Much more important to me than cameras..were my journals; because all that I have ever really needed to record what I needed to record has been in a notebook.
Eric Newby is one of the most celebrated English travel writers. Growing up between the wars close to the River Thames in south-west London, Newby was inspired to travel in part by hearing Apsley Cherry-Garrard (one of Scott’s party and the author of The Worst Journey In The World) speak at his school and by a set of books belonging to his father, the Children’s Colour Book of Lands and Peoples.
Newby began his travels in 1938 when he joined the crew of a four-masted Finnish barque which was still engaged in the Australian grain trade.
During the Second World War, Newby served in The Black Watch and the Special Boat Service. On operations with the latter in 1942, he gained his first experience of Europe, landing by dinghy on Sicily where he was captured and sent to a POW camp in the Po valley.
He subsequently escaped and during a period of hiding met his wife. He was recaptured and was detained until the end of the war when he returned to Italy and married, Wanda, the girl he had met while in hiding. He recorded his wartime experiences in Love and War in the Apennines, published in 1971.
Following the war, Newby embarked on careers in the fashion industry (in his father’s business and with John Lewis) and publishing. In 1956, his first book, about his experience in the last Grain Race, was published.
His most famous book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush was published in 1958. Evelyn Waugh was sufficiently impressed by Newby’s writing to contribute a preface for no fee.
A Short Walk contains what the Telegraph called “the most celebrated meeting between travellers since that of Livingstone and Stanley”, when Newby encountered explorer Wilfred Thesiger.
Contrasting his own amateurism with that of Thesiger’s professionalism, Newby recalls Thesiger watching him and his companion inflate their camping mattresses, an act prompting Thesiger to comment: “God, you must be a couple of pansies.”
In 1963 he travelled the length of the Ganges by boat with his wife, Wanda, his account of which was published in 1966 as Slowly Down the Ganges.
After that trip, he became travel editor of the Observer, a post he held for 10 years from 1964 to 1973.
The chapters in What the Traveller Saw are largely made up of journeys from that period. However, the book serves as an excellent sampler of those, as well as more famous journeys Newby undertook and which later became books in their own right.
The book begins with chapters on his last Grain Race experience and his wartime experiences in Italy. It also contains a chapter on his journey back to Europe after walking in the Hindu Kush and another on his Ganges journey with Wanda.
There is a great deal more to What the Traveller Saw. Newby, it seems, was fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time, whether visiting Kenya in the years soon after its independence from Britain or China at a time when it was relatively closed to tourism.
Newby was obviously someone who relished travel in all its forms, demonstrated in What the Traveller Saw by the wide range of travel experiences from places evoking the edge of the world (Lisbon, Scilly Isles, Ireland), the desolation of the Australian outback, the dense urbanisation of Japan and Hong Kong and the tropical comfort of Bali and Fiji.
His journeys always seem to open up possibilities; more walks and trips for which the present journey permits no time. His horizons are always expanding, the world becoming larger the more he travels.
However he travels, whether by sailing boat, ocean liner, train, canoe, plane or rowing boat Newby is an enthusiastic traveller and always appears to be enjoying himself.
Despite his taste for adventurous travel (see for example the chapter on the first descent by a European of the Wakwayowkastic, a tributary of the Moose River in Ontario), Newby is also cheerful visiting places well known to tourism.
Although not in thrall to the development of tourist amenities at Petra, he does not allow that to dampen his exhilaration at visiting somewhere he had been inspired to visit reading the Children’s Book of Lands and Peoples at the age of 8:
The Siq went on and on, down and down, a journey I wished could be prolonged indefinitely. Merely to go through it was worth the journey from Amman […] nothing can compare with that first vision of El Khazna, seen as one emerges from the darkness of the Siq.
No matter to Newby that he was not Burckhardt re-discovering Petra, surrounded only by Bedouin. His good cheer is a good example to bear in mind whenever the temptation to bemoan the presence of other tourists rises.
To Newby’s eye for detail, gentle humour and Englishness, this volume also adds a good selection of Newby’s own photography, a skill he developed while at The Observer.
In his introduction, Newby notes that many of the photos were taken during that period, which he describes of one of the happiest of his life, noting:
As a result, What the Traveller Saw essentially commemorates the past, and, in may cases, a world that has changed beyond all recognition.
