East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Shipwrecked in Lanzhou

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Lanzhou (Lanchow in News from Tartary) is the provincial capital of Gansu and the place from which Fleming and Maillart expect to take to the road for the adventure proper to start.


Sitting at a crossroads between Tibet, Mongolia and Sichuan, Lanzhou has been a stop along the Silk Road for centuries, also thanks to the local micro-climate caused by the local geomorphology. Lanzhou was founded in a narrow valley, between low hills, and close to the Yellow River, making the weather particularly mild. This contributes to the flourishing fruit and vegetable production and market.
And it was in a very important strategic position – controlling not only the trade routes but also a railway node and the crossing of the Yellow River.
In 1920, the city was taken by Feng Yuxiang, a Christian warlord.

fengFeng Yuxiang was an old-timer and a competent military commander and was famous (or notorious) for his zeal in converting to Christianity his men – according to some, by baptizing them en-masse with a fire hose.
He was formally aligned with Chiang Kai Shek, but a long history of turning coat and changing sides made him politically unreliable – and his fervent Christian faith (much more solid than his political allegiance) made him a dangerous character in an area in which the Muslim forces were seen as China’s foremost line of defence against the Communists.

Feng’s presence in Lanzhou caused a long confrontation with the Muslim warlords of the Ma clan, that controlled the region. The situation would stabilize only in 1949.

The political and religious tensions in the region – and the presence of a supposed “Communist Menace” further west – were the main reasons why travelers were not supposed to follow the Sil Road east from Lanzhou – and the reason why Fleming and Maillart were stopped in the city.
Also, the Smigunovs.
There was something in the documents of the two guides and companions, that caused suspicion and difficulties – their papers were released in Urumqui, and Urumqui was at the time in the hands of the Communists. This made the Smigunov suspect – they might have been spies.

The growing impatience of the travelers is well-documented in both their books – and Fleming talks about the boredom – which slowly but steadily turns into preoccupation – of his permanence in Lanzhou. Anxiety spoils the romanticism of the city..

We could not love a place that was like to esee the shipwreck of our darling plans.

Guests of Mr Keeble at the China Inland Mission1  (what is now known as Overseas Missionary Fellowship), Fleming and Maillart are repeatedly “interviewed” by the police.
Everything hinges on what the Governor will decide, but the Governo seems to be playing a waiting game. And when news arrive, it’s bad news for the Smigunovs, that are sent back to Tientsin in “open arrest”.
Ironically, maybe it’s Fleming explosive reaction to thge plight of the Smigunovs that finaly forces the Governor to take a decision.

While Stepan and Nina are held and wait to be marched back east, Fleming, and Maillart, accompanied by a local guide called Wang, take to the road again.
It is March the 6th, 1935. Wednesday.

On their way out, Fleming and Maillart meet a prisoner coming in, a German that looking at them exclainms “Caput!”
I’ve often wondered who the mysterious german could be.

  1. according to Wikipedia, in 1934 1368 missionaries were serving at 364 stations in China. The mission staff also included hundreds of Chinese pastors, teachers, colporteurs (that is, traveling Bible salesmen), chapel keepers and “Bible women”. 

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.

One thought on “Shipwrecked in Lanzhou

  1. Pingback: Marooned in Lanzhou – Toils and Troubles in Xinjiang Province

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