The Lure of the Silk Road
Geographical, May 2004
The Lure of the Silk Road: “those who made the golden journey to Samarkand”
Central Asia has always stood like a lodestone for travellers and a dream landscape of unattainable delights for poets. We have long been infiltrated with desire for this distant world, with Shelley rhapsodizing:
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan,
A Stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
and Oscar Wilde dreaming of,
“The almond-groves of Samarcand,
Bokhara, where red-lilies blow,
And Oxus, by whose yellow sand
The grave white-turbaned merchants go:”
Or plunge into Fitzgerald’s famous rendition of the quatrains of that mathematician, astronomer and philosopher who was child in Nishapur, man in Balkh, Samarkand and Isfahan and now a poet to the world,
“The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a Word of it.
Or recall half-remembered lines from James Elroy Flecker,
“And there the world’s first huge white-bearded kings
In dim glades sleeping, murmur in their sleep…
And how beguile you? Death has no repose
Warmer and deeper than that orient sand
Which hides the beauty and bright faith of those
Who made the Golden Journey to Samarkand
If Central Asia has become embedded in the poetic sub-conscious of our culture it also looms with even greater clarity in the literature of travel. There are libraries of books to testify to our obsession with the silk roads of Central Asia– and scarcely six months goes by without another being published. Many of these travelogues have but a year or two in which to shine before they are replaced by the next, though others have survived to be read and read again by each passing generation. What makes a classic? It must be honest, well written, true to its time but it must also engage with some of the enduring historical and geographical themes of Central Asia. There is, in truth, no shortage. There are stories of scarcely imaginable power and cruelty, there are images of unsurpassable romance and allure, there is the epic contrast between urbane civilization and nomadism, there is its role as the cockpit of the 19th-century Great Game, there is its role as a trade route which became a vortex of cultural change, and finally – but perhaps most important of all – there is its role as a spiritual powerhouse.
One only has to chant three words; Attila, Genghis Khan and Tamburlane, to conjur up the most fearful images. While to name the warrior peoples that they commanded, Huns, Tartars and Mongol, is to begin to recognize the extraordinarily destructive role that Central Asia has recurrently unleashed upon the world. There never was an enemy to match the pure horror of those mounted conquerors who burst out of the Asian steppes, while the barbarian imagery from these times is recurrently reworked in films, comics, political ideology and fictions. To the startled people of the West they waged war like the anti-Christ, converting whole cities into pyramids of skulls and turning whole teeming kingdoms into empty grazing grounds for their herds. No-one can hope to understand modern Russia without dwelling upon the three hundred years of Tartar dominion or aspire to understand the intellectual crisis that shattered medieval Islam, when the capital of the Caliphs, Baghdad, was reduced to dust and bones in 1259. Only the craftsmen were spared, to be sent back to enrich the great cities of Central Asia, which would one day themselves fall back into ruin.
Even before Flecker added to its lustre there has never been a more romantic road map of the mind than by just listing the cities of the silk route: Khiva, Bokhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Kashgar and Khotan while Balkh can claim to be the mother-city of mankind. Each city both part of a lost Empire but also as the capital of an Emirate. Nestling beside the proud ruins of be-jewelled Timurid architecture is the equally romantic backdrop of ancient castles, forgotten kingdoms, sacred monasteries and valleys of enchanting maidens. This questing after romance is not new, Marco Polo breathlessly embroidered the tale of the Old Man of the mountains and his castles filled with Assassins - which has ever since been a mainstay of literary Orientalism, whether in the hands of Freya Stark or Professor Bernard Lewis. But these were no mere tales, travellers such as Aurel Stein unearthed ancient scriptures buried under desert sands, while 19th-century travellers could marvel at the mingled squalor and opulence of the slave markets of Bokhara and Khiva, or come across descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers, the pagans of Nuristan, the Jewish colonies of rainbow silk weavers of chapans, faint traces of Prester John or the tale of how a dispossessed Turkic prince (descended from both Tamberlane and Genghis Khan) would use his bandit band to carve out the magnificent Mughal Empire of India for himself – but leave behind an unedited copy of his memoirs,
For a travel writer there has always been an embarrassment of anthropological riches to report on but there are also satisfactorily deeper themes to explore. On the nature of opposites: of how an urbane, literate societies supported by settled agriculture has always managed to define itself against the oral culture of nomadic herdsman with their tents, abundant leisure and completely different standards of cleanliness and cuisine. This can also become an enquiry into the nature of military power. For the cavalry armies of Central Asia, have always precipitated changes in military tactics: be it the adoption of stirrup, the bow, the power of highly mobile field armies and the irresistible blitzkrieg-like concentration of forces onto a narrow front.
There has always been a strategic agenda to the possession of the silk roads of Central Asia. For just as the indigenous Turkic and Mongol powers exploded out to create great Empires there were periods of retraction, when the wheel of fortune turned, and when the surrounding ‘civilized’ powers: Russia, Persia, Turkey, India and China aspired to extract a long-delayed revenge and erect a perpetual dominion. To complicate matters, other powers, were drawn into this “Great Game’ in an effort to make a friend of one’s enemies enemy. The first humble Friars who braved the region in the 13th-century, begging admission to the Mongol court on behalf of their master the Pope (such as Pian de Carpine carrying a letter from Innocent IV to Grand Khan Batu and back again between 1245-7 as well as William of Rubrick, the emissary of the crusading mad Saint Louis always on the hunt for Prester John) were part of this intricate diplomatic dance. In the 19th-century the British Empire, despite being nothing if not maritime, became obsessed with the fate of Central Asia. They feared the advance of Russia towards India (despite the evidence of their eyes and their atlas’s - the fantastic mountain ranges and desert plateau that stood between) and helped sponsor a continuous stream of spies, geographers and archaeologists to observe the region. This has created such a rich seam of travel accounts; Woolf, Burnes, Vambary, Bailey, Burnaby, Stein to Maclean and Fleming (to name but a few of the more exceptional and interesting characters) that it has spawned a whole area of study in itself. A field that Peter Hopkirk has made his own with a clutch of highly evocative titles: Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, Trespassers on the Silk Road, Setting the East Ablaze followed up with The Great Game and On Secret Service East of Constantinople.
Looking beyond Central Asia’s own specific influence role one enters into a consideration of its influence as a cultural conduit. For most of history this was very much a one way valve. With the slow seapage of the cultural innovations and technical inventions of the venerable Empire of China leaking out towards the West. One only has to examine the export of Chinese ceramics and silks into the West, to see the underlying trends that influenced a thousand years of design, be it the potters and weavers of both Islam and Christendom. But then when one considers that the use of paper money, of printing, of gunpowder (all the technical ingredients with which modern Europe arose) also came this way, one is touching at the very core of historical destiny.
