It was 50 years ago last spring that Peter Fleming, correspondent of the London Times -- and brother of James Bond author Ian -- made his famous trek across war-torn China to the remotest corner of Central Asia to report on what was happening in the territory now known as China's Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. From it emerged one of the all-time classics of travel writing, "News from Tartary."
Ever since I first read "News from Tartary" at school, I longed to follow Fleming's footsteps. But until 1984, it was not readily possible because Fleming's ultimate destination -- Kashi, then known as Kashgar -- remained closed to travelers from the West. Then, suddenly, China lifted the barriers, and I was able to join a British-organized tour. It gave me the chance of a lifetime.
Fleming traveled for seven months into Xinjiang under difficult, occasionally harrowing circumstances. We spent three weeks on what even today was still a sometimes arduous adventure in this strange and fascinating land with its exotic names and menacingly beautiful landscapes. Ours, like Fleming's, was an eventful trip, and one subject to unanticipated delays: At one point we could not move on because of a blinding sandstorm. And along the way, the sights and the people we encountered were not much changed from what he might have seen.
Twice the size of France, Xinjiang lies cut off from the rest of the world by the 20,000-foot ranges of the Pamirs, Karakorams, the Tien Shan or "Celestial Mountains," and the dread Gobi and Taklimakan deserts. When Japan invaded China in the 1930s, Xinjiang was in a state of anarchy, its seedy and sinister capital, Uru mqi, firmly controlled by the Soviets.
Fleming's ultimate objective was Kashgar, west of Uru mqi and supposedly farther from the sea than any other town on Earth. It is where the frontiers of Kashmir, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union all meet and where both London and Moscow maintained "listening posts." To get there from Peking, and from there over the Himalayas to British India, he traveled 3,500 miles on camel and horseback, surviving quite extraordinary privations -- not to mention the constant threat of imprisonment, or worse.
There were two reasons why he made the trip, Fleming wrote in the introduction to his book. One was "to find out what was happening in Xinjiang, or Chinese Turkistan. It was eight years since a traveler had crossed this remote and turbulent province and reached India across country from Peking. In the interim a civil war had flared up . . ." The second, "which was far more cogent than the first, was because we wanted to travel -- because we believed, in the light of previous experience, that we should enjoy it. It turned out that we were right. We enjoyed it very much indeed."
Our adventure began in Peking, where we headed west on a four-hour flight to Uru mqi. The plane passed over hundreds of miles of the desert Fleming rode across. We spotted salt lakes, scattered huts, a dead-straight road running from nowhere to nowhere; dry rivers vanishing into nothing; black hills veined like leaves. Then suddenly arose the vast empty snow-capped mountains of the Tien Shan.
Fleming described vividly how rival warlords murdered each other at the dinner table in Uru mqi ("the death-rate at banquets is appalling") and gave it a wide berth. But, as the capital of Xinjiang, it is the unavoidable jumping-off place for Kashi, and there the first hitch of our journey occurred. The onward flight was canceled because of bad weather.
For diversion, we were taken up into the foothills of the "Celestial Mountains" in search of Kazakh yurts, the collapsible felt encampments inhabited by the nomadic tribes since before Genghis Khan. We reached the snow line (it was nearly May) and a river still covered with yard-thick slabs of ice, which spoke of a bitter winter. A youth galloped past, riding bareback, Centaur-like, shouting at his tiny Mongol pony in a harsh burring language. Ping, our Peking guide, could not understand one word. The Kazakh's favorite sport, it appeared, is wrestling on horseback over the beheaded carcass of a sheep. But they were more than friendly. We visited their mud brick houses -- neat as a pin inside -- but saw no yurts; it was apparently the wrong season.
In Uru mqi, we visited a high school where 8-year-old Uighur children performed uninhibitedly for us, dancing and singing in high nasal tones akin to Turkish music. Uru mqi itself (euphemistically meaning "Beautiful Grassland" in Uighur) seems like one vast rubbish dump, a new industrial city of a million people, with countless smokestacks belching out pollution. Sadly, the old Russian buildings and tiny mosques (this is a largely Moslem territory) are rapidly being replaced with new shoeboxes. But, despite Fleming's cautionary account of Uru mqi banquets, the food in Xinjiang was surprisingly good. sw sk
We took off at last for Kashi in a tiny and ancient Russian turboprop, its fuselage widely patched. After two hours' flying, we put down for refueling at Aksu, a small oasis on the edge of the Taklimakan Desert. This is supposedly the world's deadliest desert -- in Uighur the name means "you-get-in, but-you-can't-get-out" -- with shifting sand dunes 700 feet high and a wind called the Karaburan that can bury whole caravansaries of silk merchants in a matter of hours.
