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Frederick (Fred) Burnaby was a Colonel in the British Army. It was the summer of 1874 and he was in the Sudan when he read a newspaper article stating that “Russian Asia” had just been closed to foreigners as Russia aggressively conquered the khanates of Central Asia. On a whim he decided to travel by horse to Khiva (in modern-day Uzbekistan) at his own expense in the winter of 1875. A Ride to Khiva is the account that he wrote about his incredibly arduous and extremely cold journey through the coldest winter in local recent memory. He almost froze to death in extreme blizzards and it was only thanks to the treatment by Cossacks of his frostbite that he kept the use of his hands.
If you read my reflections on Thesiger’s Arabian Sand, Bell’s Amurath to Amurath, Thubron’s The Lost Heart of Asia or Badkhen’s The World is a Carpet, you will have noticed that I love reading about this part of the world and my main focus in travel writing is the descriptions of the people and culture. Burnaby provides many fascinating insights into the everyday lives of the Kirghiz, Tartar and Uzbek people that he travels with. I was astonished to read about the men thrusting their arms into the shared pot of stew then swallowing, without chewing, lumps of semi-cooked fatty meat.
A few years ago I loved reading A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road by Christopher Aslan Alexander. The author of that wonderful book was inspired to move to Khiva after reading Burnaby’s amazing book. Ever since reading that book I have felt a strange affinity for Uzbekistan. I once employed an Uzbek prince living in exile, and a friend worked in Uzbekistan for a year. I was particularly interested to read about the Khan of Khiva and wondered if my ex-colleague is his descendant. I have twice begun to plan a trip to Khiva but so far it has eluded me. It’s the only place that I really want to visit, now that I feel rather saturated with travel and have lost my wanderlust.
Like my hero, Gertrude Bell, Burnaby impressed me with his linguistic abilities, in the book it is clear that not only could he speak Russian, but also Arabic, French, and he also uses some Spanish. Unlike Thesiger and Bell, Burnaby did not try to mimic the local Central Asian people but deliberately stood apart, and wrote in a coolly detached way, sometimes derogatory but often amusing. He was not impressed by the Russian occupiers of Central Asia and has some critical things to say. He is not complimentary to the local moon-faced women of Central Asia either.
Burnaby was very tall (6′ 4″) and a tough man. His journey would not be believable, considering the exceptionally vast distances that he covered through blizzards, deep snow drifts and always bitterly cold, sometimes below -30, except for the rich and verifiable details that he included in his account. He was always uncomfortable in the coffin-like sleds that were built for much smaller people, sometimes pulled by emaciated horses, and also by towering Bactrian camels at one point. He was accompanied by a faithful Tartar servant, Nazar, he was less than 5′ tall and who Burnaby referred to as a dwarf. It was amusing to read about Nazar perched on a tall camel, bobbing across the steppes. Burnaby offered tactical information to the British government in his book, as part of the Great Game. He was very complimentary about the sturdy steppe horses with their incredible capacities for endurance.
It was interesting to read Burnaby’s comments about cashmere and angora shawls that were very warm and super fine and not expensive.
I feel convinced that if some of our London trades people were to send their travelling-agents to those parts, a very profitable return would be made on the capital invested, for the shawls in question would command a ready sale in the country.
He was right. I have bought a few pashminas in Nepal but although I paid more for genuine products I think that they were acrylic. Conversely my mother bought me a beautiful hand embroidered pashmina and it is light, warm and probably genuine.
Burnaby remarked in a few locations in the book on the excessive drinking of alcohol by the Russians of every level, the peasants (only recently freed from slavery) through to the nobility
Often when driving through the streets I have been struck by the sight of some figure or other prostrate in the snow. “What is it?” I would ask; “is he dead? ” “no; only drunk,” would be the reply followed by a laugh, as if it were a good joke to see a man who had made a beast of himself. It may be that in proportion to the population there are not more drunkards in the Tzar’s dominions than in England, or rather Scotland; but at all events, to get drunk lowers a man in the opinion of the public in our country. It is a feather in his cap in Russia.
This comment about being super hungry after a journey through the snow-covered central Asian desert and being served a stew of mutton flesh with rice and mutton fat made me chuckle:
It was not a very appetising spectacle… but after a ride across the steppes in midwinter the traveller soon loses every other feeling in 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.
I thoroughly recommend this book. Burnaby’s writing is amusing and enthralling. The subject matter is captivating. I read it at the same time as Thesiger’s Arabian Sands and I could see the similarities between these two tough British Army officers, crossing different deserts in different times under different climatic conditions but both going perilously close to death and relying on their local guides for their survival. I read a free ebook version that has been digitised now that the book is outside of copyright.