing desert. What they retrieved – Buddhist frescos, parchments and figurines as well as various Christian, Zorastrian and Islamic artefacts – ended up in private collections and national museums, much to the subsequent disgust of the Chinese, who to this day resent the rape of their cultural heritage.

Thubron’s book is more of a conventional travelogue, but with the past never far away. He visits various cities along the old Silk Road and describes his experiences in countries where most of us would fear to tread as solo travellers – China, Afghanistan and Kurdish Turkey for example. He uses the glories of the Silk Road as the backdrop to the shabby state of many of the cities he visits.

Fred Burnaby is a very different proposition. The son of a English country parson, he was a captain in the Royal Horse Guards with an independent streak. In the 1875 he embarked on an epic voyage through Russia to Khiva, which two years earlier had been conquered by the Russians and turned into a vassal state. To do so he had to get letters of permission from various dignitaries in St Petersburg. Though he managed to obtain the paperwork, he was watched with suspicion throughout his journey. Various officials reported on his progress on a regular basis, and close to his journey’s end did their best to stymie him.

The reason Burnaby was able to make the journey was that British officers in those days were employed only for part of the year. He therefore had the chance to make the trip across the Asian steppes in his own time and at his own expense, but at probably the worst time of the year – winter – through thick snow and in temperatures of up minus 30C. What’s more, he didn’t have the benefit of maps once he left Orenburg, the last outpost of the Russian empire in the South East.

The result of his journey was A Ride to Khiva, a best-selling book full of adventure and derring-do, just the sort of thing the imperial-minded Victorians lapped up. Burnaby became a celebrated hero through his various adventures and ultimately by the manner of his death at the hands of followers of the Mahdi in Sudan. He was a big man in all respects. Six foot four and twenty stone, his strength was legendary. It needed to be on the journey to Khiva. Much of the way from Orenburg he relied on a horse-drawn sleigh or on the back of a series of small but hardy horses. He nearly lost his arms through frostbite and several times found himself lost in the middle of ferocious blizzards.

Khiva, Uzbekistan. Pic: Wikipedia

When he finally made it to Khiva, he had no idea what kind of reception he might get from the Khan. The Russians, ever keen to deter him, warned that the monarch had a nasty habit of gouging the eyes out of foreigners to whom he took a disliking. As it turned out, the Khan was a gracious host who was keen to interrogate Burnaby about the relative strengths of the British and Russian empires. The last and only previous English visitor to Khiva had been Captain James Abbott thirty years before. Abbott was an Indian Army officer whose mission was to obtain the release of a number of Russians whom a previous Khan had enslaved, thus removing from the Russians an excuse to invade, and thereby extend the boundaries of their empire ever closer to India. Abbott succeeded, and went on to be a noted Indian colonial administrator. The town of Abbottabad in Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden met his end, is named after him.

A Ride to Khiva is laced throughout with conversations with various Russians that might be interpreted as informal intelligence gathering. Not that his commanding officer was much impressed. When Burnaby got to Khiva the Duke of Cambridge ordered him to return to England forthwith.

Some of his conversations were highly prophetic. The Russian commanders at the time were nervous of Germany’s intentions. Newly unified under the leadership of Prussia, Germany had only five years before inflicted a national humiliation on France, besieging Paris and forcing the French to cede the territories of Alsace and Lorraine.

In one discussion on a train early in the journey, Burnaby talks to his fellow travellers about the various ambitions of the Great Powers:

The carriages between St Petersburg and Moscow are, if possible, more commodious than those which run from the capital to the German frontier. They are also well supplied with sleeping compartments, so the journey can be performed as comfortably as if travelling in a Cunard’s steamboat.

Upon taking my seat, two ladies, dressed in the deepest black, entered the carriage.and solicitied subscriptions from the different passengers for the wounded insurgents in Herzegovina.

“I suppose some of this money will go to the maintenance of the hale as well as the sick” observed a fellow-traveller. “Poor fellows, they want arms very badly.”

“I would give anything to drive out those Mussulmans,” remarked his companion, producing a well-filled purse, and making a large donation to the fund.

His example was followed by all the other Russians in the carriage. Not wishing to appear conspicuous by not subscribing, I added a trifle, my vis-a-vis saying: “Thank you brother. It will help keep the sore open; the sooner the Turk falls to pieces the better. What is the good of our having a fleet on the Black Sea unless we can command the Dardanelles? The longer this affair continues the more likely we are to reach Constantinople.”

“What will the English say to this?” I inquired. “Oh England, she goes for nothing now.” He replied. “She is so bent on money-making that it will take a great deal of kicking to make her fight. Why, she did not do anything when Gortschakoff repudiated the Black Sea Treaty.”

