Frederick Gustavus Burnaby – soldier, traveler, writer, pioneer balloonist, and at 6′ 4″ some say the strongest man in the British army – set out on an unofficial mission in 1875 to investigate the motives behind Russia’s exclusion of foreigners from Central Asia.
Many people feared that the Russians were planning an attack on India, Britain’s most prized colony at the time. Burnaby decided on the trip entirely on his own. With a gold-filled money belt he left Victoria Station on November 30, 1875.
The trip was by rail, carriage, sleigh, and horseback from southern Russia to Khiva, in what was then an independent khanate in Central Asia – in the middle of winter. Along the way the people and their customs fascinated him.
The Turkomans sometimes decide the knotty point of who is to marry the prettiest girl in their tribe in the [a] primitive manner. On these occasions the whole tribe turns out, and the young lady, being allowed her choice of horses, gallops away from her suitors. They follow her. She avoids those whom she dislikes, and seeks to throw herself in the way of the object of her affections. The moment that she is caught she becomes the wife of her captor. Further ceremonies are dispensed with, and he takes her to his tent.
Burnaby spoke Russian, Turkish, French, Italian, German, Spanish, and a bit of Arabic, but this wasn’t enough when he attempted to court a local lady himself. He was forced to work through an interpreter.
There are a good many ways of telling a woman she is pretty, but it is always difficult to do so through a third party… He says “that thou art lovelier than a sheep with a fat tail”– this appendage being a great delicacy amongst the Tartars –“that thy face is the roundest in the flock, and that thy breath is sweeter to him than many pieces of mutton roasted over bright embers.”
Eventually, he reached his near-mystical destination, the ancient slaving capital of Khiva.
The next morning we encountered .. the messenger whom I had despatched with my letter to the Khan. .. his Majesty had received my letter, and had sent him forward to escort me into the city, and to say that I was welcome to his capital. … We were now fast nearing Khiva, which could be just discerned in the distance, but was hid to a certain extent from our view by a narrow belt of tall, graceful trees. However, some richly-painted minarets and high domes of coloured tiles could be seen towering above the leafy groves. Orchards, surrounded by walls eight and ten feet high, continually met the gaze. Avenues of mulberry-trees studded the landscape in all directions.
Burnaby tells a great, fun story. Reprinted eleven times in its first year of publication, A Ride to Khiva became an instant adventure classic, and made Burnaby a popular hero.