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4 - Les montagnes dynamiques dans la littérature et les récits de voyage / Agentic Mountains in Nature and Travel Writing

Victorian Exploration of Human and Nonhuman on the Pamir Mountains

Irina Kantarbaeva-Bill
p. 291-305


Tout au long du XIXsiècle les décors somptueux du Pamir et de l'Himalaya ont servi de toile de fond à une lutte d'influence et à une course à l'exploration entre l'Angleterre victorienne, installée aux Indes, et la Russie tsariste. Cet affrontement géopolitique a également façonné les contours de ces lieux mythiques grâce à de nombreux explorateurs, aventuriers, missionnaires et hommes d'affaires. Ces voyageurs ont sillonné les vastes espaces à la recherche des itinéraires, à la fois géographiques et imaginaires, par lesquels ces endroits pourraient être approchés et contrôlés. Chemin faisant, ils ont également enregistré et systématisé les rencontres humaines et non humaines. Cet article tentera d'analyser plusieurs éléments discursifs fréquents dans les récits de voyage victorien dans le Pamir : la persistance du sublime, un choix ethnographique, influencé par le déterminisme géographique et, par conséquent, un discours colonial. Avec pour objectif d'apporter plus d'information sur les conventions narratives des voyageurs britanniques en Haute Asie à cette période, nous souhaiterions susciter un intérêt général pour cette région, qui demeure encore largement méconnue.

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  • 1 On this imperial confrontation see, for example, Evgeny Sergeev, The Great Game 1856-1907: Russo-Br (...)

1Certain areas in the world attract a certain level of attention only when geopolitical interests clash, severe political crises occur or the aftermath of natural disasters triggers off humanitarian support. The Pamirs and its peoples have formed such a hotspot in the transitional zone between Central and South Asia since the colonial period when the imperial contest between Great Britain, Russia and China1 resulted in the division of the Pamirs and its peoples among four parties that are today the independent nations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and China.

2This paper will analyse the exploration and construction of the nonhuman and human encounters in the Pamirs through the lenses of the 19th century perceptions of British explorers and boundary-makers. By this we would like to stimulate an enhanced research interest for an area with a rich heritage and a challenging environment.

  • 2 The etymology and precise meaning of the name 'Pamir' are problematic. The name is encountered for (...)
  • 3 Demetrius Charles Boulger, The Life of Yakoob Beg; Athalik Ghazi, and Badaulet; Ameer of Kashgar, L (...)
  • 4 Khanate is a Turco-Mongol-originated word used to describe a political entity ruled by a khan. An e (...)

3The Pamirs, literally "the land at the feet of the sun"2 are a wilderness, one the most isolated areas on the Asian continent. It is an altogether mountainous area, and the meeting point of the Pamir Mountains, the Hindu Kush and other Himalayan ranges. In the 19th century, the Pamirs were still shown as a blank spot on the map.3 Prior to the encroachment of Tsarist Russian forces, the khanate4 of Kokand claimed the Pamirs as its territory without much efforts at establishing a permanent presence. The Chinese-ruled region of Xinjiang in the east claimed these mountains as well and intensified attempts to dominate the Pamirs when the Russian forces were approaching this area after capturing Kokand in 1868. The western Pamirs were claimed by the Bukharan Emirate, but their inaccessible valleys were comparably isolated and free from obligations. In 1883, however, these principalities came under Afghan rule and were subject to taxation.

  • 5 Yakub Beg (1870-1877), known also as Ataliq Ghazi and Badaylet, was a Muslim leader who ruled Kashg (...)

4The Pamirs became one of the focal points of imperial fears and ambitions. The British, anxious about the possibility of Russian influence extending toward Afghanistan, Xinjiang, and, finally, British India, pushed for the first Anglo-Russian agreement in 1873, which defined Badakhshan and the Wakhan as part of Afghanistan, and thus within the British sphere of influence. The Russian occupation of Merv in 1884, however, made the British realize that their agreement was not set in stone and a more solid diplomatic solution needed to be found. In 1895, both sides signed an agreement stating that "territory lying within the British sphere of influence between the Hindu Kush and the line running from the east end of Lake Victoria (Zor Koul) to the Chinese frontier shall form part of the territory of the Ameer [Emir-IKB] of Afghanistan, that it shall not be annexed to Great Britain and that no military posts or forts shall be established on it" (Habberton 1937, cited in Rowe 2010, 63). Neither Afghan nor Chinese representatives were involved in these negotiations. However, in the early 1880s, Russia also started negotiating boundaries with China which claimed that most of the Pamirs, including the Wakhan and Shugnan, had been part of Yakub Beg's realm5 and thus belonged to the Chinese Empire. A joint border demarcation commission was set up in 1882.

