Article: The Economist’s editor on foreign travel in 1913

THINGS near us are seen life-size, and distance, while it enchants the imagination, destroys the reality. That is a good reason why those who want to know the truth about the world should travel.

Francis Wrigley Hirst was a British journalist and writer.  Born in 1873, Wrigley Hirst was editor of The Economist from 1907 to 1916.  Unsurprisingly, most of his writings were about trade, economics and politics.

This essay appeared in a 1913 collection called The Six Panics & other essays. It is ironic that Hirst should write about modern travel and the ease with which it can be undertaken just as the outbreak of the First World War was about to make travel in Europe more difficult.
Two of the six ‘panics’ in the collection relate to dreadnoughts and airships while another chapter discusses the Balkan Wars which served as a prelude for the First World War, which makes the pice on travel seem even more oddly placed.

I stumbled across Hirst’s essay in the excellent 1913 by Charles Emmerson, a history offering a different perspective on that year.  Rather than view 1913 through the prism of the war which followed it, Emmerson looks at 23 citiess around the world and tries to view those cities as they might have been seen at the time, modern and full of possibilities.  

Emmerson quotes Hirst’s essay at the start of his introduction and uses it and the experience of travel it conveys to highlight how modern and globalised the world of 1913 was. 

Ever the economist, Hirst writes about general trends in travel among those who travel for commercial purposes and emigrants who travel in search of work.  Profit and Labour are his preoccupations.  Even when discussing those who travel for pleasure, he observes that is a supply of good facilities and transport networks (which exist because of capital’s ceaseless search for a return) that drives tourist demand.  Despite his economic perspective, Hirst is no advocate of travel as mere consumer pastime.  
 
 If it were not for books, telegrams, and letters, Australia or China would look smaller and less important to the average Englishman than his neighbour’s field. And even with the aid of books and newspapers it needs a large stock of intelligent sympathy to understand countries and peoples one has never seen. But invention is fast removing the physical obstacles to knowledge of the world.
Hirst sketches an impressive picture of a globalised, connected world in which travel is becoming ever more easy and comfortable.  However, this is accompanied by a concern that as the volume of travel increases, its benefits will decrease.  
 
But what of the modern tourist? Is he as good a man as his predecessor, who faced so much more risk and discomfort a hundred years ago? Comparisons no doubt are difficult, but there is room to fear that against a great increase in the volume must be set some decrease in the advantages of travel…Your modern traveller may pass with every luxury by day and a comfortable berth at night to any city in Europe, and there reside in a luxurious hotel, surrounded by cosmopolitan attendants, who know nothing and care less of the city or country in which they are accumulating tips.
His concern is that a traveller could move around the world from one luxurious hotel to another, in a sort of bubble, with no better knowledge of a place than its hotels and restaurants.
After travelling in this way from one grand hotel to another, he may return from his trip in blissful ignorance of the language, the people, the habits, and prejudices of the country he has visited. He and his like have seen sights and compared hotels, but that is the whole story. In short, they are only tourists conducted or unconducted. Innocent they went and innocent they return of languages, institutions and laws other than their own. In the old days travelling was slow, uncomfortable and comparatively dangerous; but it was also comparatively instructive. 
For Hirst, travel should aspire to something more.  What matters is to experience other places.  Relying on books and descriptions is not enough.  Only by visiting other countries, by learning some of the language can one understand the culture and be better informed about world afffairs without falling prey to “malevolent journalism”.
Hirst’s essay is a call to action.  We can learn a foreign language to read books to understand other places and cultures although as modern invention has made travel easier and more comfortable than ever, we have no need to confine our understanding of places to what we read about them.  We can instead travel to them and, rather than learning a language to read books, use it to read men and gain experience.   Whether our journeys are “civilizing and liberalizing” rather than leaving us “boastful and ignorant” depends on the nature and quality of the encounters travellers have and the mindset with which they approach their travels. 
Hirst distills the classic essays on travel and quotes from Hazlitt, Claudian, Bacon, Sterne and Feltham in his search for guidance about how we should travel: “Experience is the best informer”; “[travel] makes a wise man better, and a fool worse”; “the more you hurry, the less you see”; wondering whether it is better to travel alone or with a companion; the importance of travelling among and socialising with people of all classes from the place visited rather than spending time with fellow compatriots in first class. 
Hirt’s essay is about travel as a civilising and improving influence, something from which a great deal can be gained with a little thought and effort about how one goes about it.  It is not unlike advice commonly seen about how we could all make better travellers.  Indeed, Hirst says it is difficult to improve on the old essays and, reading his essay, it is hard to disagree with him.

