The Smigunovs, or Smigs as Ella Maillart called them, traveled with Fleming and Maillart from Peking to Lanzhou, where they were stopped by the Chinese authorities, and turned back – thus disappearing from our story.
We do not have a photograph of them, and biographical informations are sketchy at best.
Stepan Ivanovich Smigunov was a former commanding officer of a Russian poison gas squad during the Great War, and had come to the Chinese-Mongolian border with a group of other disbanded Russian soldiers fleeing the Bolshevik revolution. Together with his wife Nina – apparently, the brains of the outfit – he started running a business in Tsaidan.
Both Stepan and Nina spoke Mongolian, Turkish and Chinese, and knew the area inside out.
They were therefore hired by geologist Erik Norin, a member of the Sven Hedin expedition that had been stopped by General Ma Zhongying (we’ll talk about him, one of these nights).
Norin was set on getting out of the Xinjian area, and together with the Smigunovs they traveled south, to India but, the road been blocked, they turned east, and finally ended in Tientsin.
It was Erik Norin (“the Swedish Geologist” mentioned by Maillart) that suggested to Fleming and Maillart they could hire the Smigunovs as guides and travel companions.
In Tientsin, Stepan had found a job as a waiter in a restaurant run by Russians, and he jumped at the proposal – he and his wife hoped to go back to Tsaidan and start again their commercial venture. The Chinese authorities had other ideas, and the Smigs were sent back.
And this is more or less all we have about them.
Meanwhile, there’s the matter of Stepan Ivanovich Smigunov’s own book, Kunlun Travelogue (or something like that), that I’ve been able to track only in a 1968 Japanese language translation, as コンロン紀行.
About the book, the web remains silent – and indeed, I was quite surprised when I found out that the first resource mentioned in my language about the Smigunovs is my book Avventurieri sul Crocevia del Mondo.
Anyway – any further information about the Smigunovs, and about Stepan’s “Travelogue” is welcome.