Ella Maillart - The best travel writer of the 20th century ?
When I was in Delhi in mid November this year, I was thrilled to find a reprint of Ella Maillart's classic, Turkistan Solo, in Bahrisons bookshop. Compared to modern writers of Central Asia such as Colin Thubron's and his book The Lost Heart of Asia which I found so depressing, Maillart's story is travel writing at its brilliant best. Her eye for detail, minute description of faces, dress, food, customs and landscape, is sheer joy to read. She doesn't dwell on the dirt, the lice, but on the human hearts of people
In this book her journey took place in 1932, long before travelling in Central Asia became fashionable, Ella Maillart travelled to Russian Turkestan, bordered by China, Tibet, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Her dream was to see the mountains that lay on the fringes of China and the Takla Makan desert. She travelled like a nomad - slowly, by camel and on foot. Setting out from Moscow, she crossed Kyrgyzstan as far as the Tien Shan range (the Celestial Mountains). She climbed the 5,000 metre-high Sari Tor on makeshift skis, explored the legendary cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara, travelled down the Amu Daria river and crossed, solo, the freezing and hostile wastes of the Kizil Kum, the Desert of Red Sands. Her companions are drawn from both past and present - Mongolian princesses rub shoulders with Trotskyist exiles, whilst pilgrims and dervishes ride alongside emperors and kings. Even today, a trip like this would be considered daring. That Ella Maillart did it, largely alone almost 70 years ago, makes her journey all the more remarkable.
I was fortunate when I lived in Central Asia from 1993-99, to repeat many of her routes in what was then called Turkestan: today's Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. I was fascinated to read that she had crossed Ak Bel Pass, and reached the source of the Syr Darya river
Naila and I spent time with a Kyrgyz family near Tash Rabat, a place Elia Maillart passed through on her journey in 1932. I had that strange feeling they were closely related. This was in 1998. Photo Bob McKerrow
But it was not only her travels in modern day Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that fascinated me, but her journey through Uzbekistan to Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. It was fascinating to compare my photos with hers and see so many similarities.
Turkestan Solo is the account of an expedition from the Tien Shan to the Kizil Kum where she spent time with the Kirghiz and Kazakh tribesmen. Talgar peak in the Tienshan range in Kazakhstan: Photo: Bob McKerrow
The quote from Turkestan Solo I love is this one:
I smile when I think of the vegetarian credo. The Kirghiz feed exclusively on meat and milk.Yet they live long, and like the Esquimaux, are able to put up an astonishing resistance to cold, privation and the fatique of the long treks. To eat as much as possible when one has the chance, so that the unexpected may find one with every reserve stored full, that is the principle on which the camel works. In unconscious obedience to this rule, I stuff myself daily and put on flesh visibly. I am the terror of Mila who is chatge of our victuals. Either her eyes of her voice remind me daily : " It's frightful. Ella eats more than the men!"
When she died in early April 1997, Sarah Anderson pays tribute to her.
"To dawdle is my usual fashion, as if I had the whole of eternity before me." This sums up Ella Maillart's approach to travel; she liked travelling slowly, absorbing the culture, and she understood the importance of finding the similarities rather than the differences between people. It was this inquisitiveness which makes her part of the tradition of great women travellers; she had an interest in understanding the how and why of other people's lives, rather more than in straight exploration.
Her photos are brilliant such as this one taken of a woman picking cotton in Uzbekistan in 1932.
Ella Maillart, known as Kini, was born in Geneva in 1903; she was a sickly child until, aged ten, she and her family started to spend the summer months on Lake Geneva. She was entranced by the lake, where she learned to sail, and in 1924 she represented Switzerland as the only woman in single-handed yachting at the Paris Olympics. She was a natural athlete and wrote that "with sailing, hockey, and skiing as main amusements I could bear the boredom of school." Her skiing became so accomplished that between 1931-34 she was a member of the Swiss National Ski Team. A photograph in her autobiography Cruises and Caravans (1942) shows her as the only woman in the Swiss ladies' ski team wearing a skirt.
