In the footsteps of Alexander Gardner, a Victorian adventurer who travelled to the Hindu Kush

In 1826 an American mercenary fleeing an Afghan warlord escaped into the Hindu Kush, inadvertently starting an extraordinary journey through the uncharted mountains of central Asia. John Keay traces the early adventures of Alexander Haughton Campbell Gardner

Pamir Mountains - know as Bam-i-dunya, 'Roof of the World'

In 1826 a ragtag party of eight men, injured and starving, stumbled into the lofty Hindu Kush north-east of Kabul. They had no map, no compass, no money, not even provisions. In fact, they had no clear destination: unlike most explorers, who aim to find a hidden peak or river source, the leader of this sorry band, Alexander Haughton Campbell Gardner, was not searching for glory but fleeing death. Yet despite this unpromising start, over the next three years Gardner completed a dangerous first: a circuit through the high mountains of central Asia, traversing lands and meeting peoples never before encountered by outsiders.

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Gardner had begun his central Asian wanderings in 1819. He was on the run when he rode into Afghanistan in 1824, and – having thrown in his lot with Habib-ulla Khan, rival to Afghan warlord Dost Mohammad Khan for the throne of Kabul – he was on the run again in 1826. Two years as commander of Habib-ulla’s horsemen had ended in catastrophe. Gardner’s fort near Bagram had been stormed by Dost Mohammad’s forces; his little boy had been murdered and his young wife had taken her own life. Gardner had sustained a severe wound to his throat, and the seven men who accompanied him on his flight were also injured. “With fevered brain,” he recalled, “I rode away forever from my once happy mountain home.”

Though ill-equipped, Gardner was at least familiar with the region. His outfit consisted of a tall black Turkoman hat, a black sheepskin coat with hair-rope girdle and “Turki over-all boots”, and he carried a sword, dagger, matchlock rifle, saddlecloth and Qur’an. In the reclusive khanates of central Asia it paid to be armed, well mounted and not obviously an infidel. It also helped to be accustomed to the brutal mores of the region. During three years of freebooting across what’s now Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Gardner had been repeatedly robbed and pursued by slavers. He thus had no scruples about attacking others, reasoning that: “a person long separated from the world and leading a self-communing life” acquires “curious moralising notions”.

The fugitives first crossed a high ridge, later identified as the 3,848-metre Khawak Pass near the head of the Panjshir Valley, and found sanctuary on a plateau ringed by caves. The cave-dwellers were long-persecuted ‘Kafirs’, a fair-skinned Nuristani people of whom Gardner’s account was the first – and the probable inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. Gardner identified the spot as Ghaur-i-Pir Nimchu, where the followers of an old ‘saint’ fed the travellers, dressed their wounds and sent them on their way with a guide and a generous gift of cash.

Alexander Gardner, a Victorian adventurer
Following the first Anglo-Sikh War (1845–46) he continued in native service as the artillery commandant and then pensioner of the maharajahs of Kashmir (Bourne & Shepherd/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Colonel Alexander Gardner: traveller, freelance soldier

According to his own accounts, Alexander Haughton Campbell Gardner (c1790–1877) was born on the shores of Lake Superior, the youngest son of a Scots doctor and his half-Spanish wife, and schooled by Jesuits near the mouth of the Colorado river.

After these unusual origins he crossed the Atlantic and, by way of Ireland, Spain and Egypt, joined his eldest brother in Russia. When in 1817 that brother died in a riding accident, Alexander took ship down the Caspian Sea and embarked on his first groundbreaking foray into central Asia.

His 12 years as a white-man-gone-native in unexplored Asia culminated with his great mountain circuit of 1826–29. Re-emerging from Kafiristan, he again sought service in Afghanistan before descending into the Punjab in 1832. He was there enrolled as an artillery colonel in the army of India’s last great native empire, that of the Sikh maharajah Ranjit Singh, which stretched from the Khyber Pass to Tibet, and from Kashmir to the southern Punjab.

When that empire imploded after Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, Gardner stayed on in Lahore (now in Pakistan). Following the first Anglo-Sikh War (1845–46) he continued in native service as the artillery commandant and then pensioner of the maharajahs of Kashmir.

Living quietly in Kashmir, the old man in the tartan turban became a local celebrity, relating his life story to a succession of visiting dignitaries, being photographed and painted by the curious and consulted by explorers and strategists. Gardner died in 1877.

An alias for every occasion

It helped that Gardner had an alias for every occasion. During earlier travels in Uzbekistan he had passed himself off as a taciturn Arab, and in Turkmenistan as a pilgrim returning from Mecca. But his most successful identity was also the least probable. To Habib-ulla, as to the Khan of Khiva (Uzbekistan), “I told them the truth – that I was an American.” He didn’t tell the Kafirs, but only because they hadn’t heard of America.

The fugitives left remote Kafiristan and, avoiding settled areas, hugged the mountains as they headed for the upper reaches of the Oxus (Amu) river in far north-east Afghanistan. In Badakhshan 50 heavily armed riders materialised at their rear – slavers from Kunduz, a khanate in northern Afghanistan. Gardner and his men broke into a gallop but, as they approached a pass, more assailants were spied advancing down it. With rain descending and the light fading, the fugitives were trapped and soon overtaken by the main body of the Kunduz raiders.