Book: Harry Franck’s All About Going Abroad (1,411 words)

All About Going Abroad 
by Harry A. Franck  

Brentano’s, New York (1927)

The first obvious question of the prospective traveler is where to go…Our little planet may be but a speck in even our own solar system, but there is enough of keen interest on it to keep anyone traveling incessantly for a life-time. 

Born in 1881, Harry Alverson Franck, ‘Prince of Vagabonds’, travelled unceasingly and extensively during the first 30 years of the 20th century and wrote more than 25 books about his journeys.

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Central to Franck’s philosophy of travel was the idea that “a man with a bit of energy and good health could start without money and make a journey around the globe”.  

He put his money (or lack of it) where his mouth was and after graduating from university began a year long journey around the world.  He travelled mostly on foot, with very little money and with no fixed itinerary, going wherever the journey took him.  Franck wrote about this trip in his first travel book, A Vagabond Journey Around the World, which was published in 1911.  Franck expanded on his philosophy in his foreword to that book

Travel for pleasure has ever been considered a special privilege of the wealthy. That a man without ample funds should turn tourist seems to his fellow-beings an action little less reprehensible than an attempt to finance a corporation on worthless paper.  He who would see the world, and has not been provided the means thereto by a considerate ancestor, should sit close at home until his life work is done, his fortune made.  Then let him travel; when his eyes have grown too dim to catch the beauty of a distant landscape, when struggle and experience have rendered him blase and unimpressionable.

The idea of not waiting until retirement before travelling the world was echoed in the “retire young, work old” philosophy of Johnny Case, Cary Grant’s character in George Cukor’s 1938 film Holiday, in which Grant starred with Katharine Hepburn:

Whereas Grant’s character Case wanted to make a bit of money and then head out travelling, Franck didn’t think it was necesary even to do that before leaving home.

After his vagabond year, Franck travelled through Central and South America for a number of years, including working as a policeman for a time in the Panama Canal Zone.  He wrote about these travels in several books which were published either side of his First World War military service:  Zone Policeman 88 (1913), Tramping Through Mexico Guatemala, and Honduras (1916), Vagabonding Down the Andes (1917) and Working North from Patagonia (1921). 

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Image from http://www.harryafranck.com

Throughout the remainder of the Twenties and Thirties, Franck continued to travel widely, visiting China, Russia, Japan, the West Indies, Germany, Europe, the Middle East and what was French Indochina.  His last book, published in 1943, saw him return to South America.  

Aged 61, Franck obtained a commission as a Major and served with the Ninth Air Force in the closing days of World War Two, an experience he wrote about in Winter Journey Through the Ninth (published posthumously by his family).  Franck died in 1962.

All About Going Abroad is slightly different to Franck’s other books.  Although written with his usual wry humour, rather than narrating a particular journey, All About distills Franck’s travel experiences into a short book of advice for aspiring travellers.

Consequently, it deals with the where, when and how of travel as well as preparations before travel such as obtaining passports and visas and carrying funds as well as information on how to plan a journey. 

There is advice on choosing a class and berth on a ship, how to carry funds, etitquette onboard ships including securing a deck chair in an advantageous position and making arrangements for morning baths.  He covers the complexities and differences in rail travel in different countries, highlighting that the luggage allowance and checked baggage rules were as complicated and varied in the Twenties as they can be among airlines today.   He also addresses the emergence of passenger air travel, noting that Imperial Airways had as many as 6 daily flights between London and Paris by 1927. 

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Published in 1927, some of the advice in All About Going Abroad, such as the lists of times it takes to travel between major European cities and the requirement to take formal dinner wear on a cruise, reveals how much travel has changed since Franck’s time.  

However, it also highlights how little some aspects of travel had changed until very recently.  Travellers cheques are still in use even though the double signing procedure seems charmingly old fashioned in an era when most transactions simply require a four digit code or contactless payment.  Stocking up on camera film and ensuring they were protected from the elements was also a preoccupation until relatively recently as was the use of forwarding addresses and Poste Restante until email arrived on the scene (although I admit it never occurred to me to suggest to family that they send the same letter to different places in case the letter missed me at the first address).     