“He (Gortschakoff) chose just the right time for this,” added a fellow-traveller; “it was just after Sedan.”

“After Sedan or before Sedan”, continued the first speaker, “it would have been all the same; England is like an overfed bull, she has lost the use of her horns.”

“What of her fleet?” I inquired. “Well, what can she do with it?” was the answer. “She can block up the Baltic – but the frost does that for six months of the year, and she can prevent the corn from our Southern Provinces reaching her own markets; bread will be dearer in London, that is all. England will not land troops in the Crimea again.”

“God grant that she may,” said another, “our railway to Sevastopol is now open.”

I here remarked that England is not likely to declare war without having an ally. “But what if Germany or Austria were to join her?”

As for those pigs of Germans, we must fight them some day or other,” replied the previous speaker, and when the Tzarevitch is Emperor, please God we will beat them well, and drive every German brute out of Russia; they fatten on our land at the expense of our brothers.

“But supposing they get the best of it?”

“Well, what can they do? They cannot stop in Russia, even if they should be able to assail us. We can play the old game – keep on retiring. Russia is big, and there is plenty of country at our back”

All the rivalries that distilled into World War I in a nutshell.

Those last words were spoken sixty years after Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and a similar distance in time before Hitler’s attempt. The Tzarevitch in question, who subsequently became Nicholas II, did indeed eventually fight, and lost his throne and head as the result, something those cocksure travellers wouldn’t have anticipated.

Political discussions apart – and I wonder how much of the lily Burnaby was gilding for his domestic audience – the narrative rattles along at a fine pace. As he presses on towards Khiva he describes a world in which the accumulated knowledge of travellers along the Silk Road has shrivelled into handed-down heresay. Rather like the Arabian heartland before the coming of oil that Abdurrahman Al-Munif describes in his Cities of Salt trilogy.

To make the reading easier for his audience, Burnaby provides a little summary of the main points of the narrative at the beginning of each chapter. Here’s one of them that gives a flavour of the story:

The Turkoman on his Donkey – Jana Darya – A once Fertile Country – A barren waste – The grandfather of the Khan – English Horses and Kirghiz Horses – Russian Cavalry – A Sea Like Molten Gold – Isles as of Silver – Kamastakak – A Fresh Water Pond – A Return to Vegetation – Saigak – Pheasants – The Camel Driver is taken Ill – The Moullahs – Conjuring the Evil One – A Dog of an Unbeliever – The Guide’s Fight with a Khivan – A revolver is sometimes a Peace-maker – Khivan methods of Preserving Grass throughout the Winter – Deep Chasms – Tombs – The Vision of the Khirghiz – The Khazan-Tor Mountains – Auriferous nature of the Soil.

One can imagine Burnaby holding forth back in the salons of London society in front of a rapt audience of society ladies as they tinkled their teacups in excitement at the savagery of the natives in a far-away country. When he wasn’t describing his feat in becoming the first person to cross the English Channel in a hot-air balloon, of course.

Such was his celebrity that in my home town of Birmingham, where he unsuccessfully stood for Parliament against one of the great political luminaries of the time, Joseph Chamberlain, the corporation erected in the cathedral churchyard an obelisk in his honour. I must have passed it by a hundred times when I was young without knowing the significance of “Burnaby” and “Khiva 1875” inscribed at its base.

So Burnaby has finally convinced me. Reading books is not enough. I will go to Khiva, and if possible I will follow his path from Orenberg, though not in the winter and not on horseback – I don’t have his strength and resilience. And I will visit places he didn’t see: Samarkand and Bokhara. Burnaby will just be a waypoint into the past. Beyond him, I will be looking for Abbot, for Tamerlane, for Genghis Khan, for the Umayyad Caliphs, for Alexander the Great, for the Buddha.

Not this year, but hopefully next. And certainly not much later than that. Because later becomes less of a certainty the older you get. And who knows what will become of the mosques, the ornate tiles, the mudbrick palaces and the freedom to visit them in the age of the new caliphate?

From → Books, Middle East, Travel, UK

  1. Ben Dyal permalink

    Surely you should have concluded by saying “…in the POSSIBLE age of the new caliphate”.

    • True, but try and convince ISIS of that!

      • alex permalink

        I am also from Birmingham and have looked at the Khiva memorial over the years. I found your article fascinating..can you let me k ow more of your travels.

      • Thanks Alex. You could subscribe to the blog, so you get an email every time I post. You’ll find a field for this just below the subject cluster on the right of the home page. You can also see other stuff by clicking on the travel tab in the menu. Best, Steve

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