The lone ranger of the Steppes

Two amazing books tell you of Captain Frederick Burnaby's incredible journey from London's Victoria Station to Khiva...

Captain Frederick Burnaby of the Blues regiment of the British Army was quite a man. Six feet four inches tall and with a chest that measured 47 inches, he could carry a small pony under one arm. Yet he was agile enough to be able to vault across the regimental billiards table and brainy enough to be fluent in French, Italian, German, Russian and Spanish, not to mention a working knowledge of Turkish and Arabic. He was a relentless adventurer, even crossing the English channel solo in a balloon at ten thousand feet, and when he took a break from all this, his distinctive prose style ensured that he was employed by The Times and other Fleet Street journals to cover foreign campaigns.

It was the time of the Great Game, the tussle for strategic advantage being played out on the wind-swept steppes of Central Asia between the British and the Russians. It was a time of feint and counter-feint, courageous espionage and devilish diplomacy in the most exotic of settings with names as evocative as Bokhara and Samarkand…..And the prize was the fabled land beyond the Himalayas: Hindostan. The Russians were moving fast across Central Asia, swallowing up khanate after khanate and only the Turcoman territories separated them from Kabul and the Khyber Pass. If they were to ever really threaten British India, they would need important staging points, including the towns of Merve, Khiva, Balkh and Kashgar. Russian analysts were convinced that native India would rise to welcome them, the East India company being “a poisonous unnatural plant engrafted on the splendid soil of India- a parasite which saps away the life of the most fertile and wealthy country in the world.” British opinion was divided: men like Burnaby believed that Russian advances had to be challenged and to be seen for what they were while others preferred the thought of a Russian neighbour in contrast to the “barbarous Afghans,” or believed that the threat was not real; India would last their lifetime anyway.

It was in this political context that the burly Burnaby, resting in Khartoum after a journey to the White Nile came across a news snippet that hit him like a challenging glove across the face: The St Petersburg government had decreed that foreigners were not to be allowed to travel in Russian Asia. He determined immediately to re-attempt a journey that typhoid had forced him to give up earlier; all the way to Khiva, east of the Aral Sea, fabled caravan city, an infamous slave market and now only nominally autonomous; the Russians were within striking distance. And never mind that it was winter; that was when he had his furlough and he could not really have waited for fair weather.

Burnaby's incredible journey from London's Victoria Station to the Khivan bazaar is recorded in the first of his two Great Game classics, A Ride to Khiva. Both this book and the sequel On Horseback through Asia Minor were bestsellers and the basis of entire library shelves of Great Game literature, including the tremendously gripping work of Peter Hopkirk. He makes it by train to St Petersburg in three and a half days, armed with a sail cloth sleeping tent which he would be unable to get into, the thickest Scottish fishing stockings, fur lined shoes, jerseys and flannels galore, a regulation revolver with twenty cartridges, thermometer, barometer, sextant, cutlery and of course quinine, without which an Englishman wouldn't set out until they invented the more agreeable gin and Indian tonic water.

Thence, it becomes a typically Russian journey, full of charm and bureaucracy, bribery and generosity, across two thousand miles by train, sleigh – both horse and camel driven – and finally horseback into the inhospitable wild. On the way Burnaby overcomes huge challenges – unrelenting weather, cold that defines cold, debilitating frostbite – but retains the objectivity to relate the story of his journey with political insight, literary turn of phrase and above all an irrepressible sense of humour. Burnaby is hard on the Russians on the road, especially their personal hygiene habits. Again and again one comes upon him yearning for soap and water: “If the Russian peasant could be persuaded to be more particular in his ablutions, it would be conducive, if not to his own comfort at least to that of his fellow-travellers.” His comfort whenever he can manage to have a bath is palpable. He also remarks frequently on the rather unusual culinary predilections of his companions on the road. He partakes of a mixture of rice, eggs and chocolate boiled in milk, cuts frozen bread with an axe as a mere knife would break and watches his companions eating half-cooked horseflesh and rice straight out of the cauldron. The bottom line is that a hungry man, ravaged by that fierce cold, can eat and enjoy almost anything: “….after a ride across the steppes in midwinter the traveller soon loses every other feeling than the absorbing one of hunger, and at that time I think I could have eaten my great grandfather if he had been properly roasted for the occasion.”

Burnaby also makes the charming discovery that Kirghiz poetry is full of odes in honour of sheep, an animal that is “placed on the highest pinnacle of their estimation; after their wives and, indeed, sometimes before them.” A 100 sheep is the average price for a bride, whom the Kirghiz has the advantage of seeing unveiled unlike the less nomadic of the Tartars. The ideal of beauty, an ideal that is constantly beyond Burnaby's understanding, is a moon-faced girl with sheep's eyes! In fact, at one stage, bewitched by the beauty of a young Kirghiz widow, Burnaby begins to pay her compliments in Russian and is dismayed to learn that his interpreter translated them into Tartar as: “thou are lovelier than a sheep with a fat tail” - this appendage being regarded a great delicacy - and “thy face is the roundest in the flock, and that thy breath is sweeter than many pieces of mutton roasted over bright embers.”

Burnaby did reach Khiva by clever design and dodge and entered a town of “richly painted minarets and high domes of coloured tiles.” Contrary to all the legends he had heard about the cruelties of the Asiatic Khan, he was received by a courteous and hospitable ruler with a genial smile and a twinkle in his eye and a burning curiosity about geography and politics. To some disappointment, Burnaby had to answer in the negative when asked whether the British Queen could order the chopping off of her subject's head or the slitting of his throat. But, for me, the book ended when the Khan said “Hindostan is a very wonderful country” and proceeded to gift Burnaby a long robe lined with silk and brightly coloured chintzes. Burnaby insisted on calling this a dressing gown though it was the equivalent then of getting the Order of the Garter in England.