While the packing list may seem outdated (few travellers would now pack a masquerade costume), Franck’s advice on the approach to packing is still valid:

The first and last rule as to clothing is to take as little as possible. A famous traveler-author makes it a rule to lay out his outfit for a new trip in three piles— 1. The things he is sure to use every day; 2. The things he is likely to need two or three times a week; 3. The things he may need. Then, throwing away the second and third piles, he goes on his way rejoicing. 

Similarly, Franck’s advice on ‘slow travel’ is also timeless:

You will get more enjoyment, at less cost, out of a leisurely journey through a small but carefully chosen section of Europe—or of any other foreign country—than by dashing across the whole continent hitting only the high spots.”

When discussing different types of travellers, Franck also reveals that ‘off the beaten track’ travel was as much a preoccupation in the 1920s as it is today.  Drawing distinctions between different types of travellers and travelling styles, he highlights those who go independently and:

prefer to meet the world face to face by depending on their own resources. That way, they feel, may be more probability of adventure, more likelihood of genuine thrills. For the sake of these  they are willing to forego the greater comfort of the “independent tour” and to accept philosophically the disappointments caused by the failure to secure always the accommodations they wish.

Franck admits though, that his favourite way to travel is as ‘the plain wanderer’:

That need not by any means imply a penniless individual; wealthy wanderers are far from rare. But such a one would never think of accepting a fixed itinerary from anyone. He may drop into a tourist agency and buy a ticket or “book accommodations” to the place he has suddenly decided to go to next, because a tourist agency is often the easiest place to get such things, and the general information that goes with them, all at no increase in price. But he leaves his route open, as people like to feel they keep their minds open, so that if he hears in the smoking room one night of a wonderful new ruin just uncovered, or catches a whisper in a native bazaar of something no other tourist has ever visited, he may forthwith go and see. But it takes a certain amount of phlegm and self-reliance, and energy, not to say freedom from calendar limitations, to accomplish and enjoy this form of travel. Besides, we are now hanging over the brink of the chasm which separates the mere traveler from the adventurer and explorer, and to these latter I am not presuming to proffer advice.  

All About Going Abroad is not just a glimpse of travel as it used to be but thanks to Franck’s insights is, in some respects, also a book about what travel still is and can be.  It is short but fascinating and ends with a seemingly paradoxical sentiment:  

Home again at last, it often happens that your journey in retrospect is the most delightful of all the pleasures of travel, not even excepting anticipation.

All About Going Abroad is available to view online free of charge at Hathitrust although it is sadly not possible to downlaod a copy.  For more Harry Franck books, the best bet is the Internet Archive.  

Further information about Harry Franck life and writing is available on Wikipedia and on the website run by his grandson: www.harryafranck.com

Book: Edith Wharton in Morocco

In Morocco
by Edith Wharton

Overripeness is…the characteristic of this rich and stagnant civilization. Buildings, people, customs, seem all about to crumble and fall of their own weight: the present is a perpetually prolonged past.  To touch the past with one’s hands is realized only in dreams; and in Morocco the dream-feeling envelops one at every step.

Edith Wharton, novelist and friend of author Henry James, came late to her writing career but was a traveller from an early age, prompting her to comment in later life “perhaps, after all, it is not a bad thing to begin one’s travels at four.”

Wharton was born into a wealthy family in 1862.  Following the American Civil War, her family moved to Europe, travelling between France, Spain and Italy before returning to New York when the Franco-Prussian war broke out.  

Wharton later married a wealthy Boston banker in 1885 with whom she travelled around Europe for several months each year.  At the end of the 19th century, the Whartons’ travels focused on Italy but switched to France in the early part of the 20th century.  Their travels included a four-month yacht cruise on the Aegean in 1888 which Wharton wrote about in The Cruise of the Vanadis.  

It was only in her 40s that Wharton turned seriously to writing after the publication of her first successful novel The House of Mirth.  In addition to fiction, Wharton wrote seven travel books. After her separation and divorce, Wharton moved to France where lived until her death in 1937.   

edith-wharton

In her introduction to Edith Wharton Abroad, a collection of Wharton’s travel writing, Sarah Bird Wright notes that Wharton’s travel writing is shaped not only by her extensive reading and learning but also a “dislike of architectural restoration” and a “preference for “parentheses” of travel instead of the “catalogued riches of guidebooks””. She also observes that, like William Dean Howells, Wharton was a traveller before she was a writer.    

