It’s 1932. A woman with a bicycle is standing on a mountain looking at the eastern frontier of Russian Turkestan.
“…from the heights of the Celestial Mountains, I could [see], on a plain far away and further still to the east, the yellow dust of the Takla Makan desert. It was China, the fabulous country of which, since my childhood, I had dreamed.”
I almost cried to read these magical words – “China,” “Celestial Mountains.” Such a vision. but she couldn’t get to China. No visa could be had at that time and it was too dangerous. She explained,
“If I went on I should be arrested at the first Chinese village. Sadly I retraced my steps, turning my back on the limitless unknown that beckoned.”
But Ella Maillart was determined to get where she wanted to go. And there weren’t many places she didn’t go.
Ella Maillart’s Early Life
Ella was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in February 1903. She was the only child of a wealthy fur trader and his Danish wife. A sickly child, she spent her time reading adventure books and maps and she dreamed of travel. Her adventurous life began with learning how to sail, and she and her friend Hermine de Saussure won their first sailing race at age 13. From there, she went on to many more adventures.
According to Brian Fagan*, by the age of 30, she had:
- Taught French in a Welsh school
- Competed in a sailing competition in the 1924 Olympics (the only woman in the race)
- Acted on the stage in Paris
- Captained the Swiss women’s field hockey team
- Assisted at an archeological excavation in Crete
- Studied film production in Moscow
- Published a book about her walk through the Caucasus
- Ridden a camel across the desert in what is today Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan
Sailing turned to skiing and she competed for the Swiss in four world championships from 1930 to 1934. At the end of the trip above, when she was turned back at the Chinese border, she continued to travel alone back to Europe, through the southern Soviet republics, without permits and avoiding checkpoints where she could have been jailed – or worse.
The trip to Russia and her walks through the Caucasus whetted her appetite for the Far East. Her first books, Among Russian Youth (1932) and Turkestan Solo (1932).
By 1935 Ella was back in Asia, ready to tackle China again. She and English journalist Peter Fleming (brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming) went from Beijing to Kashgar and India, back to the place where she had stopped three years earlier.
In Forbidden Journey, she tells the story of this journey. It’s just about the best travel writing I have read in a long time.
Ella wanted to get “as far as possible from the world of luxury hotels and stream-lined expresses,” and by this time she was an experienced traveler. When she and Peter first talked of traveling, he told her she could come with him.
She stopped him and replied, “I beg your pardon. It’s my route and it’s I who will take you, if I can think of some way in which you can be useful to me.” She knew the dangers of travel and took precautions against them. She was appalled at Peter’s lack of planning and his refusal to get the vaccine against the typhus that was rampant in China at that time. Ella said her two biggest worries while traveling were toothache and appendicitis; she had had a tooth filled by Austrian sisters before her latest trip.
They walked most of the time, lived in traditional Chinese hogans, and ate local food, including “to-fu” and with food “served in little heaps in which nothing is whole and entire.” The visited Kumbum monastery in eastern Tibet, as had Alexandra David-Neel a few years before. Ella was charmed by the colors of the place and the holy men who looked like “perambulating tulips.” They ate Tsamba, a Tibetan food made from toasted barley meal and buttered tea (I know it sounds gross, but it seems to be the only drink in Tibet.)
In central Asia, they traveled in caravan – 250 camels, 30 horses, and 80 humans. Every night Peter would say, “Sixty li’s (measure of distance) nearer to London.” Ella felt the opposite. She said,
“I was so completely absorbed in the life of the trail, …the life of the beasts, of the elements, it was as though I had always been living it.”
In the mountains, Peter’s eyes suffered from the extreme light. He had neglected to bring along goggles even though she had told him to. Their interactions became curter and their bantering not as nice. Peter thought she was too serious, and she didn’t understand his British humor. She wanted to understand the “thousands of diverse lives that make up humanity,” and he just wanted to get back to England.
on June 4, 109 days after leafing Peking, they came to Sinkiang (now Xinjiang province) in northwest China, home to many ethnic groups, including the Uyghur people (Muslims that are currently being persecuted by the Chinese). Their travel became even more monotonous, and Ella recited poetry over and over to herself to keep on going. The most exasperating thing about the journey was fleas. She had to “engage in mortal combat” with them almost every night.
During their trek through this part of China, they were stopped often by soldiers who asked for their papers.
There’s much more in Ella’s story, but I’ll stop here in the hope that you will be interested in reading it. On September 12, at 17,000 feet, they ended their trip in Kashmir, in India.
Ella was sad to say goodbye to the “careless life of the trail” and head back to Europe, where “shadows of war” were hovering.
‘Suddenly I understood something. I felt now, with all the strength of my senses and intelligence, that Paris, France, Europe, the White Race, were nothing….The something that counted in and against all particularisms was the magnificent scene of things that we call the world.”
Ella’s Later Life
Peter Fleming went back to England, married actress Celia Johnson later in 1935. He continued to explore and write about his adventures, including Brazilian Adventures (still in print). He died in 1971 at age 64.
Ella Maillart continued to travel, including trips to Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iran. In 1939 she traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, but this trip was cut short by the start of World War II. During the war she was in India studying Hundu philosophy. She returned to Tibet in 1986, then retired to her home in Chandolin, Switzerland, a virtual recluse after so many years of adventuring. She died at age 94 in March, 1997.
Journalist Simon Schreyer calls her
“an ardent traveller, a bride of the wind and a storyteller, like the world had not seen before.”
I agree. She lived life on her own terms, confident, at her own terms, and out loud.
Much information and all quotes are from Forbidden Journey
*Brian Fagan, From Stonehenge to Samarkand.
A complete biography is available on her website: http://www.ellamaillart.ch/bio_en.php