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Qishloq Ovozi

Author Peter Hopkirk wrote of his love for the characters, the settings, the adventure that were part of the contest between the British, Russians, and others that was played out in Inner Asia during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

I write this belatedly because I was unaware until recently that a giant in my field had passed away.

My thanks to Edward Lemon for bringing the sad news of the passing of Peter Hopkirk to my attention. Hopkirk died on August 22 at age 83.

For me, and so many others who are now in the field of Central Asian studies, Hopkirk helped bring alive the rich history of the region during the last 200 years.

I have every one of Hopkirk’s books and I’ve read each of them several times. The first of his books I read, nearly 30 years ago, was “Setting the East Ablaze,” about the turbulent early days of Bolshevik rule in Central Asia, the Red Army and the White Army in western China, Moscow’s hopes to ignite the flame of communism in India, and Britain’s efforts to thwart the Kremlin’s designs.

It was not long before I read “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road,” about the search for ancient cities and civilizations in what is now China’s Xinjiang Province; “Trespassers on the Roof of the World,” about the 19th-century quest to reach the mysterious and fabled city of Lhasa; “On Secret Service East of Constantinople,” about the great powers, their agents, and spies vying for influence in Turkey, Persia, and Afghanistan during World War I; and, of course, Hopkirk’s masterpiece, “The Great Game.”

I had read them all when years later I came across yet another of his books, “Quest For Kim,” Hopkirk’s last book, in which he attempts to trace who the real-life people were who inspired the characters in "Kim," Kipling’s classic tale, a book that captured Hopkirk’s imagination when he read it in his childhood.

I pulled “Quest For Kim” off my shelf before I started writing this and was happy to see that on the first page I had written the place and date I started reading it (an old habit of mine): “Kabul 1/19/02.” How thoroughly appropriate.

Hopkirk had a surprise inside that I appreciated more than I can say.

In his prologue, “Here begins the Great Game…” he writes of his love for the characters, the settings, the adventure that were part of the contest between the British, Russians, and others that was played out in Inner Asia during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A pair of photos provided by the Hopkirk family showing Peter Hopkirk as a young man and in his later years
A pair of photos provided by the Hopkirk family showing Peter Hopkirk as a young man and in his later years

Hopkirk lamented, “Any remaining dreams I might have had of entering the shadowy, real-life world of Kim evaporated in 1947 when, after 300 years, the British packed their bags and left India forever.”

Hopkirk found himself in Somalia “serving in the King’s African Rifles. I could hardly have been further away from Great Game country -- from the North-West Frontier of India, the Pamirs, Afghanistan and Persia, and from Russian and Chinese Central Asia, whose caravan cities and great empty deserts I so yearned to see.

“However, just as I was about to dismiss the Great Game finally from my life, I stumbled upon another book, newly published, which once more sent the adrenalin racing through me. This was Fitzroy Maclean’s 'Eastern Approaches'…”

I read “Eastern Approaches” before I read any of Hopkirk’s books and share Hopkirk’s appraisal of the book as “heady stuff.”

“Kim” helped draw Hopkirk to “Eastern Approaches,” and “Eastern Approaches” helped draw me to Hopkirk’s books.

Thank you, Peter Hopkirk, for introducing me to Colonel Frederick Bailey, “an absolutely first-class man,” whose adventures included being hired, while in disguise, by the Cheka, the predecessor of the KGB, to track down a British spy in Central Asia who was…Colonel Bailey.

Thank you, Peter Hopkirk, for taking me on the trails of explorers Aurel Stein, Sven Hedin, and others into the Taklamakan Desert in Chinese Turkestan as they searched for ancient cities buried under the sands for more than a millennium.

Thank you for bringing me to the Tibetan Plateau to watch pundit Nain Singh, Russian Colonel Nikolai Przhevalsky, and others race to be the first to reach Lhasa and for recounting the story of the unfortunate explorers Susie Rijnhart and her husband, Petrus.

“Buried in a medicine chest somewhere beneath the Chang Tang, Tibet’s desolate northern plateau, lie the remains of Charlie,” the Rijnharts' son, not even 14 months old.

