Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The Mysterious Orlandini

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The Karavansara Challenge 2016 has yet to start1, and already strange connections are beginning to appear.
On the first page of her Forbidden Journey, Ella Maillart writes (my translation)…

Finally, the Italian Orlandini, having spent one year in China, was ordered away from the Xinjian frontier[…] He covered great distances by bicycle, an ideal means of transport in Central Asia, and tells a curious story, according to which, having been mistaken for a spy, he risked being poisoned in Inner Mongolia.

And that’s it.
An Italian, traveling through Central Asia and Xinjian (or Sinkiang, or Chinese Turkestan) on a bicycle, and being mistaken for a spy and almost poisoned?
How comes nobody ever told me his story?!
It took me a while – Internet is a powerful tool for reseach, but it’s only as good as the starting informations you have. In my case

a name: Orlandini
a date: 1931
a place: Xinjian

This led me to The Sidney Morning Heralda digitized copy of the Saturday 13 April 1935 issue (found in Trove), reports an interview with a “Dr Orlandini”, just back from China, reporting on the Soviet penetration in Chinese Turkestan.
The interview was taken in Shanghai2.

With the new informations – new date, Shanghai and the academical title of “Doctor”, it is possible to refine the research – thus discovering other newspaper articles about the mysterious Orlandini.

The Milwaukee Journal, dated January 17 1935, has more about Orlandini, described as “A bold modern Marco Polo”.

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So now we know Orlandini was a physician, and his name was “Peter” (Piero or Pietro, in Italian). And so, with a little patience, we finally get to meet the man.

orlandini

Pietro Orlandini was born in Venice in 1894, and he got his degree as a Medical Doctor in Padua in 1920.
He served as an army surgeon in Albania, was an assistant medical examiner in Padua and then spent three years as a doctor on passenger ships to the Middle and Far East, and the Americas.
He had a practice in New York and got a certification as a “colonial doctor” in Bruxelles, and served as such in the Belgian Congo.
He visited China in the 1930s, and had a practice in Shanghai in 1937. During his Chinese days he studied acupuncture and acupressure – which he brought back to Europe. The medical community was not very pleased of him popularizing “native practices”, and this is the reason why informations about him are extremely scarce in Italy.
The above information was gleaned from an Italian website dedicated to acupressure.
But Orlandini also wrote a book about his travels – in French, and called Le Médecin nomade, published in 1948, never reprinted, but still available through used bookstores.
My French is rusty, but I might try and get me a cheap copy3.

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And so here it is – Peter or Pierre or Pietro Orlandini, doctor, traveler, adventurer on the Silk Road…
Not a bad find.


  1. watch this space for updates and extras. 
  2. and we’ll keep it handy during the Challenge, as extra documentation. 
  3. curiously enough, the book lists a translator – was it published in Italy too? Or was there an English edition? More mystery, new hints for a further paper chase… 
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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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