I N S E A R C H O F
The location of the source of the Oxus River has long been cloaked in mystery, despite the efforts of such luminaries as Lord Curzon and Sir
Francis Younghusband. In 2007, Bill Colegrave set out with two companions to solve the mystery once and for all. In this extract from his new book, he describes their efforts to reach one of the prime candidates
PHOTOGRAPHS by DILLON COLEMAN AND ANTHONY K I TCHIN
he Oxus River has long lured and seduced travellers. From seventh-century Chinese Buddhist pilgrims to Marco Polo, George Curzon (later Viceroy of India) and Captain Francis Younghusband, many have set out with the intention of solving the mystery of the source of this great river in the High Pamir.
By the end of the 19th century, four rival theories had been proposed, with their various supporters fighting it out in print and in lecture halls, particularly in the Royal Geographical Society. Then, following his 1895 expedition, Lord Curzon announced to the world that he had found the source, and that he alone had seen it: an ice cave in a fairytale setting at the very point where the five great mountain chains of Central Asia merge at the far end of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor.
But despite the strident Curzon’s assertion that he had found the source, the Oxus issue remained unresolved for more than 100 years. As far as I was aware, no-one had visited all four possible sources of the river to answer the question that had intrigued both the Victorian public and the explorers themselves.
UP THE R I V E R B ED In late June 2007, I set out with two companions, Anthony Kitchin and Dillon Coleman, to settle the argument once and for all. We crossed the river into Afghanistan at Ishkashim at the western end of the Wakhan Corridor, having visited Lake Syr Kul in Tajikistan’s Great Pamir, claimed as the source of the Oxus by Lieutenant John Wood in 1838. Two days by vehicle took us to the end of the road at Sarhad. We then crossed the Wakhan Massif, emerging on the 4,500metre Little Pamir plateau, and headed southeast up the Wakhan-i-Pamir, following the Wakhjir River, which should lead us to Curzon’s ice cave.
Our party consisted of Dillon, Anthony and myself, as well as our local guides, Sakhi, Nadir and Sheffi, and Mirza Mohammed, the only one of our horsemen who claimed to have some prior experience in the valley. He was a tall, strong man with hands like mill wheels, only harder. He wore a bright green-and-gold Kyrgyz hat, which he later gave to me as a present. He seemed far too large for his horse and almost dragged his feet along the ground. We were now travelling east and a little south. Ahead of us would be the place we know as the very centre of Asia, the apex of the Pamir Knot, where the great mountain chains meet. We began to turn what had to be the last bend in the valley before we would see the glacier itself. We knew that it should be about 300 metres above us if our readings were correct. Within less than eight kilometres of us were both Pakistan and Xinjiang. To the left, up a steep ridge, were the tracks that led to the Wakhjir Pass and the Chinese border. This was the very entry point used by Younghusband and Curzon. It was rumoured that there was some trading activity through the pass and that the Chinese had marked their side with a concrete bollard, but no-one we met had been there. We were now, for the first time on the journey, walking along the riverbed itself. The going was as easy as it had been at any stage in the previous ten days. It seemed that all we had to do to reach our objective was walk up the moraine bed. We were clearly reaching for a cul de sac that ended in the mountain-face barrier that now absorbed almost the whole view ahead.
The valley narrowed, and high above us, the face of the glacier slowly emerged. We searched its base with binoculars, looking for the ice cave, but it clearly petered out into bare rock, with no sign of a conjunction with the river; it wasn’t even part of the valley. Not for the first time, I considered the possibility that the ice cave might not even be there any more. We continued up the long bend for a while, and then, directly in front of us, there emerged a much larger glacier, with its base apparently accessible and low. The valley ended abruptly at a wall sliced apart by a central ice field. It led back into the mountain, sloping much more steeply as it rose, and turned south, into Pakistan and the Karakoram. The ice cave had to be at the base.
For a moment, we felt a twinge of disappointment that our target, the prize we had been dreaming of, should be so easily
44 www.geographical.co.uk JANUARY 2011