But there was another exchange of even greater force and this has never been a one-way flow. Buddhism passed from northern India into China and while (with the exception of Sri Linka) it would wither against a revived Hinduism in its homeland, it would permanently establish itself in the Far East. Within Central Asia itself, especially in Tibet and Mongolia, it would absorb elements of an indigenous Shamanism to bring forth new cultural forms – which are at the moment successfully colonising the imagination of the West. In a like manner Nestorian missionaries would head east to create the largest worldwide Church in the 13th century – but would ultimately serve as a conduit for the advance of Islam. Far from being at the lost heart of Asia, the Islam of the Silk Route has also proved to exceptionally dynamic, producing just those Sufi brotherhoods and teachers, such as the Naqshabandi, that have proved the most dynamic force in spreading Islam amongst Americans and Europeans. When one also considers that such spiritual teachers as the Russian mystic Nicholas Roerich, as well as the whole Gurgjieff movement (including his followers Ouspensky and Bennett) as well as Idriss Shah consciously claimed to have come out of the spirituality of this region one begins to conceive of Central Asia as the centre, not a lost periphery.
So who cares if contemporary historians are currently revisiting the whole concept of the Silk Road, and arguing that it carried but a tiny fraction of the merchandise that would otherwise be shipped from China to Sri Lanka, and from there discharged onto west-bound ships. A trade that was already so well established that the Emperor Augustus turned it into a personal monopoly. Whatever the economists might now prove it has become one of the golden roads of mankind, to set aside the Golden Trade of the Moors and the Incencen Trade of Arabia. For it is a roadway where transforming ideas have travelled, and continue to travel, alongside bales of precious stuff.
The travel writers have been listed in reverse chronological order, starting with three contemporary writers and then progressively reaching back towards those charming pair of medieval travellers, Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo, who sadly never met though they obviously shared much, not least an appreciation of dried melons and the traditional hospitality of the local women. There may seem to be some obvious literary gaps from this listing, such as Heinrich Harer and Peter Levi, but there has been a deliberate attempt to keep the focus on Turkestan rather than those travellers whose primary focus was on Persia, Afghanistan or Tibet. Even so it has had to be highly selective and centred on English language accounts, though few would dispute Colin Thubron, William Dalrymple and Stanley Stewart’s right to represent contemporary travel writers. Those wishing to pursue this subject further will be enchanted by Kathleen Hopkirk’s Central Asia: A Travellers’s Companion, Wilfrid Blunt’s The Golden Road to Samarkand and Benedict Allen’s treasure house of travel, The Faber Book of Exploration.
Contemporary voices; William Dalrymple, Colin Thubron and Stanley Stewart
From Frontiers of Heaven by Stanley Stewart, “ I went along to the Big Goose [Pagoda] to see the portrait of the man in whose footsteps I would be travelling. In the temple halls the Budhas were plump childish figures with blue-rinsed hair and scarlet lips. Worshippers planted handfuls of incence in racks then shuffled inside to bow and leave offerings. The Buddhas, apparently, were partial to sweets and Marlboro cigarettes. In the pagoda elderly monks were wheezing up the long stairways, pausing to catch their breath on the landings before starting on the next flight, like beings attaining another level in the cycles of reincarnation. Reaching the top they gazed down through sad cypress boughs at stupas packed with the bones of thirteen centuries of fellow monks.
Xuan Zang’s portrait was carved in grey stone, life-size, on a lower landing. Far from the swashbuckling hero one night expect, the great traveller looked like a chap who would have difficulty running to catch a bus. He had the flabby face and pot belly one might have expected of a court eunuch, and wore a rather fetching frock and an antique back-pack – presumably another early invention of the Chinese. From an overhang above his head a small lantern was suspended to light his way.
Xuan’s journey to India was a literary quest. Buddhism had already taken root in China. often in the face of official opposition, but religious study was handicapped by considerable confusions about texts. As it made its way along the Silk Road meanings and translations had often suffered from a kind of Chinese Whispers. In India Xuan loaded a caravan of twenty-two horses with Buddhist scriptures and brought them home for translation. He crossed half of Asia, not for gold or for conquest, but for second-hand books.”
Stanley Stewart has been described as a cross between Eric Newby and Bruce Chatwin. He was born in Ireland, grew up in Canada and lives in London. He was a member of the Persian Royal Road Expedition whose work was chronicled in a series of television films. He has also been a farmer in Tuscany, a fisherman of the coast of Ireland, a film cameramen in Turkey, an erector of circus tents and is now a regular contributor to the Times, Guardian and Telegraph. Old Serpent Nile; A journey to the source was followed by Frontiers of Heaven: A journey beyond the Great Wall, 1995 and then by In the Empire of Genghis Khan: A journey among Nomads, 2000.
From Colin Thubron’s The Lost Heart of Asia, “ I descended a steep, ramped passage beneath the building. In the blackness I sensed the sweep of vaults low overhead. Somewhere behind me, the man turned a switch, and a bare bulb made a pool of dimness in the crypt. Each cenotaph in the chamber above was mirrored in this darkness by a flat gravestone. They lay secret in their dust and silence. The air was dry and old. I knelt by the emperor’s grave-slab and touched it. Beneath, wrapped in linen embalmed in camphor and musk, his shrunken body had been laid in an ebony coffin. I could not imagine it. The living man was too vivid in my mind. For a year after his internment, it was said, people heard him howling from the earth.
In the dull light I saw that every inch of the marble slab seethed with carved Arabic, as if even the words were waging a battle across his stone. They traced his ancestry back through Genghiz Khan (a claim he never made in his life) to the legendary virgin Alangoa, ravished by a moonbeam, and at last to Adam.
The stone was split clean across in two places; but when Soviet archaeologists opened it in 1941 they found undisturbed the skeleton of a powerful man, lame on his right side. Fragments of muscle and skin still clung to him, and scraps of a russet moustache and beard. An untraceable story warned that if Tamerlane’s grave was violated, disaster would follow, and a few hours later news arrived that Hitler had invaded Russia.
But the investigations went on, and from the emperor’s skull the Soviet scientist Gerasimov painstakingly reconstructed a bronze portrait-head, before sealing Tamerlane back in the tomb. Under the sculptor’s hands there emerged a face of hardened power, compassionless, bitter and subtle. Perhaps some Slavic prejudice heightened the epicanthic cruelty of the eyes; perhaps not. A hint of the emperor’s youthful truculence tinges the full lips, but that is all. Cord-like ligaments scoop the cheeks into harrowed triangles. Ancient muscles knot the cheeks, and a heraldic flexion of the brows seems to signal the sack of a city.
