Getting in the Game


Map of Kashgar


The city of Kashgar is in an interesting geographical location.  In one sense, it is in the middle of nowhere.  Far, far away from the great historical centres of power – from Moscow, from Beijing, from Calcutta, from London, from Rome.  And yet it is on the way to everywhere. 


Situated on the main artery of the old Silk Road that cuts east-west, for centuries it saw the passage of large quantities of silk through its markets heading west to satisfy the obsessive demand for this new exclusive material in the marbled hallways of Rome.  So great and so fast did this addiction grow from the first century BC, when Romans first became aware of this wondrous material, that the Roman politician Seneca described it as positively immoral.  He was referring to the silk garments popular with the more refined ladies of Rome that were woven so finely that little was left to the imagination – so-called “glass togas” – in which, he said, “no lady could honestly swear that she was not naked”.  He may also have been thinking of the great drain on Rome’s gold supply, which travelled east to pay for these luxury materials, along with other more unusual goods – wild animals, intricately coloured glassware and musical instruments that would entertain the eccentric and cosmopolitan tastes of the imperial court in Chang’An (modern day Xi’an).


When one considers the notorious distain with which China today views the intellectual property rights of the creative minds of other nations, it is a great irony of the Silk Trade how closely guarded was the secret of how to make silk by the Chinese for perhaps thousands of years.  The origins of this discovery are shrouded in legend and mystery – only the Chinese knew how to make silk, and they wanted to keep it that way. 


It is thought to be one of several important technological discoveries made under the benign and creative rule of the semi-mythical “Yellow Emperor”.  He is also attributed with inventing paper-making.  The Chinese afford the title of Goddess of Silk to his wife, Lei Zu, who ruled with him in about 3000BC.  She is credited with introducing silkworm rearing and the invention of the loom on which silk would be spun.  Many centuries later, special celebrations would be held in her honour at the imperial court, during which the ladies of the court in particular would appear in their silk fineries and ride in grand procession to make offerings at the Temple of the Silkworms.  This tradition began during the Han dynasty in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD and continued right on through to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. 


Yellow Emperor.jpg

Artistic characterisation of the Yellow Emperor


Certainly archaeological finds support a very early date for the discovery of silk-making, with artefacts found along the Yellow River valley dating back to around 2,500BC associated with silk, silkworms and the mulberry bushes on which they feed and grow.  But eventually the knowledge of how to make silk spread to the west.  The story goes that the “breakout” came in about 440AD with the marriage of a Chinese princess to a local king in Hetian – a city only a couple of hundred kilometres south-east of Kashgar.  She liked wearing silk so much that, when she went off to assume her duty as an obliging wife, she smuggled a collection of silkworm eggs out of China in her head-dress, and set up a handful of Xinjiang craftsmen to get to work.  This they did with great enthusiasm, and the secret of silk-making gradually spread west from there. 


The strategic importance of this region has meant that Kashgar has seen probably more than its fair share of historical action, and it certainly remains what it always has been – a meeting point of tradespeople, their cultures and their goods, a never-ceasing whirl of animals, clothing, metalwork, carpets and tapestries, artwork, and a bewildering array of fruits and foods from all points of the compass.  In days gone by, a polyglot melting pot of slaves would have been traded here as well. 


As well as the east-west route, Kashgar sits astride the Kashkoram highway, running from the Indian sub-continent to the south, and continuing northwards towards Kyrgyzstan and Russia and Siberia even further north.  Few cities in the world are located in the path of such established overland trade routes.


The uneasy relationship between the Chinese and Uighurs is nothing new here either.  In the first few centuries of the first millennium AD, Kashgar was part of a Buddhist kingdom that was sometimes at odds and sometimes in alliance with the spreading influence and military intervention of the Chinese to the east, the Tibetans to the south and east, and later the advancing influences of Islam from the west.  Under the Tang dynasty, Kashgar recognised the sovereignty of imperial China, and trade through the region flourished.  But as the Tang’s power waned, they lost control of Kashgar and the kingdom came under a loose and uneasy affiliation of central Asian khanates. 


The people were converted to Islam sometime around the 10th century AD and then carried on occasional jihads against the Buddhist khanates that retained their more ancient faith to the east. 


All this militant strife had the effect of disrupting the overland trade through the region and merchants began looking for alternative sea-borne routes to carry on their trade.  So ended the hey-day of the Silk Road.  But of course this didn’t end the strategic importance of this place. 


Interspersed by very short periods of stability, the bloody power struggles continued – in particular between two opposing Islamic sects (the White Hats and the Black Hats – which you can still see in modern-day Kashgar), until the Chinese, under the Qing dynasty (in the 18th century), managed to organise themselves to retake the region. 


 Kyrgyz face

A modern rendition of one of the White Hats


But Chinese rule was never easily accepted.  The local khojas (religious leaders) attempted to overthrow their Chinese overlords no less than six times – and each failure brought terrible reprisals on the local population, until in the mid-19th century one of the more charismatic figures in Central Asian history appeared on the scene, Yakub Beg – of whom more in a moment. 


