The Road to Lhasa

Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer

by Patrick French
HarperCollins, 440 pp., $13.00 (paper)

I first went to Chitral in 1969 in order to explore its mountains, which are particularly beautiful and remote. A rugged land now part of Pakistan, Chitral lies along the so-called Northwest Frontier between the former India of the Raj and Afghanistan. Reading extensively about the place at the time of my trip, I learned about the first explorations there, seventy-five years before, by a British expeditionary force. The purpose of its mission was to keep an eye on things after the death of the local ruler, which the British worried would lead to trouble on their northern Indian border.

Among the British officers on that expedition were two enthusiastic climbers, Francis Younghusband and Charlie “Bruiser” Bruce. In the shadow of the 25,230-foot mountain Tirich Mir, which looms over Chitral, the two men practiced snow and ice climbing. There they conceived of the possibility of the conquest of Mount Everest, which lies about a thousand miles away on the frontier between Nepal and Tibet. Almost three decades later, in 1922, Bruce was to lead the first attempt to reach its summit.

A day’s walk from Chitral brings one to the three hidden valleys inhabited by the Kafirs, a people who look so European that it is claimed they are descendants of the army of Alexander the Great, who had passed over the Frontier at the end of the fourth century BC in his campaign to conquer India. When in 1960, at age seventy-one, A.J. Toynbee tried to retrace Alexander’s path through Afghanistan and Pakistan, he was stopped by a snowstorm on the summit of the Lowari Pass leading to Chitral, but nine years later I managed to cross the pass with friends in a Land Rover, and was able to visit Chitral and the Kafir valleys. We stayed in a great bungalow that could have come out of the English countryside.

Nearly thirty years have passed since my trip, but it came vividly back to me when I read the masterful recent biography of Francis Younghusband, Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, the first book by Patrick French, a young English writer and traveler. Not only does he bring this curious figure to life, but he has tried to follow the route of his movements in India, Chitral, and Tibet. The result, half travelogue and half biography, is a surprising hybrid of a book which deals both with Younghusband’s career and the changes that have taken place on the Indian subcontinent during the last seventy-five years.

Francis Edward Younghusband was born on May 31, 1863, at Murree, a hill station in what was then India and is now Pakistan. His father, John Younghusband, was a British officer stationed in India. The Younghusbands—Mr. French notes that their name appears to have derived from the Saxon Osband, a variation of Oswald, with the word “young” prefixed to it on the model of the Scottish “Mac”—had long been established in India. In addition to his father, four of Younghusband’s uncles and his…

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