Before her ordeal was over, she would lose her husband, too, who went around a river bend to speak with the first people the Rijnharts had seen in days, likely bandits, and vanished.

And I express my gratitude to Peter Hopkirk for acquainting me with the tales of Alexander Burns, killed in Kabul in 1841; Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly (who coined the term “Great Game”), executed by the emir of Bukhara in 1842 after spending time in the infamous “bug pit”; and all the stories of abbots, ambans, lamas, steppe warriors, European military adventurers, explorers, missionaries, warlords, butchers, emirs, and khans who make the history of the region so rich and fascinating.

No one tells these tales better than Peter Hopkirk.

His contribution to Central Asian studies cannot be measured.

-- Bruce Pannier

A Kyrgyz border guard stands watch in Batken Province on the country's frontier with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Two Central Asian countries are taking an extreme step to strengthen security along their borders, but the move is more likely to add to tensions already present along their ill-defined common frontiers, particularly in the Ferghana Valley.

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are forming something like civil militias to help border guards who are admittedly stretched beyond their limits when it comes to border security.

On October 8, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament passed a bill that provides for arming elements of the population living in border areas and training them to work with local border-guard units. These border-guard helpers would be used in "remote mountain areas." About 93 percent of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous.

Ideally, these recruits would be hunters. The state would provide them with uniforms and mobile-communications equipment and pay them a wage for helping border guards keep the watch.

On October 6, Uzbekistan’s government approved regulations for the Chegara Posbonlari (Border Sentinels), volunteer units to assist border-guard forces. The pro-government youth group Kamolot formed such volunteer units -- Kamolot Posbonlari -- back in 2010 to help patrol borders with Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.

There was no mention of arming the Chegara Posbonlari, but they, like their Kyrgyz counterparts, will receive mobile-communications equipment. The regulations do not appear to be very precise or detailed. They indicate the Chegara Posbonlari are only supposed to watch for illegal activity along the border and report it to border guards.

There is certainly reason to keep watch along the border.

Smuggling -- from cotton and gasoline to narcotics -- and livestock theft are common along all of Central Asia’s borders. The problems are particularly acute along the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border owing to the dense population and abundance of land suitable for maintaining herds. Both countries are on transit routes from narcotics being trafficked out of nearby Afghanistan.

Border guards are often accused of either turning a blind eye to smuggling and rustling by their countrymen or participating in it.

None of the five Central Asian states can claim to have all of its borders demarcated. The Uzbek-Kyrgyz border might be the worst-defined frontier within Central Asia.

The combination of illegal activity and an unclear border has fueled conflicts between communities on opposite sides of the boundary. Border guards have often been needed to restore peace between Uzbek and Kyrgyz villagers, but they do naturally tend to side with their countrymen in these disputes.

There is no reason to believe the introduction of these semi-official civilians into the mix would ease, rather than stoke, these conflicts.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, Ozodlik, heard from an Uzbek border guard that these Posbonlari are already exceeding their authority in some areas where they patrol. The border guard, who provided information under condition of anonymity, said members of these volunteer border forces have often demanded money to allow people to cross into Uzbekistan.

Some people are not intimidated by these volunteers with no uniforms or badges and refuse to pay what is clearly a bribe.

The sentinels then resort to Plan B: They let them across, then detain them for illegally crossing the border, threatening to call in the real border guards or police.

This type of behavior will only make the situation along the border worse.

Kyrgyz MP Nurlan Torobekov (Ar-Namys Party) asked during debates in September who would take responsibility for the possible misdeeds of one or more of these hired guards.

Tajikistan has not announced any plans to follow Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan’s example. But the situation along Tajikistan’s borders with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is similar to the situation along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. If both the latter countries implement their plans to augment border forces with civilian groups, Tajikistan will almost surely do the same.

Border guards -- Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek -- exchange fire across the borders of the Ferghana Valley every year. People are often wounded and sometimes killed. Adding civil-defense units is likely to bring more casualties and further escalate tensions.

-- Bruce Pannier, with Ulan Eshmatov and Eleanora Beysehnbek kyzy of RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, Alisher Sidikov of the Uzbek Service, and Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.