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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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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A collector’s moment of happiness

high tartaryMaybe because it’s not raining (yet) the postman delivered this morning a pristine (but used nonetheless) copy of Owen Lattimore’s High Tartary, in the gorgeous Kodansha International/Kodansha Globe Edition from 1994. No water damage, no other visible problems.

And I am as happy as a kid on Christmas Morning.
First, because I love Owen Lattimore’s work, and he is one of the most observant of the travelers and explorers in China and Central Asia from the last century. And getting his books in my country is not exactly easy1. Continue reading

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A rook gun and a Winchester

The issue of the guns carried by Peter Fleming on his journey caused an amusing exchange on The Times when Fleming and Maillart came back from Asia. The object of the scandal was the following passage – printed in The Times on the 18th of November 1935 and later included in New from Tartary.

Our armament consisted of one .44 Winchester rifle, with 300 rounds of pre-War ammunition of a poorish vintage, which was not worth firing; and a second-hand .22 rook rifle, which surpassed itself by keeping us in meat throughout the three months during which there was anything to shoot.

44 winchester

a .44 Winchester

Some readers were shocked at the idea of a Westerner facing the dangers of the Silk Road with such inadequate armaments1.
Some promptly wrote to The Times expounding their opinions.
One letter in particular is worth reprinting, together with Peter Fleming’s response to it. Continue reading


The Leica III

Both Fleming and Maillart carry a Leika camera.
Based on the writings of Peter Fleming, the camera has been identified as a Leica III (also known as a Leika F), a model produced between 1933 and 1939.

leica III

It has been argued that Maillart (that carried two cameras) had discovered the Leica – a very advanced camera, for the time – through her photographer friend (and possibli lover) Annemarie Schwarzenbach, and had later suggested the same model to Fleming1. Continue reading


The train leaves at midnight

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? Continue reading


Announcing the Karavansara Reading Challenge 2016

OK, we discussed this in a few previous posts, but now let’s try and make this official.


The first Karavansara Reading Challenge will start on the 16th of February 2016.
On that day, I’ll start posting about three books, as I read (or re-read) them.
The books are…

. Ella Maillart’s Forbidden Journey, 1935
. Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary, 1936
. Stuart Stevens’ Night Train to Turkistan, 1988

I’ll go slow, cross-referencing the books and in general tracking the progress of Fleming & Maillart, that in 1935, on the 16th of February, started their adventure along the Silk Road, heading from Peking to Kashmir. Continue reading