  • 6 Hermann Kreutzmann, Pamirian Crossroads, Harassowitz Verlag, 2015, 72-82.
  • 7 In 1871 Russian geographer Alexei Fedchenko reached the Alai Valley and toured the northern Pamirs (...)

5The unfolding geopolitical tensions over spheres of influence went hand in hand with considerable cartographic uncertainty. The British trained a number of 'native explorers' to gather better geographical information.6 The unmapped spaces promised fame and careers for those with the courage to risk their lives, both in Saint Petersburg and in London. More scientific competitors than military rivals, these explorers shared a common ideological understanding of their mission, namely to fill one of the last remaining white spots on the map of the world, and a number of geographical expeditions explored the Pamirs between the 1870s and the end of the century (Middleton 2011, 395–436; Kreutzmann 2015, 69–114).7 The sporadic encounters between these expeditions were usually cordial and the London Quarterly Review commented on these instances in the following manner:

Yet this barren and inaccessible upland, with its scanty handful of wild people, finds a place in Eastern history and geography from an early period, and has now become the subject of serious correspondence between two European Governments, and its name, for a few weeks at least, is a household word in London.
Indeed, this is a striking accident of the course of modern history. We see the Slav and the Englishman
–—representatives of two great branches of the Aryan race, but divided by such vast intervals of space and time from the original common starting-point of their migration–thus brought back to the lap of Pamir to which so many quivering lines point as the centre of their earliest seats, there by common consent to lay down limits to mutual encroachment. (Quartely Review 1873, 516–552)

6To 19th-century British writers one of the most mysterious and evocative rivers in the world at the feet of the Pamirs, the Oxus, was impossibly remote, yet intimately connected through imagined Aryan ties to Britain. A naval captain of the East India Company, John Wood, who managed to extend his 1836 Afghanistan mission to the Pamirs, gave the first significant account of these mountains and the river Oxus in his Narrative of a Journey to the Source of the River Oxus (1838), first published by John Murray in 1841 and reissued in 1872. Walking across the frozen lake, he reflected on the many countries that owed their importance and wealth to the rivers that arose from this chain of mountains:

How strange and how interesting a group would be formed if an individual from each nation whose rivers have their first source in Pamir were to meet upon its summit; what varieties would there be in person, language, and manners; what contrasts between the rough, untamed, and fierce mountaineer and the more civilized and effeminate dweller on the plain; how much of virtue and of vice, under a thousand different aspects, would be met with among them all; and how strongly would the conviction press upon the mind that the amelioration of the whole could result only from the diffusion of early education and a purer religion! (Wood 1841, 145)

7Wood's ethnographic fantasy provided the Pamirs as the meeting place for many races and types and his Narrative received the accolade of a Royal Geographical Society Gold Medal, setting the model for subsequent Victorian writings about the Pamirs. Amidst the trials of his ramble in the Pamirs, Nathaniel Curzon, the future Viceroy of India, took time to linger and look toward the north where:

[…] the highest peaks in the world lift their unscaled pinnacles above the deepest valleys, the most somber ravines. Within a range of 70 miles, there are eight crests with an elevation of over 24,000 feet, while the little state of Hunza alone is said to contain more peaks of over 20, 000 feet than there are over 10, 000 feet in the entire Alps. The longest glaciers in the globe outside of the Arctic circle pour their frozen cataracts down the riven and tortured hollows of the mountains. […] Avalanches of snow, and—still more remarkable–of mud, come plunging down the long slopes, and distort the face of nature as though by some lamentable disease. (Curzon 1896, 4)

8However, sapping energy and numbing the senses of the Victorians, this 'Roof of the World' had never become a simple mirror of imperial desires. From the early part of the century on, naturalists, sportsmen, missionaries or adventurers, as well as border commissioners, crossed the Karakoram ranges to explore, map and secretly admire these forbidden lands.

