It was certainly a spectacular board on which to play Monopoly -- 40,000 square miles of the world's highest mountains, the western Himalayas, where today Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan all meet. The "players" in John Keay's story are British explorers and soldiers who, in the last half of the 19th century, pushed into the high wilderness, negotiated or fought with the local people and helped chart the first international boundaries, in the process annexing a good portion of territory for British India.
"Gilgit game" was the flip alliterative phrase of the time to describe this acquisition . Gilgit is in the middle of the western Himalayas. The phrase masked a serious strategic struggle: Which power would fill what Keay says was then "the most inviting void in Asia"? In particular, the British were acutely neurotic about Czarist designs on their Indian possessions. They feared that the Russians, then blocked from coming through Afghanistan, might steal a mountain, march over the Himalayas and strike at India. In retrospect, it seems most implausible. But it was not implausible to policy-makers in London, or indeed to novelists like Rudyard Kipling, whose beautiful and best-selling book "Kim" takes as part of its plot British intelligence efforts to frustrate Russian designs on the northern passes.
The fears proved unfounded. Only a handful of Russian explorers in this period -- let alone Cossack regiments -- ever got over the first hurdle to the south of the Pamir mountain range. Ironically, it was perhaps the very lack of direct contact with the Russians in this region that led to the British fears.
With the help of men like the explorer Sir Francis Younghusband, a corridor was charted out linking Afghanistan and China directly and thus acting as a buffer between Russia and India. Today the region probably has more strategic importance than ever. The boundaries pushed norht by the British and now inherited by Pakistan have given that country a direct link with China, particularly by the all-weather Karakoran highway built in the 1970s. That road has some military value now, with Russian troops in Afghanistan and the Chinese believed to be discreetly supplying weapons to Afghan rebels through Pakistan.
Certainly the Keay book suggests some of the problems that the Soviet Union is having in subduing Afghan resistance. Much of Afghanistan shares the same sort of terrain as the western Himalayas, where the British with the advantages of artillery and the odd machine gun, found it difficult to beat musket-armed tribesmen, who used guerrilla tactics.
Keay is clearly dotty about mountains, and for those who share his enthusiasm, there will be much in "The Gilgit Game" to enjoy. The western Himalayas certainly is an area where, to quote Younghusband, "the grand and the beautiful unite to form the sublime."
More light could have been shed on the mores of the various mountain peoples whose rulers are chronicled in detail. But how the rank and file lived and still live in that harsh climate largely goes untold. The most interesting tribe to emerge from the book are the Kafirs (infidels), then the only non-Islamic people in the area and since largely proselytized. Kipling set his superb short story, "The Man Who Would Be King" among them.
The book is well-mapped, written with liveliness, and contains some excellent vignettes, especially of the British. Particularly good are his sketches of the almost unknown and enigmatic Ney Elias, and of Younghusband, whose fame is much greater. The latter is likened by Keay to Lawrence of Arabia, with the important difference that "Lawrence secured the loyalty of his Arabs by becoming one; Younghusband won the devotion of his guides and porters by doing exactly the opposite. He remained obtusely English."