East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

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My life as an explorer

Curiously enough, My life as an explorer is the title of two books, that were published in 1926 and in 1927. The 1926 one was by Sven Hedin, a man whose adventures in Central Asia are the stuff of legend, and the 1927 book was by Roald Amundsen, one of the greatest Arctic explorers.
And I’ve read them both.

The thing that strikes me is that both explorers had to be two of the most self-centered and egotistical individuals ever to walk the earth – and I find it quite funny that the books of these two world-explorers and adventurers end up being mostly about them and only tangentially about the places they visited and the people they knew.
Fascinating reads, mind you, but somewhat spoiled by the attitude of the central characters/authors.

Reading Hedin comment that some men were born to wear the spurs, others to wear the saddle, or reading the progressively more hilarious rants of Amundsen about Umberto Nobile (he himself another fine specimen of vain, egotistical man – with an extra side of collusion with the Fascist Regime), was not overly pleasant. In the end, there are books by other explorers and adventurers that at least make you feel it would have been nice meeting them and having a chat over a cool drink.

But comparing these two books with the same title, led me to wonder whether there was (or there is) something in the character of people that went to the farthest corners of the earth looking for adventure, knowledge or some other strange kicks.
I was reminded of Roy Chapman Andrews, that was not a very nice person and sometimes that slipped in his self-promoting books, and I thought about Freya Stark commenting scathingly on the adventures of Rosita Forbes. And there’s others, even if they now escape me (yes, I’ve read a lot of adventure diaries and travelogues).
We do read these books for the adventure, not for the sympathy of the authors – but sympathetic authors exist even in the adventurers/explorers field, and in the end these are the ones I’m likelier to bring with me afterwards.

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Karavansara Free Library: 7 books by Sven Hedin

sven hedinThe Karavansara Free Library does Sven Hedin, and it’s quite a feat.
A true explorers’ explorer, Hedin had a colossal output of writings, and he is certainly one of the essential authors when it comes to Central Asia and the Silk Road.
“Geographer, topographer, explorer, photographer, travel writer, and illustrator of his own works”, to quote Wikipedia, Hedin did more than anyone else for the exploration of Central Asia, and his accounts are a collection of sharp scientific observation, anecdotal narrative and adventure.
Sometimes more academical than the works of Rosita Forbes and Emily Hahn, Hedin’s books can sometimes sound a tiny little bit self-celebratory, but really, the man was all over Asia and really went where no man had gone before. Well, no European man at least.
Granted, he sometimes sounds like he was too much in love of his own myth, and certainly being chummy with Hitler (that was a fan of his) did not do any good for his post-war popularity, but in all fairness he soon found out what monsters he was being chummy with, and he did what he could to stop their madness.

“He was a pioneer and pathfinder in the transitional period to a century of specialized research. No other single person illuminated and represented unknown territories more extensively than he.”

The Internet Archive holds a wealth of his books, but here we will only list a few titles, let’s say Sven Hedin’s Essential Bookshelf. Continue reading


Stepan & Nina Smigunov

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.

erik norinStepan 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. Continue reading

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The explorer that loved music – Henning Haslund

henning-hasslundHenning Haslund was a Danish explorer.
In the early 1920s he was part of an expedition to Central Asia led by his old military academy chum Carl Krebs.
The idea was to get there and set up a dairy farm.

What happened next is the subject of Mongolian Adventure, that Haslund published somewhere back in the first half of the 20th century; a thick, massive, highly satisfactory book that the fine guys of the Long Riders’ Guild* have reprinted a few years back.
I was given the book as a gift by a friend – and what a wonder it is! Continue reading