Archive for the 'silk route' Category

Fitzroy Maclean: A Person from England

June 9, 2019

51CDaOHf69L._AC_UL436_  A fascinating piece of ‘old school’ travel writing from over sixty years ago, focusing on the ‘Great Game’ of the Victorian era as Britain vied with Russia for influence over Central Asia, the Russians expanding and consolidating their empire and the British looking over their shoulder at the possible threat to India… and nobody managing to do anything effective in Afghanistan – no change there, then.

Maclean tells the stories of a number travellers who got into all sorts of scrapes, particularly if they managed to reach the fabled goal of the emirate of Bukhara. English arrogance astonishes, as does the gung-ho approach to non-British peoples, their laws, beliefs and customs; there is an over-weening pride in Britain, British arms, Christianity. The account of an eccentric clergyman who travels to Bukhara in an attempt to free two captive English officers reads like a Boys’ Own Paper story, such an implausible yarn it seems to be. Alas, the officers have been beheaded before he arrives…

We do learn about the dangers and difficulties facing travellers at that time, crossing territories known to locals but not to outsiders; the Russians also encounter unexpected challenges in their advance, and some of these are documented by an intrepid American reporter. Gradually the entire of Central Asia does fall under Russian suzerainty; they are keen to have the territory pacified and under control so that they can move about freely, but are not that concerned with actually ruling it.

The author’s own attempts to get to Bokhara in 1938, and his tales of evading the NKVD in his efforts, are most entertaining, and sadly, when he returns twenty years later, much of the old attractiveness of Central Asia seems to have gone forever. A good, easy and entertaining read: Maclean writes well.

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William Atkins: The Immeasurable World

January 17, 2019

41dqbism+jl._ac_us218_I asked for and received another volume of desert travel writing for Christmas and I’ve just finished it: it was really good. The first thing to say is that it is a very nicely produced book, with some integral illustrations – not many – excellent maps and a very full bibliography. I was gratified to find that I’ve read a good number of the books in my own armchair desert explorations already, and I’ve added others to my long list…

Atkins visits most of the major deserts of the world and spends time in each, not so much exploring as experiencing and reporting. The only one he misses is the Namib/Kalahari, which is a shame; it’s one of the ones I know least about, too. His fascination is evident, as is his close observation and description of the places and people he encounters.

I was horrified to read about the violence done to Aboriginal ancestral homelands in the Australian desert by British nuclear testing in the 1950s; the sheer callousness and cavalier attitude is truly shocking. I have to say I was not surprised by what I read, though, given the imperialist past of the British state. We should be truly ashamed at what was supposedly done in our name.

The Gobi and other surrounding areas of desert and wilderness are what I have read most about and yet they still remain enigmatic in many ways. The Silk Route necessarily skirted either the north or the south of these regions and so, whilst uninhabitable and desolate, were nevertheless known. Atkins is interesting and informative about current issues the Chinese state has with the largely Uighur and Muslim population of the Xinjiang region, and his journey there often seems rather perilous.

The devastation and death of the Aral Sea has been well-documented by others too, and the adjoining desert areas of Kazakhstan were also abused by the Soviets for their nuclear testing programme. As I read this book I realised that humans had contrived, by their efforts to make many of these already inhospitable areas of our planet even worse…

I learned much from Atkins’ travels in the United States, too. He visits the desert areas along the border with Mexico and recounts some dreadful tales of what refugees attempting to reach the ‘land of opportunity’ endured, and that killed many others. All this is currently hidden behind President Trump’s machinations and lies and attempts to build a wall. I was heartened to read of Americans taking risks and breaking laws in order to support and rescue refugees in danger of dying in the desert regions. In many ways the visits to the deserts of the US were the most disturbing, weird and unnatural of all.

Atkins also visits the Egyptian deserts and spends time in some of the ancient Egyptian monasteries that date from the earliest centuries of Christianity. Here he walks in similar footsteps to William Dalrymple in his excellent book From The Holy Mountain.

This was a lovely books in so many ways, written by an intelligent and enquiring traveller who taught me a lot; his evident fascination with deserts, as well as his observant and reflective approach make it a read I seriously recommend.

