The Explorers of Central Eurasia

*** This page is a work in progress. ***

Travel Writers of Central Eurasia:

Benedict Allen

A modern-day explorer in the style of a previous era, Allen has done some truly harrowing things in some of the remotest parts of the world. For our purposes, his book and accompanying BBC series, Edge of Blue Heaven, is highly recommended. His book was a gift to me from a British friend in China and I immediately set off on my own, rather scaled-down expedition into the Gobi. Compared to Allen’s Gobi trip, however, I had it easy.

Benedict Allen’s website

Allen, Benedict. Edge of Blue Heaven: A Journey Through Mongolia. London: BBC Worldwide Limited, 1998.

Ibn Battuta 1304 – 1368 or 1369

Christoph Baumer

Baumer (b. 1952) is a Swiss scholar who has published two of four promised volumes of an excellent and ambitious History of Central Asia which is lavishly illustrated. He has a couple of earlier research/travel accounts that are quite good, too. The Southern Silk Road is an interesting record of his trip in the southern Taklamakan roughly following Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein.

Baumer Christoph. Southern Silk Road: In the Footsteps of Sir Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin. Bangkok: Orchid Press, 2003.

Baumer, Christoph. Traces in the Desert: Journeys of Discovery Across Central Asia. Translated by Colin Boone. London: I.B. Tauris, 2008.

Richard Bernstein

Bernstein, born in 1944, was part of the first Time Magazine post in China. One of the more recent of the many accounts of travels inspired by Xuanzang’s epic journey to India.

Bernstein, Richard. Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Robert Byron 1905 – 1941

Maybe the only Central Eurasian travel writer to be killed by a German U-boat, Byron possessed unusual humor and insight. His Road to Oxiana is, like Thubron’s work, a string of intimate meetings with real characters–with far more cynicism and humor, of course. And, yes, he’s related to that other Byron.

Byron, Robert. The Road to Oxiana. With a new introduction by Paul Fussell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982 (1937).

Mildred Cable 1878 – 1952

Cable spent her life as a missionary in China, leaving a trail of schools, churches and other institutions in her wake as she moved deeper into remote parts of China. She never married–her betrothed balked at moving to China in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion in 1901–but spent most of her life in the company of Eva and Francesca French, sisters who were also missionaries. As they traveled throughout China, they left behind them legions of literate, educated and independent-thinking women that must have had a tangible and lasting impact. In my Silk Road Odysseys course, her writing was much loved.

Cable, Mildred. The Gobi Desert. With Francesca French. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1945.

Tim Cope

Cope (b. 1978) is the sort of explorer that present-day armchair readers love to hate: he’s just like you except that he got up off the sofa, bought some horses and threw himself into an adventure. Watch the first few minutes of the film, below, to see that he’s just as much a buffoon as the rest of us–which is why his book is so engrossing. Despite the fact that he’s done it and we haven’t, you can’t help but be caught up in the details of his journey from Mongolia to Hungary. And for anyone who knows saddles: he has a fairly nice Australian saddle, which I’ve never seen used in Mongolia.

Cope, Tim. On the Trail of Genghis Khan: an Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2013.

Rob Gifford

Rob Gifford was a China correspondent for NPR from 1999 – 2005 and hearing his regular reports after I returned from my time living there was the only reason I listened to the news every morning. He published a book that reads much like his radio pieces: full of information about politics, economics and insights into the real lives of Chinese.

Gifford, Rob. China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power. New York: Random House, Inc., 2007.

Here a couple of audio recordings in which you’ll hear Gifford discuss China Road:

CityWeekend podcast about China Road

On the Road in China (NPR)

John HareHare

John Hare is a conservationist and explorer who has devoted the latter half of his life to wild camels, primarily what is left of the wild Bactrian camels of the Gobi. His travelogues, especially The Mysteries of the Gobi, are a pleasure to read.

John Hare’s website

Hare, John. The Mysteries of the Gobi: Searching for Wild Camels and Lost Cities in the Heart of Asia. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2009.