At 17 she gave up school to study privately, to try to discover what career was calling her. She realised that earning her own living was her only route to independence but envied those who knew what they wanted to do, not having any idea herself. Her private studies failed, but undaunted she embarked on a six-month voyage with another woman along the south coast of France. On her return, her father, a furrier, told her that, as business was bad, she must think further about a career. She decided that the answer to her future lay in turning her life into a continual holiday.
She did various jobs in England and Berlin, where she lived mostly on porridge, and finally got a visa to Russia in 1930, where she studied film in Moscow and learnt to speak fluent Russian. She soon tired of the sedentary life and set off for the Caucasus. An article she wrote on her Caucasus trip was rejected; this did not surprise her as she said "I never nursed the illusion that I could write." She later saw writing as a tool which enabled her to travel, insisting that "I write with my foot.
An Uzbek merchant and his caravan.
She was later persuaded to expand her rejected article, which was published as Parmi La Jeunesse Russe (1932). Turkestan Solo (1934) was the account of an expedition from the Tien Shan to the Kizil Kum where she spent time with the Kirghiz and Kazakh tribesmen. In 1935 she was sent as a special correspondent by the French newspaper Petit Parisien to Manchuria. It was there that she re-encountered Peter Fleming (whom she had previously interviewed in London), who was in China for the Times, and she suggested that they embark together on a 3,500-mile trip west from Peking through the Taklamakan desert and Sin-kiang (at that time closed to foreigners) to Kashmir: a journey which took seven months. In the foreword to his book of the journey News From Tartary (1936) Fleming wrote "I can hardly doubt that you will find her, as I did, a gallant traveller and a good companion."
This belies the inevitable difficulties that two strong-minded people had with their very different approaches to travel. Fleming (photo left) was impatient to get back to England while Ella Maillart, whose book about the trip, Forbidden Journey, was published in 1937, wanted to linger. She was a traveller rather than an explorer, not interested in map-making, but rather in understanding the people among whom she found herself. "I wanted to forget that we had inevitably to return home. I even lost the desire to return, and would have liked the journey to last for the rest of my life."
The Cruel Way (1947) recounts a journey from Geneva to India via Persia and Afghanistan made in 1939 with a friend who was recovering from drug addiction. She spent much of the war in India visiting ashrams and gurus, way ahead of her time, and stayed for some time with Ramana Maharshi in southern India. He cured her of some of her restlessness and she came to the realisation that "the world with its countless aspects cannot give us the fundamental answer: only God can. And God can be met nowhere but in ourselves . . ."
Her travels had always been a search rather than an escape, but after her time in India she achieved a greater serenity. I remember her coming into the Travel Bookshop in London as an old lady, sitting peacefully on the sofa but still exuding an air of curiosity. It was that, combined with a prodigious energy that made her into such a good traveller and an inspiration to women travellers of today. Her aim was "to push the nose of my sailing boat into every creek and to point my skis down every possible gully of the mountain."
In 1949 Maillart became one of the first travellers to the newly opened Nepal and wrote about the people, who reminded her of her native Swiss, in Land of the Sherpas (1955). That was her last travel book but she continued to write occasionally and to lecture and accompany tours abroad.
She retired to a chalet in Chandolin, one of the highest villages in the Swiss Alps, but went on taking tours to far-off places well into her eighties. In her old age she managed to achieve one of her ambitions by going to the South Pacific and aged 83, she went to Tibet on her last major expedition. Three years ago she went to Goa and spent her remaining years reading about India and Indian religions.
Ella Maillart, traveller and writer: born Geneva, Switzerland 20 February 1903; died Chandolin, Switzerland 27 March 1997. For me, she is the greatest travel writer of the 20th Century
My photograph of a woman sitting outside the Ulig Beg Madrasah in Registan square could easily have been taken by her, except for the colour. Photo: Bob McKerrow