Relatively late in her travelling career, in 1917 and while Europe was still engulfed by the First World War, Edith Wharton toured Morocco by car at a pivotal moment in that country’s history:

the brief moment of transition between its virtually complete subjection to European authority, and the fast approaching hour when it is thrown open to all the banalities and promiscuities of modern travel.

Overshadowing In Morocco is the sense that Wharton is glimpsing a country that is changing and disappearing.  Wharton sees that a combination of French improvement to Morocco’s railways and roads together with the resumption of normal Mediterranean passenger traffic after the war will open Morocco up to “the great torrent of ‘tourism'” and all the “banalities and promiscuities of modern travel”.

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Starting her journey in Tangier, Wharton is keen to get away from the familiar “dog-eared world of travel” she finds there and instead immerse herself in the souks and harems of old Morocco.

Wharton visits Rabat and Sale, Volubilis (the only sizeable Roman ruins so far discovered in Morocco) and also Meknes, where she recalls the reign of Sultan Moulay-Ismael whose architectural achievements are overshadowed by his use of slaves in their construction among whom were Christians captured by Barbary pirates.

Wharton moves on to “many-walled Fez” where she vividly describes the descent through its souk to the tomb of the city’s founder, Moulay-Idriss and the Almohad mosque of El Kairouiyin.  

Wharton describes the markets and souks of Fez and Marrakech and also the Djemaa el- Fna with its storytellers, snake-charmers and dancers, concluding that there “can be no more Oriental sight this side of the Atlas and the Sahara.” 

Wharton also describes visits to Moulay Idriss, where she witnesses a blood rite dance, as well as the Saadian tombs in Marrakech, both places firmly on modern travellers’ itineraries but to which foreigners then had only recently been permitted access. 

Wharton portrays Morocco as a country of constant change, instability and even as a shifting concept.  She describes the flows of Almoravid, Almohad, Saadian, Merinid or Hassanian invaders as they wash across the country, each leaving their mark on Morocco’s architecture and history.  

With shifts in power Wharton notes the shifting borders or areas of control, in a region bounded by the Giralda tower in Seville to the Koutoubya tower in Marrakech and beyond the desert to interior Africa.  

Wharton also describes the abandoned and decaying buildings which, made of plaster and rubble, “do not die in beauty like the firm stones of Rome”

Everywhere behind the bristling walls and rock-clamped towers of old Morocco lurks the shadowy spirit of instability. Every new Sultan builds himself a new house and lets his predecessors’ palaces fall into decay; and as with the Sultan so with his vassals and officials. Change is the rule in this apparently unchanged civilization, where “nought may abide but Mutability.

Wharton clearly views the French and, in particular, General Lyautey’s governorship of Morocco as enlightened and perhaps, underlining a departure from the past, as permanent and stable.  In one sense then, although the French represent another wave of invaders to have crossed the desert and administer Morocco, their coming marks a change from the normal pattern and the arrival of modernity. 

No more will the invading or controlling power knock down and rebuild.  No more will Morocco’s old buildings fall into ruin.  New buildings are to be constructed outside of the old towns and Wharton praises the “incessant efforts of General Lyautey’s administration to preserve the old monuments of Morocco from injury, and her native arts and industries from the corruption of European bad taste.”  

Conscious that she is visiting a guidebook-less country, Wharton adds to her personal impressions, outlines of the country’s history and architecture.  Modestly, she claims that the chief merit of these outlines is their absence of originality, having drawn their content from other works that she lists.  She also devotes a chapter to describing her experiences of harems in Rabat, Fez and Marrakech. 

Although, in her original preface of 1919, Wharton expresses concern at the prospect of increased tourism to Morocco, in the preface to a new edition in 1927, Wharton is pleased to note that Morocco has retained “nearly all the magic and mystery of forbidden days”, despite its popularity as a destination and the improvements to its accessibility and its conveniences, concluding that: 

To visit Morocco is still like turning the pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript all embroidered with bright shapes and subtle lines.”  

Some of Wharton’s other travel books (some of which are available to download for free and legally at The Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg) are: 

 

Article: Birth of the American road trip?

It often seemed to me that we were a luxuriously equipped expedition going forth to seek discomfort…But discomfort, after all, is what the camper-out is unconsciously seeking. 

This essay in the Smithsonian magazine takes a look back at the road trips of self proclaimed Vagabonds Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs and Harvey Firestone.  What starts as a summer camping vacation turned into an annual road trip between 1915 and 1924 as the four friends explored America by car.  