Sven Anders Hedin 1865 – 1952

Sven Hedin (ed-DEEN) was a Swedish explorer who settled on a life of adventure and dhedin in tibetiscovery as a child. “Happy is the boy who discovers the bent of his life-work during childhood.” Hedin says, “My closest friends were Fenimore Cooper and Jules Verne, Livingstone and Stanley, [John] Franklin, [Julius von] Payer, and Nordenskiöld, particularly the long line of heroes and martyrs of Arctic exploration.” Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, the first to prove the Northwest Passage was navigable, was particularly important for young Hedin. When Nordenskiöld steamed into Stockholm harbor on 24 April 1880, fifteen-year-old Hedin was there:

With my parents, sisters, and brother, I enjoyed a view of the city from the heights on the south side. I was prey to the greatest excitement. All my life I shall remember that day. It decided my career. From the quays, streets, windows, and roofs, enthusiastic cheers roared like thunder. And I thought, “I, too, would like to return home that way.”

Although he dreamed of becoming an Arctic explorer himself, he was offered an opportunity to act as tutor for the son of an engineer working for the Nobel brothers in Baku. “To the north, the mountain-range of the Caucasus appeared like an illuminated drop-scene, blue  tones, with white streaks on the ridges. This was Asia! I could not look my fill at the fascinating picture. Already I felt that I would love this endless wilderness, and that during the years to come I would be drawn farther and farther toward the east.” This journey, during which Tajiks, Turks, Persians, Circassians, Russians and the others he encountered along the way made a permanent impression, was the beginning of a lifetime of enthusiastic travel and not a few colossal, fatal travails. If you’re new to Hedin, begin with his travel memoir, My Life as an Explorer.

Hedin, Sven. My Life as an Explorer. With an introduction by Anthony Brandt. Washington, DC: National Geographic Adventure Classics, 2003 (1925).

Peter Hopkirk 1930 – 2014

For an understanding of the late-19th and 20th century history of Central Eurasia, you can’t do better than to read any of Hopkirk’s many works. For the non-specialist, his book on the Great Game is nearly all you need to know about the long battle for Central Eurasia between the British and Russians.

  • Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia, 1980
  • Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Secret Exploration of Tibet, 1982
  • Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia, 1984
  • The Great Game: Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, 1990
  • On Secret Service East of Constantinople: The Great Game and the Great War, 1994 (published in the US as: Like Hidden Fire: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire, 1995)
  • Quest for Kim: in Search of Kipling’s Great Game, 1996

Owen Lattimore 1900 – 1989

Owen Lattimore is known for many things, not least of all the relentless attack and harassment to which he was subjected by Senator Joe McCarthy, who called Lattimore the “top Soviet espionage agent” in the US. All of this is painfully recounted in Lattimore’s Ordeal by Slander. He was a long time scholar of China and Central Eurasia, publishing an impressive number of articles and reports on the relationships between the Chinese, Mongolians and neighboring peoples, with special attention to the effects of politics and technology on those relations. More to the point here, however, are his earliest writings about his travels in China, Inner and Outer Mongolia. In 1925-6, Lattimore and his new bride left for their honeymoon by going toward Kashgar on separate routes: she took the Siberian railway while he traveled overland with a group of Chinese and Mongolian camel men. They then continued on together to India. They both wrote accounts (Eleanor’s is a collection of letters), but his Desert Road to Turkestan is the better of the two.

Lattimore, Owen. The Desert Road to Turkestan. With a new introduction by David Lattimore. New York: Kodansha International, 1995 (1929).

Here’s an interview with Lattimore filmed in 1983, at the beginning of which he discusses his honeymoon trip:

Theodore Levin

As travel accounts go, this is an unusual one, but I know of no others for which music is the central focus of the writer. If you manage to find a new copy or a good used one, the book was published with a CD containing a selection of recordings made during the journey.

Levin’s webpage at Dartmouth

Levin, Theodore. The Hundred Thousand Fools of God: Musical Travels in Central Asia (and Queens, New York). Bloomington: The Indiana University Press, 1996.

Ma Jian

Ma, born in 1953, might not understand why I’ve included him in a list of Central Eurasian travelers. His travel memoir, Red Dust, is as much a Chinese On the Road (Jack Kerouac) as anything else. Anyone interested in how the easternmost end of the so-called Silk Roads fared at the end of the 20th century, however, is advised to read this fantastic travel account.

Ma Jian. Red Dust: a Path Through China. Translated by Flora Drew. New York: Random House, Inc., 2001.

Ella Maillart 1903 – 1997

Swiss Olympian, photographer, sports star, traveler, and philosopher of the self, Maillart traveled Eurasia throughout the better part of the entire 20th century. Her books are understated, fascinating, and readily available. Start with Turkestan Solo.

