East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

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The epitome of the English gentleman adventurer

fleming… But what about the Challenge?
Well, the next Karavansara Challenge post goes online in 24 hours – hopefully1 – but in the meantime I’ve kept busy and up to date.

I’m currently reading – and enjoying quite a lot – Peter Fleming’s The Siege of Peking, originally published in 1959.

From the back cover of the well-thumbed Oxford 1986 edition I got myself used for a ridiculousy low price (thankfully):

On 20 June 1900 the foreign Legations at Peking were attacked by Boxers and Inmperial Chinese troops, with the equivocal support of the Empress Dowager, Tz’u Hsi. The ensuing Siege was to last for fifty-five days, and news of it shook the world.


Peter Fleming, the epitrome of the enlightened English gentleman adventurer and expolorer, travelled extensively in China and Central Asia as a corrspondent of The Times. His account of the events of the Siege, first published in 1959, is still unfailingly gripping.

And indeed it is. Continue reading

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Hui Hui Gold Prospectors


And there’s still gold, in our story, as Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming, having joined a camel train, proceed to the Koko Nor.


It’s in the pages that relate their first leg of the journey with the caravan that we can notice the differences between Maillart’s and Fleming’s smile.
Maillart is more attentive to the people she is traveling with, and to her own phisical reactions to the journet, while Fleming has the tone of someone relating something that’s happening to someone else – there’s an ironic detachment, in the British autor’s books, that is completely absent in the one by his Swiss counterpart.
And realy one wonders what sort of conversations the two of them might have had on the road, and in those long, cold nights in their small tent.

But gold, we said… Continue reading

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For all the Gold in Tibet – part 2

Picture 11

The Panchan Lama had decided to break all historic precedent by appointing a Foreign Devil to the Upper (smaller) House of the Tibetan National Assembly.
The Incarnation, it seemed, had ordered his cabinet ministers to seek a foreigner to serve as technical adviser. Such a foreigner, the man-god specified, must know flying and airplanes, he must be an American, and he must know something of Tibet, if possible.
Why an American? Because His Serenity was mindful of the Tibetan proverb, epitome of Asia’s bitter experience: wherever a white man goes, an army follows. The Panchan Lama felt that this would not be true of an American.

So… who was Gordon B. Enders? Continue reading

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For all the Gold in Tibet – part 1

Let’s leave on a tangent, for a while. A couple of posts, no more.

As we mentioned in the last post of the Challenge, in his plan to make Tibet a technological power, the 9th Panchen Lama had found an ally in an American called Gordon B. Enders.
Enders was to supply the Panchen Lama with plane-loads of modern gear – from radios to tractors – and to start up the industrial revolution in the Himalayas.
But what about footing the bill?
How would all those tonnes of stuff get paid?

“Unknown to most of the world, the monasteries of Tibet have been collecting gold dust for at least six or seven centuries. This gold belongs to the ruling power because the Church and the Government are the same in Tibet. How much gold has thus been accumulated, it is hard to say, but it has been estimated to be about $100,000,000.”
(Gordon B. Enders, interviewed in New York, 1936)

22372ik4vrmk9f_orig_GOLD DUST

But the story of Tibetan gold is much older tha the 9th Panchen Lama and Gordon B. Enders… Continue reading

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The 9th Panchen Lama

At the moment of writing the Panchen Lama is still en route: it was from Kumbum that he dispatched to the British Ambassador in Peking a telegram of condolence on the death of King George V.

Having left Sining, Peter Fleming and Ella Maillart have reached Tangar and joined a camel caravan due west.

Soon they find hospitality in a monastery – and here the main topic of discussion is the imminent return to Tibet of the exiled Pancehn Lama – which Peter Fleming calls also the Tashi-Lama, from the name of the Panchen Lama’s traditional seat, Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse.


Now, who’s this exiled lama guy? Continue reading

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The governor that was not there – Ma Bufang

ma bufangWhile stranded in Sinin, Peter Fleming and Ella Maillart try to meet governor Ma Bufang (or Ma Bu-Fang in Fleming’s book), as they seek official authorization to proceed along their route.

We already know from his Ma that the man is a Muslim (Ma being the shortening of “Muhammad”), and a member of the powerful “Ma Clique”.
Members of the Ma extended family/clan had been de facto governors of northwestern China under the Qing dynasty and had become warlords between 1918 and 1928, holding sway in the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia.
The Ma Clique was composed of three families, so that they were often known as Xibei San Ma, as to say, the Three Ma of the Northwest.
At the time of Peter and Ella’s travel, the three families were led by Ma Hongbin, Ma Hongkui and Ma Bufang.

Due to various misadventures, Peter and Ella will never meet Ma Bufang

who is by all accounts a tough and energetic autocrat.

Indeed, Ma Bufang demonstrated by his actions his skill, toughness and political ability to shift from one role to the other.

Ma Bufang had trained as an imam – his brother Ma Buqing being the one destined to a military career – but at the age of nineteen he joined the troops.
Rising to prominence through a series of feuds and backstabbings, Ma Bufang demonstrated his battle prowness and ruthlessness in 1932, participating iun the defeat of the Tibetan troops as they tried to invade and take control of the Qinghai province.
Later, sponsored by the Kuomintang, Ma Bufang led seven extermination campaigns against the Ngolok tribes – traditionally considered a people whose only activity was banditry, and were supposedly aligned with the Communist party. Ma Bufang’s actions against the Ngolok have all the markings of an ethnic/religious genocide.

In 1937, Ma Bufang refused to side with the Japanese army, and in fact later fought against the Japanese in the early 1940s.
From a strictly political point of view, Ma Bufang was what might be called an illuminated tyrant – promoting reforestation, granting extended rights to women.
Boasting an army of 50.000 elite fighters (belonging to various northwestern ethnicities), Ma Bufang held his position as governor of the northwest during the Chinese revolution and only in 1949 he was forced to leave China and relocate to Saudi Arabia.

Ma Bufang was also close to the Panchen Lama, a character that we – together with Peter and Ella – will meet in a while.
But as things stand now, it looks like the long stay in Sining is about to end, and the road beckons.