Nonhuman encounters and the persistence of the Sublime

  • 8 Ronald Clark, The Victorian Mountaineers, London: B.T. Batsford, 1953.

9Many of these mountaineers soon found that conditions were just not the same as those experienced elsewhere. Some of them were already Alpine Club members8 who searched for new challenges and places unspoilt by the polluting multitudes crowding the all-too familiar regions. For the better part of nine months, and at altitudes rarely less than 18,000 feet, the Anglican missionary Henry Lansdell searched one glacier-baulked valley after another. His amazing physical endurance meant that a thorough survey was made of an area which had been little or never explored before from all points of the compass. While passing through the Muzart range the author remarked:

The area covered by this mass is estimated by Réclus at 400,000 square miles–as large, that is, as the whole of France and the Spanish peninsula–and it covers, therefore, considerably more ground than all the mountains in Europe put together. And whereas the Englishman who ascends Mont Blanc takes pride in procuring a certificate of his exploit, let those who aspire for bigger things know that greater distinction awaits the climber of one of the peaks of the Tian Shan, which is more than half as high again as the Franco-Italian monarch; whilst the smaller climbers there would have no difficulty in finding in the Muz-Tag alone half a dozen peaks overtopping by at least 3,000 feet the apex of the Alps. (Lansdell 1893, vol.1, 242)

10But a climb in the Pamirs was more like a campaign than an Alpine mountaineering expedition, requiring hundreds of sheep, horses and porters. Even the approach to the mountains was prolonged for, rather than starting almost immediately upon an ascent, as one did in the Alps. Pamirian climbers had to walk and scramble for long dreary days of unbroken routine and endure severe night frosts and then had to face a series of steep passes before reaching their destination. And death was more visible: frozen carcasses of horses that had fallen over steep precipices, skeletons of traders and other passers who had missed their footing.

11Invariably and for good reasons, while reading these Victorian explorations in the Pamirs, one's attention is drawn toward the struggles for British control of certain regions. But what gets lost in this inevitable concentration upon conquest and control, or upon British, Chinese or Russian imperial projects in the Pamirs and further in the Himalaya, is the aesthetic sensibility that accompanied it.

12Even if by the middle of the century the Sublime concept had gradually faded in the European imagination because of the development of mass tourism and commodification of travel, it was still very much a part of explorers' accounts in this particular part of the world. At the same time as these Victorian adventurers were measuring, surveying and battling high altitudes as well as dealing with the hostile tribal groups, they were also enthralled by the "stupendous grandeur of the view […] overwhelming in its magnitude." (Tanner 1886, 446)

13In Francis Younghusband's 1896 The Heart of the Continent, the sense of awe of being among the "stately mountains" is a constant companion. When he fails in his search for the Shimshal Pass, a place no European has been near, he finds consolation and satisfaction through his aesthetic response to the landscape. The presence of the Sublime has eradicated thoughts of his own mastery and, for the moment, altered his perspective:

But though I had not found the pass I was seeking, I could never regret spending those six days on the glacier in the heart of the mountains. The glacier itself was marvellously beautiful, and the mountains from which it flowered. […] When I can free my mind from the overpowering sense of grandeur which the mountains produce, and from the thoughts of the stern hard work we had to go through […] I think of the beauty of that glacier scenery, the delicate transparency of the walls of ice, the exquisite tinting of the blues and greens […] and the pinnacles of ice, as forming a spectacle unsurpassed in its purity of loveliness. Other scenes are beautiful, and yet others are impressive by their grandeur. […] But it is high up among the loftiest mountain summits, where all is shrouded in unsullied whiteness, where nothing polished dares pollute, that the very essence of sublimity [italics are mine-IKB] must be sought for. It is there indeed that the grand and beautiful unite to form the sublime. (Younghusband 1896, 250-51)

  • 9 M.L.Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, London: Routledge, 1992.

14Contrary to what most might believe, the imperial imperative did not necessarily negate or replace the sublime tradition. In some strange way, the two were even linked in the Pamirs. On the one hand, the sublime did not only legitimize but also added glory and force to the authority of British effort to define and extend the borders of their empire. In a sense, the majesty and sheer power of the mountains reflected the grandeur of Britain's strength and reach. Yet, on the other hand, contrary to what Mary Louise Pratt suggests in her Imperial Eyes,9 this aesthetic dimension also detracted from these explorers' sense of mastery and domination, and paradoxically stood side by side as a humbling moment in which the very force and immense scale of the surroundings put these invaders in their place.