“He was a hero’, said a voice behind me. I jumped. The caretaker had entered noiselessly and was looking down at the tumult of calligraphy on the slab. “What a history!”
‘Perhaps he should have done less,” I said…
Colin Thubron was born in London in 1939, schooled at Eton and would work for a series of publishers and as a freelance script-writer for the BBC in his 20’s. This apprenticeship prepared the way for his first series of travels in the Eastern Mediterranean with books on Damascus, Lebanon, Jerusalem, Istanbul and Cyprus all published in the 1970’s. In between these travels Thubron developed the habit of working on a fictional project (such as his portrait of Constantine in Emperor) seemingly cleansing himself from the need for invention which has so often disturbed the craft of travel writing. In his second series of travels Thubron left the Mediterranean shore in order to concern himself with the Asian land-mass described in such works as: Among the Russians, 1983, Behind the Wall; A Journey through China, 1987, The Silk Road China, 1989, The Lost Heart of Asia, 1994 and most recently Siberia, 2000. Jonathan Kirsch has described his work as “unconquerably curious and superbly literate” while Luree Miller defined him, ‘he has a novelists sensitivity and an historian’s perception.”
From William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu, “At the Kashgar Odeon (or whatever name it went by) two films were currently being shown. One was advertised by pictures of the familiar “Happy Peasant” variety, and that film might well have been about manure collectors. But there was no mistaking the second film. It was Dr No. We bought two tickets and went inside. The film had just begun.
The auditorium was not large by English standards, but was packed full. The audience consisted entirely of Uighur men and all were in a great state of excitement. It seemed not to matter that very few had seats, and had to sit on a floor glazed with spittle. Going to the cinema was clearly a great treat, and everyone was determined to enjoy themselves whether or not conditions were perfect, indeed whether they could see or hear anything at all. I assume this because the Uighurs can in fact have understood almost nothing of what was going on. The film had been dubbed out of its original English, not into Turki but into French which cannot have aided comprehension greatly. And, although there were subtitles, this also did not greatly help. The Uighur subtitles were placed at the bottom of the frame, beneath those in Tibetan and Chinese, and because of a technical error in the projecting box, all of these had disappeared below the screen and now rested on the backs of the heads of the people in the front two rows. This same error also deprived Sean Connery and Joseph Wiseman of their heads, which were projected beyond the screen and could just be seen, along with everything else from the top of the frame, wildly distorted at the front of the hall.
Despite all these irritations, the Uighurs were tolerant. There was an excited murmur every time a character bent down ands his face could be fleetingly glimpsed on the screen, and the Muslim audience behaved with remarkable restraint during the sex scenes. Even Ursula Andress coming out of the sea, enough to craze the most worldy-wise western audience, failed to move the Uighurs to any really dramatic behaviour, although this may have been because none of the audience had ever seen the sea (Kashgar is further from it than any other town in the world) and so were distracted from the more inflammatory aspects of the sequence. It may also have had something to do with the fact that the more inflammatory parts of Ursula Andress’s body had missed the top of the screen and could only be seen indistinctly (if hugely enlarged) on the front wall.
There was, in fact, only one scene in the film which really impressed the Uighurs. This was when James Bond wakes up to find a large and very hairy tarantula crawling up his crocth and making for his torso. There cannot be many tarantulas in Kashgar, but the audience still got the gist of what was happening. They went berserk. As the spider crawled upwards the background murmur in the cinema got louder and louder. At the moment Bond tossed the best of his chest and onto the floor, crushing it with his shoe, the cinema exploded. The Uighurs rose from their seats and bawled “Allah-I-Akbar” (God is most powerful). A very old man next to me took his shoe and started thumping the floor with it. Hats were thrown in the air. Urchins made wolf whistles. It was like the winning goal in the Cup Final. After that, even the twenty megaton nuclear explosion in the SPECTRE headquarters came as a bit of an anti-climax.”
As a young history student William Dalrymple (born 1965) set out to trace Marco Polo’s journey from Jerusalem to the legendary palace of Kubla Khan - as defined in the Orientalist dream poetry of Coleridge. This expedition, broken into stages by the necessity of continuing his studies, was a continuation of an earlier romantic quest, following the route of the crusader, Robert Curthose from Rouen to Jerusalem. The publication of In Xanadu: A Quest in 1989 immediately launched Dalrymple into a career as a writer – and laudatory comparisons with Byron – for the successful blend of humour and historical passion. In 1989 he went to Delhi as an Indian correspondent and although he would return to Christian themes in From the Holy Mountain, 1997, his true passion was seemingly ignited by this period of investigative journalism. His mission to explain Indian culture to a Western audience which began with his second book, a biography of Delhi, City of Djinns, 1993, his collected Indian writings, The Age of Kali, 1998 and White Mughals; Love and Betrayl in Eighteenth century India, 2002. He is also an activist in helping give the people of Palestine a voice as well as taking the time to edit and revive his favourite book of Indian travels, Fanny Parkes’s Begums, Thugs and White Mughals. He is married to the artist and fellow Scot, Olivia Fraser, and with their three children they live a peripatetic life between an apartment in Delhi and a walled garden in west London.
From the classic era of travel writing: Fitzroy Maclean, Peter Fleming, Ella Maillart and Robert Byron
From Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean, “Finally after riding for a good many miles we sighted a large sarai, or mud fort, standing on a slight rise. My companions signed to me to keep away from it, but I was anxious to see it from near and was riding toward sit, when a horseman, a splendid figure, armed to the teeth and riding a very much better horse than either of us could boast, emerged from the gate at full gallop and rounded us up. We were taken inside the crenellated walls of the sarai and made to dismount. A score of Afghans in turbans and khalats clustered around me, jabbering excitedly. Then I was led into a small room in which there were a great many flies and a rack of German service rifles.
The inhabitants of the sarai, who I had hoped were soldiers or frontier guards, but who from their lack of uniform and ferocious appearane, might equally well have been brigands, seemed distressed to find that I spoke no known language and took little interest in my passport. We seemed to have reached a deadlock. After a suitable interval had elapsed I accordingly said ‘Mazar-i-Sharif’ and made as if to remount my horse. But this I was gently but firmly prevented from doing.
A further interval elapsed at the end of which, feeling hungry and thirsty and finding an orange in one of my bundles, I began to suck it, spitting out pips on the floor. For some reason this made more impression on my captors than anything else I had hithertoe said or done. At once the horse were brought round, our temporary captors waved goodbye and we started off again, I, at any rate, none the wiser. As an afterthought an escort was sent galloping after us. For mils he rode abreast of me with a loaded rifle loosely across his saddle bow and pointing exactly at my stomach. I was glad when he tired of our company and eventually faded away.”