It is fitting, therefore, that he ends this collection where it began, in Italy, with a 1988 piece written about Sicily, the place where his European travels began some 45 years previously.
Eric Newby died in 2006. Obituaries giving an overview of his career and life can be found in The Guardian and Telegraph. Eric Newby appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1982, which can be heard online here, (or using the embedded player below).
I just thought it was really fascinating to see the different layers of the city, how it’s just so stacked together how people are so compressed and how they find a way to exploit every little nook and cranny of space to their advantage and I felt like it was a little wild and had a lot of energy to it so I wanted to make a film that was sort of like a roller coaster ride through the city.
Great video from filmmaker Brandon Li. Seven minutes but worth a watch.
A whirlwind insight showing Hong Kong from a number of angles. Split into three distinct acts with an original soundtrack the film was shot over the course of one month filming 2-5 hours of footage a day.
With a great sense of fluidity the film shows dancing lions, urban explorers, mah jong, yacht racing, fireworks, Cantonese opera, an incense ceremony, buddhas, some superb behind the scenes footage and, of course, Hong Kong’s distinctive skyline.
I am a nomad I don’t have a fixed address I travel all over the world and I make short films about the places I have been.
Brandon Li’s director’s commentary to the video is on Youtube here, and more of his films can be seen on Vimeo here or on his website: www.unscripted.com.
UrbaniStan is a street photography project that explores the urban environment of the developing world. The project aims to demonstrate that ‘urban’ in the developing world does not necessarily mean modern and to draw the attention of the general public to the slowly declining social values that are sinking under increasing pressures of modernisation.
Excellent photo essay from Maptia and Slovenian photographer, Matjaž Krivic.
Breathtaking in its scope and with beautiful images, this gallery of 80 images of urban life around the world is a visual feast for any travel lover.
The photos in this gallery are the result of Krivic’s many years’ globe-trotting in Asia, Africa and the Middle East but they are much more than simply a collection of postcard images of famous places.
Although many of the locations are well known, Krivic captures a different angle and gives them a personality whether it is of boys playing volleyball on the streets of Thula in Yemen, Jaipur primary school pupils having a maths lesson, a boy studying at a medrassa in Mali or people at work, play or prayer around the world.
Matjaž Krivic has been travelling and photographing the world for 22 years. According to his website, he focusses on poorer parts of the world “characterised by traditions, social unrest and religious devotion…the marginal world – the voices of the neglected”.
Intimate, spontaneous and striking, this is a gallery to get lost in, to wonder not only at the places themselves but also at the people who live there and the lives they lead. Inspiring and thought provoking.
More of Matjaž Krivic’s work can be found on his website (www.krivic.com), on Instagram (@krivicmatjaz) or on Twitter (@matjazkrivic) and if 80 photos aren’t enough and you want to see more of the Urbanistan photos, look here.
There was thick pristine snow covering the mountains as far as you can see, which was a stark contrast with the endless sanddunes we have seen on other parts of the Silk Road, which gives you a better understanding of the wide range of difficulties and obstacles that merchants in past centuries had to overcome on these trade routes, not to mention the bandits and armies shifting control of the areas.
120 days and 18,000 km along the Silk Road with a Dragoman overland expedition.
Nicely edited, Nicolas Bori’s video contains some striking images and colours showing the diversity of the peoples and landscapes in the countries along the route.
Nicolas recalls some of the highlights from his trip, including epic scenery, mountains, picnicking with locals and moonlit, starry nights on Traveldudes’ website, here.
“The old euphoria of the traveller, a sensation I’d almost forgotten in the forest, was stealing over me—that keen expectation of something happening soon, something fascinating.”
“Lazy, that’s your trouble” announced Emily Hahn’s surveying partner while she was studying engineering. This memoir, however, reveals that Hahn was anything but.
No Hurry to Get Home opens with chapters focussing on Hahn’s childhood years. Hahn reveals that at an early age the urge to get away was manifested itself in running away from home, probably as a result of a “hangover” from reading books with protagonists who “scorned the stale air of indoors”.
