Why the Silk Road? Elaine is going because she didn’t think that I should go alone – not an unreasonable position considering my recent skiing experience of skiing alone! But that does not explain why I want to do this….
I started reading about the Great Game – the 18th and 19th Century tensions between Russia and Great Britain – some 5 years ago. The Great Game was the background to stories such as Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim”.
However good the story, the real background to the Great Game was much more interesting. The Great Game was the phrase used to describe the posturing, politicking, and positioning of influence between the two greatest nations of the time to gain access to the untapped wealth of the Indian sub-continent. Could Russia manufacture a route that would take an army across Afghanistan and capture India from the British? Could Great Britain protect the land route into what is now Pakistan, by blocking the Khyber Pass?
The gap in both nations’ plans, was the lack of information and intelligence. Afghanistan and the other Central Asian countries were arid desert countries, with high and inhospitable mountains. The local population were nomadic and tribal, so that “national boundaries” and “reasonable diplomacy” were fantasies. Instead there was continual warfare between tribes and within tribes to increase their influence. Into this maelstrom of instability came two nations attempting to bring their influence to bear. Typical of empire builders in the past, each nation attempted to influence local leaders and local tribes to increase their own ability to access routes across to India. Local warlords were suborned, and bribed, kings were overthrown, and more “supportive” princes or rebels were installed in their places. The Great British government were past masters at changing regimes, and to this end used the intelligence services to garner information about which thrones were vulnerable, and what their Russian counterparts were doing.
It was reading some of the original books about these intelligence agents (mostly from the British and Indian armies) that started the interest in the Silk Road. A Ride to Khiva by Fred Burnaby, and Travels in Central Asia by Arminius Vambery are two really good examples of the sort of book that described what it was like 100 – 150 years ago. These books are available on Amazon in their original form – which gives them an added cachet!
Reading these “real stories”, it became clearer that the way that the two Empires liked to portray the area over which they were fighting was entirely inaccurate. The Empires view was that the land was arid, empty of water and sustenance, empty of culture, and should only be used for what the Empires could get out of it. But reading the reports of those who travelled there on behalf of Britain and Russia, it was clear that there was a significant culture, and significant history associated with this area. The culture and history is that of the Silk Road, and the need to trade and travel across inhospitable lands. Learning more about the Silk Road seems the logical next step.