Fitzroy Maclean (1911-1996) was a travel writer of an epic mould, who is fit to stand beside such romantic and multi-faceted heroes as Richard Burton. For Maclean, like Burton, also enjoyed partial careers as a diplomat, politician and war hero. And like Burton, it can be said that he wrote in order to travel, rather than travelled in order to write. As a young man, serving in the British Embassy in Russia, his youthful high spirits took him on four adventurous journeys into the closed-region of the Caucaus and Central Asia in 1937 and 1938. Enlisting as a private soldier in 1941, he would later join the SAS (Special Air Services) and take part in missions in North Africa, Iraq and Persia before becoming one of the guiding hands of the resistance in Yugoslavia as the British aide to Tito. His many books from the post-war period, Holy Russia, 1978, Back to Bokhara, 1959, To the Back of Beyond; an illustrated Companion to Central Asia and Mongolia, 1974 and To Caucasus, the End of all the Earth, 1976 and A Person from England and other travellers to Turkestan, 1958 all added layers of scholarship to the fantastic, zestful adventures within Central Asia first chronicled within Eastern Approaches, 1949.
From Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary, “ The squinting Afghan, who was clearly a prominent figure in the intellectual life of Khotan, had heard of The Times [to which Fleming was an accredited correspondent] and shook me warmly by the hand, at the same time informing me, through the Chinese speaking Saduk, that my face was great. Our stock went up all round.
Later in the day we called, at his invitation, on M.Moldovack, who turned out to be an Armenian by birth. He was eighty-five years old and crippled by elephantiasis, but his eyes, though troubled by pain, were bright and kindly. His spotless white ducks contrasted all too favourably with our ragamuffin appearance. In French and English – both a little stilted through disuse – he told us his story in a book-littered room built in the Turki but furnished in the European style.
He had been engaged in the carpet trade, of which Khotan was once a very special and important centre. But the Bolshevik Revolution caught his west-bound caravans at Khokand, across the Russian border, and as his very considerable savings were all in Russian banks he lost everything. So fro the last fifteen years or so he had been living modestly in Khotan, a lonely exile in a city lately rife with treachery and bloodshed…
Externally as well as internally, Khotan was dominated by its garrison. All day long, in spite of the oppressive heat, chanting columns of troops marched through the bazaar between their quarters and the various parade-grounds. The officers were all Tungans, but in some units the rank and file were Turkis or Turki-Chinese half castes. For the most part they wore an undress uniform of grubby white, with floppy white sun-hats on their shaven heads; this pastoral and rather feminine headgear consorted oddly with the brutish pock-marked faces, the bloodshot glaring eyes…bugles were always blowing somewhere, and all day the fierce Muslim songs rolled about the city like the sound of an angry sea. I have never seen troops in China train so hard,”
Peter Fleming (1907-1971) may at first seem like a charicature from a 30’s comedy of manners. He was the young dare-devil explorer of the 30’s, the Eton and Oxford educated scion of a great merchant banking dynasty, who was passionately devoted to country sports and also to one of the great heart-throbs of his generation; the actress Celia Johnson who he would later marry. In the Second World War Peter would rise to become a major figure in British intelligence and covert operations – incidentally providing his brother, Ian Fleming, with one of the role-models out of which he created the fictional James Bond.
But Peter Fleming was much more than this cut-out figure of the establishment. He was an enormously influential writer who used humour, urbane wit and mocking self-deprecation as literary tools in which novels of adventure were carefully carved out of a potentially dull travelogue. It is also extraordinary to consider that his three great travel books, Brazilian Adventure, 1933, One’s Company, 1934 and News from Tartary, 1936, were all created in 5 years when Peter Fleming was still in his 20’s. The research for One’s Company – the reality behind the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the growth of Mao Tse-Tung’s Communist resistance took place between 1933-35 while his great treck across Central Asia (in the company of Ella Maillart) to find out what was happening to the Uighurs of Turkestan occurred in 1935.
From Ella Maillart’s Turkestan Solo, “In the shadow of a doorway the public letter-writer, his head on his folded chapan, sleeps away the time while waiting for a client. In fornt of him, by the side of his satchel and ink-case and held down by a teapot, is a specimen of his writing.
On the opposite side of the street thewhile-you-wait photographer also has the results of his efforts on exhibition. He is operating on a client approaching her term, who for an instant draws aside her chedra, revealing a face that is too round, though with splendid eyes, and eyebrows artificially bridged with kohl. Her friend on the other hand, is very up to date. She wears a short skirt, blouse, and embroidered skull cap, and pays the photographer….
…The sand begins at the very gates of the city, at the foot of the crenellated wall. A camel stands motionless near a yurt, where to my great pleasure I am invited to drink tea.
The samovar sparkles in the sun, and the woman wears silver rings on her thumb and first finger, between which she holds her bowl.
Her robes are dazzling white, and a yellow silk kerchief covers her white hair. Her full, perfect features make her seem to me like some incomparable greengage.
The skull cap worn by her son is sewn with gold thread and adorned with bells and a tuft of feathers. Fearful, he refuses to let himself be photographed, and his bearded father has to hold him forcibly. At the back of the yurt is a rich one, lined with embroidered ksohmous.
Then a young relative comes in, a Communist, studying at the Educational Technicum, deeply interested to find, from the maker’s name on my watch, that he and I have the same alphabet. When he leaves to he takes all the [rationed] bread cards of the family with him.
Ella Maillart (1903-1997) was born and educated in the comfortable surroundings of Geneva, By turns an Olympic athlete, traveller, mystic and sometime teacher, actor, model and stuntswoman she did not have time to discover her vocation as a writer until the 1930’s the decade when she made three epic travels across Central Asia, recorded in three travel books. Turkestan Solo records her lone travels in 1932 among the Kyrgyze nomads from Tien Shan to Kizil Kum. Forbidden Journey chronicles her eight month long trek with Peter Fleming from Peking to India, and read back to back to Flemings own narrative makes for a fascinating example in male/female textuality. The one pushing the trek ever forward to achieve its objectives, the other constantly engaging with the indigenous people, their different viewpoints and cultural assumptions. In the Cruel Way, her travels with Christina, a melancholic friend with a morphine habit, from Geneva to Kabul take on an additional spiritual dimension. In this book, as she answers Carl Jung’s probing question, ‘why do you travel” with “to meet people who know how to live peacefully” her life takes on new directions. Ella studied in an Ashram in India throughout the war years, finally made it across Tibet aged 83 and died many years later in a commune she had set up in Switzerland where she worked to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western ways. Her four great books of Central Asian travel are: Turkestan Solo: One woman’s Expedition from the Tien Shan to the Kizil Kum, 1934, Forbidden Journey; from Peking to Kashgar, 1937, The Cruel Way, 1947 and The Land of the Sherpas, 1955.