Following Hahn from this early experience through her upbringing in St Louis and Chicago in the first two decades of the 20th century, we encounter a father who was careful to ensure that his daughters conversations about clothes remained practical and never became vanity and sisters who were competitive and poached boyfriends. Hahn moves on to encounter the male chauvinist environment of engineering school and the joys of drinking homemade gin during Prohibition.
Hahn’s first real travel experience was a road trip heading West across the States in a Model T Ford in 1924 when such a journey involved “virtuous, healthy discomfort” because of the lack of roadside services and “people still behaved as if motoring was a passing fad.” The trip changed Hahn who became increasingly restless and recalled thinking:
It was awful to think of everybody in that big place getting up at the same time every morning, taking the same bus or streetcar to work, doing the same things every day at the office. Where in the world were people who did things simply because they wanted to—because they were interested? Did no one ever strike out along new paths?
Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic inspired Hahn to new challenges and she quit work and headed West again to become a Harvey Girl.
Subsequent chapters follow Hahn around the world as she travels to the UK and Africa before heading to Japan and China, where she stayed for 8 years and was at the time of the Japanese invasion and the first part of the Second World War before she headed back to the US.
Hahn is humorous and candid without being sentimental as she encounters the Kurtz-like anthropologist, Stewart, in the Belgian Congo, makes her way overland to Lake Kivu with a party of bearers, is confronted by racism in Dar es Salaam and recounts a Japanese air raid while she was in China. In one of the best known essays, The Big Smoke, Hahn recounts her experiences with opium (“I was quite determined. It took me a year or so to become addicted, but I kept at it”).
Throughout, Hahn reveals common travellers’ preoccupations: communicating with home, the joy of first travel, conversations with other travellers, doubts about the suitability of traveling companions, concerns about the creeping commercialisation of popular travel destinations and the nuisance travellers can be to their families and friends when they return from travels full of anecdotes and extravagant habits.
No Hurry to Get Home was originally published as Times and Places in 1970. Originally intended to be an autobiography, the introduction records how Hahn’s enthusiasm for the project waned as she became preoccupied with new projects but had spent the advance.
The end result became an anthology of articles which had been published in the New Yorker, the magazine to which Hahn contributed over a period of 70 years (as a staff writer for more than 40 of those). The chapters in No Hurry are therefore stand alone which makes it an an ideal collection to dip in and out of.
Hahn’s surveying partner at engineering school might have perceived recycling previously published pieces as a further example of laziness. That, however, would be grossly unfair. During her prolific career, Hahn wrote more than 50 books on a variety of subjects and made her final contribution to the New Yorker at the age of 96. Selecting previously published pieces was simply a way of meeting a commitment. In many ways, a memoir made up of pieces published in the magazine with which Hahn was linked throughout her professional life is a fitting testament and an ideal introduction to Hahn’s life and travels.
The New York Times obituary of Emily Hahn is here. Read more of Emily Hahn’s work in the New Yorker archives, here.
To Peking: A Forgotten Journey from Moscow to Manchuria by Peter Fleming
Published by Tauris Parke Paperbacks (originally published by Rupert Hart-Davis in 1952)
“Well, we’ve been on a journey with Fleming in China, and now we’re real travellers for ever and ever” (WH Auden)
Peter Fleming was older brother of Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels.
His travel writing career was short but distinguished and brought him worldwide fame long before Ian had penned the James first Bond book. The period in which Fleming made his reputation lasted from just 1932 to 1935, while he was in his mid-20s. In later life, he referred to it as the part of his life he spent “swanning” around.
Fleming’s “swanning” began after his education at Eton and Oxford, when he travelled to the US to pursue a financial career. His arrival, just a fortnight before the Wall Street Crash, coupled with an indifference to the world of finance, meant that Fleming seized an opportunity to go to Guatemala. After that, he abandoned finance and returned to London in 1931 to began a literary career at the Spectator magazine.
Within a few months, Fleming was off to China on behalf of the Royal Institute of International Affairs to a conference organised by the Institute of Pacific Relations. Again his timing was inauspicious as the Japanese had just invaded China.
After returning to London and the Spectator, Fleming’s big break came after he joined an expedition to Brazil to search for Colonel Percy Fawcett. His travel writing career was born and Brazilian Adventure, a success on publication in 1933, is still in print.