15It was this isolation that protected the Pamirs and made it possible, even in the late 19th century, for Victorians to feel again the presence of the Sublime. Here the Victorian explorers in the masculine, national and imperial imagining of them, were intensely solitary and self-sufficient individuals without much need of the crowded world below. So strong was the sense of crossing a boundary into another reality that even though they were engaged in systematic mapping, at certain moments they felt that the region was actually too large and unwieldy to survey. But in spite of this disturbing reality, Victorian officers and mountaineers strived to demonstrate their knowledge of human and nonhuman surroundings by assuming their familiarity with local geography and knowledge of social and cultural systems. Many chose sports, hunting and gaming as other means to display their knowledge of the geographical location of mountain passes, the viability of natural resources and temperaments of the local communities and also to bolster their own authority as how the frontier regions of the Pamirs should be governed.

Nonhuman encounters: sports and hunting

  • 10 R. P. Cobbold, Innermost AsiaTravel and Sport in the Pamirs, London: William Heinemann, 1900.
  • 11 John M. Mackenzie, The Empire of Nature, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.

16Sport was a Victorian obsession. And among sports those related to hunting were the most highly regarded. Many officials cast their accounts of their expeditions to the Pamirs in the form of sporting memoirs, like Captain Ralph Patteson Cobbold's Innermost AsiaTravel and Sport in the Pamirs (1897),10 relegating work to the sidelines as a disagreeable duty to be fitted in among hunting experiences. Various forms of hunting were the standard recreation of officers and administrators in all parts of the empire.11 While hunting in the Pamirs and elsewhere, the Victorians fused two hunting traditions: they adapted ancient practices of the local people and to these they added classic British hunting methods like the battue. They enthusiastically adopted the atavistic use of spear and knife but also applied the rapidly developing precision of fire-arms. Thus hunting represented a historic cultural interaction with local populations, but at the same time the contest between the animals and the hunters was as much sport as a struggle between different social classes over their respective meaning that they attached to hunting and the animals. The Pamir mountains remained wild and remote enough to inspire by the end of the 19th century another cult, the stalking and long-range shooting, creating a combination of trekking and mountaineering with an increasing concern with game preservation.

17The Victorian sportsmen shot Kashmir stag, snow leopard, brown and black bears, ibex, and the two most sought-after trophies: markhor and Marco Polo sheep. Nathaniel Curzon exalted in gaming while in his expeditions in the area where:

I saw eagles and lammergeyer overhead. Hares positively swarm on the Taghdumbash, hopping about among the rocks and stones. There were also numbers of grey silver foxes, scurrying from burrows in the sandy oil and a species of marmot. Colonel Gordon also mentions the lynx. Fish are very plentiful in the lakes, and many of the streams swarm with a species of carp. Among the larger fauna, brown, red, and grey bears, snow-leopards and ibex are encountered in the mountains; […]; and wolves and dogs chase the Ovis Poli over the snowy ridges. The latter animal, or celebrated ram of the Pamirs, is, of course, the chief glory of the region, whilst, owing to the extreme remoteness of its haunts, it still remains the most cherished object of the modern sportsman's ambition. (Curzon Ibid., 24)

18Hunting, influenced by romantic sensibilities, became a non-human synecdoche of the Victorian modality to display and assert a masculine self-identity over the local society and some fellow countrymen, an identity which was articulated with triumphant nationalist rhetoric. The insistence of the Victorian sportsmen on following fair hunting codes was part of the wider movement of liberal political ideas of the Enlightenment era into every aspect of the Victorian social life: ideas based on equality, justice and fairness.

