Posts Tagged ‘Peter Fleming’

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:

This is getting just a little ridiculous

January 31, 2018

Is there anything better about what I do, compared with watching TV every night, binge-watching box-sets, playing computer games for hours? Am I any the better or wiser for all this hoovering up of knowledge? Surely I’m just frittering my life away like everyone else does?

What got me this evening was realising that I have a reading list longer than the rest of my life, and it’s growing; occasionally I joke with friends that I’m saving this or that activity or place to visit ‘for my next existence’, and it has become no joking matter. Currently I’m re-reading Je suis de nulle part, a sort of biography of Ella Maillart (see my last post) by a contemporary admirer of hers. It’s reminded me I need to re-read Oases Interdites, her account of travels in China and India in the 1930s, and then also News From Tartary by Peter Fleming, as the two made the same journey together and wrote different and equally fascinating accounts of it. Then, as Maillart travels to Afghanistan with her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach, I fell the need to re-read her account of the same journey, and also several more books of hers that I haven’t yet read; so far I’ve resisted the temptation to order them all…

And then it turns our that Maillart knew Erika and Klaus Mann; I read Erika Mann’s fictionalised account of the gradual Nazification of her homeland last year and wrote about it, then took Klaus Mann’s autobiography down from the shelf – bought in 1987 and still unread! But now I want to read that, and, of course that reminded me of Stefan Zweig, and I have been wanting to go back to his autobiography for a while now…

You can see how I might be starting to feel that this is becoming ridiculous. Then I will set all these books up in a pile waiting to tackle them, read a couple and get side-tracked onto something else, and eventually have to put the rest of then away for another time. I’d already mentally made a couple of plans for which book I’ll take away with me to read on my Ardennes walking holiday in April, and will have to revise those plans.

Sometimes, I imagine giving up reading for a year to see what it would be like. One day, perhaps. Meanwhile, I need to calm down and come back to my senses: lying on the sofa with a good book, Bach or Chopin playing, and a bottle of good beer to drink… there’s not much better to do at this time of year.

Charles Blackmore: The Worst Desert on Earth

August 3, 2017

I’ve read quite a few accounts of travelling through and around the Taklamakan (the name apparently means you can go in, but you won’t come out) desert, most notably by Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming, who skirted it in the 1930s as they escaped war-torn China, and Sven Hedin, who explored parts of it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It seems to vie with the notorious ‘Empty Quarter‘ of Saudi Arabia for the title of the most inhospitable and empty area of the planet, and is perhaps the more inaccessible because it lies on the edge of a very sensitive area of the People’s Republic of China: an area inhabited by Uighurs who seek autonomy, and the Lop Nor desert where the Chinese test their nuclear weapons…

So, no-one had attempted to walk through the middle of this desert before, until Charles Blackmore, and army major, got the idea and contrived to set up a joint Anglo-Chinese expedition to do it. It was another of those semi-bonkers ‘because it was there’ ideas that get people doing insane things. Blackmore and his team enjoy considerable advantages as privileged army and ex-Army folk with contacts with moneyed people in the City; nonetheless the setting up and finding sponsorship for the expedition was not that straightforward. It was certainly useful having people with army logistics experience.

The expedition – which took place in the mid-1990s – was successful, and this is Blackmore’s account of it. On the ground, in the worst desert on earth, privilege, money and experience count for almost nothing, and it was a very gruelling exploit, touch and go due to illness, lack of water and friction between the British and Chinese. From what felt – from his account – like a typically old-fashioned British gung-ho approach to preparation and organisation, almost as if it were a spot of Munro-bagging, we move to serious slow trekking through extremely difficult terrain without any real maps: in spite of modern technology, almost nothing is known or recorded about a huge area, the edges of which were explored by men like Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin a century previously.