At Aksu our second hitch occurred. While we waited the plane suddenly disappeared from sight, and the airport was filled with suffocating dust. Was it a Karaburan? After four hours, the crew staggered off wearing gauze masks. We were in Aksu for the night.
Less than a hundred miles from the Soviet frontier and the site a few years ago of ethnic clashes between Chinese and Uighurs in which hundreds were killed, Aksu is officially "off-limits" to tourists. (Tour operators often are granted special permission to enter such areas.) Thus there are none of the hotels in which "foreign devils" are placed elsewhere in sublime isolation from the Chinese. At the Aksu "guesthouse" we encountered the conditions that the traveling Chinese expect -- window panes were missing; there were doorless dormitories; the inmates hawked and spit in the squalid corridors; and the dirt was atrocious.
After a grim night at Aksu, the Karaburan mercifully abated. Back at the airport, the piped-in music saw us off incongruously with a full rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner" (although we were all British), and to our amazement the antique, sand-filled turboprops started up. Two days later than planned, we finally reached our goal. Kashi, immediately, was wonderful.
In Kashi's bazaar, old gentlemen dressed in fur-trimmed hats and knee-length quilted jackets with wide sleeves smiled benevolently from behind silk carpets, their marvelous faces adorned with forked white beards. The zany shop canopies threw eccentrically shaped shadows across a scene of amazing color, and delicious smells wafted from the spice stores and curbside kitchens. It is the Middle East of a past century.
Though once the fierce clansmen of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, these Uighurs are sweet and gentle people, and they were even more curious about us weird-looking Europeans than we were about them. Hospitably they invited us into their houses, affluent and richly decorated in comparison with those of China proper. We all bought exotic Tartar hats. Then we saw the hat-sellers filling their mouths with water, and spitting on the crowns to enhance the texture.
From time immemorial, geography has made Kashi a rich market center. Once it was a hub of the legendary 9,000-mile-long Silk Road from Asia to Europe.
The road began at Xi'an, once the capital of China and now home of the famous Terra Cotta Army. In 1974, peasants digging in a field near the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, China's first emperor, who died in 210 B.C., discovered the first of hundreds of lifesize terra cotta soldiers and horses. About 2,000 more of the figures are expected to be unearthed this year. The warriors, designed to protect the emperor in the afterlife, have turned the city into a major tourist draw.
From Xi'an, the road ran northwest to Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert, where it forked right and left on either side of the impenetrable Taklimakan Desert. Each branch of the road met at Kashi, nestling beneath the mightly Karakoram and Pamir mountains. One spoke continued westward over the "roof of the world" to Samarkand in the Soviet Union and another turned southward into Pakistan and India.sw sk
Fleming took the southern route from Xi'an to Kashi, while we would follow the northern route (in reverse) on our return from Kashi to eastern China.
Kashi is a Moslem city, and we visited the 500-year-old Huja Abbak mosque. The mausoleum is clad with sparkling emerald and turquoise tiles, peculiar to central Asia. The cloister to the mosque itself consists of lines of pointed arches, of a perfect symmetry and austerely superb simplicity, leading off a hall of elegantly slender wooden columns. In atmosphere, it reminded me a little of Spain's Alhambra.
Closed during the Cultural Revolution, the mosque is once again in business, a holy and tranquil place. The only sound was the rustling of poplars and the riffle of the bright red waters that flow through it, out of Kashi's ancient irrigation system fed from the invisible Pamirs by underground streams.
One evening there was a ball for party "cadres" near the hotel. With a full orchestra and female violinists, couples -- or men with men and women with women -- danced sedately to a curious mix of Chinese martial music, "The Anniversary Waltz" and "Oh Susannah." What was interesting was that it was manifestly for the elite, and they were all Chinese; so are those who fill most of the managerial jobs, from the hotel receptionists upwards. It reminded me of just how much a colony Xinjiang remains, with the Chinese minority (who in 1949 numbered only 6 percent, but are now 42 percent) ruling over the Uighur majority.