19During the second half of the 19th century, hunting for trophies, mainly the horns to be displayed, became a central figure of a new experience in British colonies. In addition to acquiring trophy heads, one of the main attractions and motivations for hunting for the Victorian sportsmen, at a personal level, was the promise of its unique and aesthetically pleasing experience. Colonel Thomas Gordon, member of the British Mission to Kashgar, while gaining political intelligence of the regions, rejoiced of excellent hunting possibilities in the Chinese Pamirs:

The nature of the country admits of the Ovis poli and the ibex even, when they come down to feed on the low ground as I saw, being stalked, followed, or met by the sportsman riding mounted on a trusty pony. With rifle slung, and accompanied by a couple of mounted Kirghiz, he wanders along, always approaching a ridge very carefully and peering cautiously over the edge. If game be seen, the guides are consulted, and an understanding as to the course to be followed is arrived at. If the ground is very open it will probably be necessary to dismount and stalk in the ordinary manner, with all the science and care requisite on such occasions. […] The advantage of this sport lies in the excitement of the gallop, and the stalk as well, and the great extent of ground that can be covered in a day. (Gordon 1876, 64)

20Hunting was beginning to be associated as much with physical and moral character as with social status and the control of land among the Victorian upper class. Samuel John Stone, a colonel in the British Indian army and a regular hunter, wrote referring to Victorian colonial officers:

Until he has shot his tiger in the hot and steaming forests of the plains, and his Ovis ammon at 15,000 feet above sea level, he considers that he has not accomplished his manifest destiny. (Stone 1896, 24)

21During the late 19th century hunting became a popular means for the British for claiming a superior sense of identity, based on liberal ideas of fairness. British sportsmen who hunted in the Pamirs lamented that the sophistication and refinement in hunting techniques in their home societies had rendered the hunting experience as inauthentic, and the entire sport was unfair. While shooting an ibex, Stone attributed it the qualities of a 'fair' adversary as follows:

But the ibex is a gentleman in his manners and customs as compared with his spiral-horned cousin lower down mountain; he gives you all the chances that a fair-minded animal should give an honest foe. He is nevertheless "all there" when regarding his ancestral hills, and, after you have circumvented him, you feel that he has been a worthy opponent. (Ibid., 27)

22Codes of fairness were introduced to re-enact danger in hunting and trophies became an expression of the elaboration of those codes and sportsmen's identities. But in employing the various groups of auxiliaries in a variety of roles and in hunting across populated regions, the Victorians could not have failed to establish contacts with the inhabitants of the Pamirs who maintained a precarious existence, cultivating parcels of the valley, keeping a few stock and hunting for both defence and subsistence.

Human encounters and Victorian construction of Pamirian peoples

23The British explorers of the region were motivated not only by the search of the Oxus but also by an interest in ethnology. As they explored mountain passes, measuring their heights and recording the natural features and resources of the area, they also speculated on the true identity of the peoples of the region. The narratives of a golden civilization that had once existed in the ancient past somewhere in the north of India and west of China caught the imagination of members of the Royal Geographical society who also made efforts to map and survey this region. They determined that the common ancestors of Indian and European people had lived in the Pamir region on the northern frontier of Hunza state, to what is known today as the Wakhan Corridor. Their exploration focused on two things: charting the physical geography of the region, especially the condition of mountain passes, and searching for the source of the river Oxus—the location of an ancient Aryan paradise. As David Harvey states, "geopolitical conflicts often imply a certain aestheticization of politics in which appeal to mythology of place and person has a strong role to play." (Harvey 1999, 209)

  • 12 W. Moorcroft and G. Trebeck, Travels in the Himalayan provinces of Hindustan and the Panjab; in Lad (...)

24The first British explorer to the northern frontier of India to show a mild admiration for the local culture and the extent of its sophistication, was William Moorcroft,12 a superintended of the stud farm of the East India Company in Calcutta in the 1820s. Though he just contoured the Pamirs from Kashmir to Bokhara, he gave rich descriptive accounts of natural resources, domestic production and social organization of these regions. Although Moorcroft clearly saw local peoples and tribes as less civilized than Europeans, he did not portray them as the radical 'other.' Two ethnic groups predominantly featured in this report: the agropastoralist Wakhi and the semi-nomadic Kyrgyz who, in the most remote locations, provided transport by yaks, Bactrian camels and horses to the rare travellers and trans-mountain traders to safeguard their journeys across high passes.

