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Chapter 12 On the Roof of the World

THE land between the deserts of Turkestan and the plains of India and between the Persian plateau and China still remains the least known and the most difficult on the globe. There are to be found the highest mountains in the world a confusion of mighty snow-clad ranges varied by icy uplands and deep-cut, inaccessible valleys. Old roads cross it which have been caravan routes since the days of Alexander the Great, but these roads are few and far between. One, perhaps the most famous, goes from Kashmir across the Indus and over the Karakoram Pass to Khotan and Yarkand. That pass is 18,550 feet, the highest in the world which still serves the purpose of an avenue of trade.

This wild upland is not the place where one would look for hurried journeys. The country is too intricate, the inhabitants are too few, and there man’s life seems a trifling thing against the background of eternal ice. Yet I have heard of two long, stubborn chases in that no-man’s-land, the tale of which is worth telling.

The first concerns the Karakoram Pass. Till the other day, on the cairn which marked the summit, there lay a marble slab engraved with a man’s name. It recorded a murder which took place in that outlandish spot in the year 1880.

At that time in those parts there was a young Scotsman called Dalgleish, who used to accompany travellers and hunters on their expeditions. He was also a trader, making long journeys across Central Asia, and in his business had dealings with a certain Pathan called Dad Mahomed Khan. This Pathan had been a trader and a bit of a smuggler, and was well known on the road between Yarkand and Ladakh. The two used to have ventures together, and were apparently good friends.

A year or two before Dalgleish had gone off on a long expedition into Tibet, and in his absence things went badly with Dad Mahomed. All Ms ponies were destroyed in a storm in the passes, and this compelled him to resort to Hindu money-lenders. Luck continued obstinately against Mm, and he found iiniself unable to repay Ms loans. The result was that his creditor’ brought the matter before the British Commissioi er at Leh, and he was forbidden to trade on the Yarkand–Leh road until he had paid his debts.

The upshot was that the Pathan fell into evil ways, and Dalgleish, when he returned from his expedition, found Mm living at Leh in idleness and poverty. Desiring to help his old colleague, Dalgleish invited him to join Mm, and tried to get the Commissioner to withdraw the injunction. But the Commissioner refused, so Dalgleish set off alone for the north with a small caravan. On the way he halted and wrote back to Dad Mahomed, asking Mm to follow him. This the Pathan did, and the two continued on the long road up the Karakoram Pass. Dalgleish gave Dad Mahomed a tent and a riding horse, and instructed Ms servants to treat bi-m as they treated Mmself.

They camped north of the Karakoram Pass, and one afternoon were observed to walk out together, the Pathan carrying Dalgleish’s rifle. Then came the sound of a shot, but the servants took no notice, as game was plentiful around the camp. Presently however, Dad Mahomed returned and informed them that he had shot the Sahib. The servants ran to their master, and Dad Mahomed followed, having provided himself with a tulwar. Dalgleish was only wounded in the shoulder, and the Pathan then attacked frim and brutally murdered him. He drove back the servants to their tent, warning them that if they left it he would kill them.

Dad Mahomed took possession of Dalgleish’s tent, and in the morning ordered the horses to be loaded and the caravan to proceed. At the end of the next stage he told the servants that they could do what they liked with the merchandise, and he himself rode off on Dalgleish’s horse. What the motive for the murder was it is impossible to say; it could not have been robbery, for Dalgleish had a large sum in notes which was found untouched. The servants took the caravan back to the Karakoram Pass, picked up Dalgleish’ s body, and returned to Leh.

The British Raj now took up the case. Dad Mahomed was found guilty of murder, and a large reward was offered for his capture. But to find a Pathan who had had many days’ start in Central Asia was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Nevertheless, It was essential for British prestige that the murderer should be found.

Colonel Bower, the well-known traveller, was at that time at Kashgar, where he received a letter from the Indian Government bidding Mm arrest Dad Mahomed at all costs and bring him back to India for trial. It appeared that Dad Mahomed had been recently in Kashgar boasting of his deed. The Chinese authorities did not molest Mm, and it was found impossible to entice him inside the grounds of the Russian Consulate.

Colonel Bower’s mission was kept a profound secret. The Pathan appeared to have left Kashgar, going east, some weeks before. A Hindu merchant was discovered who had a bitter hatred of the murderer, and plans were concerted. Emissaries were sent throughout Central Asia to make inquiry. They were furnished with letters explaining their purpose, but these letters were only to be used when they found their man; otherwise their inquiries must be made secretly, and they had to pose as ordinary travellers.

Two of them went into Afghanistan, a troublesome country to journey in. They were arrested in Balkh, and declared that they were doctors looking for rare plants. Fortunately the Amir, Abdur Rahman, happened to be close at hand, and the two men asked to be taken before him. They gave him Colonel Bower’s letter to read, and the Amir smiled grimly. These men, he told his entourage, are honest and are what they profess to be. They will not, however, find the plant they seek in Afghanistan; but, he added, he had heard that it grew in Bokhara. The two were released and given presents of money and clothes.

