On the Trail of the Great Game in the Hindukush

Travelling through Northern Pakistan in the footsteps of George Hayward

On a bright autumn morning I set out walking along the Yasin Valley, high in the Hindu Kush Mountains in the wild borderlands of northern Pakistan. Stark, iron-grey slopes rose on either side towards a cobalt-blue sky. In the lower reaches of the valley the poplar trees were flaming brushstrokes of copper-gold in the sharp sunlight, and the voices of children and the bleating of goats carried on the still air.

My destination – the end-point of a year of research and travel – lay twenty miles ahead in the little hamlet of Darkot, last settlement before a high pass that led towards Afghanistan. I was travelling in the footsteps of the 19th Century British explorer George Hayward, heading for the spot where, in 1870, he was brutally murdered while trying to reach the Pamir Mountains.

I had first come across brief accounts of Hayward’s strange story in books about “the Great Game”, the cold war of spying and exploration fought between Russia and the British Empire in the turbulent spaces of Central Asia in the 19th Century, and had been fascinated ever since. Like all the explorers who travelled in the region in the heyday of empire, Hayward straddled the boundary between espionage and scientific endeavour. But unlike his contemporaries – men with stiff upper lips and flying moustaches – he was somehow more modern, more intense. The motives for his murder remain a mystery to this day.

The first journeys in my quest to find out more about this intriguing figure had taken me to the British Library and the Royal Geographical Society in London. But once I had leafed through Hayward’s letters, squinted at the squiggles of his spidery handwriting, and rifled the reams of conflicting reports on his death, I had hit a rockier road.

For three years, in his desperate attempts to reach the Pamirs, Hayward had criss-crossed the high mountains of Asia, passing through the Karakoram in winter without a tent, being held hostage in Kashgar and falling out with the Maharaja of Kashmir, before finally coming to a sticky end in the Yasin Valley.

Over the course of four wonderful months 140 years later, I rode rickety buses through Kashmir, hitchhiked across Ladakh, crossed Xinjiang during a total communications black-out enforced by the Chinese government, and now, finally, I was approaching my goal.

I had been to Pakistan before, but this was my first return since the recent turmoil which has tipped the troubled nation to the very brink of the abyss. Coming in the footsteps of a fellow countryman who was beheaded by the locals didn’t, I had to admit, seem like the luckiest of pilgrimages, but in the ten days since I arrived on the stomach-churning Karakoram Highway from China I had met nothing but warm welcomes and hot cups of tea. The ramshackle town of Gilgit, capital of Pakistan’s far north, had been a place of firm handshakes and wild polo matches, and the Hunza Valley had been achingly beautiful. Yasin itself was a place of sharp light and gifts.

It was late afternoon when I shambled into Darkot, a cold, stony village of flat-roofed houses beneath scored brown slopes. A ragged glacier curved to the west and the trail to the pass that Hayward had been trying to cross when he was killed bent away to the north.

But today Darkot seemed a world away from the political troubles of both the 19th century and the modern era. Gaggles of friendly children led me to the house of the local schoolmaster, Mohamed Murad. He was completely unperturbed by my arrival and invited me to stay the night, though he later told me I was the first foreign traveller to visit Darkot for more than a year.

After plying me with fresh bread and salty mountain tea Murad and another kindly teacher named Abdul Rashid led me to the spot where Hayward was killed – still known today as Feringhi Bar, “the Foreigner’s Valley”. It was a strangely beautiful spot, a patch of goat-cropped grass beneath a buckled apricot tree with the mountains all around. There, in the company of Murad, Abdul Rashid and a local farmer called Badal Beg I was treated to an impromptu picnic and a taste of the warm hospitality for which the rugged uplands of northern Pakistan are rightly famous.

It was, I decided as I sipped my tea looking out across the high peaks of the Hindu Kush, a fitting end to my pilgrimage…

By Tim Hannigan, the writer of ”Murder in Hindukush”, published in April, 2011

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