25Later in the century, Captain Cobbold's account also included some of the first photographs of the Pamirs and few detailed descriptions of physical features of the local inhabitants. He noted the differences between the Wakhis (Gulchas) of the western Pamirs and the Kirghiz whom he met on his route in the eastern Pamirs:

The Gulchas are the agricultural highlanders who inhabit the Western slopes of the Pamirs in Darwaz, Roshan, Shingan, Wakhan and Badakshan, and are also Iranian stock, but of purer type. The chiefs claim descent from Alexander. They have broad heads, delicate features, and firm lips. […] They compare favourably with the Sarts [Uzbek-IKB] and Tajiks on account of their simple habits and upright character; hospitality is a sacred duty for them, and every village contains a house reserved for strangers; no slavery is tolerated among them, and polygamy, though authorized, is rare. (Cobbold Ibid, 185)

26Hamilton Bower in the late 19th century compared Wakhi lifestyles with that of Kirghiz whom he encountered west of Kilian:

[…] camps of Wakkhi nomads were continually met with. These Wakkhis are an exceedingly interesting Aryan race of good physique, fair and decidedly European in appearance, courteous, and hospitable. We found them a charming people to travel among. Like Kirghiz, they own immense numbers of sheep, and move from place to place in search of pasturage. (Bower 1894, 45)

  • 13 Quite few explorers noticed that the communities represented the two major language groups—Iranian (...)

27By the second half of the 19th century a major intellectual idea of a search of an original Aryan race started to be infused with racial boundaries and geographical determinism.13 Descriptions of physical boundaries such as rivers and mountains ranges rendered the people living there as distinct and discrete races, bounded in small and impenetrable spaces. These spaces acted as nature's mechanism for retaining races in their original conditions, freezing them in time:

Among nomads like the Khirghiz [sic-IKB] education and science are even less developed than government. […] The absence of contact with outside people and their own lack of inquisitiveness prevent the Kirghiz from making scientific discoveries. […] Thus civilisation remains stationary. The Khirghiz are not savages, but the gulf between them and the more enlightened nations is growing wider. The influence of European civilization has begun to reach them, but their mode of life will probably change only a little so long as they depend chiefly upon grass of the plains and high plateaus. (Huntington 1921, 21)

28Francis Younghusband, who visited these regions in 1889, 1890 and 1891, reiterated ideas of remoteness and isolation due to landscape barriers and of preservation of races in their original form in this passage:

Their mountain barriers shield them from severe outside competition, and they lead a careless, easy, apathetic existence. Nothing disturbs them. Revolutions have occurred but they have mostly been carried out by foreigners, such people are, as might naturally be inferred, not a fighting race. They are a race of cultivators and small shopkeepers, and nothing more, and nothing would make them anything more. It is their destiny, shut away here from the rest of the world, to lead a dull spiritless, but easy and perhaps happy life, which they allow nothing to disturb. (Younghusband Ibid., 190–1)

29Whether used as a means of explaining the distinction between different mountain groups as different races or as a means of underlining the preservation of individual races through isolation, the emphasis on geographic remoteness and lack of familiarity with the region reified the cultural difference, and reinforced the physical distance between the British and the peoples of the region.

  • 14 Hermann Kreutzmann and Teiji Watanabe eds., Mapping Transitions in the Pamirs: Changing Human-Envir (...)

30The political borders of Wakhan and Pamir, drawn in 1895, initially meant little to the Wakhi and Kyrgyz, who moved freely across them for grazing and trade. These peoples, who lived in the borderlands along unsettled boundaries, were mentioned but briefly in most military reports, exploration missions and travel writings of the 19th century. They became passive victims of international politics, and the new boundaries which trenched the spaces of their everyday activities, constrained their mobility and resulted in insecurities and resiliency.14


31By the mid-19th century, a primary geopolitical goal for the British in the Pamirs became defining and delimiting the territorial boundary of the empire in this trans-Himalayan region through mapping and explorations in order to thwart Russian designs on the area. It was around this time that the British public and colonial officers were beginning to grasp the Pamirs in their imagination as distant yet geopolitically important. Making their way through the labyrinths of passes and immense, jagged peaks of the Pamirs, the Victorians came face to face with the very exemplars of Edmund Burke's aesthetic theory. Among the Pamirs, their understanding of the vastness, the awe, the chaos, the danger and the apparent infinity, transcended any examples of these qualities they had known before. Whether surveying, climbing or hunting, these Victorian explorers were to experience the Sublime again as something more intense and immediate. These explorers and subsequent travellers, who personally faced the difficult environmental conditions, influenced our knowledge about the peoples of the Pamirs, Hindu Kush and Karakoram. Guided by the orientalist myth of an original Aryan race, they were also applying geographical determinism and remoteness on British policy accompanied by the rise of a more imperial and masculine form of British colonialism. Read together, they represented the process of imperial territorial expansion in faraway places and its justification as the spread of civilization as well as the role played by geographical knowledge in that process.

