The Heart of a Continent: A Narrative of Travels in Manchuria, 
Across the Gobi Desert, through the Himalayas, 
the Pamirs, and Chitral, 
1884-1894 by Captain Francis Younghusband, C.I.E., Indian Staff Corps, 
Gold Medallist, Royal Geographical Society (1896)

I have been reading Victorian war and travel memoirs lately. Google Books has everything full text for free that is out of copyright. I send these books to my Kindle, which makes it easy to read them.

Younghusband’s book does not have a single bad page in it. Here is one good passage. Younghusband and his small party have brassed their way into the hilltop fort of the chief of the Kanjuti bandits, to express the displeasure of the Queen at the perpetual raiding upon her subjects.

We stood together for a long time round the fire, a curious group—rough, hard, determined-looking Kanjutis, in long loose woollen robes, round cloth caps, long curls hanging down their ears, matchlocks slung over their backs, and swords bound to their sides; the timid, red-faced Kirghiz ; the Tartar-featured Ladakis; the patient, long-suffering Baltis; the sturdy, jovial little Gurkhas; the grave Pathan, and a solitary Englishman, met together here, in the very heart of the Himalayas, in the robbers’ stronghold. It is on thinking over occasions like this that one realizes the extraordinary influence of the European in Asia, and marvel at his power of rolling on one race upon another to serve his purpose. An Asiatic and a European fight, the former is beaten, and he immediately joins the European to subdue some other Asiatic. The Gurkhas and the Pathans had both in former days fought desperately against the British; they were now ready to fight equally desperately for the British against these raiders around us, and their presence had inspired so much confidence in the nervous Kirghiz that these even had summoned up enough courage to enter a place which they had before never thought of without a shudder.

The mountains themselves were at least as dangerous as any bandits:

At last we reached the far side of the slope, and found ourselves on a projecting piece of rock protruding through the ice. Here we could rest, but only with the prospect of still further difficulties before us. We were at the head of the rocky precipice, the face of which we should have to descend to reach the ice-slopes which extended to the glacier at the foot of the pass. At such heights as those which we had now reached, where the snow and ice lie sometimes hundreds of feet thick, it is only where it is very steep that the bare rock shows through The cliff we had now to descend was an almost sheer precipice : its only saving feature was that it was rough and rugged, and so afforded some little hold for our hands and feet. Yet even then we seldom got a hold for the whole hand or whole foot. All we generally found was a little ledge, upon which we could grip with the tips of the fingers or side of the foot. The men were most good to me, whenever possible guiding my foot into some secure hold, and often supporting it there with their hands ; but at times it was all I could do to summon sufficient courage to let myself down on to the veriest little crevices which had to support me. There was a constant dread, too, that fragments of these ledges might give way with the weight upon them ; for the rock was very crumbly, as it generally is when exposed to severe frosts, and once I heard a shout from above, as a huge piece of rock which had been detached came crashing past me, and as nearly as possible hit two of the men who had already got halfway down.

No GPS, no radio, no cell phones, no helicopters, no motor vehicles, no nothin’.

In those days, you could walk off into the mountains with your kit loaded on your ponies, out onto the blank spaces on the map, and you were completely out on your own.

That is a degree of freedom none of us will ever enjoy again.

4 thoughts on “The Heart of a Continent: A Narrative of Travels in Manchuria, 
Across the Gobi Desert, through the Himalayas, 
the Pamirs, and Chitral, 
1884-1894 by Captain Francis Younghusband, C.I.E., Indian Staff Corps, 
Gold Medallist, Royal Geographical Society (1896)”

  1. You mention the level of freedom those guys had when they were out in b.f. asia with no cell phone, etc. I feel that way when I am working on my hobby farm, admittedly on a much lower level. When I am out in a field clearing brush or doing whatever, it is a very strange feeling. All alone, no police, just me, animals, the land and weather. This is a feeling that not many people get to enjoy and one that I find quite refreshing and almost puzzling. I also carry a revolver while I am out there and I feel like a frieking cowboy from 150 years earlier (open carry is legal in Wisconsin). I carry the revolver because we have fox and coyote out there and I need to get bit by one and get rabies like a hole in the head. And I also carry becuase I can, it is cool, and it makes me feel like a real American.

    Again, this is not freedom as those crazy Englishmen in Asia enjoyed it since I still have my blackberry in my pocket in case I get injured, but I think it is as close as I can get.

  2. If you keep sharing snippets like this, I’ll have to buy a Kindle/iPad or start reading on my computer in earnest—significantly behind on the anti-library. I gave away my biography of Younghusband recently to a young USMC family member, but thoroughly enjoyed it when I read it several years ago—but the man is much better than the biographer.

    As to degree of freedom; the original Star Trek fan in me wants to believe we will wander the heavens some day.

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