Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary about a journey through Xining and Xinjiang in the 1930s is a travel favourite of mine and so I’m pleased to see it back in print in a special edition thanks to the Queen Anne Press (www.queenannepress.com). Beautifully bound just like the original, but with the addition of expedition map endpapers and a foreword by Fleming’s daughter, Kate Grimond, the edition is limited to 150 copies – a tangible treat in our digital world.
It’s a story of pure travel – the endless waiting for permissions, evading officials, living from hand to mouth, long days in the saddle or on foot pushing on into the interior of this great unknown region, of fatigue and animal illnesses, courting the small disasters of expedition life (such as Fleming’s one fine suit being dyed ‘lettuce’ green and the setting in of hunger pangs early on: ‘Would have cheerfully rifled the dustbins of Central Asia for food leftovers three weeks out’) – as well as one of bringing back news of the state of affairs in this isolated, unknown, far corner of China and the Chinese, Russian and British interests within it.
Many of the desert stages would seem the same to travellers by horse and camel today, but Fleming would be hard pressed to recognise much in the towns on the fringes of the Taklamakan. Then, he and his travelling companion, Ella Maillart (both pictured above) were welcomed by British aksakals (‘head men’ or ‘white beards’) – true products of empire. Fleming, employing his gentle humour, writes – ‘The gateway of the aksakal’s house was draped in our honour with large home-made Union Jacks of similar but by no means identical designs.’ He goes on to describe the interior – ‘There was a gramophone with Russian records…; there were oil lamps from Tashkent, and an umbrella, and even a cuckoo-clock. This flotsam from the West created a homely atmosphere pleasingly flavoured with incongruity.’ Now, nearly 80 years later, this flotsam is gone; everything is Chinese to the hilt and the great mix of people that Fleming and Maillart encountered has disappeared.
Even more reason, then, to read this travel book. A beautifully true account of travel at a caravan’s pace.
N.B. – To coincide with this republication, I.B Tauris have also republished To Peking and Bayonets to Lhasa, both by Fleming and both on the periphery of Steppe territory…