On our last day at Kashi, three of us headed in Kashi's only taxi to find the Pamirs and 23,000-foot Kongur Shan. Driving at breakneck speed for 50 miles across shingle desert, with still no sight of the Pamirs, the taxi slowed to a halt in the middle of nowhere. Not one, but two blowouts -- odds seemingly of one in a million, until we saw the state of the tubes. The rest of the day was spent trying to get help, and ending with miraculous repairs in a commune's primitive smithy.
Instead of pressing on to the Pamirs, as undoubtedly Fleming would have done, we chickened out and limped back to Kashi rather than miss the flight out. But, in fact, once again the flight had been delayed to the next day.
These are the kind of delays that are irritating to western travelers but which you have to accept with good humor in China. The worst is that it often means transfer to a hotel either far inferior to the one booked, or miles away. Standards vary radically: In Peking our hotel would have compared well with any luxury hotel in the West; in Xinjiang, the service was smilingly obliging, but sometimes the rooms were filthy and run-down.
After Kashi, we ambled overland back to the east via Turpan and Dunhuang along the northern route of the Silk Road, through the Gobi, traveling by bus, overnight train (spotlessly clean and comfortable, with wonderful Victorian lace curtains) and -- briefly -- by camel. It was weird, and alarming, to go to bed on the train in a gray stony desert and to wake up the following morning to find the same lifeless landscape -- and on and on for another three or four days.
None of us had realized how much of China was desert. It made me respect even more the achievements of the intrepid Fleming 50 years ago.
The pleasant oasis city of Turpan, on the Dead Sea, is believed to be the lowest place on Earth. In summer, the thermometer hits up to 130 degrees, and scorpions, giant spiders, cockroaches and poisonous snakes abound. But they are evidently kept well at bay from the adequately comfortable hotel where we stayed.
Water for Turpan comes rushing from under the desert in prehistoric irrigation channels, producing delicious grapes and melons. The oasis, hundreds of miles from nowhere, is full of pretty courtyards, cool vine arbors and friendly people. Beguiling Uighur children pursued us shouting, "Bye, bye!"
Just outside Turpan, we visited an immense ruined city, Gaochang, which housed 50,000 people back in the T'ang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.), China's Golden Age. It is now merely eroded brown fragments of walls, once 30 feet thick, decaying in a desolate brown desert.
Hidden in a remote ravine of the well-named "Flaming Mountains" (in the midday sun they appear to be afire), we came upon the remarkable "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas" of Bezeklik, about 25 miles northeast of Turpan. These caves contain more than a thousand Buddhas ranging in size from miniatures to massive statues. They have suffered much destruction over the centuries, but restoration work is being done. Bezeklik and Dunhuang -- an overnight train journey to the east -- were among the high points of our trip.
Dunhuang offers some 500 caves that were carved out of a sandstone cliff face more than a half-mile long and 10 stories high. The caves are filled with ancient artwork, including 2,000 painted clay sculptures, thousands of feet of tempera murals, elaborate wall and ceiling paintings and a giant, 108-foot-tall Buddha. Dating from the 4th to the 14th centuries, it is a vast museum in the middle of the Gobi Desert.
The superlative frescoes and sculptures had remained lost for centuries, until discovered by a Taoist monk in 1900. About eight years later, Sir Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin made a donation to the monk for restoration work on the caves in exchange for a selection of manuscripts and relics, which were shipped to the British Museum. Later explorers from other nations also salvaged -- or plundered, depending on the point of view -- much of the contents, and their deeds continue to be a source of angry contention in China.
Those frescoes and sculptures that have remained have somehow preserved a miraculous freshness of color. Delicate deer and exquisitely drawn cattle roam across an idyllic landscape; ethereal blue Apsaras, Buddhist angels, float across a wild sea that the painter -- 2,000 miles inland -- could never have seen.
Finally we reached Xi'an, the old capital, which at its peak three centuries before William the Conqueror had a prosperous population of nearly 2 million and was the terminus of the Silk Road. It is still a fertile, prosperous and cheerful city, compared with much of the rest of China. There we goggled at the Terra Cotta Army -- which has to be one of those rare wonders of the world, along with the Grand Canyon, that actually turn out to be even more spectacular than anticipated.
Like Peter Fleming -- though under somewhat easier circumstances ar than anticipated.
Like Peter Fleming -- though under somewhat easier circumstances -- we had made it to Kashi, and to Tartary, a trip inside China alone. For all the trip's discomforts, we had, as Fleming put it, "enjoyed it very much indeed."
But go now. I fear that much that is unspoiled in China's Wild West will not long remain so.