John Man

b. 1941

Justin Marozzi

b. 1970

Paul Pelliot 1878 – 1945

Marco Polo 1254 – 1324

To the casual reader, Polo’s account of his long time in Yuan China, and the journeys there and back, is confusing and impenetrable in parts, entertaining and probably fabricated in others. The real fascination with Polo comes from the fact that those before us were fascinated with Polo, leaving behind a growing legend, lending gravity to his work that outstrips its real value, and producing a mountain of cultural artifacts, including some sort of hide-and-seek game in a swimming pool. If you want to see the person Marco Polo must’ve daydreamed of being, you can watch Marco Polo on Netflix. In this version, Polo teaches the Mongols to build counterweight trebuchets. I’m certain that, by the time Kubilai Khan sat the throne in China, the Mongols needed no Venetian help building siege weapons.

On the other hand, it’s not difficult to lose yourself in the Travels or whatever it’s called (it doesn’t seem to have a proper title). His misinterpretation and superstition is interesting in itself–as is the fact that he’s a prude in his writing while at the same time admitting to indulging in some of the more pleasurable customs he encounters.

There are endless versions of Polo out there, but one that is affordable and beautiful while at the same time including relevant images and information in sidebars is 2012 publication edited by Morris Rossabi.

And one final note: yes, Marco Polo did go to China.

A well written and beautifully photographed three-part series from National Geographic about Marco Polo:

1.  The Adventures of Marco Polo, May 2000
2.  Marco Polo in China, June 2001
3.  Marco Polo: Journey Home, July 2001

Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo. Translated (1871) by Henry Yule. Revised (1903) by Henri Cordier. General Editing by Morris Rossabi. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2012.

Films about Marco Polo (more interesting than accurate, maybe):

1. La fabuleuse adventure de Marco Polo (1965) with Anthony Quinn as Khubilai and Horst Buchholz as Marco Polo
2. The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938) with Gary Cooper as Marco Polo

Nicolas Roerich 1874 – 1947

I don’t even know where to begin. A short paragraph description that might convey some sense of Roerich eludes me.

Brinton, Christian, ed. Nicholas Roerich Exhibition. New York: Redfield-Kendrick-Odell, 1920.

Aurel Stein 1862 – 1943Stein

Next to Marco Polo, Sir Marcus Aurel Stein is probably the most well-known of Central Eurasian explorers to Western readers. He acquired (literally) tons of manuscripts and slabs of painted walls from the Mogao and Dunhuang caves in what is now Xinjiang Province. He was a prolific writer, meticulously documenting every expedition, writing thousands of extant letters and providing us with some truly great travelogues.

Stein, M. Aurel. Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan: Personal Narrative of a Journey of Archæological & Geographical Exploration in Chinese Turkestan. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903.

Stein, Sir Aurel. On Ancient Central-Asian Track: Brief Narrative of Three Expeditions to Innermost Asia and Northwestern China. Introduction by Jeannette Mirsky. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Colin Thubron

Colin Thubron (b. 1939) is the author of many travel books and novels. The two most important for us are The Lost Heart of Asia, recounting a trip to the newly independent Central Asian nations, and Shadow of the Silk Road, a more recent and lyrical account of Central Eurasia. Thubron elegantly strings together a series of intimate encounters with the many people he meets and you get a real sense of the people and their lives.

Thubron, Colin. The Lost Heart of Asia. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.

Thubron, Colin. Shadow of the Silk Road. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

A BBC documentary about the Silk Roads in China hosted by Colin Thubron:

Albert von le Coq 1860 – 1930

von Le Coq, Albert. Buried Treasures of Chinese Turkestan. With an introduction by Peter Hopkirk. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1985 (1928).

Langdon Warner 1881 – 1955

Susan Whitfield

Director of the International Dunhuang Project

Whitfield, Susan. Life along the Silk Road. LA: University of California Press, 2001.

Xuanzang 玄奘 c.602 – 664

Xuanzang the Wild Goose Pagoda
Xuanzang the Wild Goose Pagoda

Francis Younghusband 1863 – 1942

Zhang Qian 張騫 d. 113BC

Books about Travel Writing in Central Eurasia:

Green, Nile. Writing Travel in Central Asian History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.

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