Peter Fleming: News From Tartary

March 2, 2018

510EcZdDwsL._AC_US218_It was good to come back to this classic travel account from the 1930s, a journey through the unknown from Peking (as it was then called) to India, through wild and lawless territories, during various Chinese civil wars, without real authority and never knowing whether one might be turned back at any point… whilst making one’s way through some of the most inhospitable territory on the planet.

Fleming was a correspondent for The Times, and had made several other interesting and arduous journeys previously; he has that gung-ho British upper-class game-for-anything approach, without being a twit, and on this journey he travelled with the Swiss adventurer Ella Maillart, for the sole reason that they both wanted to make the journey, and thought it might be easier for them to succeed together; they survived the seven months that it took, and seem to have made a decent team, at least from Fleming’s account. It is clear how his admiration of her stamina and capacity for organisation and endurance – from an amateur like himself to the professional Ella, as he himself puts it – increasingly impressed him. I shall, sometime soon, re-visit her account of the same journey in Oasis Interdites.

It’s clear that the two of them were basically 1930s hippies with a ‘well, let’s go and see what happens’ approach. I am still astonished by the rudimentary nature of the gear that travellers took with them in the past; theirs included marmalade, cocoa, six bottles of brandy and… two typewriters! Fleming closely observes and record the details of their journey, and maintains a philosophical attitude to the possibility of failure. He is urbane, civilised, curious, interested; he takes the time and several chapters to clarify the various Soviet (and British, and Indian and Chinese) machinations going on in Xinjiang province. And he remains calm when faced with interminable waits and delays where they are at the mercies of various officialdoms and dare not insist too much given the inevitable irregularities of their situation… A dry sense of humour keeps him optimistic, and sane. His ode to tsamba, the staple diet of the region, is a masterpiece.

The regions through which they travel are incredibly remote; many people have never seen a European before. Just when you think they cannot head into somewhere more remote, they do. It is a seriously long, dangerous and gruelling journey, of the kind it is no longer possible to make in our times, and it isn’t just the phlegm of a certain kind of Brit, or the organisational capabilities of a more seasoned adventurer, that get them through the two thousand plus miles. It is the urge to do something not done before, to see if it might be possible. On Fleming’s part there is a certain amount of curiosity about the territory and its peoples, and a recognition that this world, so very different from the one he is heading back to, has its attractions despite its arduousness. The last stages of their journey, down into British India – the Raj – are positively surreal, both for the travellers and the reader.

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