Official Blog Entry #9: The Central Asian Mystique

Central Asia

The region of Central Asia which attracted various explorers

Frances Wood, in her book The Silk Road:  Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia dedicates a good portion to the Great Game and the effects and aftermath on the region and on the people who stimulated the Great Game discourse.  Chapters 10 to 14 focus on the various explorers and surveyors who contributed to the preservation or decimation of Central Asian relics, and on the great appeal for the Central Asian mystique.

What was the Great Game?  It was in essence a struggle for Central Asia by the British and Russian Empires.  The casual reader is aware of the British and Russian struggles for Afghanistan, but what is less known, is the strife between the two for the whole of Central Asia.  Central Asia of the time included the regions of modern day Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, the Tibet Autonomous Region, and parts of the modern People’s Republic of China such as Xinjiang.

Explorers from Russia, Britain, Sweden, Germany, and the United States dedicated their whole lives to exploring the Central Asian territories, and to chronicle the land, its past and people.  From Nikolai Przhevalsky to Sven Hedin and Sir Aurel Stein, Central Asia witnessed a fair share of explorers who wanted to take a piece amidst its cold embrace back to their lands.

Each explorer was unique in his own way.  Sven Hedin’s tendency to leaving corpses behind on his journeys let them be animal or human, clearly contrasts with that of the French Paul Pelliot.  Each explorer had experiences that amaze the modern reader.  Sven Hedin met with Adolf Hitler who was surprisingly a vegetarian and quite accepting of Sven Hedin, even in the light of his partial Jewish ancestry.  Sir Aurel Stein, during his traversing of the area between the Lop Desert and Bactria found Sven Hedin’s tape measure.  Paul Pelliot re-traced the steps of his predecessors and saw the removal of many manuscripts from the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas in Dun Huang.  Thus, there experiences were quite unique but were greatly entwined.

Everything in Central Asia, from artifacts to plants and animals was greatly cherished in England and Russia and elsewhere in the world for that matter.  Carl Hagenbeck asked for the Przhevalsky’s horse, and received about two hundred of them even though more than that amount perished on the way.  He also spent £5000 for the Ovis Poli, of which sixty were caught, but they all perished on the way due to diarrhea.  Hence, Central Asian specialties were in high demand, and many explorers sought the fame that would inevitably move them up amongst the classes if they supplied the demand.  Undoubtedly, there were some who just longed for the Central Asian landscape and the mountain breeze and flowers, as we can see by the diaries of Sir Aurel Stein in particular.

What I find a bit disturbing from reading all that is present on the great explorers of Central Asia, is the lack of understanding and concern for the local inhabitants.  From the removal of the recently deceased Parsi adult’s head in secret, to hunting down sixty Ovis Poli or hundreds of Przhevalsky’s horses to satisfy the European desire for Central Asian specialties, there does seem to be a constant disregard for the local inhabitants and their wishes.  Yet perhaps this was the only way to document Central Asia, to chronicle the mysterious Orient for the European.  If Langdon Warner had not attempted to rescue the remaining frescoes and wall paintings that were severely brutalized by the White Russian soldiers or the modernizing of Buddhist caves to appeal to the modern generation at the expense of the old artifacts, would they still have survived to the present day?  I am not one of those who hold an affirmative answer to that question.

Ellsworth Huntington stated that the people of Central Asia appear to have been molded by their physiographical environment.  It’s an interesting notion.  Perhaps such a change was evident in light of the constant determination that white explorers showed in the region.  How could the local inhabitants protect their lands if not by a total change of attitude?  Like the Chinese farmers who rallied against Langdon Warner and eventually drove him out of Chinese occupied territories, the inhabitants of Central Asia may have resorted to similar means to stop the extrapolation of their cultural antiquities from their lands.  And perhaps the statement of Ellsworth Huntington is nothing but a justification for the drastic change in attitude of the Central Asian peoples.  This is just a hypothesis, but a sound one nonetheless.  Take the quote of Arthur Daley in 1931 who wrote “Imagine how we should feel if a Chinese archaeologist were to come to England, discover a cache of medieval manuscripts at a ruined monastery, bribe the custodian to part with them and carry them off to Peking”.  Would this not lead to a change in attitude?

Overall, Central Asia attracted many and acted as home to countless more foreigners.  Each explorer wrote of the fascinating beauties of the land, even on the harshness yet surreal cruelty of the deserts.  Central Asia remains quite as fascinating as it ever was.  Perhaps the Great Game has finally dwindled down, yet the desire for the Central Asian touch still flourishes in our modern times.

The Tien Shan Mountains - The mountain breeze and fresh air appeals to many

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