Article by Ella Maillart, The Listener, London, 22 April 1936:
From Peking to Kashmir
In 1930 I got in touch for the first time with the East when I was travelling around the Black Sea and in the wildest valleys of the High Caucasus. I then decided to do everything I could to see more of Asia, and two years later I started out again. I had no official visa in my passport; during six months I roved across Soviet Turkestan, visiting the Kirghiz who live in the Celestial Mountains near the Chinese border. My plan then was to cross into China and go as far as Peking by caravan roads; I wanted to be as much as possible with the nomads, not only to understand them better, but because I envy their simple life.
But having reached the Russo-Chinese border I had to turn back because civil wars were raging in Chinese Turkestan and foreigners could not enter the country. At last, in 1935, I found myself in Peking after having spent two months in Manchukuo for a French newspaper. Again I considered the possibility of crossing Central Asia, but it seemed nearly impossible. If you look at a map of Asia you will see that to reach Chinese Turkestan, at the border of the Soviet Socialist Republics, there is to the north of Mongolia a big caravan route, used recently by the Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin, and also by the Citroen expedition. But foreigners who tried to follow this road have all been sent back towards the coast or kept under arrest for one or two years in Urumchi, because the Governor of this practically independent province does not want foreigners to come and see what is going on in his country. On the other hand, the Nanking Government, by giving no visa for these far-away territories, prevents any accidents happening to adventurous European travellers whose security cannot be guaranteed.
I therefore had to find something else. To the south of this same Mongolia, beyond where the big Gobi Desert stretches at the foot of high mountains, runs the old imperial road which joins the ancient Silk road. But for the last four years nobody has gone further than the Lop Nor region at the southeast border of Chinese Turkestan.
I had nearly decided just to wander around the Upper Yangtze-kiang when in Peking I met a Swedish geologist, Erik Norin, who had been travelling in Central Asia for many years, well off the beaten track. On the map of Asia, near the sources of the Yellow River in the Tibetan Mountains, you will find the lake and territory of Koko-Nor. Norin told me that it had been from that region that he had come back to China: These are uninhabited lands where nobody goes – and where, he added, when he heard about my plans to link up with my tracks of three years ago, no official control ought to prevent me from reaching Turkestan.
I told what I had learnt to my friend, Peter Fleming, who had just arrived in Peking and also wanted to go back to Europe inland, but via Urumchi. We would need at least six months before we could leave China by the western frontier, because we would travel with caravans. And it would take us a year if the first winter snows already closed the Himalayan passes.
Once we had studied this unknown route, Peter Fleming and I decided to try the journey, which would be as long as it looked uncertain: we were running the risk of being caught once more into the middle of civil wars, or of getting acquainted with the gaols of that province. But considering what Peter Fleming had been through in his life I judged that luck had always been with him, so that he was the best sort of companion I could wish for.
Thanks to Erik Norin, I also got in touch with a Russian couple that had lived for ten years west of Koko-Nor. They knew the Mongol, Tibetan and Turki dialects spoken by the natives whose countries we would have to cross on our journey. When he was making his adventurous expedition in Brazil, Peter Fleming had come to the same conclusion as I had during my travels in Russian Turkestan: to make a success of an expedition it is better to do exactly as the natives to – have as little luggage as possible and eat as simply as they do.
Just before leaving Peking – without an official passport, of course, and without saying where we intended to go, for fear that we should be stopped at once – I had an injection in my arm of three thousand crushed lice, as a protection against typhus; it is the formula of a new vaccine made in China only. Thanks to it, nowadays the lives of many missionaries exposed to typhus are saved. I knew by experience that insects are far from despising me and I didn’t want to run the risk of catching such an illness. Peter Fleming said it was all nonsense, and that a louse would never have the courage to touch his iron skin – but when one no longer travels solo, one must take into consideration the advice of one’s companion, if only to avoid discussion.
As you can see, we were starting with many trumps in our hand. We had the good fortune to avoid the civil war near Sian where the Chinese Communists were opposing Government troops. But things went wrong as soon as we reached Lanchow after eight days spent perched on top of a primitive motor truck. There our guide-interpreters came under the law just enforced because of the Communist scare: every Russian had to leave the country and go back to the coast immediately. As far as we were concerned, we had the right to go only as far as the small town of Sining, six days further to the west. We decided to continue without our interpreters, who gave us a few words of introduction to their old friends of Koko-Nor.
At Sining we met new difficulties, and very serious ones this time; we were not allowed to go outside the town. Nearly in despair, for ten days we tried everything we could think of. We even dared to send wires to our Legations in Peking asking them to act on our behalf so that Nanking would allow us to go as far as the Koko-Nor lake. Of course, nothing in the world would make us mention the real aim of our journey – India.
Luckily, the Chinese officials had confidence in us at last. We heard of a Mongol prince who was just starting for the west with a two-hundred-and-fifty camel caravan, and we joined him to cross territory infested with brigands. It is impossible to describe our joy; we were soon to be in the freedom of the wilderness.
At Tangar, the most distant Chinese village we would pass, we saw our last Europeans: a Swiss missionary, Marcel Urech, and his wife, a charming Scotswoman who helped us pack our provisions of rice and barley flour, which is the main food of Mongols and Tibetans living on the high plateaux. The effect of such a diet of rice and barley, washed down with kettles of Mongol tea, was to blow us out like drums.
Mrs. Urech was much amused by our preparations. She would never have thought that a trans-Asiatic expedition could leave with only four camel loads when there were two or three months of desert crossing ahead before we could reach the first oasis of Turkestan, far away to the west.
Half of the population of the province of Koko-Nor is Chinese Mohammedan. These Tungans, as they are called, are well known for their war-like qualities. True to their reputation, they had once more been leading a revolt; starting northwards and crossing the Gobi they have been helping the local inhabitants who were struggling against the Urumchi Government. For the last three years the Tungans have been spreading civil war in Chinese Turkestan and have had to retreat to the south-west, nobody knew exactly where. It was because of this uncertainty in the political situation that we still did not know if we should be able to go through Turkestan.
We journeyed slowly with camels for two months, the natives sometimes even refusing to guide us, or to sell us any animals, so much did everything foreign seem suspicious to them. We lived mainly on what Fleming shot; one day he killed an antelope, but as we were skinning it we found that its hindquarters were already being eaten by worms. We decided to forego our part of the meal, but later on, when we were hungrier and found out that the animals we shot had the same disease, we could not afford to be so squeamish. By perseverance and luck, following little-known paths at twelve to fifteen thousand feet altitude, and losing half our pack of animals because they had nothing to eat, we at last reached the province of Chinese Turkestan – where nobody understood where we were coming from but where happily nobody thought of arresting us.
We crossed the whole of southern Turkestan where the peaceful Turki people are at the mercy of their Tungan conquerors who are arming them as much as possible. For days and weeks you go on slowly and monotonously, at an average of eighteen miles a day. At last, two months later, we left China and its Turco-Chinese province, still full of customs from the Middle Ages. And after another forty days’ travelling across the highest mountains in the world, the Himalayas, we came back to British civilisation – to towns, newspapers,
bathrooms and white people.
Some of you may well have expected me to tell hair-raising stories of adventures encountered during a journey of some 3,500 miles across countries which in part had never been traversed by a white women. But after all, a carefully conducted expedition shouldn’t expect to meet adventures and tries to avoid danger. And the great thing is to return to tell the tale.
© Ella Maillart, 1936