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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Book Review

News from Tartary: A Journey from Peking to Kashmir
By Peter Fleming. Foreword by Heinrich Harrer. First published in 1936. J. P. Tarcher, 1982, 384 pp.

In 1935, Peter Fleming, a special correspondent for The Times (London), set out with Kini Maillart to travel from Peking to India. Their route would take them through North Tibet and Sinkiang, a region recently besieged by civil war and closed to foreign travelers. In the end their journey took around 7 months, covered some 3500 miles, and cost about 150 pounds each.

Most people—even those who have traveled rough—would consider this an extremely difficult journey. The pair had long hauls over tough terrain on camels, donkeys, horses, or on foot. They slept in a tent, and endured extremes of heat and cold. They ate quantities of tsamba (parched barley meal which could be mixed with tea and rancid butter), and they often drank brackish water, plain or in their tea, the salt fighting it out with the sugar. They bathed out of a frying pan. And they dealt with a slew of agents from the various groups trying to control the area—nationalist, Soviet, rebel—who demanded papers they didn’t possess.

But Fleming didn’t see this as a hard life, and anyone seeking insight into the makeup of the true traveler will find it in News from Tartary. “There are, I know, many people to whom our existence would not have appealed,” writes Fleming with characteristic understatement; “but actually it was a very good existence. We were down to brass tacks. We were engaged on an enterprise in which we were both passionately anxious to achieve success and in which we were both convinced that success was, by any standards, worth achieving.” Against this “translunary background” of high purpose, he says, they were “content to lead sublunary, not to say, bestial lives. We were not so very far above the animals. Our days, like theirs, were ruled by the elemental things—the sun, the wind, the frost. Like them, we lay on the earth to sleep. Like them, we were interested above all else in food.”

The enjoyment Fleming found in the journey, an enjoyment shared by his Swiss colleague, Kini, could not be plainer and seems to me to more than equal the second purpose of their trip which was, as the book’s title suggests, to bring back news from the remote region. And though he feels that “politics are tiresome things at the best of times,” the news they brought back was political, and toward the end of the book, Fleming sums up the complex situation in the region which of course played a role in the journey throughout.

News from Tartary is very much a straightforward account, enlivened by the author’s vivid description of landscape and climate, his pointed often humorous observations about people he meets, and his comments—also often humorous—about his own activities. There is not an interior journey: we learn little about Fleming or Kini’s emotional lives, they are merely travel companions, not involved in some passionate affair, and they get along remarkably well. All the same, the book feels personal—Fleming is so direct and his prose, though beautifully crafted, so conversational, we feel that he is talking to us.

In many ways the quality of a travel book comes down to the traveler, and Fleming is a wonderful guide and companion: intelligent, witty, open to experience, honest about that experience, and modest. Early on, he says that one thing he and Kini share is “an abhorrence of the false values placed—whether by its exponents or by the world at large—on what can most conveniently be referred to by its trade-name of Adventure. From an aesthetic rather than from an ethical point of view, we were repelled by the modern tendency to exaggerate, romanticize, and at last cheapen out of recognition the ends of the earth and the deeds done in their vicinity.” This lack of self-aggrandizement is one of the great pleasures of Fleming’s book.

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