These were not basic camping trips.  As the photos in the album below show (click on the photo), the group travelled in some comfort and formality, with chefs and up to 50 vehicles in their convoy and the Vagabonds rarely removing their jackets (at least while the camera was present):

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison are near the center car, 1921

John Burroughs described the group as “joy riders with a luxurious outfit calculated to be proof against any form of discomfort” when he wrote about their 1918 in trip in A Strenuous Holiday.

Burroughs was a naturalist and nature writer who was active in conservation.  Initially opposed to the automobile, he became friends with Ford and joined the annual road trip.  A Strenuous Holiday appears in Under the Maples, a collection published the year that Burroughs died.  

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A short read at only 17 pages, Burroughs (then in his 80s) paints an idyllic picture of the road trip as it travels through Pennsylvania and West Virginia, before heading south.  There is something charming about his account, from the little girl with a bucket of apples to his descriptions of titans of industry at play; whether it be Henry Ford challenging people to races, Thomas Edison’s unkempt appearance, ‘delicious humour’ and his ability to turn vagabond “very easily”, or sitting around the campfire listening to Edison discussing chemistry or Ford discussing mechanics.

There is an irony to three industrialists enjoying touring a bucolic landscape which their inventions and labours were to change so radically but maybe that is no more inconsistent than a “luxuriously equipped expedition going forth to seek discomfort.”  Although, as Burroughs notes:

discomfort, after all, is what the camper-out is unconsciously seeking. We grow weary of our luxuries and conveniences. We react against our complex civilization, and long to get back for a time to first principles. We cheerfully endure wet, cold, smoke, mosquitoes, black flies, and sleepless nights, just to touch naked reality once more. 

Whatever the discomforts, Burroughs realised, as does every traveller, that: 

It is after he gets home that a meditative man really makes such a trip. All the unpleasant features are strained out or transformed. In retrospect it is all enjoyable, even the discomforts. 

A Strenuous Holiday is available to read for free online at Gutenberg and also at the Internet Archive

This youtube documentary has some more footage and background to these early road trips:

Article: Travel ‘On the Cheap’ with Franz Kafka…guidebook writer

Our democratic age has already provided all of the conditions for easy, universal travel, but this has gone practically unnoticed. Our task is to collect this information and make it known in a systematic fashion

Short article on the Paris Review blog about Franz Kafka’s business idea for a series of guidebooks which also reprints a memorandum outlining the proposal.

Hit upon while travelling in 1911, the guidebooks were supposed to make Kafka a millionaire and relieve the boredom of his office work.

The guides were to be called On the Cheap and were conceived of as a series of guides to be translated into different languages.

It was was to be aimed at budget conscious travellers and full of tips about clothing, avoiding scams, recommended hotels, guidance on shopping, transport details, maps and a language guide.  

The educational aspect—energizing the whole person.
Only poorly oriented travelers are ripped off.
The same pleasure for less money.  

Sound familiar?  It was obviously a good idea as something similar worked for Tony and Maureen Wheeler half a century or so later.   Kafka should have followed the proposed motto for On the Cheap:  “Just Dare”

The article is by Reiner Stach, extracted from his forthcoming book Is that Kafka? 99 Finds, a by product of Stach’s research for his 3 volume biography of Kafka:


 

Essay: Santayana’s Philosophy of Travel

Enjoy the world, travel over it, and learn its ways but do not let it hold you … . To possess things and persons in idea is the only pure good to be got out of them; to possess them physically or legally is a burden and a snare (from Persons and Places)

George Santayana, (actually Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás) was born in Madrid in 1863.   Santayana moved with his mother to the US at the age of ten.  After completing his education (including periods in Berlin and Cambridge) he began a career teaching philosophy at Harvard University where his students included TS Eliot and Gertrude Stein.  Resigning his position in 1912, Santayana returned to Europe, spending time in Spain, France, England and Italy.  Santayana died in 1952.  

In addition to his naturalist philosophy, Santayana is remembered for his aphorisms including, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and “fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim”, (from The Life of Reason).  

In the Philosophy of Travel, published posthumously in 1968 in the collection The Birth of Reason, Santayana considers travel, which “lends a great beauty to strangers, and fills remote places and times with an ineffable charm.”

Observing that a “search for the picturesque is the last and idlest motive of travel” Santayana examines different styles of traveller.  Beginning with those who travel “on more pressing errands and in some distress” such as migrants, exiles and colonists, he goes on to consider explorers, inveterate travellers, those who travel for sport and those who travel for commerce or other mercantile reason.  Finally, Santayana turns to the tourist, “the latest type of traveller”, at who Santayana explains, he will throw “no stones.” 