Colonel Bower himself had gone east from Kashgar, on the trail which the Pathan was believed to have taken. One day a man came to his camp and asked his nationality. Bower said he came from India, and ids visitor expressed his astonishment, for he thought that the people of India were black. He added that in the neighbourhood theie was another foreigner, and nobody knew where he carro from a tall man not unlike the Sahib. He lived in the jungle and earned money by wood-cutting. This convinced Bower that he was on the track of the fugitive, but when he reached the place mentioned his man was gone. The news of the arrival of an Englishman from India had been enough for Dad Mahomed.

Months passed and nothing happened, and Colonel Bower had begun to think his task hopeless, when suddenly there came news from Samarkand that the Pathan had been caught there and was now in a Russian prison. Two of the emissaries who had gone in that direction had arrived in Samarkand, and had found Dad Mahomed sitting on a box in the bazaar. One of them stopped and engaged him in conversation, while the other went off to the Governor, who happened to be the famous General Kuropatkin. Kuropatkin, on opening Bower’s letter, at once sent a party of Cossacks to the bazaar and had Dad Mahomed arrested.

It was arranged to send him to India, and preparations were made for an armed escort to bring hin back over the Russian border; but news arrived that the criminal had cheated justice, for he had hung himself in his cell. Nevertheless the power of itr British law was vindicated, and the story of the unrelenting pursuit throughout Central Asia had an immense moral effect in all that mountain country. The tale of it was repeated at camp-fires and bazaars everywhere between Persia and China, till the Great War, with its far wilder romances, came to dim its memory.

The break-up of Russia after the Bolsheviks seized the Government had extraordinary results in every part of the old Russian Empire, but in none more extraordinary than in the Central Asian Provinces. It was like some strange chemical dropped into an innocent compound and altering every constituent. The old cradle of the Aryan races was in an uproar. In the ancient khanates of Bokhara and Samarkand names sung in poetry for two thousand years < strange governments arose, talking half-understood Western communism. Everywhere the ferment was felt: in Tashkend, in Yarkand, in Afghanistan, in the Pamirs, and along the Indian border. Austrian and German prisoners set free in Siberia were trying to fight their way towards the Caspian; tribes of brigands seized the occasion for guerrilla warfare and general looting; and Bolshevik propaganda penetrated by strange channels through the passes into India. The Armistice in Europe made very little difference to this pandemonium. Central Asia was in a confusion which it had scarcely known since the days of Tamerlane.

In this witches’ sabbath of disaster appeared one or two British officers striving to keep the King’s peace on and beyond the frontier. One of these, Captain L. V. S. Blacker, had been badly wounded in the Flying Corps in France. Then he rejoined his old regiment, ike Guides; and in July 1918 was in lashkend looking af xer Bratish interests in the face of a parody of Government which called itself a Soviet. After that he made his way south into the Pamirs and fetched up at Tashkurghan, on one of the sources of the Yarkand River. He had with him seven men of the Guides.

There he heard from an Afghan merchant that about a hundred armed men Afghans, but probably led by Germans and Turks had been seen in the upper gorges of the Tashkurghan River.* This matter required looking into. Having only seven men he went to the little Russian fort adjoining and succeeded in borrowing twelve Cossacks. The place was in the Chinese Pamirs and the local Amban was troublesome about horses, but Captain Blacker managed to raise sufficient from Hindu traders. Mounted on their ponies, and with a single pack-horse carrying rations, the expedition started by descending the river till a place was found where it could be forded. They reached the spot where the enemy band had been last heard of, but found no tracks on the goat-path leading up to the high passes. But this was probably the direction of the enemy, so they crossed the ridge which divided their valley from Taghdumbash.

* Captain. Blacker has told this story in his excellent book, On Secret Patrol in High Asia (John Murray), one of the best narratives of adventure published in recent years.

It was late October and bitterly cold on the high hills. At a village called Wacha they still found no tracks of the band, so they halted tV-re and sent out patrols along the possible routes. K’ext morning they decided that the Cossacks should stop at Wacha, while Captain Blacker and his Guides crossed the ridge back to Taghdumbash to try and pick up the trail. Their journey took them over a high pass, called “The Thieves’ Pass,” and as the weather was fine their spirits rose. Still there was no sign of the enemy, and they were compelled to go back to Tashkurghan and spend the night there in a house.

Early next morning they started again for Dafdar, and covered the forty miles thither in eight hours. In these high latitudes even a Kirghiz pony cannot manage more than five miles an hour. At Dafdar they hunted up the Beg and from him they had news. Fifteen wild-looking strangers, mounted on big horses and with rifles at their backs............

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