From The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron, “ I hastened down the dark bazaar, found the dome where I turned to the left, and was greeted, on coming out into the court, by such a fanfare of colour and light that I stopped a moment, half blinded. It was as if someone had switched on another sun.
The whole quadrangle was a garden of turquoise, pink, dark red, and dark blue, with touches of purple, green, and yellow, planted among paths of plain duff brick. Huge white arabesques whirled above the ivan arches. The ivans themselves his other gardens, shadier, fritillary- coloured. The great minarets besid ethe sanctuary, rising from bases encircled with Kufic the size of a boy, were bedizened with a network of jewelled lozenges. The swollen sea-green dome adorned with yellow tendrils appeared between them. At the opposite end glinted the top of a golden minaret. But in all this vaiety, the principle of union, the life spark of the whole blazing apparition, was kindled by two great texts: the one, a frieze of white suls writing powdered over a field of gentian blue along the skyline of the entire quadrangle; the other, a border of the same alphabet in daisy white and yellow on a spahire field, interlaced with turquoise Kufic along its inner edge, and enclosing, in the form of a three-sided oblong, the arch of the mainivan between the minaerst. The latter was actually designed, its says, by ‘Baisanghor, son of Shah Rukh, son of Timur Gurkani (Tamerlane(, with hope in God, in the year 821…This vision was a matter of seconds. Simultaneously I began to feel insecure. I had intended to follow last night’s plan of walking slowly round the court, but was prevented by two crowds, one listening to a preacher before the main ivan, one praying before the Tomb opposite; so that either way I was threatened by religious etiquette…”
Robert Byron was born in 1905 and educated at Eton and Merton College, Oxford. Among his other books are The Station, 1928, The Byzantine Achievement, 1929, First Russia then Tibet, 1933 and the Road to Oxiana, 1937 which is considered to be his masterpiece. Byron was a passionate and polemical conservationist, one of the founders of the Georgian Group when developers had a free hand to buy and destroy at whim such as destruction of Northumberland House by Palumbo. He was also a controversialist, who delighted in attacking the orthodox cult of art appreciation that had settled around Shakespeare, Rembrandt and anything to do with Classical Greece. Instead he championed the vision of Orthodoxy and the then misunderstood achievements of Byzantine and Islamic architecture. He was drowned when his troopship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean in 1941. His writings were to be enthusiastically championed by Bruce Chatwin who loved to collect memories of this dead hero: ‘suprisingly tough”, “very cross”, “an awful tease”, ‘abrasive”, “fat…rather hideous...eyes like a fish…could do a wonderful imitation of Queen Victoria.” His passionate life and friendships have just been chronicled in an evocative biography by John Knox.
Explorers and surveyors: Hedin, Stein, Przhevalsky and Bailey
From Mission to Tashkent by Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Bailey, “With the aid of Manditch I was making arrangements to enter the Bolshevik counter-espoinage service. This was a branch of the general staff and called in Russian ‘War Control’ (Voinye Kontrol).
This has been a branch of the Cheka but had just separated. Its duty was to deal with foreign agents and spies in Turkestan, and to collect information from Persia, Afghanistan, Bokhara and China. I had been posing as an Austrian prisoner of war of Rumanian nationality…
The special reason for enlisting me in the Secret Service was the following. The [Soviet] Government were perturbed by persistent rumours that British officers were in Bokhara drilling and organising the Bokharan Army. Details were most circumstantial. The British officers were kept concealed in the barracks and a most careful cordon of sentries prevented anyone from entering. The officers never came out or showed themselves. A number of secret agents had been sent to find out about this. None returned. The Bokharan Secret Service was too good and we were told that fifteen of these agents had been caught and strangled! Dunkov was having great difficulty in finding a sixteenth;…
Frederick Bailey, the author of this fascinating but somewhat breathless account of skulduggery in Central Asia, was in the words of Peter Hopkirk, “a great game player to his fingertips” while his personal file had been annotated by the Viceroy of India, “an absolutely first class man.” Bailey could have emerged straight out of the pages of an adventure by John Buchan or Dornford Yates – though he was for real. Born in Lahore in 1882 and educated at Wellington and Sandhurst he was a first class shot, accomplished horseman, surveyor, botanist and linguist. He was part of the 1904 Younghusband expedition into Tibet and from 1905-1909 was found posing as a Trade Agent in southern Tibet though clearly he had become a full time political agent. His Himalayan researches from this period won him a coveted gold explorer’s medal from the RGS while a tall, handsome blue mountain poppy still bears his name. He joined the punitive expedition sent into Assam in 1911 and fought in Flanders and Gallipoli in the early stages of the First World War before he was called back to the East to counter the efforts of German and Ottoman agents trying to forment a holy war against the British in India amongst certain Persian, Afghan and Turkestan tribes. After the collapse of Tsarist Russia, it appears that Bailey and his masters in India were hoping to winkle a few of the more vulnerable Central Asian states from a Russian allegiance to a dependence on Britain. Mission to Tashkent could not be published until 1946 and even then is content to tell as partial story, nevertheless it remains one of the best books about British secret intelligence work ever written.
From Aurel Stein’s Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan, as he first sets eyes on the dread Taklamakan Desert:
"Far away to the south stretched a sea of sand, curiously resembling the ocean with its wave like dunes. Through the dust-haze that lay over the long succession of ridges there appaeared to the south-west a darker range of low hills for which the extant maps in no way prepared me...."
and, on entering the ruins near Endere:
"I passed one ruin after the other familiar to me from the incessant work of the last weeks.....Where will it be next that I can walk amidst poplars and fruit trees planted when the Caesars still ruled in Rome and the knowledge of Greek writing had barely vanished on the Indus?"
From Aurel Stein’s Ruins of Desert Cathay, “ It was clear to me from the first that the deposit of manuscripts must have taken place some time after the middle of the ninth century. But until we could find dated record among the manuscripts themselves there was no other indication of the lower date limit than the style of frescoes which covered the passage walls…
The first bundles which emerged from that ‘black hole’ consisted of thick rolls of paper about one foot high, evidently containing portions of canonical Buddhist texts in Chinese translations. All were in excellent prervation and yet showed in paper, arrangement, and other details, unmistakable signs of great age…
Nowhere could I trace the slightest effect of moisture. And, in fact, what better place for preserving such relics could be imagined than a chamber carved in the living rock of those terribly barren hills, and hermetically shut off from what moisture, if any, that the atmosphere of this desert valley ever contained? Not in the driest soil could relics of a ruined site have so completely escaped injury as they had here, in a carefully selected rock chamber where, hidden behind a brick wall ands protected by accumulated drift sand, these masses of manuscripts had lain undisturbed for centuries…”
…but my time for feeling true relief came when all the twenty four cases, heavy with manuscript treasures rescxued from that strange place of hiding, and the five more filled with paintings and other art relics from the same cave, had been deposited safely in the Britsih Museum.”