August favourites #24: French writer

August 24, 2018

I’m going for a slightly unusual choice here, a writer who is of Lebanese origin, but writes in French and is a member of the Academie FrançaiseAmin Maalouf, whose work I have long enjoyed and admired. With my obsession with the Silk Road, I could not resist a novel called Samarcand, which links Omar Khayyam, Arab astronomy and also the famous poem, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and was then hooked. But my favourite books of his are those set in the Renaissance world, such as Leo the African, which is an imagined account of the life of the real Arab traveller Leo Africanus, expelled from Spain as a child at the time of the Reconquista, captured by Christian pirates and employed by the Pope as a traveller and geographer, whose Description of Africa remained one of the most detailed and trusted accounts of that continent for many years. And then there was Baldassare’s Travels, in search of a mysterious lost book in the seventeenth century, and there’s another which goes back to very early times and tells the story of Mani, a prophet, seer and philosopher who came into conflict with established religion and paid for it with his life, at some time in the second or third century, as I remember.

From his position in one of the more conflict-ridden societies of the current Middle East, Maalouf also has interesting perspectives to offer on current affairs; Les Identités Meurtrieres I have found very insightful into what brings peoples, races and nations into conflict. Maalouf is clearly much better known in the francophone world than ours, and that is our loss.

Ulugh Beg and historical fiction (again)

July 8, 2018

51kf4K3tuJL._AC_US160_This is the novel that prompted my reflections on historical fiction a few days ago; I’ve now finished reading it, and I quite enjoyed it, but I’m still not quite there with my approach to historical novels. There is no plot! And then, I realised, that if you’re writing a novel, almost completely peopled by real characters who actually lived, and the places they lived and worked, and their times, then there can’t really be a plot in the way we usually understand it unless a novelist is going to play fast and loose with the truth… there’s a whole can of worms here!

What I enjoyed about Luminet’s book – I hesitate to call it a novel, though he does, in a brief post-face – is the fleshing out of the historical facts about the world of Arab science in the time of the early Renaissance. There is local colour, description of places, characters and events are sketched out. But only sketched, never really developing beyond outlines, and never really feeling like fully developed characters, again because to do so would be to invent and superpose on a historical truth which we can never know, because we don’t have those facts to go with the real people. I’m interested in the Middle East, the past of those countries, their achievements, Islam as a religion and the ways it resembles and does not resemble the Christianity of our world.

But the lack of a plot is a real issue. We don’t even get a clear and logical explanation of the progress of Arab science at this time, and the book is populated by a wide range of characters who we lose track of, and need to remind ourselves about from time to time using the helpful index of persons, rather like the huge lists at the start of various lapidary Russian novels. Nothing unifies the text other than the idea of science, which can’t really sustain a novel.

The times, in the wake of Tamburlane and Genghiz Khan and various other empire-building characters, were chaotic, with all sorts of princelings jostling for power and advantage; there was also religious fundamentalism which Luminet explores, of the same kind that was to hamper the researches of Galileo in the Christian West; in short, not times conducive to unhampered and free scientific work. And if one of the key scientists is also meant to be the emperor and neglects the empire, then things will quickly unravel. No difference between the Islamic and Christian world, then.

Although I’m glad I read the book, I can’t see it’s one I’ll go back to, because of its deficiencies. But I will dig out again a history of Islamic science I read a few years ago…

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.

Olivier Weber: Je suis de nulle part

February 3, 2018

51Em0ULZj1L._AC_US218_This is the nearest I’ve come to an account of Ella Maillart‘s life, although it’s written by an admirer, and is selective in its detail, rather too eulogistic to be a true biography. Indeed, I know of no other travel writer who seems to have established such a cult following of – worshippers is too strong a term – younger followers who seem determined to track her every footstep as far as is possible, in the quest for what exactly I’m not quite sure. Clearly, Maillart exerts quite a spell.

She spent her younger years learning to sail with a friend on Lake Geneva; she was a sporting type generally, uninterested in academic achievement or success. She came to crave adventure early, experiencing, in common with many others of her time, the strong desire to leave post-Great War Europe far behind, regarding it as a world and a way of life that had completely lost its way and meaning in the recent horrors. Thus her need to travel gradually became an awareness also of her need to explore within, and find meaning to her life, for herself; re-reading this book I was much more aware of her roaming as a quest for inner meaning and purpose, too.

Despite all her hopes, her sailing and navigation skills never got her anywhere exciting, and she found herself drawn to Asia, where perhaps the people and life would be different. She set off for Moscow by train with only a rucksack full of food, and stayed for months as a curious observer of the new and totally different world of the Soviet Union, though never deceived into imagining it a utopia, as many Westerners of the time were. There followed a number of lengthy trips into the Caucasus, to Central Asia, to China during the civil war and period of Japanese occupation of Manchukuo, from where she travelled back over the Himalayas to India in the company of English Times correspondent and traveller Peter Fleming (his account of this journey, in News From Tartary, is an excellent complement to hers), to Persia and Afghanistan, and finally to India, where she came to a halt.

