“The Consulate was a pleasant house with a lovely garden, standing on a little bluff outside the city. From its terrace you looked across the green and chequered valley of a small river towards the too seldom mountains.”

Peter Fleming, News from Tartary (1936)

 

“The rooms have been divided up into dormitories, the stables turned into rows of stinking squatter loos, the garden left to run riot. The plaster walls are peeling and only nail holes remain where the British coat of arms used to hang.”

 William Dalrymple, In Xanadu (1987)

 

***

 

For the two of us Kashgar’s sole attraction, indeed the focus of virtually all our study and anticipation, was the old British Consulate Chini Bagh. Avid and hopelessly anachronistic Great Game historians that we were, the city’s other offerings (few enough) were at best incidental, at worst inconsequential. In the annals of amateur travel (certainly in India), it is extremely unlikely that anyone went to an unlikelier destination with the sole purpose of paying obeisance to that unlikeliest of structures: a defunct government office-cum-residence. And when we set eyes on that relict we gazed with the same awe as the average star-struck western tourist gawping at the Taj after a lifetime of dreaming about it.

But this was not the Taj. There are no fanciful romances of a lovelorn king here. It is not even an architectural curiosity. The romance attached to it is strictly private, a closed history, the jealous preserve of an eccentric Anglophilic few inordinately involved in a two-century old imperial conflict of wits, whose players have long been dust now. Unlike the mythology of the Taj, the history here in Chini Bagh is real; and unlike it, is not universal.

If there is a resident ghost in Chini Bagh it must unquestionably be that of Sir George Macartney, who lived here from 1890 to 1918. Left behind by Sir Francis Younghusband (whose Chinese interpreter he was) after that worthy’s mission to the Chinese ‘Amban’ in Yarkand, Macartney remained as the sole representative of British and Indian interests in Sinkiang (Xinjiang now) for twenty-eight years, very nearly a lifetime. Nominally a servant of the Government of India, his outpost was one of the loneliest and remotest in the whole Empire; at times, the most forgotten as well.

His position was considerably fraught too. At the alarmingly tender age of twenty-three there are enough uncertainties besetting a young man: to be decanted into the Central Asian emptiness a few thousand miles from civilisation, with a nebulous brief and chimerical support can hardly have been an encouraging prospect. To be told to uphold Britannia’s interests in the back of beyond is one thing: to be asked to do it without any formal diplomatic accreditation is quite another. For incredibly (as it must seem now), Macartney had none — neither diplomatic nor consular — for nineteen of the twenty-eight years he spent in Kashgar. His repeated entreaties to his masters in Simla, Peking and London for formal accreditation fell on deaf ears. He was an outsider, a questionable guest on sufferance.

Macartney had reason to feel this all the more keenly, for the only other European official in Kashgar was the Russian Consul-General Nicolai Petrovsky, who held court not half a mile away from Chini Bagh in the full panoply of diplomatic state, and never lost an opportunity to remind Macartney of his ‘illegitimate’ status. What was worse, Sinkiang (with all the Chinese officials there) was dangerously under Russian influence, if not actual domination, thanks to Petrovsky’s forceful methods, and there was little Macartney could do to counter it. Petrovsky’s natural Anglophobia bred an implacable hostility, and relations degenerated into a bitter cold war that wouldn’t thaw until the Russian’s departure for St. Petersburg in 1903 and subsequent retirement. Macartney’s despatches to India, Peking (the British Minister there) and to London were unavailing; a curious apathy regarding affairs in Sinkiang seemed to afflict his political masters (it seems a wonder that somehow the Government of India managed to pay his salary).

Yet, at least a part of the reason lay with the Chinese themselves: they were reluctant to agree to a formal British presence in Sinkiang, and the British Minister’s efforts, valiant though they were met with the usual Chinese wall, notwithstanding the Home government’s eventual acquiescence in a Consulate for Macartney. The tide finally turned with Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, when the Chinese saw which way the wind blew. Even then, it was four years after Macartney’s official gazetting before Chini Bagh became the British Consulate-General in 1908.

Yet, for all the tribulations of the years, Macartney’s work in Sinkiang — for the large community of British Indian subjects, for British diplomatic and frontier interests, and for the Chinese in their own administrative and judicial matters — was sterling. No diplomatic representative anywhere achieved as much with as little support from his masters. His courage and integrity were a byword, and his standing with his Chinese hosts was of the highest – a circumstance helped not a little by his fluency in their tongue and familiarity with their ways (his mother was Chinese).

In 1898, on a spell of leave in England he made hurried time (more hurried for his bride) to get married, and in October that year he brought the young Catherine to Chini Bagh which she would, in time, turn into a perfect English country home, complete with garden. In time too, as Lady Macartney she would pen an engaging memoir of her life there (“An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan”), joining the ranks of other literarily inclined memsahibs.

For the visitor to Kashgar today, it seems an amusing irony that the two rival imperial listening posts in the Great Game have been turned into hotels. The Russian one exists substantially as it was in its heyday, only it’s called Hotel Seman now. The Chini Bagh Hotel (where we stayed) is a luxury affair of some 20 floors, evidently cashing in on the name, but obviously this isn’t the original Consulate building: the latter is tucked away unseen (unless asked for) behind an older avatar of the CB Hotel, a drab concrete block in the same grounds. Behind this, still shaded under ample tree and leaf Sir George and Lady Macartney’s loving home — beacon for every European traveller from Sven Hedin to Aurel Stein to Peter Fleming, and India’s own K P S Menon who travelled overland to Chungking in 1937 — is still recognisable, even if fraying somewhat at the edges. The Chinese very considerately have put up a board outside it, decreeing its historicity. Of the precious garden nothing remains, nor of the view that Peter Fleming wrote about in 1936. Chini Bagh is now a Chinese restaurant, and its verandah and rooms are dining spaces. We lunched on that verandah in the dappled autumn Central Asian sunlight.

I even pinched a pair of chopsticks as a memento.

 

K V K Murthy

K V K Murthy

K V K Murthy is a retired banker whose interests run to virtually everything except banking and money. He writes when the spirit moves him — which isn’t often. He reads at the same spirit’s bidding — which is insistent, unflagging and constant. He recently travelled in Central Asia, and lives in Bangalore.

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