Article by E.O. Lorimer, John o' London's Weekly, 3 September 1937:
A Woman's Epic Journey:
Mlle Maillart's Trek from Peking to Kashmir
True traveller, whose light heart,
solely for love of starting, still must start,
And careless of the wherefore still must say:
It was the oddest of odd chances that brought two newspaper correspondents, Mr. Peter Fleming of The Times and Mlle Ella Maillart, the Swiss ski champion, international hockey player and intrepid yachtswoman, of the Petit Parisien, to Peking at the same moment, each fired with desire to attempt the impossible. Both wished to defy war and rumours of war, the activities alike of armed bandits and obstructive officials, and make a solo journey across China and the terrible four hundred miles of the Salt Desert of the Tsaidam which skirts the north of Tibet, through the rare oases of the Tarim Basin, which on the south bound the measureless sand wastes of the Takla Makan for five hundred miles to Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan, and thence southward across the Karakoram by the severe but safe and well-known "Gilgit Road" to Kashmir and India.
Reluctant to join forces
Each was an experienced traveller and each vastly preferred the freedom of the lone trail, as the titles of their last books, Mr. Fleming's One's Company and Mlle Maillart's Turkestan Solo, amusingly testified. To combine their knowledge and resources, to guarantee mutual aid in case of sickness, was manifestly to quadruple their chances of success. So, with confessed reluctance, they set out together, and the world is the richer by two complementary and amusingly different accounts of an epic adventure. Readers of Mr. Fleming's News from Tartary have been impatiently awaiting "Kini's" account of it all, and Mlle Maillart's Forbidden Journey (Heinemann, 12 s. 6d.), with its most admirable photographs, will not disappoint them. A word of cordial praise is due to Mr. Thomas McGreevy's first-class translation, which preserves even the natural savour of the sparring matches between the companions.
Peter Fleming gained a skilful housekeeper, a wise adviser, and a comrade whose first-aid outfit, with its permanganate and iodoform, its castor oil, quinine and magic pills, was a passport to the goodwill of men and women at every encounter, and a veterinary surgeon expert in treating sick and sore-backed camels. If Mlle Maillart shared the meals of welcome game that fell to Mr. Fleming's all-too-famous rifle, she had to travel at the pace of "Galloping Peter", whose main thought, once started, was to get back as soon as might be to London and his newspaper.
Proud to be alone
Left to herself, she might have spent another seven months on the journey and - if she had not perished, but she is not of the kind that perish - have wandered far afield to explore and climb and linger among villagers and nomads, to reap an even greater harvest of human impressions.
Though I liked the companionship… I had lost the intense joy of blazing my own trail and the proud sense of being able to get through alone, to which I had become accustomed… Travelling in company one does not learn the language so quickly… You penetrate less deeply into the life about you. Both travellers were handicapped by ignorance of more than a few words of Chinese and Turki - the two languages most vital for the major part of the route they were taking - and of Persian and Hindustani, almost equally essential for its later stages. It was only when, at rare intervals, they met someone fluent in Russian - which Mlle Maillart commanded the better of the two - that they were able to enjoy coherent conversation other than their own. So the "news" they brought may be neglected, except as giving a general impression of the turmoil and chaos prevailing, not alone in bandit-ridden China proper, cowering before ever-increasing Japanese aggression, but in China's most distant province of Sinkiang (Chinese Turkestan).
Such facts of history as they gleaned were no doubt long since put on record in the confidential files of Delhi, Whitehall, and the Quai d'Orsay. It is not for these that the reader will turn to the lively pages of either; but for the vivid account of the barren and inhospitable lands they traversed - mountain, desert, plain, and valley, the human types they met, their daily adventures; when sleeping bags, notes, cameras, and films were soaked in fords; or the expedition was held up for days in a tamarisk labyrinth, awaiting fresh animals and a guide for the forward march; when Mlle Maillart's beloved and trusty pony was pushed and lifted and coaxed across a mountain pass so that if he had to be abandoned, he might at least be left amid grass and water and be picked up by the returning guide, perhaps alive and, if so, refreshed by a well-earned holiday.
