13th November 2019
‘The ‘great game’ was first coined by Captain Arthur Connolly, a British officer who was a ‘player’ in this 19th century ‘game’. It refers to a period spanning roughly 100 years in which Britain and Russia tried to map, explore and influence the lands of Central Asia. Russia was naturally expansionist and Britain wanted to protect the jewel in its imperial crown - India. Britain was continuously concerned Russia would invade India. Both countries also wanted to increase trade in the region. For that reason they sent hardy explorer army officers on various missions into the unknown and unmapped lands. They often posed as merchants or religious pilgrims. They crossed mountains and deserts and tried to avoid being captured by Turkomen raiders and sold into slavery. It’s a level of bravery and pure adventure that is difficult to imagine today.
As I crossed the desert between Khiva and Bukhara in 8 hours on a paved road, I tried to imagine these intrepid travellers making slow progress through the sand over weeks of travel in the blistering heat. Focusing on survival, they wouldn’t have known how they would be received when they reached their destination. As I stood inside the Ark of Bukhara, where the khan (king) ruled from, I liked to imagine what it would have felt like for Alexander Burns addressing the khan for the first time in the early 1800s, at the end of such a long desert journey. What would he have made of Central Asia where so few Europeans had been? How alive would his senses have been to the sights, smells and sounds of this faraway land? No TV, guide books and internet to prepare him and whet his appetite. He was well received by the ruler of Bukhara and back in London people couldn’t get enough of his tales of this exotic land upon his return.
We can never go back to those glory days of adventure. Anyway, with the risks and hardship involved would we really want to? But we can taste it. We can see the palaces, the madrasahs and minarets that would have glimmered in the sunlight for the 19th century traveller. We can see the adobe brick walls around the city of Khiva that would have been an imposing sight to any traveller. We can experience the flavour of the area and the rich history without the arduous expedition.
In the end, of course, Russia invaded and swallowed up the whole region in its empire which then became the Soviet Union in the 1920s. This forever changed the cultural and political landscape. Since independence, Uzbekistan has tried to nurture its cultural roots while entering the 21st century and leaving communism behind all at the same time. What we find there today is the fascinating result of this.
Back to Captain Arthur Connolly, who coined the phrase ‘great game’. If you’re interested in learning what became of him, pick up a copy of Peter Hopkirk’s book. Or better still, come to Bukhara, Uzbekistan.