Although a troublesome far-flung land in their expanding empire, at least one of the Qing emperors found something pleasing in Kashgaria. 


According to the Han legend, the story goes that the Qianlong Emperor, doing the rounds of his imperial possessions in the middle of the 18th century, came across a local Uighur girl named Iparhan, the granddaughter of Apak Khoja, one of the local leaders in Kashgar.  Her radiant beauty was said to be surpassed only by the alluring natural scent that emanated from her body.  The emperor was captivated and sought to take her back east with him as his Imperial Consort to join his court harem (lucky girl).  Apak Khoja graciously obliged and offered her as a gift to his emperor and she returned to Beijing, bathing each day on the road in camel’s milk in order to preserve her delicious fragrance.  However, although the Emperor was quite taken with his new consort - the so-called Fragrant Concubine – she pined away for her homeland.  The Emperor spoiled her rotten with every conceivable luxury and horticultural gimmick in an attempt to recreate her beloved Kashgaria and cheer her up, but it was not until he sent messengers to Kashgar who returned with a jujube tree bearing its golden fruit, that she finally relented and returned his great love for her.  Whereupon she lived as his most cherished concubine until the end of her days, and mightily happy she must have been.  Upon her death, her body was transported to her beloved Kashgar once more, where she was buried.  (You can still go and see her tomb outside Kashgar today.) 


Fragrant Concubine.jpg

A photographer's impression of the Fragrant Concubine's appearance


So, according to the Han telling, the story of the Fragrant Concubine is one of “harmonious unity” between the province of Xinjiang and their Chinese big brother to the east. 


The contemporary Uighur telling of the story of the Fragrant Concubine is considerably less romantic (that is if you consider the last story romantic at all).  Instead of being offered as a gift to a beneficent Emperor, the girl Iparhan was stolen from her husband, a local Muslim leader who had resisted the rule of the Qing.  (Some versions even have it that Iparhan herself was a sword-wielding rebellious leader.)  She is whisked away to the imperial court in Beijing (at least on that they agree) where, spirited girl that she evidently was, she armed herself with daggers up her sleeves and determined to resist the emperor’s amorous advantages at whatever cost to herself. 


According to this telling, she at least manages to retain her purity, but in the end the Empress Dowager (the enamoured Emperor’s mother) arranges for her murder at the hands of the ever-complicit court eunuchs to punish her for her impudence and remove the threat to her son. 


Which version to believe?  Perhaps it doesn’t really matter.  The important point is surely that, whatever happened, she must have smelt wonderful. 


As the push and pull relationship between the imperial centre and this restless borderland continued, the mid-19th century heralded the entry of an ambitious war-monger, Yakub Beg, onto the scene. 


Yakub Beg.jpg

Yakug Beg as Khan of Kashgaria;

complete with a beard you could lose a badger in...


Yakub Beg was in fact not from Kashgar, but was born further west in the khanate of Khokand (now in Uzbekistan).  He was a Tajik by blood, but cut his teeth in his early military career causing trouble for the Russians by attacking the outlying forts and military posts of the Great Bear, and doing his best to defend against the Russian advances against his own positions. 


(Any Flashman purists reading will remember – in Flashman at the Charge – Flashy’s participation in one of these attacks, fuelled on hashish and the promise of Yakug Beg’s favourite concubine, if he’d only hold his nerve – which he managed to do uncharacteristically well.  If you haven’t read these books I suggest you do…..  All of them…..three times.)


Flashman at the Charge.jpg

An excellent, excellent book....(if you like historical fiction)


Why was he fighting the Russians at all?  Imperial Russia had spent a good 100 years or so slowly swallowing up pieces of land to its south, spreading its reach down the Caucasus, and then across the empty Kazakh steppes east of the Caspian Sea, towards the prized citadels of Khiva, Bukhara, Tashkent and Samarkand – which made every Russian’s mouth water at the prospect of gaining exclusive access for their goods into these huge commercial markets, and making a rouble or two. 


Meanwhile, the British Empire’s influence was spreading north up from its established possessions on the Indian subcontinent.  First securing most of what is now India, then the kingdom of Sindh (around modern day Karachi and Baluchistan) and then the Punjab (which is more or less modern Pakistan), with further forays, often with spectacularly disastrous results, into Afghanistan. 


This long-standing rivalry between the two most prominent imperial powers of the 19th century came to be known as the Great Game – or Bolshaya Igra (if you play for the other side).  Viewed by many at the time like a colossal game of Risk, the crunch point where this rivalry was played out was not on the open battlefields of Europe, but amid the high altitude passes, fast-talking bazaars and back-stabbing courts of Central Asian khanates and petty city states. 


