Home Up Death in the Morning

Part 3 - Chinese Turkestan

At the time of these events, far western China was shown as a large blank spot on both British and Russian maps.  The main oasis towns of Kashgar (now Kashi) and Yarkand were only vaguely and approximately indicated.  Cut off from the rest of Asia by the largest, highest mountain ranges in the world, it was separated from China by the fearsome and deadly Takla Makan desert to the east and the equally forbidden and unknown Tibetan plateau to the south.  With the possible exception of Antarctica, it was the least known place on earth. Even the South Polar regions were being explored faster. Centuries earlier, the flourishing Silk Road had crisscrossed the area, bringing with it literature, science, religion,  trade and peoples from far and wide. But the silk route had fallen by the mid 1500s, thanks to Columbus and his brethren.  The bustling oasis towns had fallen into disrepair, and most had long ago been swallowed up by the desert sands.


The Takla Makan desert had terrified travelers for centuries. Bones of countless pilgrims, soldiers and merchants lay bleaching in the sun, or more probably, covered by the relentless sandstorms the plagued the region.  For many years, westerners were told that In the local Uighur dialect, the name means "Go in and you won't come out".  Nearly two-thirds the size of the Sahara, it differs wildly from the African giant. The Takla Makan is more susceptible to vicious sandstorms that can last for weeks, blowing black sand into every tiny crevice and crack, blinding man and animal alike. There is far less underground water, and the temperatures vary over a wider range. It's not uncommon for daytime temperatures to reach 110 F, and drop to the low teen's by midnight. The Chinese do their atomic testing there now, and some wags have suggested that if anything,  nuclear fallout can only improve the place.

Long a part of the Chinese empire, but only nominally subservient, the Muslim population had almost nothing in common with their Manchu masters in Peking, and much more in common with their brothers in Bokhara, Samarkand and Khiva, on the other side of the Pamirs. A bloody Muslim revolt had in fact broken out in the 1860s. Chinese cities were burned to the ground and their Han inhabitants massacred. The revolt spread quickly from east to west, and within weeks nearly all of Chinese Turkestan was ablaze. A local revolutionary came to dominate the scene, claiming descent from the almost holy Tamerlane himself. Yakub Beg was the veteran of years of fighting against the Russians, and had no less than six battle wounds to prove it.  In the employ of Kashgar's exiled Muslim ruler, the two men hoped to drive out the Chinese forever, the latter hoping to regain his throne.

In 1865, they found Kashgar in turmoil, with rival factions fighting amongst themselves and the Chinese. The city had been at war with itself for almost three years nonstop. Tribe fought tribe, and banded together only to kill the Chinese. (Ed. Note: Why does this sound so familiar?)   Within two years, thanks to his charismatic leadership and ruthless military tactics, picked up from his European enemies, Yakub Beg had managed to murder or drive out all his Muslim rivals, including the erstwhile king, and wrest Kashgar and Yarkand from their Chinese governors. It is said the two Chinese preferred to blow themselves up with barrels of gunpowder rather than surrender, and a colorful, if horrifying story reports that Kashgar's defenders had cannibalized their own women and children before surrendering, having already consumed every four legged beast in the town, including rats and cats.  Yakub Beg declared himself King of Kashgaria, and before long his rule extended eastward to the far edges of the Takla Makan, Urumchi, and theTurfan area.  However, as is so often the case, the natives merely exchanged one type of tyrant with another - Yakub Beg's army continued to plunder, massacre and terrorize the local inhabitants.


Shaw's caravan arrived in Yarkand in December of 1868, and to his major annoyance, Hayward showed up a few weeks later.  Claiming to be a part of Shaw's tea-trading group, Hayward had sweet talked his way past innumerable border guards, army patrols and local wallahs.  Studiously avoiding public contact, the two men kept a close watch on each other,  and the local officials kept an eye on both of them. FInally permission arrived from Yakub Beg in Kashgar, and eight days later, Shaw became the first Englishman ever to enter the town,  Hayward having been left behind in Yarkand.  His entrance into the mud-walled city must have been something. The inhabitants had no concept of the British Empire - they evidently thought of the English as vassals of the neighboring Maharajah of Kashmir, an idea probably encouraged, if not developed, by the Russians to the north. Shaw explained the British situation and tried to educate the illiterate bandit king in the ways of the English.  Received graciously by Yakub Beg, Shaw explained his business, left gifts and trinkets, and awaited the return call for another meeting. Weeks passed.  Not allowed to leave his house, much less the city itself, Shaw must have harkened back to the unfortunate Stoddart & Connelly, their deaths still very much on everyone's mind. In a few weeks, he was joined by Hayward, who merely exchanged house arrest in Yarkand for house arrest in Kashgar. Both men were well treated and afforded everything they asked for, but were kept completely isolated and guarded day and night. 

One very curious event did occur, when Shaw was smuggled a note, written in English, from a man identifying himself only as "Mirza", who claimed to have been sent to Kashgar from India to conduct a clandestine survey, and to fix the exact position of Kashgar and Yarkand. To do this, he needed to know the exact date, and also to borrow Shaw's watch, because there were none to be found in the town. Shaw feared a trick from Yakub Beg and declined to participate in the highly dangerous and sensitive dealings,  not finding out until later the the request was completely genuine, and that he'd been contacted by one of the most famous Pundits of them all. Indian Muslims recruited to spy, survey and sniff around the Pundits were the brainchild of an Indian Army officer. Risking their lives with every step, the pundits walked all over Central Asia ,measuring their steps, and laying out the distances and terrain between towns and villages all over the map..

In any case, after several months of frustrating denial and detainment, both Shaw and Hayward were released and accompanied back to Ladakh. 

Next - North from Gilgit, and Death in the Morning