32In constructing the Pamirs as perilous and sublime places worth risking, Victorian travellers at the turn of the 19th century contributed to the construction of England as a safe space, a comforting contrast to the wilderness and extremity of the Roof of the World and its regions. The mountains with a timeless Pamirian dynamic became a useful geographical 'other' against which, with the discursive strategy of nonhuman and human encounters, they attempted to forge a rugged and durable identity for themselves, their class, their gender, their nation and their empire.

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BOULGER, Demetrius Charles, The Life of Yakoob Beg; Athalik Ghazi, and Badaulet; Ameer of Kashgar, London: W.H. Allen, 1878.

BOWER, Hamilton, Diary of a Journey across Tibet, London: Rivington, Percival and Co., 1894.

"Central Asia", Quarterly Review, April 1873, London: William Clowes and Sons, 1873, 516-552.

CLARK, Ronald, The Victorian Mountaineers, London: B.T. Batsford, 1953.

COBBOLD, Ralph Patteson, Innermost Asia–Travel and Sport in the Pamirs, London: William Heinemann, 1900.

CURZON, George Nathaniel, The Pamirs and the Source of the Oxus, London: The Royal Geographical Society, 1896.

GORDON, Thomas Edward, The Roof of the World, being the Narrative of a Journey over the High Plateau of Tibet to the Russian Frontier and the Oxus Sources of Pamir, Edinburg: Edmonston and Douglas, 1876.

HABBERTON, William, Anglo-Russian Relations Concerning Afghanistan, 1837–1907, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1937.

HARVEY, David, The Condition of Postmodernity, Madden, MA: Blackwell, 1999.

HUNTINGTON, Ellsworth and Sumner Webster CUSHING, Principles of Human Geography, New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1921.

KREUTZMANN, Hermann, Pamirian Crossroads, Harassowitz Verlag, 2015.

KREUTZMANN, Hermann and Teiji WATANABE eds., Mapping Transitions in the Pamirs: Changing Human-Environmental Landscapes, Springer, 2016.

LANSDELL, Henry, Chinese Central Asia: A Ride to Little Tibet, London: Sampson, Low, Marston, and Company, 2 vols.,1893.

MACKENZIE, John MacDonald, The Empire of Nature, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.

MIDDLETON, Robert, Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, Odyssey Books, 2011.

MOORCROFT, William and George TREBECK, Travels in the Himalayan provinces of Hindustan and the Panjab; in Ladakh and Kashmir; in Peshawar, Kabul, Kunduz, and Bokhara, by William Moorcroft and George Trebeck, London: John Murray, 2 vols., 1841.

PRATT, Mary Louise, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, London: Routledge, 1992.

ROWE, William Campbell, "The Corridor: Endgame of the Great Game," Borderlines and Borderlands: Political Oddities at the Edge of the Nation-State, in Alexander C. Diener and Joshua Hagen eds., Plymouth: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010, 53-68.

SERGEEV, Evgeny, The Great Game 1856-1907: Russo-British Relations in Central and East Asia, Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2014.

STONE, Samuel John, In and Beyond the Himalayas: A record of sport and travel, in the abode of snow, London: Edward Arnold, 1896.

TANNER, Henry Charles Baskerville, "The Great Peaks of the Himalaya", the Alpine Journal, 1886, 446.

YOUNGHUSBAND, Francis Edward, The Heart of a Continent: a Narrative of Travels in Manchuria, across the Gobi Desert, through the Himalayas, the Pamirs, and Chitral, London: John Murray, 1896.

WOOD, John A Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Source of the River Oxus by the Route of the Indus, Kabul and Badakhshan, London: John Murray, 1841.

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1 On this imperial confrontation see, for example, Evgeny Sergeev, The Great Game 1856-1907: Russo-British Relations in Central and East Asia, Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2014.

2 The etymology and precise meaning of the name 'Pamir' are problematic. The name is encountered for the first time in the account of the journey in about 630 CE of the Chinese Buddhist traveller Xuanzang (- ?602-664 CE) as "the valley of Po-mi-lo" which must have been Xuanzang's attempt to transliterate the name then used by the local inhabitants. This designation was confirmed six hundred years later by Marco Polo, who recorded the name as 'Pamier.'

