Nests of the Great Game spies

By T. Digby, Shanghai Star. 2002-05-09
Photos/T. Digby
The former British consulate bungalow.

ONE of Lady Macartney's first acts on arriving at Chini Bagh, the British consulate in Kashgar, was to lay out a garden. The 21-year-old Catherina Theodora Borland had in 1898 married George Macartney, who was British Resident at Kashgar from 1890 to 1918. She lovingly created and maintained what by all accounts was a magnificent retreat, with flora brought in from India and England, a number of beautiful pear and apple trees, and a tennis court.
The former Russian consulate.

Standing on the site today is the Qiniwake Hotel, an early-1980s five-storey affair of breathtaking ugliness. It jealously commands 95 per cent of the compound, and is set right up against the former British consulate itself, placing the bungalow constantly in shadow. The consulate is now a banqueting hall with the interior stripped of all original design and replaced with repulsive kitsch, but a room in the crenellated eastern tower is available to guests.

Among the travellers Lady Macartney entertained at the consulate was the Beijing-based Australian journalist G.E. Morrison, who had been a correspondent in Siam and was later to be an adviser to Chinese president Yuan Shikai. She also provided succour to an infamous pair of thieving pseudo-archaeologists known as Stein and Le Coq. Hungarian Aurel Stein connived with the consulate to spirit to Europe the Silk Road paintings and artifacts he had robbed. He was rewarded for his pains with an English knighthood. Unscrupulous Albert von Le Coq of Germany got away with a tremendous haul that included many of the Buddhist treasures of the Mogao Caves near Turpan.

Most of the Xinjiang relics ended up in the museums of Berlin, where they were destroyed by British bombs during World War II. Readers will not need reminding in this context that it was the British who beguiled the Greeks and robbed from them the priceless "Elgin" marbles of the Parthenon, which remain confined to the British Museum in London. Another symbol of colonial rapacity is the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which the English plundered from the Sikhs after Dalhousie, one of the more perfidious colonial "Vice kings" of India, seized the Punjab in 1849. London has shown no intention whatsoever of returning the 108-carat diamond, flaunting it most recently at the funeral of the British Queen Mother.

Lady Macartney eventually returned to Scotland, but her successors as First Lady of Kashgar continued with the consulate tradition of according lavish hospitality to spies and journalists (often one and the same). The reporter Peter Fleming, in his book News from Tartary, described the town as "Kashgar-les-Bains", so impressed was he by the "country-house life" he led during his stay there. "After the rigors of the trip, sitting in comfortable armchairs with long drinks and illustrated papers with a gramophone playing" was, he wrote, "a heavenly experience".

British taxpayers' money was showered on a miscellany of dubious characters turning up unannounced at the consulate. Among these were second-rate academics, art "experts" (of the character of Sir Anthony Blunt), relic-hunters and charlatans of all kinds. They were given bed and bath for a week or so, which was very welcome after many weeks or months in the Taklimakan Desert. Some craved items of the famously bad English national cuisine, and their gastronomic needs were met. For the more discerning, there was compensation in the form of free-flowing London gin.

Sweden also ran a mission, and indeed the only foreigners doing any useful work in the town during the 1930s appear to have been the Swedes. They ran a hospital with great efficiency, and even made attempts to learn local languages, a decidedly unBritish thing to do. It was not quite playing the game.

Lady Macartney's husband found that his chief adversary was the formidable Russian Resident from 1882, Nikolai Petrovsky. The former Russian consulate is still standing. Sadly, it has now been given over to sordor, housing a "VIP Sauna Club". The venerable old building has undergone one of those comprehensive interior refurbishments so beloved of this country's over-zealous interior designers. A few of its old fittings and some furnishings have survived, including an interesting mural depicting various figures from Soviet lore. Some of the high-celinged rooms are available to guests of the Seman Hotel.

Travel tips

There is no direct train from Shanghai to Kashgar (Kashi) - passengers must change at Turpan. The T52 leaves Shanghai at 6:20pm, arriving at Turpan two days later at 7:01pm. An overnight stay in Turpan is required, as the westbound K886 does not leave until 3:04pm the following day. It arrives at Kashgar in just under 21 hours at 11:57am.

Copyright by Shanghai Star.