With his gift for aphorisms, the Philosophy of Travel naturally contains quotable travel wisdom such as “[w]e need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what” (quoted in Pico Iyer’s Why We Travel) and “[t]here is wisdom in turning often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humour” which is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s famous travel quote.

Taking us from the roots and rootedness of plants to the possibility of travel lending “meaning to the images of the eye and the mind” so that it might be said that animals and man “owe their intelligence to their feet” and on through the mechanical age of mass travel, Santayana returns, at the end of this thoughtful essay, to the roots we all have and the realisation that what we return with from travel should not be material but insight and understanding;  an idea later explored by one of his students, TS Eliot, in Four Quartets:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others
[…] 

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Book: Hopkirk – Foreign Devils on the Silk Road

Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk John Murray

Among the oasis dwellers of the Taklamakan, strange legends of ancient towns lying buried beneath the sands had been passed down from grandfather to grandson for as long as anyone could remember.

Peter Hopkirk wrote several books about Central Asia, focussing on what Richard Bernstein of the New York Times called “the confrontation of Eastern exoticism with Western Imperial ambition” and has “made a career out of the historical adventures of Europeans in Central and South Asia.”

Hopkirk passed away last year, age 83, and in its obituary (reproduced on the Marlburian Club website), The Times newspaper paid tribute by noting that “Hopkirk was no armchair historian. He was an intrepid traveler who adeptly shrugged off the region’s ever-watchful authorities to piece together his rip-roaring histories.”  So, even though Foreign Devils is strictly more history than travel it nonetheless deserves inclusion; Hopkirk travelled widely in the regions about which he writes and brings the tales to life using contemporary travel narratives.

Foreign Devils was published in 1980 and was the first of Hopkirk’s six books about Central Asia. It recounts the explorations and adventures of British, Swedish German, French, American and Japanese archaeologists in Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang province in modern China) at the end of the 19th and first part of the 20th century.

These archaeologists were searching for the cities, monasteries, grottos and stupas which had grown up along the Silk Road during its first 800 or so years from the time of the Han dynasty.  An immense network of trade routes stretching thousands of miles between the Mediterranean and China along which precious goods such as silk, gold and ivory were carried, the Silk Road gave birth to many oasis towns.  Ideas, as well as goods were carried along the Silk Road, including Buddhism which spread along the trade routes from North West India, over the mountain passes and into Central Asia where it flourished and with it, art and learning.

However, as trade along the Silk Road declined, so too did its oasis cities and over the years, they fell into obscurity and ruin.

Their imagination fired by the accounts of Chinese travellers such as Fu-Hsien in the 5th century and 7th century monk Hsuan-tsang, these predominantly European archaeologists and explorers set off to re-discover cities which had been lost for centuries and lay buried in Central Asia’s desert sands.  Hopkirk traces the passions, obsessions and adventures adventures of Sven Hedin, Sir Aurel Stein, Albert Von Le Coq, Paul Pelliott, Langdon Lownes and Japan’s Count Otani as they set out at great personal risk and raced one another to redicover hidden Buddhist cities.  

The focus of their efforts was the vast Taklamakan desert which Sven Hedin called “the worst and most dangerous desert in the world” and access to which access is restricted on three sides by mountains (Tian Shan to the north, the Pamir to the west, and the Karakoram and Kun Lun to the south) and by the Lop and Gobi deserts on the fourth. 

In an engaging, exciting and interesting read, Hopkirk tells of the treasures that they found and how literally tonnes of manuscripts, frescoes and statues were removed before the Chinese authorities finally put a stop to the removal of antiquities.
This books is the perfect introduction to a remote and difficult to visit area and Hopkirk includes general introductions to the Silk Road and the cities of the Taklamakan; which is useful, if like me, you have no previous knowledge and the region is a bit of a blank on the map.   This book brings the region to life.

Foreign Devils left me longing to drop everything and head straight out of the door in Hopkirk’s footsteps to see the region for myself and wanting to read more about the area and its history.  Fortunately, many of the first hand accounts on which Hopkirk’s book is based are available online for free in a variety of formats, for example, those by Sven Hedin (Through Asia, volume 1 and volume 2) and Sir Aurel Stein (Sand Buried Ruins of Khotan).