3 Demetrius Charles Boulger, The Life of Yakoob Beg; Athalik Ghazi, and Badaulet; Ameer of Kashgar, London: W.H. Allen, 1878.

4 Khanate is a Turco-Mongol-originated word used to describe a political entity ruled by a khan. An emirate is a political territory that is ruled by a dynastic Muslim monarch, called emir.

5 Yakub Beg (1870-1877), known also as Ataliq Ghazi and Badaylet, was a Muslim leader who ruled Kashgaria (southern Xinjiang) from 1864 to 1877.

6 Hermann Kreutzmann, Pamirian Crossroads, Harassowitz Verlag, 2015, 72-82.

7 In 1871 Russian geographer Alexei Fedchenko reached the Alai Valley and toured the northern Pamirs but was unable to proceed southward into present-day Tajikistan; as part of Thomas Douglas Forsyth's second Yarkand mission, Thomas Edward Gordon travelled through the Pamirs and the Wakhan in 1873–1874; in 1877–1878, Nikolai Severtzov ventured south from the Alai and followed a route close to the current Pamir Highway, reaching Yashil Kul and the Ghunt Valley; in 1884, on his first expedition, Grigory Grumm-Grzhimaylo travelled from the Alai as far as Lake Karakul; and, in 1888–1889, Bronislav Gromchevsky crossed the Pamirs on his way to the Hunza Valley, where he encountered Francis Younghusband. Two years later, in 1891, Younghusband toured the Pamirs and famously encountered Colonel Yonoff—well inside the territory that the 1873 agreement had set out as Afghan and thus, by implication, within the British sphere of influence. In 1890, several more explorers crossed the Pamirs, including the Earl of Dunmore and Sven Hedin. Robert Middleton, Tadjikistan and the High Pamirs, Odyssey Books, 2011.

8 Ronald Clark, The Victorian Mountaineers, London: B.T. Batsford, 1953.

9 M.L.Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, London: Routledge, 1992.

10 R. P. Cobbold, Innermost AsiaTravel and Sport in the Pamirs, London: William Heinemann, 1900.

11 John M. Mackenzie, The Empire of Nature, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.

12 W. Moorcroft and G. Trebeck, Travels in the Himalayan provinces of Hindustan and the Panjab; in Ladakh and Kashmir; in Peshawar, Kabul, Kunduz, and Bokhara, by William Moorcroft and George Trebeck, London: John Murray, 2 vols., 1841.

13 Quite few explorers noticed that the communities represented the two major language groups—Iranian and Turkic, of this part of Central Asia. Besides language differences, Wakhi and Kirghiz followed different belief systems. Kirghiz communities traditionally comprised Sunni Muslims, while the Wakhi almost exclusively belonged to the Shia Ismaili sect. Both lifestyles exhibited close affinities to the different traditions and affiliations of the two groups. While the Wakhi grew crops, the Kirghiz had traditionally refrained from any form of settled agriculture. Both groups utilized high pastures with seasonal meadows.

14 Hermann Kreutzmann and Teiji Watanabe eds., Mapping Transitions in the Pamirs: Changing Human-Environmental Landscapes, Springer, 2016.

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Bibliographical reference

Irina Kantarbaeva-Bill, Victorian Exploration of Human and Nonhuman on the Pamir MountainsCaliban, 59 | 2018, 291-305.

Electronic reference

Irina Kantarbaeva-Bill, Victorian Exploration of Human and Nonhuman on the Pamir MountainsCaliban [Online], 59 | 2018, Online since 01 June 2018, connection on 22 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Irina Kantarbaeva-Bill

Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, CAS.
Chercheuse associée aux Laboratoires CAS (Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes) et LLA (Lettres, Langages et Arts) de l’Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, Irina KANTARBAEVA-BILL travaille dans les domaines de l’histoire et de la littérature des mondes anglophone et slave, notamment sur les sujets liés à l'orientalisme européen et russe, l'histoire des représentations et des voyages. Auteur du livre Entre imaginaire et réel : les voyageurs britanniques en Asie centrale au XIXe siècle (Genève : Olizane, 2019), elle prépare la nouvelle édition des récits de voyages d'Henri Lansdell, Chinese Central Asia (Londres : Bloomsbury, 2020).

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