Escapes, by John Buchan


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, had several nights before ridden through the village, and a shepherd had recently seen their tracks in a patch of snow. Clearly it was the gang who had come from the Russian Pamirs, for ordinary traders do not travel in that guise, or, indeed, travel these roads at all in early winter. They might be opium smugglers, or smugglers of Bolshevik propaganda, or enemy agents commissioned to make trouble in North India. Anyhow, it was Captain Slacker’s business to round them up and make certain.

That night he sent one of his N.C.O.s sixteen males up the valley on the roaci to India, where there was a post of the Gilgit Scouts, with instructions to beg half a dozen rifles and a pony-load of barley meal. The rendezvous was fixed on the IH-Su upland. Next morning, accordingly, the expedition was joined by half a dozen men of the Scouts a wild lot with their Dard caps, and their long hair, and their untanned leggings. The Gilgit Scouts did not bother with transport, but came with what they stood up in. Ten screws from Daf dar were commandeered and loads were made up; and, says Captain Blacker, “ each man strapped his sheepskin coat and a blanket to the strait saddle-tree of the Pamir, filled his mess-tin and his oil bottle, thrust a length of ‘4 by 2’ in his haversack, and was ready for an eight-hundred mile hunt through desolation.”

The weather had changed and the leaden sky promised snow. All around were the snowy Mustagh peaks, rising to 25,000 feet and more, while before lay a wind-swept icy tableland. It was hard going in such weather, and they took five hours to reach the banks of the Oprang River. There they found a Kirghiz encampment, and learned from them that, seven nights before, fifteen well-mounted men had filed past the tents in the darkness. A night was spent in the encampment, and there arrived the N.C.O. who had been sent to the post of the Gilgit Scouts, bringing with him ponies and part of the barley meal.

It was snowing in the morning, and pushing up the Ei–Su valley they found on the shale of the ravines clearly marked tracks of men. It was a severe climb, for the slopes were ice-coated, and the ponies had to be dragged up to the crest of the pass. On the top once more they came on the prints of men and horses prints which they were to know pretty exactly during the next fourteen days. The pass of Hi–Su was some 17,000 feet. The farther valley proved very rough; but late in the afternoon it opened out, and the night was spent in wet snow tinder a cliff, enough brushwood could be found to make a fire. Every night it was necessary to cook enough barley scones to serve for the next day.

The following morning the snow was falling resolutely, but they pursued the course down the steep banks of the stream. The enemy tracks were still clear, and it was plain that their mounts were the big horses of Badakshan. The band had a long start, and the only chance of catching them up was to start very early and finish very late no light task in such weather and in such a country. Farther down the valley they found the ashes of a fire and a new china tea cup lately broken in half, with, on the bottom, the legend “ Made in Japan.” It was certain now that they were on the right road; for Kirghiz shepherds do not own china cups. Where was the band heading? Not for India probably for Yarkand; possibly for some place still farther east. It was therefore necessary for Captain Blacker to turn south-east up the Raskam River, and plunge into the wild tangle of the Karakoram mountains.

After eight hours’ hard going they came to a place called Hot Springs, where once more they found traces of their quarry, some horses’ droppings, a heap of pigeons’ feathers, and some empty cartridge cases. After that the cliff sides closed in and they struggled for hours in the darkness through a narrow gorge, till they came to a place at a lower altitude where there were brushwood for fire and grass to cut for bedding.

Off again next morning; still up the Raskam valley with the great buttresses of the Kuen-lun on the north bank, and far away on the right the slopes of the Mustagh. If the tracks led up the river bank the enemy was bound for Khotan; if across the stream, for Yarkand. Apparently they crossed, and it was no easy matter following them, for the river was swollen with snow. On the other side with some difficulty they picked up the trail again, and found it moving towards the slopes of the Kuen-lun. Clearly the enemy was bound for Yarkand or Karghalik.

They had a tough climb to the top of the pass, and once more the trackers were at fault. Some tracks led eastward to the edge of a dizzy precipice, which was clearly not the way. Others, however, plunged down a slope into a gorge full of thorns, and there they discovered traces of the enemy’s bivouac. This was at midday, which showed that the pursuit was gaining.

In the afternoon they fought their way through a tangle of undergrowth till they arrived at a Kirghiz encampment, where they managed to buy barley. In one tent they found a young Kirghiz lad whom they took along with them as a guide. As it turned out, his father was guiding the enemy.

The expedition was now in better spirits, for they had food in their saddle-bags and knew that they were not bound for the icy deserts of the Karakoranx Down a little north-running valley they went, and again they came upon dung, which they judged to be five days old. The tracks led down the valley, and suddenly ceased abruptly. Was it possible that the gang were hiding in the neighbouring brushwood? They beat the place in vain, and were compelled to return the way they had come. Then they discovered a narrow cleft in the rocks, which proved to be the mouth of a side Valley, and in it they again came on the trail.