Before quitting Peking, it was prudent to be inoculated against typhus, carried by lice, ever-present among the primitive dwellers in steppe and desert. The Weigl vaccine is produced in such a curious way that I shall say a few words about it. A guinea-pig has some blood of a person suffering from typhus injected… But to produce a vaccine efficacious for human beings, the disease has to be transmitted to lice, and this is why the Peking laboratory has a nursery of these insects. It is the only one in the world. Chinese who have recovered from typhus and are therefore immune, come twice a day to serve as grazing grounds for the lice. For half an hour the little beasts suck the blood which is a necessity to them. On his legs each man nourishes two hundred, distributed in little boxes which have netting on one side… The men who nourish the lice are often ragged beggars. They are agreeably surprised to find themselves paid for nursing parasites which they used to carry on them all day and all night for nothing.
A Tibetan lamasery
Before completely bidding farewell to roads and the haunts of men, the travellers visited the great and famous Tibetan lamaserai of Kumbum… … white walls and pastel tints making harmonies under the pale-blue sky; fawn-coloured earth, gleaming walls, the soft gold of the pagodas, grey, leafless trees, and the brown-red dots which are lamas… From a distance, the holy men, enveloped in draperies with innumerable pleats belling out as the fall, look like to many perambulating tulips.
Thence they set off due west into the wilds where only a couple of years before two French travellers had disappeared - leaving no trace. Sometimes for six days, sometimes for twelve, they would push on through scenes of the deadliest monotony, their faces scorched by the sun and lashed to pieces by the driving snow or sand or pebbles carried by the merciless winds that blow interminably, too dazed by sheer fatigue to think, killing the endless hours by watching the shifting shadows cast by their riding ponies.
For months on end during that long 3000-mile journey their daily breakfast and lunch was tsamba (parched barley flour) blent with rancid butter and kneaded into their tea, while supper might well be but a repeat of breakfast unless the rifle furnished a hare or a cut of antelope. Occasionally a hospitable yurt (nomad tent) would sacrifice a sheep to the passers-by: Nomad etiquette insists that a guest must not abandon a bone till it is bare. Only thus does he show the high value he places on that precious animal, the sheep.
Mlle Maillart was shocked to discover that in the wilds of Central Asia, where I expected to find myself amongst men poor but free, I found economic slavery and national antagonism, as strong as anywhere in the present-day world… The Mongol peasants were being bled white by Chinese money-lenders. In many places, however, money was not current - there was nowhere within hundreds of miles where it could be spent; cotton cloth, bricks of tea, or strings of beads were the only cash acceptable for payments: We exchanged twenty-two bullets… for two wooden spoons, each as valuable as a sheep in a country devoid of timber.
The "ice-cream man"
Heartily as the wayfarers longed for the sight of an oasis, with trees and fruit, bread and eggs, they always entered one in well-founded dread of some official challenging their right to travel further. They had many strange encounters, among the oddest an "ice-cream man" sitting under a tree. During the winter ice is buried and then in summer it is exhumed and sold in small pieces mixed with sour milk, the mixture constituting an admirable thirst-quenching drink.
After seven months of fatigue and hardship and delight, passing through British territory by Hunza and Gilgit to Kashmir, marching from well-built rest-house to rest-house, as secure from bandits as from lice, assured of transport, baths and food, the insatiable Swiss woman felt very melancholy to be at the end of the easy life that had so long been mine under the great skies of Asia… Paris, France, Europe, the White Race were nothing… against the magnificent scheme of things we call the world. Not all of us would call the journey "easy", but Mlle Maillart's account of it makes an entrancing tale, which no lover of good travel can afford to miss.
© E.O. Lorimer