Aurel Stein (1862-1943) is a truly heroic figure from the great days of primary archaeological exploration. Stein was physically tough tent-dwelling bachelor who was totally committed to mapping out, dating and identifying the historical monuments of Central Asia. Like many of the great “Silk Route” scholars he was Hungarian-born but was employed in the service of Britain having been trained at Oxford and the British Museum. Aged 26 he took up a series of educational posts in India, though it was his four great expeditions to survey the deserts, monasteries and ancient cities of Turkestan (in 1900-1901, 1906-1908, 1913-1916 and in 1930) that established his name. In between these he surveyed India, the North-West frontier, Baluchistan, Persia, Kashmir and Kurdistan as well as plotting the route of Alexander the Greats armies and the Roman Eastern frontier. Although now open to criticism due to his almost predatory collecting zeal his personal achievements remain awesome while what Stein did not carry away would later be obliterated by the Cultural Revoluition. It was entirely fitting that he should die on the job, leading an expedition into Afghanistan at the tender age of 81.
Of his impressive corpus of published work, Ruins of Desert Cathay, 1912 and Sand-buried ruins of Khotan, 1903 are the best known.
From Sven Hedin’s My Life as an Explorer “…the sunset-glow spread its purple light over the dunes. Mohammed Shah and Yolchi were in the same position as in the morning. The former has already begun his death-struggle; and he never regained consciousness. But the latter woke to life in the cool of the evening. With his hands clenched he crawled up to me and cried pitifully: ‘water! Give us water, sir! Only a drop of water!’ then he crawled away.
“Is there no liquid here, whatever?’ I said.
“Why the rooster!’ So they cut off the rooster’s head and drank his blood. But that was only a drop in the bucket. Their eyes fell on the sheep, which had followed us faithfully as a dog without complaining. Everyone hesitated. It would be murder to kill a sheep to prolong our lives for only one day. But Islam led it away, turned its head toward Mecca and slashed its carotids. The blood, reddish-brown and ill smelling, flowed slowly and thickly. It coagulated immediately into a cake, which the men gulped down. I tried it, too; but it was nauseous,a nd the mucous membrane of my throat was so dry that it stuck there,a nd I had to get rid of it quickly.
Mad with thirst, islam and Yochi collected camel’s urine in a receptacle, mixed it with sugar and vinegar, held their noses and drank. Kasim and I declined to join in this drinking-bout. The two who had drunk this poison were totally incapacitated. They were overcome with violent cramps and vomiting, and lay writhing and groaning on the sand..
Sven Hedin (1865-1952) fell in love with the romance of exploration as a teenage boy cheering the return of the intrepid crew of the Vega into Stockholm harbour while later as a student in Germany he fell under the spell of Professor von Richtofen who first developed the idea of the silk route – Der Seidenstrasse. Having cut his teeth in the Caucasus and developed his language skills as an interpreter in Persia, he made his first expedition into Kazakhstan in the 1890’s followed by the infamous crossing of the Taklamakan desert in 1895 when most of his expedition perished from dehydration and the crushing 140 degree heat. Hedin survived and went onto discover the first of the buried cities, Lou-lan. In 1899-1908 his attention switched to Tibet and after the First World War to the Gobi desert and China. No one can deny his extraordinary achievements in surveying Tibet and Western China even if much of it was driven by a nationalistic desire to be the first ‘for Sweden’ while his deep rooted admiration for all things German knew no limits – even accepting a honorary degree from the Nazi’s in 1944 – a truly bizarre act from a man of partly Jewish descent.
Riddles of the Gobi Desert, 1933, A Conquest of Tibet, 1934, My Life as an Explorer, 1925 and The Silk Road, 1936 were all quickly translated out of Swedish into English.
From Nikolay Przhevalsky (1839-88) Narrative of Three Years Travel in High Eastern Asia: “to soften the brick-tea, which is sometimes as hard as rock, it is placed for a few minutes among hot argols, which impart a flavour and aroma to the whole beverage. This is the first process, and in this form it answers the same purpose as chocolate or coffee with us. For a more substantial meal the Mongol mixes dry roasted millet in his cup, and, as a final relish, adds a lump of butter or raw sheep-tail fat. The reader may now imagine what a revolting compound of nastiness is produced and yet they consume any quantity of it! The gluttony of this people exceeds all description. A Mongol will eat more than ten pounds of meat at one sitting, but some have been known to devour an average-sized sheep in the course of 24 hours. On a journey, when provisions are economised, a leg of mutton is the ordinary daily ration for one man, and although he can live for days without food, yet, when once he gets it, he will eat enough for seven…
The most striking trait in their character is sloth. Their whole lives are passed in holiday-making, which harmonizes with their pastoral pursuits. Their cattle are their only care, and even they do not cause them much trouble. The camels and horses graze on the steppe without any watch, obly requiring to be watered once a day in the summer at the neighbouring well. The women and children tend the flocks and herds. The rich hire shepherds, who are mostly poor homeless vagrants. Milking the cows, churning butter, preparing the meals, and other domestic work, falls to the lot of the women. The men as a rule, do nothing but gallop about all day long from yurt to yurt, drinking tea or kumiss, and gossiping with their neighbours…
Of all the many Russian explorers of Asia Nikolay Przhevalsky (1839-88) remains a household name in Britain due to his discovery of the last wild horse – which still carries his name. He was born near Smolensk and after graduating from a Military College was attached to the Staff College in Poland where he lectured on history and geography. His career as an explorer began with military service in Eastern Siberia from 1867-9. After which his extraordinary skills as a geographer, zoologist and geologist were directed by the Imperial Geographical Society in St Petersburgh. His expeditions into Central Asia (including Mongolia and the Chinese border) were from 1870-3, 1876-77, 1879-1880 and 1883-5 and he was honoured with Gold Medals by every Geographical Society except that of his rivals in London. His achievements were titanic, surveying a route of some 33,000 kilometres, collecting seven and half million species of animal life, 16,000 plants of more than 1,700 species and 218 new genera. In 1888 he died of typhoid whilst leading an expedition into the Tien-Sham mountains. He was buried, aged 49, on the south-eastern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, a vast salt lake 5,000 feet high whose waters are kept warm by volcanic activity. His tomb, surmounted by an eagle looks over the lake waters. After each expedition he published a precise account and though translated into English no-one has yet edited these five journeys down into an easily accessible narrative.
