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This he had succeeded in doing, and some Russian goods now began to appear in the bazaars there. On his return to St Petersburg the delighted Tsar had presented him with a gold medal and chain, as well as a Russian name, Mehkti Rafailov. A more ambitious mission was next planned for him, this time with political as well as purely commercial objectives. His orders were to proceed considerably further south than ever before, to the independent Sikh kingdom of the Punjab. There he was to try to establish friendly contacts with its ageing but extremely astute ruler, Ranjit Singh, who was known to be on excellent terms with the British.

He bore with him a letter of introduction from the Tsar, signed by his Foreign Minister, Count Nes-selrode.

A Strange Tale of Two Dogs - The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia

It appeared to confirm his worst suspicions about Russian intentions. The latter, Moorcroft suspected, were almost certainly intended as gifts from the Tsar to Ranjit Singh and others, being too valuable for local sale or barter. Were they to dispatch to St Petersburg the rightful heir to the throne of Kashgar, Rafailov was said to have told them, then he would be sent back at the head of a Russian-trained army to recover the domains of his ancestors. Whatever the truth of this, Moorcroft observed, the local populace appeared only too happy to believe that the Tsar was their friend.

Rafailov, it was clear, was a formidable adversary. All this Moorcroft reported in his dispatches to his superiors, 1, miles away in Calcutta, together with his discovery that Rafailov had been escorted across the most treacherous stretch of his journey, the lawless Kazakh Steppe, by a troop of Cossack cavalry.

Where caravans of Russian goods could go, the Cossacks would surely follow.

Rafailov was merely a scout, feeling the way forward and preparing the ground. Believing that the destiny of northern India lay in their hands, and that this wily newcomer, now only a fortnight or so away, had somehow to be foiled, Moorcroft and his companions awaited his arrival with some excitement.

It was never to be, however. One can only guess that he died of a sudden heart attack or from mountain sickness, for in places the trail carried the traveller up to nearly 19, feet above sea level.

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Any suggestion that Moorcroft himself had anything to do with it can almost certainly be discounted. Not only was he an extremely honourable man, but he was also generous to a fault. Until the Russian secret archives of the period are made available to Western scholars, the precise truth about Rafailov will not be known for certain. Moorcroft, however, was genuinely convinced that he was a highly trusted agent of Russian imperialism — just as Soviet scholars today brand Moorcroft himself as a British master spy sent to pave the way for the annexation of Central Asia.

It was, he was convinced, a master stroke which would eventually open up the markets of Central Asia to manufacturers at home, then still suffering from the economic ravages of the Napoleonic wars.

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His enthusiasm, however, was not shared by his chiefs. When news of the unauthorised treaty reached them, they at once disowned it. The very last thing they wanted was to have him, and his powerful, well-trained army of Sikhs, as a foe. And it was no secret in Calcutta that Ranjit Singh, following his earlier annexation of Kashmir, jealously viewed Ladakh as lying within his own sphere of influence. It was too late, however, to prevent him from finding out about the treaty.

For not long afterwards there began a series of mysterious attempts on the lives of Moorcroft and his two companions. The first of these was made by an unidentified gunman who fired at them through the window at night, narrowly missing George Trebeck as he sat writing, the would-be assassin perhaps mistaking him for Moorcroft who spent hours at his portable desk preparing reports and writing up his journal. The frustrated assassins now tried a new tack.

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Before long Moor-croft and his companions experienced unexplained pains, which they attributed to some kind of fever. But if they had fallen foul of Ranjit Singh not to mention those local merchants whose monopoly they threatened , they still had friends among the Ladakhis, some of whom clearly knew what was going on. One night, as Moorcroft was racking his brains over the cause of their malady, he was visited by two strangers, their faces covered to conceal their identity.

By means of gestures they made it unmistakably clear that he and his companions were being poisoned. After some suspect tea had been disposed of, the aches and pains abruptly ceased. And so, oddly, did the assassination attempts. But if Moorcroft had survived the vengeance of these foes, he was now to face the displeasure of his own employers. So far the directors had been surprisingly tolerant of their Superintendent of Stud and his endless and costly quest for fresh bloodstock.

After two fruitless expeditions, they had even allowed him to embark on another, his present journey to Bokhara. There was no doubt that they badly needed the horses, and Moorcroft had, in the course of his travels, sent back a great deal of valuable topographical and political intelligence. Even his increasing Russophobia did not perturb them too much.

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They merely closed their ears to it. Their first move was to suspend Moorcroft, together with his salary, and a letter to this effect was dispatched to him. This was followed not long afterwards by another letter, ordering his recall. It appears that Moorcroft received word of his suspension, but not of his recall to Calcutta. He was nonetheless mortified. Anyone less determined than Moorcroft would have given up in disappointment.

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September 12, 2014

After all, he could have returned to London and resumed his career as a successful vet. But he had not forgotten the horses which he had come so far to find. If the approach to Bokhara through Chinese Turkestan was blocked, then they would have to take the more dangerous route across Afghanistan after all. What Moorcroft did not realise was that their many months in Ladakh spent trying to negotiate with the Chinese across the mountains had been pointless almost from the start.

For the artful Rafailov, whom Moorcroft held in such esteem, had successfully poisoned the minds of the senior Chinese officials against them before setting out on his own fateful journey through the passes. Moorcroft and his companions now tried to make up for lost time, leaving Leh before the letter summoning them home could reach them. Beyond it lay Afghanistan, and beyond that Bokhara. My American agent, who also represents Michael, told me he was going to send it him and I told him not to be ridiculous.

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Meg and I met with him and we all got on very well. Michael loved the script but had some notes he thought might benefit the story. He encouraged us to invest more into them. He brought a level of experience in the transition of some scenes which was very intuitive for me as a writer.

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