Fleming’s next journey was another trip to China on behalf of the Times newspaper. This led to his second book,One’s Company, and although he later described it as “much worse than the first”, it was a success nonetheless.
In 1934 Fleming set off for China for a third time, this time overland via Russia. This is the trip featured in A Forgotten Journey.
Now reprinted by TPP as To Peking, A Forgotten Journey is Fleming’s diary of his journey from Moscow to Peking between August 1934 and January 1935. That trip was anterior to his main purpose, a journey overland from China to India (later published asNews from Tartary). As a mere prelude, Fleming’s diary remained unpublished until 1952. Few alterations have been made to the original text which was published more or less “as it stood”. Less polished than his other books, it still makes good reading.
The first part of the book recounts Fleming’s journey from Moscow to the Caucasus to get some shooting with his friends Lord and Lady Gage. (Shooting was one of Fleming’s lifelong passions, as the frequent references in his diary attest. Perhaps fittingly, he was on a grouse shoot when he died in 1971).
After leaving Lord and Lady Gage at Baku, the second part of the book finds Fleming continuing his journey across the Caspian Sea, through Ashgabad, Samarkand and Tashkent before turning north to join the transiberian railway to Vladivostok. From there he embarks on a farcical and unsuccessful shooting trip in search of a Siberian tiger.
Fleming then heads to Manchuria (which had been invaded by the Japanese in 1931) where he meets up with Ella (‘Kini’) Maillart (the Swiss explorer and travel writer) before exploring Manchuria and Jahol and spending Christmas and New year in Shanghai and Peking.
While not his most highly regarded book, the diary is nevertheless an interesting account of China and travel in the region at a particular period and told with Fleming’s dead pan humour.
The diary in A Forgotten Journey ends shortly before Maillart and Fleming began their 3,500, 7 month overland journey from Beijing to Kashmir via the Chinese province of Xinjiang in February 1935 (their accounts of that trip were published as News from Tartary (Fleming) and Forbidden Journey (Maillart)).
Looking back on his ’swanning around’ period, Fleming reflected:
Three years; three interesting, fairly hard journeys. Three books which all fell on their feet. […] It was all great fun. The feeling that you had the run of the world. […] The chance of leading an almost entirely out of door life. But what good did it do anyone, except me and, I suppose, my publishers. Perhaps a few sick or lonely people whose lives were made briefly less intolerable by the stuff I wrote. I should say precious little probably none at all and I’m quite prepared to believe that I would have turned into a more useful citizen if, instead of just ’swanning’ I’d spent my middle twenties studying chartered accountancy or quantity surveying or grassland management but, well, I didn’t and there it is. – from BBC’s Travel Writers (The Spoken Word)
A Forgotten Journey is the less well known fourth book from the same period which also saw Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Robert Byron all making journeys which resulted in classic travel narratives; a period Paul Fussell later called the British literary diaspora of the inter war years.
Fleming’s travels were not over by 1935. After returning from his trip with Ellie Maillart, Fleming married actress Celia Johnson (Johnson went on to successful collaborations with Noel Coward and David Lean during the 1940s, most famously inBrief Encounter starring opposite Trevor Howard).
Fleming turns up in China again in 1938 (this time with wife, Celia) at a party in Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden’s Journey to a War. (The party was also attended by British Ambassador to China, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, whose next posting was to Russia in 1942 where he penned the famous ‘Dear Reggie’ note). Isherwood describes Fleming “with his drawl, his tan, his sleek, perfectly brushed hair, and lean good looks” and concludes “he is all together too good to be true – and he knows it.” However, the pair were impressed with Fleming’s charm, physicality, linguistic and organisational skills, not to mention his Chinese habits, and eventually drop their defensive attitude (which they admit to being a “blend of anti-Etonionism and professional jealousy”).
In the postwar period, Fleming seems to have been outshone by Ian’s success with the James Bond books. However, for any lover of travel writing, as for Isherwood and Auden, he will always be “the Fleming Legend”.
Published by W&N (2009) (originally published in 1989 by BBC)
The compulsive urge to travel is a recognised psychical condition. It has its own word, dromomania, and I’m glad to say I suffer from it. The ambition of every dromomaniac is a circumnavigation of the planet.
