An easily provoked Russia arouses suspicion across Europe, invading or spying on its neighbouring states. Rival powers search frantically for ways to contain Russian expansionism and protect their own sphere of influence. The buffer zone of territory that keeps these belligerents apart grows smaller and smaller. Threats are exchanged, the people aroused by patriotic fervour and flags...
It is, of course, the 19th rather than the 21st Century, though the parallels can get a little eerie at times.
Even the name for this period - The Great Game - lives on. It originally referred to Russia and Britain's imperial rivalry during the Victorian era, but we see it now used to refer to any international conflict that is not actually conducted by armies.
Below we list 10 Remarkable People of the Great Game - to help you navigate this incredible period of history.
1. The First Anglo-Afghan War of 1838-1842 ended in ignominious defeat and withdrawal for the British garrison in Kabul. Only one member of the garrison is said to have reached Jalalabad - Dr William Brydon, an assistant surgeon. He later took part in the invasion of Rangoon, Burma, and died peacefully at his home in the Scottish Highlands in 1873.
2. Sir Alexander Burnes, another Scot and the political agent in Kabul until his death in 1841, was nicknamed "Bukhara Burnes" for having visited the almost mythical Khanate of Bukhara. He lived to tell the tale (though not for long), unlike some future visitors (see below). He was quite literally cut to pieces by an enraged Afghan mob in Kabul, some of whom were rumoured to be the fathers and brothers of local women he had consorted with.
3. Bukhara, in modern day Uzbekistan, is one of the most beautiful and well preserved cities of the Silk Road. But it was also a place of tyranny and death, especially to the Victorian armchair traveller. The two names that resonated most to the Victorian chattering classes were Charles Stoddart and Arthur Connolly. Stoddart had been dispatched in 1838 to negotiate with the Emir of Bukhara over the release of Russian slaves, and to smooth over any concerns about Britain's new outpost at Kabul. The Emir was suspicious of foreigners (understandably) and imprisoned Stoddart in the "Zindan" - meaning "underground darkness" - a horrendous prison just behind the Ark fortress in Bukhara. Connolly journeyed to Bukhara to rescue Stoddart three years later but was captured and, along with Stoddart, executed in the main square in front of the Ark. A year later a Bavarian missionary, Joseph Wolff (whose great grandson became the Tory MP for Basingstoke - pay attention at the back), travelled to Bukhara to find out what had happened to the men. The Emir spared him, in part because he found Wolff's missionary outfit so hilarious.
4. So who was the Emir? His name was Nasrullah Khan. Known as "The Butcher" to his subjects he acceded to the throne after slaughtering 28 relatives and beheading three of his brothers. A true brute right to the end, he had his wife and three daughters murdered before he himself passed away, in order to protect their chastity after his departure.
5. If you have ever wondered how these pasty white British explorers managed to disguise themselves and navigate across mountain ranges and deserts without getting killed.....well they didn't do it alone. Mohan Lal, an Indian traveller and diplomat, travelled with Alexander Burnes, assisting him with the Persian language and his knowledge of local culture and people. Lal was an unsung hero on Britain's side of the Great Game. The pinnacle of his career was as political assistant to Burnes in Kabul - unlike his superior he survived the massacres of 1841 and continued to send valuable intelligence to Calcutta.
6. So who were these deadly Russian imperialists, marching across Central Asia to invade India? Perhaps the best example was Konstantin von Kaufman, the first Governor General of Russian Turkestan. He had a glittering military and political career, with some notable successes, including the 1868 conquest of Samarkand. His legacy remains to this day across Central Asia, where Russian quarters were built adjacent to the old cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. To the British he must have seemed the very epitome of the Russian threat.
7. The Russian conquest of Tashkent took place in 1865. In that same year, in Bombay (now Mumbai) the great storyteller of the Great Game - Rudyard Kipling - was born. Many of Kipling's books and poems were either about the Great Game, or evocative of it. But his novel Kim (1901) stands out as perhaps the greatest of Great Game stories. The main character, Kimball O'Hara (Kim for short) starts the book as an orphan, roaming the streets of Lahore, and ends it as a an agent of the British, acquiring Russian maps and papers for his superiors, but also as an admirer of his travelling companion, a Tibetan Lama.
8. Kim's rather unusual combination of spy and spiritualist might seem far-fetched, but was shadowed a short time later by Francis Younghusband. He is a controversial figure, now, known for an infamous massacre at the village of Guru in Tibet, assisted by troops from the King of Bhutan. But he was also a spy - travelling to Kashgar with his interpreter George MacCartney and meeting his Russian counterpart in Great Game espionage Bronislav Grombchevsky, with whom he shared a vodka or three. Latterly Younghusband was, like Kim, a spiritualist. Not an adherent of any religion in particular, but a believer in a sort of syncretic "divinity of man". He was buried in Lytchett Minster, Dorset.
9. George MacCartney, Younghusband's translator and assistant, later became the British Consul-General in Kashgar, China - a fulcrum of the later stages of the Great Game. MacCartney's wife, Lady Catherine MacCartney, is perhaps even better known than her husband now due to her memoirs - An English Lady In Chinese Turkestan. She was responsible for the legendary garden at the Chini-Bagh, the MacCartney's official residence in Kashgar. They entertained many important explorers, travellers and diplomats there. Lady MacCartney also managed to have a grand piano dragged over the Karakoram mountains from India, the better to entertain her guests, no doubt.
10. One of the MacCartney's most illustrious guests was Aurel Stein. An accomplished and indefatigable explorer and archaeologist, Stein had discovered at Dunhuang's Mogao Caves the Diamond Sutra, the world's oldest printed and dated text (from 868 AD). His hidden agenda, on Britain's behalf, was to map Xinjiang and pave the way for further influence in western China. He died in 1943, and was buried in the British Cemetery in Kabul.
Make it happen
Various Great Game locations appear in our itineraries. Check out our Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and India pages for an idea of what you can do. To talk to someone in the TravelLocal office, call 0117 342 7898.