And so it begins.
On the night of the 16th of February 1935, Peter Fleming and Ella “Kini” Maillart leave Peking in the company of the Smigunov, Stepan and Nina, two Russians that will act as guides and interpreters for a part of the trip.
Both Fleming and Maillart are journalists, and they both want to see what’s goin on in Sinkiang, or Chinese Turkistan, a region that was last visited almost ten years before by Owen Lattimore and has been sinking in civil war and chaos ever since.
Their plan is to travel from Peking to British India, following a southern route through Western China – the hardest route, but also, they hope, the least guarded.
The two journalists are officially going to Koku Nor to shoot some game. They are traveling light1, and they are not exactly friends.
Or are they?
A lot of speculation has been going on, in the last eighty years, about the exact relationship between Maillart and Fleming – Ella’s well-documented bisexuality adding spice to the whole thing.
Both authors make sure they tell us, in the opening pages of the respective travelogues, that they sincerely detested each other on their first meeting, and that the current traveling arrangement was decided out of necessity when they discovered they were both going to try their luck on the road to Xinjian.
Some have observed that maybe they protest a little too much – but apart from some hint at possible disagreements on the road (we’ll talk about that) they have nothing but humorous respect for each other in their books.
And while we are too gentlemanly to investigate the actual going-ons2, a quick capsule bio of our two traveling companions might be useful.
Ella “Kini” Maillart was born in 1903, on the 20th of February – which means she will be celebrating her 32nd birthday on the road, in a few days.
An accomplished sportswoman, she has been a member of the Swiss sailing team during the 1924 Summer Olympics, and was once the captain of a hockey team, but as the train leaves Peking, Ella is a reporter for French newspaper Le Petit Parisien.
Her most recent adventure – and book – has been an exploration of Soviet Turkestan (or Western Turkestan), which she documented in Turkestan Solo.
Peter Fleming was born on the 31st of May 1907 and at 27 is the junior member of the team. He is currently working as a correspondent for The Times. For the British newspaper Fleming has explored the Brazillian jungle looking for Colonel Fawcett in 1934, and has been to Manchuria (with faked documents) in 1934, following the Moscow-Peking route – the result of this trip being a book called One’s Company.
Fleming describes himself as a writer and an adventurer, and it is almost certain that his brother Ian will base his character James Bond at least partly on him.
We’ll discuss the Smigunov in a future post; they deserve a post of their own, being a sort of fixture of the Silk Road in these years.
Right now, the train is moving, the friends of our travelers are cheering from the pavement (they are all wearing costumes, as they come from a carnival party) and the next stops will be…
- Zhengzhou (or Chengchou)
- Louyang (a stop mentioned only by Maillart)
- Tongguan (Tungkuan)
- X’ian (Sian)
We’ll get to these places in due time3.
The group is traveling third class, and the train is packed.
- some of the stuff we saw in the previous post, some we’ll discuss later. ↩
- and all things considered, seven months on the road through a war-torn land, at the risk of being arrested or killed, is a weird sort of romantic trip. ↩
- and as soon as possible, I’ll start a Google Earth Tour featuring these stops. ↩