It is more then 25 years since Monty Python member, Michael Palin, left on his round the world journey for the BBC in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s fictional traveller, Phileas Fogg.
That journey around the world was, in his own words, the one that “started the ball rolling” and, in those 25 years, Palin has embarked on a second career as TV travel presenter and has completed a further seven journeys, from Pole to Pole, across the Sahara, to the Himlayas, around Eastern Europe, in pursuit of Hemingway and lastly to Brazil. All have been filmed and broadcast by the BBC and have accompanying books (as well as audiobooks, narrated by Palin). So successful was Palin’s second career as traveller and adventurer that it culminated in him being president of theRoyal Geographical Societybetween2009 and 2012.
Palin was not the BBC’s first choice as presenter for the journey; three others turned the role down before it was offered to him. One of those was Alan Whicker, presenter of Whicker’s World, a TV magazine program reporting from the round the world that ran on British television for 30 years. In an interview with Palin and his co-producer, Roger Mills, to mark the anniversary of Palin’s 80 day journey and to promote the third volume of Palin’s diaries which cover most of his travelling period, Mills recalls how the production team did their best to put Whicker off accepting the job. Apparently Whicker later called the programme “a seven-hour ego trip” (read more here). The series was a success though and the BBC screened seven instead of the six originally planned episodes and the final programme was viewed by 12 million.
The 80 day journey tried to stick as closely to Fogg’s route as possible. Travel by plane was not allowed. In an age where travel is widespread and the world is only a click away courtesy of Youtube or Vimeo, it would be easy to question the value of such a journey. Palin himself admits his journey never allowed time to “dig very deep” and in his introductionacknowledged that “those expecting profound international insights will be disappointed.”In an interview for A&E in the US promoting the TV series and aired after the first episode, Palin was asked what he now felt about air travel and replied:
its highly functional and a bit aseptic it’s rather like being in a nice piece of cling wrap; you soar over the world and the aircraft cabin you’re in is exactly like the lounge you get out into like the hotel you go to, there are no smells sounds you don’t really touch and feel the world much, I mean, if I have to go from A to B very quickly yes fine suits me, but the experience of going across the Atlantic by ship was so utterly different to going across the Atlantic by plane and it gives you time, time to think about the culture you’ve just left and time to sort of prepare yourself for he next one.
The point was simply the opportunity to make a journey like this overland and experience the scale of the world and the relation of countries and cultures to one another. To see, hear, smell and touch it:
Travel when the hands get dirty, when contact is made, brought home to me how much we all see of the world on television and in the newspapers, and how little we know of it. Journeys like this can only be good for us. (from the Afterword)
This is where Around the World in 80 Days is best. Not in the set pieces or the traditional sights but in the people Palin meets and speaks to: the rubbish collectors in Venice, the crew on the many ships he travels on (and particularly the dhow) or the street barber in Bombay. The contrasts of elation and frustration and of hurrying to meet connections and waiting; those “still pools at the side of the stream, where for a while, nothing at all moves.” And the fact that despite the BBC’s best efforts, things don’t always go to plan and although making his journey at the end of the 20th century, Palin struggles to ‘keep pace’ with Fogg’s fictional 19th century journey.
These things, and Palin’s natural approach, make this journey both personal and satisfying as we experience the generosity he encounters as he circles the globe and the sadness he feels at constantly leaving places people and people he has known only for a short time. Ironically though, given the scale of his journey, nowhere is the vastness of the world and our place in it made as clear as up Palin’s anticlimatic and frustrating return to an indifferent London.
Photographs, videos, interactive maps of Palin’s route and the entire text of the book are online atwww.palinstravels.co.uktogether with materials relating to his other journeys.
See Kathy Lette interview Michael Palin for the BBC’s Behind the Headlines in 1990 (the sound and video are a little out of synch but it is a quite funny contemporary interview):
For more on Palin’s role as President of the Royal Geographical Society, see this article from 2009 in the Independent newspaper.
