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Farewell, Peter Hopkirk, And Thank You

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.

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