The night was spent on a tiny patch of grass under the cliffs, while their meal was of girdle cakes made with the newly bought barley, and some of the last of their tea, “ A cheerful spot,” says Captain Blacker, “but better, at any rate, than the trenches before La Bassee in February 1915.”

Next day they still climbed, and at midday found more relics of the enemy, a copper kettle, a cauldron, and a goatskin full of butter, which had apparently been too heavy to carry. Then they crossed a very lofty snow-pass, and before them saw the steep ranges of the Kuen-lun. Down one ridge and up another they went, still following the track, and at one stopping-place they found a dead quail and a straw cage. This proved that there was at least one Pathan in the gang, for it is the Pathan’s endearing habit to carry tame birds in the folds of his raiment.

They were now in a perfectly desolate upland without grass or water or fuel, and their food was rapidly failing. They had one and a half day’s rations in hand, consisting only of barley flour and a very little tea and sugar. A lucky shot by Captain Blacker at a young burhal the day before had given them some meat, but this was all they had had for a week. The country too, was becoming desperately rocky. If the Pamirs was the roof of the world it seemed to Captain Blacker that he was now climbing among the chimney-pots. Sometimes on the summit of a pass they had to dig with hands and bayonets a way for the ponies. The ponies, too, began to die.

At last, after several days’ severe labour, they descended from the heights to gentler elevations, and found Kirghiz encampments, where they could get fresh barley and now and then a sheep. They were on the lower foot-hills of the Kuen-lun now, and were looking again at fields and crops. They were able also to acquire fresh horses. Up a long valley they went, still finding traces of the enemy’s bivouacs. They had to stop sometimes to mend their footgear with yak’s hide; and they had now and then a piece of luck, as where they came to the house of a certain Kirghiz Beg, who lent them guides. Once again they had mountains to cross, lower passes but rockier, and breaking down into deep gorges. Often they marched fifteen hours in a day.

At last they reached a village where they had intelligence of the enemy. They learned that the gang were only forty-eight hours ahead, which meant that thay had gained five or six days on them in the last eight. The destination was clearly Yarkand, and there was always a risk of losing them in that city. Here, too, the trail gave out, for the sheep and goats of the villagers had smothered it, so they had to hire a guide.

But the way he led them showed no tracks. They could only push on and hope to cut the trail again from the eastward. After crossing a pass of 15,000 feet they came to a narrow valley, which led them to the river Pokhpu, running north and south. No vestige of a trail, however, could be found on its banks, so they forded the stream and ascended a gorge upon the other side. This took them over a 15,000 feet ridge and down into another valley and then into another. It ended in a gigantic chasm where in the moonlight a huge excrescence of rock showed exactly like an ace of spades. Captain Blacker took this for a good omen; but there was still a fourth pass to cross, and at four in the morning the expedition flung itself down, utterly exhausted, in a waterless valley called after the Angel Gabriel. In that single day’s march they had climbed up and down something like 30,000 feet from seven o’clock of one morning to four o’clock of the next.

The ace of spades had not misled them, for soon after they started they met an old Kirghiz a Hadji by his green turban. He was rather taken aback by the sight of them, bat said he had been sent by a Chinese mandarin to meet a certain guest. This made Captain Blacker suspicious, so he boldly answered that he was the guest in question. The old Hadji was added to the party, and conducted them to the village of Kokyir, where they had at last a reasonable meal.

At midnight again they were off, after five hours’ sleep, marching north-eastward by the compass, and hoping to get back on the trail they had lost. Presently they were among the sand dunes of a desert, and then among the irrigation channels of the lower Raskam River. It was midnight when they found themselves in the latter labyrinth; so Captain Blacker ordered the Hadji to find some one without delay who would show him the way out. It was an unfortunate step, for it landed them in a leper-house. There was nothing for it but to march on through the night, and in the small hours of the next morning they were within sight of Yarkand.

There, early in the forenoon, the expedition, now lean, weather-beaten, and tattered to the last degree, stood outside the ancient walls of Yarkand. One of the Guides entered the city, disguised, to find an acquaintance, from whom he heard to his delight that a party of wild-looking strangers had entered the streets eighteen hours before. Indeed, the man knew where they were. They were now in the Sarai Badakshan. Captain Blacker had not ridden hard for a fortnight among the wildest mountains on earth to stand on ceremony in any town. His sixteen men cantered down the alleys of Yarkand, and presently flung open the gates of the Sarai.

There the quarry was found. Every hand in the Sarai went up without delay when its inmates heard the challenge, and saw behind the gleaming bayonets the sixteen gaunt, wolfish faces of their pursuers.

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The University of Adelaide Library
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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05