News from Tartary – a journey from Peking to Kashmir, Peter Fleming (1936)

An account of a famous 3,500 trek through China and into India

Jonathan Cape Quarto 384pp

This is clearly not a book about cycling. However, Fleming’s journey, and the means by which he accomplished it have a good deal in common with some of the ‘epic trip’ cycling books, and for that reason I have included it here.

Fleming made the 3,500 mile exploration in 1935. At that time neither road nor railway covered this route. There had also been civil wars and violent skirmishing between local chieftains, Soviet Russia and nationalist China. It was an Odyssey so outlandish and dangerous that it is hard to conceive of its modern equivalent. Even so, in his introduction Fleming dryly notes that: “The trouble with journeys nowadays is that they are easy to make but difficult to justify” (an epithet that has more resonance with each passing day).

His ostensible reason for making the trip is that few outside the region – save for those seeking political inroads, such as Moscow – had any reliable idea of what was going on there. Fleming was acting as special correspondent for The Times (of London). So, two thirds of the way through his account, he pauses to offer his assessment of what was the political situation. Broadly speaking, the Russians were seeking to expand their area of influence, for no reason other than a feeling that it was their destiny.

He made the journey in the company of Elia Maillart, (known as Kini) but was otherwise unsupported and was out of touch with any part of his own world from March to August that year. The journey involved travel by horse, camel, rough lorry, and for many, many miles, foot. They hired guides and joined traders’ caravans, and endured countless attempts by local bigwigs to halt them as a result of their having ‘incorrect documentation’.

Much of their food – or at least the protein – Fleming shot with a ‘rook rifle’, whose usefulness prompted a lengthy correspondence on The Times’ letter pages. And every now and then their progress was enlivened by surprise encounters with people of the same class and background as themselves.

At his best, Fleming was a dazzling writer – but there is little in the way of writerly show in this book. It was written after the conclusion of their journey, but the tone is matter-of-fact. In part this seems to be because the journey itself was so outrageous in its ambition, and so extraordinary in the terrain that it covered, that literary embellishment was needless.

At times this makes its 180,000 words heavy going. By the end of the book, however, the down-beat style is probably a fair reflection of the experience of walking, making camp, eating what little food they could forage and sleeping, day after day.

Nevertheless, the extraordinary nature of Fleming and Kini’s achievement provide enough to keep you reading. And by the book’s conclusion you are left in no doubt that their feat was remarkable and one that is worth sharing with them at first hand. Indeed, it is clear from some of his exploits why Fleming’s brother Ian would draw on his elder sibling’s attributes when he was crafting the character of James Bond.

PS January 09\

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