News From Tartary

news-from-tartaryIn One’s Company, Peter Fleming described his more-or-less solo journey across Manchuria and Mongolia in 1933. He was only 26 years old, avid for adventure, going because the going was good (for certain values of “good” — difficult, intrepid, and sometimes dangerous travel across country where few European people have ever been isn’t for everyone.) His light-hearted and often funny narrative kept the story moving forward at a rapid clip. News From Tartary, which serves as a companion to One’s Company, has the same wonderful sense of humor, exploration, interest in the world, and high adventure. It doesn’t disappoint in any way; indeed, in some ways it’s even more delightful than the first.

In 1935, not so very long after Fleming’s adventures in inner Mongolia, he decided to embark on another and still more unfeasible trip, this time to Sinkiang (Chinese Turkistan.) The area was surrounded by huge mountain ranges and the Taklamakan desert on three sides, and by Soviet Russia on the fourth, so it was both geographically and politically inaccessible to the nth degree. Fleming proposed to travel from Peiping, in China, to Srinagar, in India, which was still under British rule at that time, skirting Sinkiang’s dangerous desert on the south, and traveling chiefly by horse and by foot. (As it turned out, he also made a large part of the journey by camel, and some of it by yak.) As in One’s Company, he traveled as lightly as he possibly could: this was no twenty-four pony expedition. One tent, one working rifle, a few mystery novels, and a supply of barley meal with which to make the local tsamba made up the bulk of his supplies.

But this time, Fleming did have a companion — something he reveled in not having in One’s Company. And not just any companion. His fellow traveler was Ella “Kini” Maillart, the most indomitable woman it has ever been my pleasure to read about. Their way lay together almost by accident, if you can call it an accident that two stubborn, stoic, travel-loving, fuss-hating people should want to go to the same remote and dangerous part of the world at the same time. They walked and rode thousands of miles together, ate, slept, shivered and fried together, talked and worried over insecure visas and passports, doctored each other’s ailments, all through country where no white person had perhaps ever been seen, let alone a white woman — and they didn’t kill each other. If only their secret could have been transmitted to Arctic explorers! Fleming, ever the reserved Englishman, does not gush Maillart’s praise, but every word he says about her demonstrates that she was the ideal companion for this impossibly difficult trip: good-humored, hard-working, a fatalist. Only once does Fleming make obscure allusion to their gender difference:

I suppose I was the leader, because I made decisions more quickly, guessed more quickly, knew more quickly what I wanted than Kini did. But she did all the work that required skill or application, and almost all the work that was distasteful or annoying rather than merely arduous, the work that gets left undone if there are only second-rate people to do it; we both knew that she was, so to speak, the better man, and this knowledge evened things out between us, robbed my automatically dominating position of its power to strain our relations. We had complete confidence in each other.

The descriptions of the trip are detailed, and give a sense both of the excitement and the tedium of a seven-months’ walk in Central Asia. Desert and oasis alike are brilliantly rendered, and their guides and acquaintances are wonderfully sketched. I can’t recommend these two books more highly, if you enjoy travel memoirs. I’m so glad I read them, and I’ll be looking for Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure next!

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2 Responses to News From Tartary

  1. I will be looking forward to your thoughts about Brazilian Adventure. I had completely forgotten that I have had a second-hand 1940 hardback copy on my shelves for decades, but somehow I like Asia much more than South-America, which is probably why I have not gotten round to reading it yet.

  2. Jenny says:

    Anna — I’ll let you know what I think when I read it (which will involve finding a copy.) It’s an interesting story, at least!

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