However realistic were the various fears of the Russians, the British or indeed the Chinese at the time, what really mattered was that each government did in fact take action.  And so pieces on the board had to be considered and moved accordingly.  Each government despatched agents, often in elaborate disguises and under extraordinary pretexts, to go and put an ear to the ground, pour honeyed words in the ears of the irksome and often fickle khans, and generally scupper the designs of any rival imperial agents they came across.  Not all of these agents came out alive, and there are plenty of improbable stories that end in some noble soul, no doubt thinking of his homeland and the higher purpose of civilizing these wild lands, being hacked to death by a raging mob.  Indeed, the very person that coined the phrase “the Great Game” – Captain Arthur Conolly - ended his days at the bottom of a snake pit in the city of Bukhara. 


Another unfortunate of these hardy agents was Sir Alexander Burnes - a resourceful Scotsman in the first half of the 19th century - who made a great name for himself through his travels and exploits during his lifetime.  But ultimately he was a victim of Britain's changing policy in Central Asia: he was chopped into small pieces in Kabul by the Afghans he had spent years trying to win over. 



Sir Alexander Burnes in native costume - on his travels through Central Asia


Another piece on the gigantic playing board was Yakug Beg.  Although he was not always successful in his military pretensions against the Russians, this did not seem to deter Yakub Beg’s determination to “make something of himself”.  Ever the pragmatist, he was particularly adept at playing off the Russians against the British, making agreements with both, as he began to rise to prominence and take control of Kashgar. 


With a series of conquests around Kashgar, and further east and to the north, Yakub Beg seemed to have secured himself as the overlord of an area that covered much of what is western Xinjiang today, and ruled as the Khan of Kashgaria from 1867 to 1877.  He spared no expense once he felt established, setting up a lavish court at Kashgar, replete with over 300 concubines according to some sources.  He then set about declaring a jihad on the Dungans – the Muslim Chinese (predecessors to today’s Hui people) who were accused of collaborating with the detested Han, and who seemed to accept the status quo of Chinese suzerainty. 


So, after declaring his newly-formed independence from the Qing empire (which suited the Brits and the Ruskies rather well), he set off at a leisurely pace to the east with a substantial force in tow, gaining control of territory along the way until, about three years later, the Chinese finally managed to mobilise themselves into action, and under the command of Generals Cui and Hua, completely routed and destroyed Yakub Beg’s army towards the eastern end of Xinjiang. 


He fled back towards Kashgar but didn’t get beyond Korla, where he died in 1877.  Accounts differ as to whether he was poisoned, committed suicide or simply died of natural causes.  What all generally agreed upon was that it was good riddance.  Even his Turkic subjects weren’t that impressed with him since he was an outsider (being a Tajik) and burdened them with heavy taxes and a particularly harsh version of Sharia law. 


The Chinese decided to eradicate any possible future trouble from Yakub Beg’s vengeful family.  Although several sons had died already in battle, his underage sons and grandsons that survived him were themselves tried for sedition, and although found innocent of their father’s crimes, they were castrated and removed to the imperial court where they could be kept under close surveillance.  Despite this, there are people who claim to be descended from Yakug Beg alive and well and living in Turkey today.  (I’m not quite sure how.)


So now although one of the pieces had been taken off the board (so to speak), the Great Game continued on, even intensifying as the three empires advanced and secured their spheres of influence closer and closer to one another. 


By virtue of its geographical position, Kashgar now came to be the centre of all this imperial political intrigue, and both the Russian and the British governments set up consulates in the city.  The two consuls, incumbent for over two decades together at the end of the 19th century, Count Petrovsky and Sir George McCartney, carried on an often comical game of cat and mouse, trying to outwit one another with their intelligence agents scattered throughout the city and the region. 


This continued until both Russia and Britain bowed out of the Game, the former after its easy defeat at the hands of the Japanese in 1905 which brought a radical re-think in Russian foreign policy, and then Britain as it became bogged down with events in Western Europe that would lead to the two World Wars, and then its eventual withdrawal from its Indian empire. 


Despite Russia and Britain dropping out, arguably the Great Game never ceased.  Rather the players changed.  Even today this region is sensitive to the competing interests and influences of the new Russia, the rising power of China and perhaps to a lesser extent the US.  The intervention in Afghanistan, the lucrative oil and gas contracts under which China has secured its energy supplies with Kazakhstan, the construction of gas pipelines into southern Russia, the US military bases in Kyrgyzstan, even the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan may all be seen in this tradition.  Central Asia has been for a long time, and probably will continue to be, the pressure valve where intense geopolitical rivalries let off steam. 


The two consulates are still there in Kashgar, and are located only a 10-minute walk from one another.  Both of them are hotels now, and in fact during my time in Kashgar, I stayed in the old Russian consulate.  Although my immediate impression of my room was the not so fragrant scent of the previous occupant’s feet, it was surprisingly comfortable and enjoyable to stay there.


Perhaps I was lucky.  I met two Australian ladies whose room was on the floor below who were convinced by the very regular use of the shower in the next door room through the night (and the gurgle of water down the drain which kept them awake), that the place was being used as a brothel. 


This is quite possible.  It was after all Russian. 


I doubt it would happen in the British one.

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