Maillart was clearly profoundly changed by her experiences of these journeys, by the lives of others and their closer, more intimate connection with the world; in her late thirties, at the start of the Second World War, she declined to return to Europe but remained for several years in Southern India, exploring and practising the teachings of a well-known guru, living a very simple life with a cat as a companion…

Maillart supported herself and her frugal needs through her writings, photography and occasional film-making, and giving public lectures and conferences on the far-flung places she had visited; she had many contacts with well-known writers, travellers of her day.

Her present-day admirers and followers, in Europe rather than in Britain where she remains relatively little-known, seem to be attracted both by her travels and adventures, and her inner quest, reflecting, I suppose, the relative emptiness that more and more people find in our society and our civilisation, where money, material goods and consumption seem to be the main reason for existence. I find her story attractive and interesting, but I certainly don’t share her sense of adventure! Her enjoyment of the different, the other, and her search for deeper meaning to life I very much do share, and revisiting this book, particularly the closing chapters about the second half of her life, when she had largely retired to a small village in the Swiss mountains, I came to understand her better. There is no side to her, and a genuine rapport with those among whom she travels and shares a common humanity: in this, for me she resembles Wilfred Thesiger and Michael Asher. And yet in her restlessness she goes deeper, acknowledging our nomadic past where unending physical movement connects with our spiritual search for significance in a vast and beautiful world.

If you are interested, there is an informative website: http://www.ellamaillart.ch/index_en.php

Peter Frankopan: The Silk Roads – A New History of the World

March 26, 2016

616iX1X7ZaL._AA160_Peter Frankopan offers a new and different history of the world here, from the perspective of that key east-west artery of trade, civilisation, ideas and warfare over the last two and a half thousand years or so, the Silk Road.

In Ancient History at school, we never learned about the globalisation two millennia ago, when the Roman Empire looked eastwards; I didn’t know they traded with India. From William Dalrymple and others, I had been aware that Christianity in its early stages was an Asian rather than a European church, and ironically it was Constantine that endangered this; when I looked at maps, I was surprised I hadn’t realised how much nearer the Middle East and India were to Jerusalem, compared with us on the far-flung western extremities of Europe!

We learn about the close connections between the three peoples of the book with the rise of Islam in the seventh century; the internal wranglings of Islam were new to me, but obviously paralleled all those within the Christian church that I am familiar with. Some early Christians apparently thought Islam was another Christian heresy rather than a new religion…

The early Muslim empire became phenomenally wealthy; Byzantium’s weakness faced with the spread of Islam led to its calling on Western Christians for help and thus led to the Crusades, which stimulated both European and Muslim economic growth and trade immensely. Jews and Muslims co-existed peacefully especially after their expulsion from Spain after 1492; the Mongols, who ravaged Europe, eventually disappeared back to Asian, rating China as easier and better prey. The Black Death had even more devastating effects than I had known.

The centre of gravity of the world shifted to Europe with the discovery of the Americas…

As you can probably see, it’s a fascinating book filled with many new insights and perceptions into the growth and development of the world. Frankopan offers a careful and measured response to the information he assembles, and offers thoughtful and balanced analysis from a long-term perspective. At times, as the subject expands, the focus on the Silk Roads does seem to fade, particularly in the early modern period, though I finally saw how this couldn’t have been otherwise. Comparisons between different nations and parts of the world, and how and why they prospered or didn’t, are particularly enlightening.

However, for me, Frankopan is at his most interesting when he moves into more modern times. He makes clear the calamitous and thoroughly reprehensible behaviour of the British and the French in the Middle East at the time of the First World War; he is eye-opening on events, attitudes and decisions that created the problems and issues that still rage a century later. A very interesting idea is that the narrative of the First World War was rewritten after it was over, shifting the focus onto Germany as the enemy and threat to Britain, rather than Russia. The West, and latterly particularly the US comes across as even more crass, money-grubbing, racist and colonialist than I’d ever known (and I count myself pretty well-informed). Short-sightedness and short-termism have governed most of what the West has done through its interference.