“All my life I have been interested in adventure and, abroad, I have enjoyed the frisson of leaving the wide well-lit streets and venturing up back alleys in search of the hidden, authentic pulse of towns.” Ian Fleming
After the Second World War, Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond and brother of travel writer Peter Fleming), joined the Sunday Times newspaper as Foreign Manager. He was responsible for sending correspondents around the world and seeing that they delivered “intelligent stuff”.
In 1959, it was his turn and Fleming was urged by his editorial board to “do something exciting and write about it.” He did and so made two journeys around thirteen “thrilling cities of the world.” The resulting essays, which Fleming referred to as ‘mood pieces’, were serialised in the Sunday Times in 1959/60 and then published as Thrilling Cities in 1962.
The book follows the two journeys. The first half recounts a 30 day round the world air trip in 1959 taking in eight ‘exotic’ cities. The second, a six week, six city and 6000 mile trip around Europe in a seven litre Thunderbird made in the spring of the following year (1960).
I hope not…people do connect me with James Bond simply because I happen to like scrambled eggs and short sleeved shirts and some of the things that James Bond does but, err, I certainly haven’t got his guts nor his, err, very lively appetites.
That may be but, as the title suggests, what Fleming records are not the ‘tourist sights’. Instead, he uses his “tin-opener” to “find out what goes on behind the facade” of his stop-offs and reveals the exotic, shady and, at times, seedy background of his James Bond thrillers.
Whether describing Hamburg’s nightlife or Berlin’s transvestites, having tea with Lucky Luciano in Naples, spending time with fortune tellers and geishas, dining with Noel Coward and Charlie Chaplin, meeting Hollywood producers or crime reporters in Chicago, Fleming is always in his element and moves effortlessly between respectability (and his Establishment friends and contacts) and the more unusual side of his destinations.
Some encounters, like that in Macao with Dr Lobo, a multi million pound gold dealer, and his “powerfully built butler, who looked more like a judo black-belt than a butler” could almost have come straight from the pages of his novels.
Fleming is equally at ease with a champagne and jet-set lifestyle and provides interesting glimpses of what travel used to be like – smoking on aircraft, Elizabeth Arden cosmetics handed out to passengers, refuelling in ‘the’ Lebanon and flying your car across the Channel rather than using a ferry. They convey the excitement and glamour of travel at the start of the jet age and also Fleming’s enthusiasm for travel and delight at “hammering out the miles” driving across Europe in the post war period.
On his way, Fleming makes absorbing observations about travel and tourists. He complains in Honolulu about the “high-pressure tourist atmosphere and the uniformity of the tourist and retire population.” He prefers his hotels “unsullied by the tourist smear” and accuses tourists who pay to hear the Vienna boys choir of only “collecting the occasion, like a postage stamp.” In Italy, he avoids Venice, refuses guides and guidebooks at Pompeii and makes wry comments about the country and its people. In a post-imperialist lament, he notes the decline of British cultural and commercial influence around the world and exhorts younger people to show more interest in the ‘Orient’ and to travel more.
Bond is never far off, whether in the Las Vegas gambling tips courtesy of Fleming’s ‘connected’ contact, the advice on how to drink sake or in the casino at Monte Carlo. At times it feels as though Fleming is playing to the gallery but perhaps there is more of him in Bond than he admits. (A distinct possibility for a man whose idea of a literary gaffe is making reference in his novels to half bottles of Pol Roger champagne, when Pol Roger does not in fact produce half bottles.)
Fleming modestly claimed that he was not in the “Shakespeare stakes” and had no ambitions to more serious writing. However, he was obviously well travelled and had an eye for the interesting and unusual combined with a lust for life and foreign travel. As a result, Thrilling Cities is never boring but is an enjoyable whistle stop world tour seen through the eyes of James Bond’s creator just before that world was presented to cinema audiences in the first of the Bond films.
It is worth pointing out that Thrilling Cities was not Fleming’s only contribution to the travel writing genre. In the late 50s while still Foreign Manager at the ST, he sent Norman Lewis to Cuba to report on Castro’s chances against the Batista regime. While there, Lewis interviewed a Dubonnet-soaked Hemingway, an episode recounted by Lewis in The World, The World. But that, as they say, is another story.
Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter HopkirkJohn 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 theMarlburian 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 1andvolume 2) and Sir Aurel Stein (Sand Buried Ruins of Khotan).