From Fred Burnaby’s A Ride to Khiva: “I wonder where we shall al be this time next year” suddenly remarked my companion. “God knows”, was my answer, “but I do not think I shall try the White Nile again.” At that moment my eye fell upon a paragraph in the paper. It was to the effect that the Government at St Petersburgh had given an order that no foreigner ws to be allowed to travel in Russian Asia, and that an Englishman who had recently attempted a journey in that direction had been turned back by the authorities. I have, unfortunately for my own interests, from my earliest childhood had what my old nurse used to call a most “contradictious” spirit and it suddenly occurred to me, why not go to Central Asia?”
…Every part of my attire was in turn inspected and commented upon, the women coming forward and feeling the texture of my coast and trousers, the large buttons being a source of great admiration.
The hostes was clad in a flowing white dressing gown, with a turban of the same colour, folded many times around her small head. For a Kirgjiz, she was decidedly good-looking, and well worth the hundred sheep her lord and master had paid for her. She was delighted at his arrival, and two ruddy-faced little children were seated upon their father’s knee, and playing with his beard and moustache. The brother-in-law, a short hump-backed fellow, who had been informed that I wish to purchase a horse, was most assiduous in his attentions. He seized a pillow which an aged relative, his grandfather, had secured for his own accommodation, and dragged it from beneath this elderly gentleman, then pushing it behind my back he patted me on the shoulder and said that he heard that I wanted a horse. Well, he had the most beautiful of the equine race; it had performed extraordinary feats, and was the wonder of all the village. We would look at it, and then I should see. Yes what I should see! And pouring me out some tea, he absolutely put four lumps of sugar in my glass, to the astonishment of the other inmates, who were aghast at such reckless extravagance…
Frederick Burnaby (1842-1885) was one of the darlings of Victorian society. That celebrated portrait by Tissot of the young colonel of the Royal Horse Guards languidly lounging on a chaise-lounge, Turkish cigarette in hand, captures an ideal type of Englishness, of restrained power, of gentle manners masking an indomitable will. Burnaby was a gentle giant of a man, who stood 6 foot four inches tall, and could bend a wrought-iron poker in two or lift up a small pony with one arm. The colonel was also bright, he was fluent in French, German, Russian, Spanish and Italian, and spiced-up the boring realities of peace-time soldiering with adventures abroad; such as covering the Spanish Civil War of 1875-6 for The Times, taking the first hot-air ballon trip across the Channel while in 1875-6 he rode across the Central Asian steppes to report on Russia’s steady southward advance. His account of these travels, A Ride to Khiva , brought him instant fame. Nine years later he would be killed in the Sudan, leading an expedition to relieve General Gordon at Khartoum.
From Travels in Central Asia by Arminius Vambary; “…the convent that gave us shelter, from the great reservoir of water and mosque which it encloses, was looked upon in the light of a public place: the court consequelty swarmed always with visitors of both sexes. The Uzbeq in his high round fur hat, great thick boots of leather, walks about merely in a long shirt, in summer a favourite undress. This I myself adopted afterwards, as I found it was not regarded as indecent, so long as the shirt retained its whiteness, even to appear with it in the bazaar. The women wear lofty globular turbans, consisting of from fifteen to twenty Russian kerchiefs. They are forced, striding along, in spite of all the overpowering heat, muffled in large gowns, and with their coarse boots, to drag to their houses heavy pitchers full of water. Ah, I see them now! Many a time one remains standing at my door, entreating for a little Khaki Shifa (health dust) [brought back by Haj pilgrims from a house in Medina belived to have been occupied by the Prophet], or a Nefes (holy breath0 for the ill of which she complains. I have it not in my heart to refuse these poor creatures…She cowers before my door: I touch, moving my lips at the same time as if in prayer, the suffering part of the body; and after having thrice breathed hard upon her, a deep sigh is uttered and my part is done..
Still keeping the lead, I was the first to reach Khanka; it was the weekly market. I dismounted at the kalenterkhane at the furthermost end of the town, situated upon the bank of a rivulet, and, as usual, well shaded by poplar and elm trees. I found here two half-naked Dervishes on the point of swallowing down their noonday doe sof opium; they offered me a little portion also, and were astonished to find me decline. They then prepared tea for me, and whilst I drank it, they took their own poisonous opiate,a nd in half an hour were in the happy realms…I should haveliked to remain to hear from their own lips on awaking an account of their dreams; but our karavan was just then passing, and I was obliged to join it…
Arminius Vambary (1832-1913) the ‘Dervish of Windsor Castle’, is yet another of those free scholars from Hungary who have contributed so much to the study of Asiatic and Turkic language and culture. The revered Professor of Oriental languages at Budapest, the universalist who had acquired a working knowledge of all three ‘peoples of the book”, the friend of Queen Mary and the man who had provided Bram Stoker with the story of Dracula was born in 1831 or 1832 ( he never knew which) in the stinking hamlet of Duna Szerdaheley straggled along the banks of one of the islands in the Danube. As a lame, under-nourished and penniless Jewish boy he yet nevertheless managed to master four languages and learn The Torah by heart whilst apprenticed to a dress-maker. As a young teacher he eventually worked his way to Istanbul in 1857 where he continued his studies in language, grammar and literature for another seven years. By the time he left that great city, in 1863, set on his travels across the Emirates of Central Asia disguised as a Dervish, he probably had already become the paid confidential agent of the Ottoman and British Empires and may have been in correspondence with two other foreign powers. In 1864 the publication of his ‘Travels in Central Asia” had set him on the road to academic respectability while his multiple ‘loyalties’ were to be usefully combined by analysing the common threat that Russia posed to Persia, Germany, Britain, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.