It’s an eye-opener of a book. No doubt, professional historians will take issue with some of his analysis and conclusions. This amateur is still taking it all in…

William Dalrymple: In Xanadu

March 9, 2016

419DJZH9NFL._AA160_Dalrymple sets off to retrace the steps of Marco Polo, to the legendary Xanadu, in China. It’s a crazy undertaking, worthy of a student in his carefree student days – though his time is limited by the need to get back to Cambridge to prepare for his finals…

He’s travelling in 1986, so not all parts of the journey are straightforward, or even allowed. Travel between Israel and Arab nations requires a certain amount of detouring, Afghanistan incompletely off-limits, and crossing the areas of China through which Polo travelled required subterfuge and illegality, passing as it does, right next to their nuclear testing grounds.

He veers between being humorous – his tone is often bemused when he encounters various oddities of travel and people – and very knowledgeable about many interesting places along the route, which is basically the ancient Silk Road. Sometimes events, accidents, conversations take on a tinge of farce; sometimes he surprises us with details and contextual background to places and events we are perhaps vaguely familiar with. This is what I’m looking for from good travel writing: knowledge, interest and enthusiasm from the traveller. The maps are rather on the vague side, though. At times, he reminded me of Robert Byron, who travelled in the Middle East in the 1930s, and who describes, and conveys a sense of place, like very few other writers I’ve come across.

It’s an uneven work, by which I mean that some sections are leisurely and the journey and places are fully described, whilst sizeable actions of the journey are dashed through against the clock, with nothing seen or remarked on, let alone described. Such are student travels, in my experience, though I never went this far afield. Despite the haphazard voyage, the many scrapes and adventures he gets into along with his companions (two different women at different times) he nevertheless succeeds, daringly, in attaining his ultimate objective. This demands respect. But his later travels in From the Holy Mountain are far more engaging, less about him and more about what he saw.

Tim Cope: On the Trail of Genghis Khan

January 9, 2016

51v22B8bKZL._AA160_It took me rather a while to warm to Tim Cope‘s adventures; initially the idea of trying to retrace the tracks of the Mongols under Genghis Khan from Mongolia to Hungary – the full extent of their maraudings – seemed rather self-indulgent, and this wasn’t helped by the account of his girlfriend accompanying the early part of his journey. But I had misjudged him; once she had gone back to Europe, and he was well advanced into Mongolia and heading for Kazakhstan, it settled into a fascinating account of a journey and the history and cultures of the land he was passing through.

As he travelled, he clearly developed – and, more importantly, perhaps, managed to convey clearly to his readers – a real empathy with, and understanding of, the peoples through whose lands he was travelling and the arduousness of their lives; there was an openness about him, a wish to understand and to learn about a people who had built one of the greatest empires ever, terrorising everyone in their wake. With Cope, we learn about these nomads, their necessary wanderings and their relations with their livestock. We learn about a completely different way of life that we might never otherwise imagine, one necessitated by a combination of geography, weather and force of circumstances; we can see perhaps a certain attraction to it, at least in contrast with the crazy and hectic pace of life in, and the rampant consumerism of the ‘advanced’ West. The reader learns much from Cope’s account, which is supported by copious and helpful footnotes and excellent maps (though I did find Bloomsbury’s choice to use American English spellings in an English edition rather annoying).

I found myself re-thinking some of my earlier judgements about there not being real opportunities for travel and exploration nowadays because of how accessible everywhere is; Cope’s journey reminded me of the travels of Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming through similar territory in the 1930s, and I was reminded of the accounts I’ve read of demanding travels by William Dalrymple, Sylvain Tesson and Bernard Ollivier (all of whom you can read about elsewhere on this blog if you search for them).

And yet, things are not the same: Cope had the benefits of GPS, mobile phone, and the ability to take a break and fly off home or anywhere else if he really needed to, advantages which earlier travellers did not have, and which do help him at several points on his journey. But I do not think that such ‘luxuries’ detract from his achievement, and they cannot take away his genuine commitment to the journey or love of the peoples and places he encountered. And by the end one can see that he was far more affected by his journey than he ever expected to be.

I learnt much about places, peoples and history; I was further shocked, if that is possible, by the account of the post-Soviet decline, alcoholism and appalling corruption endemic in the entire region, which he catalogues, usually impartially. There’s a good deal of food for thought about world economics and power politics there; no nation or system comes off well from it, and, as usual, it’s the ordinary folk who suffer most. A very worthwhile read, and I shall look out further of his writings.

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