There was a decent map in the book, which enabled me to work with my collection of maps and atlases to follow the journey in more detail. What I never really got a true feel for was the visual aspect of the terrain; description isn’t one of Blackmore’s strongpoints, and he’s much more interested in the interactions between people and the psychological effects of the task and the place on the expedition members (not that these aspects aren’t interesting). Apart from the vastness of the terrain, the endless dunes and the sand, that was about it, apart from the one moment when they came across ruins of a settlement some seventeen hundred years old which had been mentioned by one of the previous explorers: then I got the sense of how the desert heat and dryness can preserve remains for vast lengths of time…

It was worth a read, and clearly was an astonishing achievement, although in the end the book wasn’t quite the account I had been looking forwards to.

Ella Maillart: La Vie immédiate

January 5, 2017

51si-hpbtjl-_ac_us174_Many years ago when I was on holiday in France, I asked a bookseller in Dinan about travel writing, and he introduced me to the writing of Ella Maillart, a Swiss woman who travelled widely in the Middle East, China and India in the 1920s, 30s and subsequently. I never looked back: this was the last and hardest to find of her books, so my collection and enjoyment is complete.

It’s a book of her photos from many of her journeys, taken with her trusty Leica camera – she was one of the first people to have one – presented and introduced by her friend and traveller Nicholas Bouvier. There are some marvellous images that take one back into the first half of the last century, in distant parts of the world, atmospheric because of their age. They may lack the full-colour splendour of what the National Geographic magazine used to print, but they make up for it for me in their connection with one of the last few real travellers.

Maillart travelled in the Soviet Union in its early days, reaching places she wasn’t meant to go to; she travelled in central Asia; through China to India in the days of the civil war and Japanese invasion, in the company of Peter Fleming, a correspondent for The Times (his account of their trip, News From Tartary, is also well worth reading); in Afghanistan at the start of the Second World War and in India during that war. And her travels were hard work, gruelling, in the company of local people. She couldn’t escape from difficult situations by hopping on a plane or a train, she didn’t ease her poor Western limbs and sensibilities by taking time off in a luxury hotel when she got tired… she experienced the real life of the places through which she travelled, the difficulties and the hardships, and these willingly, as she gradually came to realise that she was not just on a physical journey, but on her own emotional and spiritual journey of self-discovery. It’s for these reasons that, to me, her observations and accounts feel far more real and interesting than most more recent travel-writing.

Initially Maillart wrote in French but soon turned to English so that most of her writings are accessible here, although also long out of print: she hasn’t been re-discovered yet. She used the proceeds from her writings – books and magazine articles – to finance her travels. She was extremely lucky to have been Swiss, in the sense that the two world wars did not directly impinge on her in the ways in which they would have done to almost any other European; she and her friends were appalled at what Europe had managed to do to itself in the Great War and were quite happy to leave it behind; equally, as the next nightmare approached, Maillart left for the other sideof the world.

I find her writing inspirational, in a way: she threw herself into her travels and became a part of them. There’s no European standing aloof or apart from people and places, and pontificating about them: she participates, shares, describes with a humility and an equality as well as an enjoyment of where she is and what she is doing, that is simple, healthy and life-enhancing, and I admire her more than any other traveller I have come across so far.

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.

Tourism, Travel and Exploration

July 6, 2014

If you visit my blog regularly, you’ll have realised I’m very interested in writing about travel. I have been doing some thinking about what has changed about our exploration of our world over the years.

I suspect that nowadays most of us are tourists. Our journey has a set timeframe, a set destination, the travelling to and from is organised in advance, as is where we stay whilst away from home. We often take guidebooks and even phrasebooks. Even in distant, ‘exotic’ places we can be safe and comfortable. One of the things which concerns me about all this is the effects we can have on the lives and the economies of people in distant lands; thinking  ‘well, we are putting money into the local economy’ isn’t necessarily the end of it.

