East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

On a lorry out of Xi’an

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The people are idolaters and subject to the Great Khan and use paper money. They live by trade and industry. They have plenty of silk and make cloth of gold and silk of many varieties. There are merchants here of wealth and consequence. There is no lack of game, both beast and bird, and abundance of grain and foodstuffs. There are two churches here of Nestorian Christians.
(Marco Polo)

Sian is a big city
(Peter Fleming)

xian walls

The Shaanxi area was occupied by humans as far back as 800.000 years ago and the city of Xi’an was the capital of the Chinese Empire in various periods of China’s history and is considered the eastern “end of the line” of the Silk Road.
In 1935, today’s main attraction of the city – the museum housing the Terracotta Army did not exist, and the town’s attractions are mainly found in the ancient Walled City.


In Xi’an, Fleming and Maillart (and the Smigunovs with them) leave the railway to continue by lorry to Lanzhou, roughly 300 miles to the east.

Both authors give us a very similar review of their stay in Xi’an.
They are guests of missionaries – that look at Fleming with some distrust as he’s “the young man that makes fun of missionaries” in his writings.
In Xi’an, Fleming and Maillart find a passage on a fleet of three lorries belonging to a man Fleming identifies as “Velvet Collar” – they sign a contract, Velvet Collar granting their arrival in Lanzhou in 5 days.
It won’t be so easy, or so fast.

Fleming’s write-up shows us a little more of Xi’an – he arrives in town earlier to arrange travel and accommodations, and collects news and rumors about the road ahead.
He is also chastised by policemen, twice, for smoking his pipe in the street – an attitude he explains with the success of Chiang Kai Shiek’s new policies.

The Velvet Collar trucks are overloaded – while Fleming and the Smigunovs travel with the luggage, out in the open, braving freezing temperatures while Maillart travels in front with the driver and a mysterious Chinese character.
41hUfDDa2TL._SX342_QL70_The little man in spats and glasses brings a touch of mystery to this leg of the trip – he claims to be going to London via Urumchi and Moscow, and the travelers wonder whether he is a spy tracking them.
He smokes a small pipe and dresses the European way. He claims to be a friend of a general and carries a folding field bed that makes his nights more comfortable.

The unexpected stops are too many to be counted – breakdowns, flat tyres, mud and river-crossing make the planned five days stretch well beyond Fleming and Maillart’s patience. Both Maillart and Fleming mentions stops for the night in

  • Pinchow – where an Italian missionary gives the travelers a tin of butter for the road
  • Chingchow – an early stop due to the rain, and a pleasant dinner with Norwegian missionaries
  • Pinliang – meeting the Spanish Catholic Fathers, and general Yang Pu-Fei

In Pinliang, the travelers finally decide to ditch the Velvet Collar band, and find a new means of transportation – a lorry on which they will have to travel standing, together with another 27 passengers, but that will hopefully make better time.

Once in Lanzhou, things will change.

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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