Though it seems the rain saturated the Kunduz marauders’ gunpowder – Gardner described the melee as “a mere cut-and-thrust affair” – the superior numbers of assailants soon told. Of his followers, only five survived, all bloodied. Saved by the full onset of the storm, they rode on by the light of lightning flashes. Gardner, injured in the groin and chest, could barely stay in the saddle.

The wounded men convalesced among Tajik shepherds in Wakhan, at the modern border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The Tajiks confirmed a favoured dictum of Gardner’s: the remoter the place, the more hospitable the people. During a stay of several weeks he was joined by a respected Syed (descendant of the Prophet Muhammad) called Ali Shah and his two companions. The newcomers were heading for Yarkand, 400 miles to the east in what is now the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Gardner agreed to accompany them.

Illustration of Alexander Gardner's through the peaks of central Asia
Alexander Gardner a Victorian adventurer’s pioneering circuit through the peaks of central Asia (Illustration by Theresa Grieben)

Across the roof of the world

Dates, like distances, rarely feature in Gardner’s accounts, but the next stage of his journey must have taken place in spring 1827. The Oxus was choked with ice, and the only bridge had been washed away. To get the horses across, the party lashed chunks of ice into a bridge-cum-raft, and covered it with rushes. On the opposite bank they clambered through featureless gullies to emerge onto tundra strewn with gravel and ice, cradled by mountains; Gardner hazarded a guess at their altitude of “at least 13,000 feet [4,000 metres]”. The party was skittering across the range known locally as Bam-i-dunya – the ‘Roof of the World’, now commonly called the Pamirs.

The only extant description of the region was written by Marco Polo 600 years earlier. Gardner probably hadn’t read Polo’s account, but he knew of the ‘Pamier’ and ‘Bolor’ ranges it described. Polo had thought them uninhabitable: birds couldn’t fly there, he wrote, and food wouldn’t cook there; the air was too thin, the wind too icy. Gardner’s experience was different. It was very cold, true, and fuel was scarce; on a search for burnable dung, he had been savaged by wolves. But game was plentiful. He shot wild sheep and dined on mutton, albeit “warm rather than roast” because of a paucity of fuel.

And they were not alone. The semi-nomadic Kyrgyz people were as hospitable as the Tajiks and the Kafirs. From their black yurts they trained hawks and herded shaggy-maned ponies and even shaggier Bactrian camels. Safe from Afghan pursuit, Gardner relaxed. He had once studied mineralogy, and fancied his chances as a prospector, so recruited Kyrgyz guides for a foray to some famed ruby mines, which – unworked for centuries – proved to be choked with slushy mud.

So it was that Gardner and his fellow travellers whiled away much of 1827. Winter found them ensconced in the Pamir stronghold of a friendly robber-chief called Shah Bahadur Beg. Gardner envied the lifestyle of the chief, who enjoyed women, wine and hunting; it reminded him of his old home in Afghanistan. But the lure of lands unseen and the reopening of the passes prompted the travellers to continue. Details of this leg are threadbare, though Gardner’s accounts mention the Alai Mountains, Terek Pass and Little Lake Karakul – indicating that, like Marco Polo, they were following a strand of the ancient Silk Road.

Skirting Kashgar via a long desert crossing, they reached Yarkand (now Yarkant or Shache). This was the first city Gardner had entered in over five years, and his was the first visit ever recorded by a foreigner; the next generation of explorers rated Yarkand second only to Lhasa as the quintessential ‘forbidden city’. Gardner, though, thought (or, at least, wrote) little of it. After just a few days his party was back on the road, addressing a seemingly impenetrable wall of jagged peaks: the Kunlun mountains, beyond which reared the Karakoram and, beyond that, the great Himalaya.

A critic of Gardner’s travels once complained that they were far too “handicapped by adventures”. That was not true of his passage along the world’s highest trade route. Between Yarkand and Leh, the capital of Ladakh (now in far northern India), his route traversed five passes of up to 5,800 metres, yet Gardner mentions none of them. He says nothing of the effects of altitude, and mentions yaks only once: their bleached bones served to mark the trail. Nor did he note how the monasteries outnumbered the mosques in Leh, or how Tibetan Buddhism evaporated as the travellers crossed the Zoji pass into Muslim Kashmir.

Arriving in Srinagar, Gardner heard that Habib-ulla was making another run at the Kabul throne. He felt duty-bound to rejoin his erstwhile chief, and recalled an offer from the Kafirs that 20,000 of their bravest men could be at his disposal. Re-entering the Hindu Kush, in 1829 he disappeared back into the natural fortress that was Kafiristan. He had orbited the greatest mountain mass on the planet, covering at least 1,500 miles – nearly all hitherto untrodden by a white man.

John Keay is the author of The Tartan Turban: In Search of Alexander Gardner (Kashi House, 2017)

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This article was taken from issue 03 of BBC World Histories magazine