Travelling seems different. We may not set off for a specific amount of time, or have a set destination; we will probably organise travel ourselves ad hoc, and similarly accommodation. I think of my summers hitch-hiking in my student days. There are some unknowns and unpredicatables about this sort of journey, but we have maps, routes and nowadays all kinds of technology to help us. I find travelling harder to define, as I think about writers who come to mind who have set off for considerable lengths of time on arduous journeys well off the beaten track, and yet haven’t completely gone into the unknown… Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming in the 1930s travelling in Central Asia at times of great political unrest, Wilfred Thesiger crossing the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, Michael Asher in the Sudan, Sylvain Tesson in Siberia recently. Such people never actually go off the edges of the map, as it were, into the places that used to be labelled ‘here be dragons’ but they do go where we are, even now, extremely unlikely ever to go, and they are definitely tested by their experiences.

And then there’s exploration… new and undiscovered territory, though even here, there’s the necessary caveat, undiscovered by Western/ white people. Such journeys involve creating the first maps and charts of places, sometimes collecting specimens of previously unknown flora and fauna. Serious risks and dangers are involved here, from people, places, nature and the weather; in the past, before navigational aids were invented, one could become lost, or not be able to know where one was. And still they went. Scott to the Antarctic, the circumnavigators of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Ibn Battutah on land much earlier, the nineteenth century explorers of Australia trying to find the huge inland sea that was believed to lie in the centre of that continent. To my mind, there’s nowhere left now for this kind of exploration; everywhere is ‘discovered’ if not completely known, and everywhere is accessible with today’s technology. The final frontier, in Captain Kirk’s words, is space. I’ll never read about that exploration.

So, I’ve drawn up a rather simplistic taxonomy of journeys. And I suspect many of us would prefer to be thought of as travelling rather than as mere tourists, with the pejorative connotations of that word. But why do we go ‘away’? Why do you go away? For me, I think it is the change and challenge of being somewhere different, of seeing and experiencing things done in a different way, even the basic business of speaking; it is seeing the wonders of different places and cultures and being taken out of my insularity, it is realising how marvellously diverse our world is.

Travel and Tourism

May 12, 2013

This post is prompted by a recent find at Aardvark Books, which I’ve mentioned before. Alone Through the Forbidden Land, by Gustav Krist narrates the adventures of this Austrian traveller in Persia and other Silk Route countries in the 1930s, when much of the area was ‘closed’ to foreigners for various reasons, not least being that a considerable part of the area had only recently been annexed to the Soviet Union. Krist (who I’d never heard of before) had been an Austrian prisoner of the Russians during the First World War, which made his travels even riskier.

I really enjoyed the book. Krist covered territory and peoples which I never tire of reading about, and came across as a real traveller with curiosity about, understanding of, and sympathy with, the people among whom he was travelling, willing to share their lives, and to take risks to find out… an explorer, I suppose. For me, he fits in with the other interesting travellers of that time, such as Thesiger, Thomas, Maillart and Fleming.

I much prefer to read accounts from the days when travelling involved effort, privation and the unknown, for people who really wanted to get to know people and places. This is very different from travelling nowadays, which I think is more correctly called tourism: it is now so easy, and quick, to get to anywhere on the planet; one is protected by Western medicine and technology from most dangers and risks, and so there seems to be little real adventure involved in going to faraway places. Increasingly, too, I think Westerners are parasitic on other societies, and our needs as tourists warp and deform the lives and needs of the local inhabitants who are drawn in to service us. We have the money to buy the time and the luxury of travel to anywhere on the planet regardless of our effect on our world, others’ worlds and their environment, and what do we learn? Do we even think about such questions? Reading the book, I got the sense of a world that was gradually and inevitably changing as modernity caught up with it; this is a double-edged sword, in the sense that such things as modern medicine, and some modern technology have the ability to transform people’s lives, that people often lived under cruel and barbarous regimes (but then so did they in the ‘civilised’ West quite frequently) in states of great poverty and need, that such people often crave the benefits of the West, and yet here, we are so often dissatisfied with what we have, and yearn to get away from it all.

The book is well-written, illustrated with some of the author’s photographs, and has a decent map to enable the reader to follow his journey – this is always an added bonus, and often sadly lacking in more recent and cheaply produced books.

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