The Great Game

By Andrew Matheson

For more than 2,000 years Kashgar was the most important city on one of the major trading routes of ancient times.  Caravans of camels travelled along the Silk Road from as far as Constantinople in the west (now Istanbul), and Xi’an in central China, once capital of the Chinese empire.  Much of the ancient world’s trade funnelled through this city.  But more recently Kashgar played a starring role in a little-known political tussle.

In the 19th century Kashgar was an important listening post during the ‘Great Game’, a kind of Victorian-era Cold War when Britain and Russia battled for influence in central Asia.  The British feared Russian intentions in India, given Russia’s expansion of its vast empire.  Britain needed information about the Russian bear, and wanted to persuade imperial China to shore up its western borders.

In this ancient Silk Road town Britain and Russia established consulates to monitor what was happening, as well keep an eye on (spy upon) each other.  Both consulates closed long ago, but even in the face of modern development the buildings are still standing.  In the grounds of the Qinibagh Hotel we visited the former British consulate — in fact we ate dinner there as it’s now a restaurant.  Here the British Residents, notably Colonel Francis Younghusband and Sir George McCartney, gathered information, reported to London and Delhi, and projected Britain’s interests.  McCartney, who had a Chinese mother and was fully bilingual, served here for more than 20 years.

A short distance away in the grounds of the Seman Hotel you can walk through what is left of the old Russian consulate.  This was the home of Russian consul Nikolai Petrovsky, the arch enemy of George McCartney during the espionage wars of the Great Game, and it remains one of the most architecturally interesting buildings in all of Kashgar.

The major powers no longer have their listening posts in Kashgar, but this area is still part of a modern Great Game.  With Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India nearby, this is still a politically important part of the world.  And China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative will see Kashgar regain some of its importance as a trading hub.