Bibliophile reviews News from Tartary (travel) by Peter Fleming

Year published: 1936
Genre: Travel (non-fiction)
Setting & time: China & India, 1930's

In 1935 the author and his travel companion Ella "Kini" Maillart set off from Peking to travel across Chinese Turkistan (Sinkiang) and all the way to India. The journey took them 7 months, alternatively by truck, on foot, on horseback and by camel, and without major mishaps (but many small ones). The author tells the story with wry humour (mostly at his own expense) and is often full of indignation at the natives for their treatment of their animals, while he carefully avoids admitting that he himself and his companion were also guilty of mistreatment of their own pack and riding animals. The descriptions of the landscapes are often beautiful, while the descriptions of the people they meet are unsentimental and sometimes somewhat coloured by British feelings of superiority, i.e. because he was British he seems to have felt that naturally he knew better how to do things that the natives did (it was sometimes true, but not always).

Review: Here is another of those "just because" journeys that, much like Eric Newby's trip in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, was probably made because it had never been done before by Europeans. Fleming does say that as a journalist he was interested in the political situation in the area, but it occurs to anyone who reads this book that the news he gathered could have been gained in an easier way and was, in all likelihood, unreliable and out of date by the time he got to India.

Fleming writes in an easy and flowing style, and the trademark English irony and understatement is never far away. This is one of those journeys that, while not wholly impossible, is probably in some ways a lot more difficult for outsiders to do today than it was back then, because of politics, but in other ways a lot easier – for example, my old atlas shows a railroad that, back in 1979 when the atlas was printed, covered half of the route Fleming took back in 1935.

Rating: An enjoyable and unsentimental description of a foolhardy and interesting journey. 4+ stars.

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