Friday, June 15, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: Companion Read

I've been reading Forbidden Journey by Ella Maillart and it has turned out to be one of those books that you look forward to reading at the end of a work day.  It's the 1930's, and Maillart is hanging around in Peking, trying to find a way to travel across northern China and Tibet and down into India, a journey that presented certain difficulties related to politics and general physical hardship.  She meets Peter Fleming, correspondent for the Times, who is planning the same journey and they decide to travel together.

Peter Fleming (brother of Ian Fleming) wrote a book about the same journey:  News from Tartary, which I read several years ago and loved. I remember his account of meeting Ella Maillart and how he seemed to think her pretty impressive, and his references to her throughout his book made me long to learn more about her, so I was really happy to get my hands on her version of the story.

I love travel literature, and this book has all the hallmarks of the classic adventure:  difficulty with passports and Byzantine Asian government systems, getting arrested by local authorities in provincial outposts, clinging to the back of a truck on a bumpy ride over a mountain pass, unreliable guides, hunger, thirst, cold, and heat.  Also, heart wrenching accounts of faithful horses and camels that are too worn out to move another step and must be abandoned to die in the desert.  These stories always get to me.  Maillart mentions that they wanted to shoot a camel thus abandoned, to put it out of its misery, but the local custom of the desert forbade that practice, as it was preferable to hope that a miracle would save an abandoned animal.  Her beloved horse, Slalom, she left by a river--the first water they'd seen for ages--hoping that he'd gain strength eventually by being able to drink.

Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming

Aside from the adventure, I enjoyed Forbidden Journey for its accounts of Peter Fleming, who had a good sense of humor--his books are hilarious. He and Maillart were both quite young when they made this trip. It was interesting that for all Maillart was considered to be impressive, the domestic chores of traveling--laundry, cooking, mending--were her responsibility.  I was a little surprised that she seems to accept this as natural, and even says she was glad to be able to feel useful.  On the other hand, she writes of how she preferred to travel alone and be truly independent.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't read two accounts of the same journey, but News from Tartary and Forbidden Journey complement each other, yet also highlight the different goals and priorities of the two adventurers.


  1. Wow, these memoirs sound nifty. Thanks for posting about them. I wonder if they will be hard to find.

  2. I had to go to my university library to find both of them. They are available on Amazon, but are a bit expensive.

  3. I love well written travelogues, I'll look for these.

    I like to read two author's viewpoints on the same scenes. If I remember properly, Victor Hugo did a short story, where he shows the same scenes, drawn in some detail, but from about 3 or 4 viewpoints...buggered if I can remember the tile of the story.