Medieval voices; Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo
From The Travels of Ibn Battuta, “A remarkable thing which I saw in this country was the respect shown to women by the Turks, for they hold a more dignified position than the men. The first time that I saw a princess was when, on leaving Qiram, I saw the wife of the Emir in her palaquin. The entire vehicle was covered with a rich blue clothe, and the windows and the doors of the tent were open. With the princess were four maidens, exquisitely beautiful and richly dressed…when she reached the Emir he rose before her and greeted her and sat her beside him, with the maidens standing round her. Skins of kumouz (fermented mares milk) were brought and she, pouring some into a cup, knelt befor ehim and gave it to him, afterwards pouring out a cup for his brother…
On the morning of my interview with the sultan I visted the principal Khatun Taytughal, who is the queen and mother of the Sultan’s two sons. She was sitting in the midst of ten aged women, who appeared to be servants of hers, and had in fornt of her about fifty young maidens with gold and silver salvers filled with cherries which they were cleaning…the following day we visited the second Khatun Kebek and found her sitting on a divan reading the Holy Qur’an. She also served me with kumouz. The third Khatun Bayalun is the daughter of the Emperor of Constantinople the Great. On visiting her we found her sitting on a throne set with jewels, with about a hundred maidens, Greek, Turkish and Nubian, standing or sitting in front of her. Behind her were eunuchs and in fornt of her Greek chamberlains. She asked how we were and about our journey and the distance of our native lands, and wept, in pity and compassion, wiping her face with a handkerchief that lay before her…
The melons of Khwarizm have no equal in any country of the world, East or West, except it may be the melons of Bukhara, and next to them the melons of Isfahan. Their rind is green, and the flesh is red, of extreme sweetness and firm texture. A remarkable thing is that they are cut into strips, dried in the sun, and packed in reed baskets, as is done in our country with dried figs and Malaga figs. They are exported from Khwarizm to the remotest parts of India and China, and of all the dried fruits there are none which excel them in sweetness. During my stay in Dilhi in India, whenever a party of travellers arrived, I used to send someone to buy sliced melon for me from them…
Ibn Battuta (1304-1368) was one of the greatest travellers of the Middle Ages – some would say of all ages. This intrepid young Berber scholar of religious law from the city of Tangier began his travels with a pilgrimage trip to Mecca – which was then the appropriate capping-stone to his intended career as a Qadi – a government salaried magistrate of Koranic law. However he so enjoyed the rewards of travel, both the sumptuous audiences with Sultans (and their royal bounty), the temporary marriages and the pious interviews with the scholar-saints of Islam, that he kept on going…for another thirty years. In the period from 1326-1333 he would criss-cross Central Asia, returning back for yet another pilgrimage season in Mecca, to cross the Hindu Kush to reach India and ultimately China. This extraordinary record was ultimately written down at the urgent request of the young Moroccan sultan who had the old traveller dictate his memories to a secretary in Fez to create A Feast for the Eyes Presenting Exotic Places and Marvellous Travels known by the rest of the world as al-Rihla (The Travels) – as well as insisting that Ibn Battuta top and tale his travels with a quick visit to Muslim Granada and a crossing of the Sahara. Travels in Africa & Asia (1324-1354) is available in a scholarly three volume set, published by the Hakluyt Society or a handy paperback edited by his English biographer Tim Mackintosh-Smith or in a definitive five volume commentary by the ex-Moroccan ambassador to India, Abd al hadi al-Tazi, 1997.
From Marco Polo’s Travels: “Ten days’s journey south of Badakhshan is a country called Pashai. The inhabitants, who have brown skins and speak a language of their own, are idolaters. They are adepts in enchantment and diabolic arts. The Men wear ear-rings and brooches of gold and silver and pearls and precious stones in profusion. They are very crafty folk and artful in their own way. The climate is very hot. The ctokc diet is flesh and rice…
That travellers who intend to cross the desert rest in this town for a week to refresh themselves and their beats. At the end of the week they stock up with a months provisions for themselves and their beast. They they leave the town and enter the desert.
This desert [The Gobi] is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end; and at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sand and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat. But I can tell you that after travelleing a day and a night you find drinking water – not enough to supply a large company, but enough for fifty or a hundred men with their beasts. And all the ay through the desert you must go for a day and a night before you find water. And I can tell you that in three or four place you find the water bitter and brackish; but at all the other places, that is twenty eight in all, the water is good.”
They are a very gay folk [the people of Kamul] who give no thought to anything but making music, singing and dancing, and reading and writing according to their own usage, and taking great delight in the pleasure so f the body. I give you my word that if a stranger comes to a house here to seek hospitality he receives a very warm welcome. The host bids his wife do everything that the guest wishes. Then he leaves the house and goes about his own business ands stays away two or three days. Meanwhile the guest stays with his wife in the house and does what he will with her, lying with her in one bed just as if she were his own wife; and they lead a gay life together. All the men of this city and province are thus cuckolded by their wives; but they are not the least ashamed of it.”
Marco Polo’s (1254-1324) travels is the prime European text which has been ardently followed by many a later traveller across Central Asia; be it the scholar Aurel Stein or a professional adventure-writer such as Tim Severin. It has obsessed centuries of readers, who have long argued over its merits, for it combines detailed route notes and factual descriptions with a delight in recording fabulous tales, in the manner of a Mandeville or a Herodotus. It was also the unlikely fruit of a two-year prison sentence, which gave the ever-active Marco Polo the leisure to dictate his twenty-five years of Eastern adventures to the romance writer Rustichello of Pisa. Subsequent embellishments, editions and casual transcriptions have bred over 100 variant editions of “Il Millione” for the literary scholars to fight over. In essence the Travels records the four year journey east from Venice to their arrival at Kublai Khan’s court in China in 1275, some 17 years service as confidential agents of the Emperor, followed by Marco Polo’s return. The Travels also sets up the “Central Asian Ideal”, when Mongol overlordship allowed for peaceful travel across the breadth of Central Asia, of a wise Emperor (interested in – but uncommitted to any of the dominant religions) who would freely employ any man of talent. In truth this was but a brief halcyon glimmer of peace and unity in a land otherwise riven by furious rivalry and internecine war.
By Li Shih-ming, 597-649 AD (translated by Wang Sheng-chih) and as cited in Kathleen Hopkirk’s Central Asia: A travellers Companion.
Beyond the frontiers lie the hard winters and the raging winds;
The waters of the Chiao Ho are frozen over with huge icebergs.
On the Han Lake come the hundred layesr of waves,
Over the Yin mountains lie thousands of li of snow.
The garrisons live hard, gazing out for beacon-fires.
On the highest peaks, the banners of the commander are unfurled,
But the soldiers fold theirs: the hunt begins.
They water their horse at the foot of the Great Wall.
Interminable the footprints of horses over the endless cold sands.
Hear on the frontier the howling of the north-wind.
We entered the land of the Huns and subdued them in their desert strongholds.
To the west were the natives of Chiang, who played on flutes and cymbals to welcome us,
Here the Huns themselves laid down their arms and surrendered.
The soldiers of Han returned in triumph.
High in the air flew the banner of victory.
A tablet was engraved with their names, for the sake of posterity.
In battle with barbarians peace was assured,
And on the altar of Heaven we sang our victory.
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by Barnaby Rogerson