The Oxus, that vast central Asian river that rises somewhere in the Afghan Pamirs, has fascinated explorers for centuries. Its name gives us the land of Oxiana. Yet few Europeans had set eyes on it before the second world war. Robert Byron’s 1937 book, The Road to Oxiana, is an account, among other things, of a failed attempt to find it.
What most gripped the handful of 19th-century explorers, diplomats, spies and sportsmen who did make the perilous journey, however, was identifying its source. While the sources of other great rivers were being more or less accurately traced, that of the Oxus was fiercely contested, owing to the unusually difficult terrain. One of the worst journeys I have ever made was to one claimed source: Lake Victoria, or Syr Kul, on the Afghan-Tajik border (admittedly, I had been misdirected by the locals).
All possible sources of the Oxus are to be found in the Wakhan Corridor, that thin finger of Afghanistan that points towards China. This starts out as a stunningly beautiful river valley, walled in by massive mountains. To get into the Small or Great Pamir, where the Oxus must rise, one needs to traverse passes of over 16,000 feet and brave snow even in the height of summer. The Pamirs themselves are enormous grassy basins, 12,000 feet high, sculpted by the last Ice Age, possessing their own micro- climate and fauna — snow leopard, eagles, marmots and the extravagantly spiral-horned Marco Polo sheep being among the most famous.
When I was in the Wakhan in 2002 I met a remarkable English doctor working there. I told him that I was looking for the source of the Oxus, and he replied: ‘But is there a source of the Oxus?’ It was a good question. There are hundreds of trickles, over 16,000 feet, that eventually feed into the main river; and generally the principle is that one starts at the main river and at each juncture follows the largest tributary.
Two rivers — each of which may provide the source — run east to west along the Corridor, divided by enormous mountains, and join at a small village called Qala Panj at the westward end. The northern river (the Panj) leads to the Great Pamir and the southern (the Wakhan) to the Small.
At the Qala Panj conjunction, one has to decide which is the larger of these two rivers. An early British explorer, a naval lieutenant called John Wood, was told by locals (as I was) that the Panj was the greater. At the end of this river is a huge, shallow lake, named by Wood, in 1838, Lake Victoria. Bill Colegrave comments on Wood’s arrival there: ‘This was the first of five times in the next 170 years that one or more travellers would confidently claim to have found the true source of the great river Oxus.’ But what if the locals were wrong (they almost invariably are), and the northern river is not the carrier of the greatest volume of water? Then Lake Victoria cannot be the source.
Colegrave decided to follow the southern river, the Wakhan, through a horrific ascent into the Small Pamir, along sheer mud precipices edging what can hardly be described as a track. ‘Bad path, bad horse, you walk,’ said the guide. Colegrave suffers from appalling vertigo, and was frankly terrified. But his arrival in the Small Pamir was a stunning experience; he describes a whole map of the area laid out in front of him, and is alive to its extraordinary beauty. He also has a humorous side: ‘I called my horse Margaret Beckett: both had strong inclinations to the left and liked to travel in caravan.’
This brings him to a discussion of the three other principal source-contenders in the Small Pamir. Towering above the rest, with his haughty personality and formidable intellect, is George Nathaniel Curzon, who explored the region in 1894. Curzon (travelling with a collapsible rubber bath) followed the Wakhjir river (a tributary of the Wakhan) and pronounced categorically, in a book and a series of articles in the Geographical Journal, that the source of the Oxus lay in an ice cave very close to the Chinese border. This gripped the public imagination in the same way as Coleridge’s visionary ‘caves of ice’ had in ‘Xanadu’. Curzon famously demolished his rivals in a debate at the RGS the following year, and was rewarded with the magnificent Sargent portrait that dominates the building’s entrance today, and a gold medal.
But there are two rivers that feed into the Wakhan: Curzon’s Wakhjir, and the Sarhad — the latter a rival possible source, discovered by an Afghan scout in the 1880s, known as ‘the Mirza’. Curzon characteristically dismissed the Mirza’s claim that the Sarhad branch was the greater; and Colegrave too seems to have judged that the Wakhjir had priority — for this was the one that he followed and, like Curzon, was rewarded with the sight of the glacier and its magnificent ice cave. In Colegrave’s words, here was ‘a river fully formed, belching and bellowing from the Roof of the World’.
Yet another possible source is Lake Chaqmartin, discovered by Colonel Trotter and Lord Dunmore in an 1891 expedition. This discharges eastwards and then describes a huge arc north and west before debouching into the Oxus at Roshan. No one has scientifically measured the flow at Roshan as against the flow at the end of the Wakhan, and Colegrave relies on his own observations (as well as Curzon’s) in pronouncing the latter larger. Dunmore (who, according to Colegrave, ‘wrote about his travels with less gusto and colour than a parliamentary draughtsman’), declined the invitation to participate in the great RGS debate with Curzon, being all too aware of his opponent’s ferocity, leaving his colleague, Trotter, to be eviscerated in public alone.
But was Curzon right? To tell would be like giving away the end of a detective story. Read this book (however poorly proof-read and indecipherable its maps) to find out.