Ella Maillart popped up here in Y for Yacht, included because I had read the Olivier Weber biography about her several years ago. After this, various aspects meant I wanted to investigate more, so I embarked on one of Ella’s own books (available on Kindle as well in hard copy!), The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan by Ford. Ella’s personal history, being Swiss and from Geneva/Romandie, her early sporting achievements and unconventional international upbringing had interested me, the era of the 1930s has always had a lot of appeal and the troubles of the region throughout most of my lifetime (I vividly remember the influx of new students at our international school from 1979 onwards) meant I wanted to read more about what was surely a big adventure in those days.
Before I even got more than a couple of chapters in, I was glad of my know-it-all friend Ms. Google and realised how very ignorant I was about so many things – not least a very sketchy idea of the geography and politics of one of the oldest civilised regions of the world. It appears I did not pay as much attention in history class as I thought I had and just the introduction to the expedition Ella and her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach undertook had me running for the atlas, historical maps and Wikipedia entries on history, ethnicities, languages, costumes – you name it. And there I was, thinking I had a decent grounding! What’s more, Ella wasn’t undertaking this trip as a naïve young thing – she had already travelled throughout Asia before this and so had a very good idea of what to expect – she just thought a Ford V8 (18 horsepower!) would be the perfect vehicle, far better than her previous travels…
The story opens in the Graubünden mountains, very familiar to me, describes briefly how the women did a tour of cities (Paris, London…) to make preparations for their trip and then set off in June 1939 from Geneva and over the Simplon pass to Italy, another familiar route to me. On across northern Italy to Trieste, for centuries an important harbour and the gateway to eastern Europe. But I had to consult a map to follow where they went from there…Crossing into Yugaslavia, what is now Slovenia (followed by Croatia and Serbia) and on east, Ella describes the people and the costumes she sees, and sees the similarities to peoples and dress of other ethnic groups she’s familiar with from her earlier trips to countries and regions strange and exotic to me – Mongolian, Afghan, Turkestan and the never-heard-of Baluchistan Brahui…! Maybe those lines drawn on a map are a whole lot more permeable than we allow for – migration has been prominent for a couple of thousand years, so why should there not be similarities and relationships between cultures? How ignorant we are of anything that is not in our central and western European home! We consider the Mediterranean, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece – the holidaying paradises – to be exotic, are slowly looking into northern Africa, prefer to jet out to the Maldives or the Caribbean or southeast Asia, and yet what do we know of eastern Europe?! Embroidered Croatian national dress… and Balochi dress…over 3000 miles apart…My interest in textiles probably has something to do with the fact that I had a small collection of costume dolls as a child – but nothing quite as exotic as this! I’m sure colours have symbolism in these different cultures, but there is definitely a certainly similarity in cut and of style of embroidery from region to region, which I hadn’t even considered before. These examples are mainly geometric but I’m sure there are more naturalistic examples to be found and it makes me wonder who, if anyone, has ever made a real study of them? I know that there are textile historians, but also realise the limitations on travel and research into some of the more troubled areas so that increasingly, it is likely that traditional styles could be lost. Ella felt that much of these cultures was on the way out already in 1939.
But in 1939, our adventuresses still had a lot of freedoms. While this kind of trip was never going to be easy and Ella was concerned about her friend’s fragile health (and she herself had back trouble), they were not afraid to set up their tent along remote roadsides when they were tired; she recounts meeting Baroness Eva Blixen-Finecke* (yes, Blixen as in Klaus-Maria Brandauer in the 1985 film “Out of Africa” but of course really a Swedish Baron and this his third wife!) in Kabul, travelling alone from Sweden on her way to China through Soviet Turkestan with only a simple letter of introduction – and yet finds the Baroness not adventurous enough, as she only stays on the main roads… apparently, “even for unaccompanied women there is no danger nowadays in travelling through Afghanistan”!
The Ford, with all its supposed suitability for “Asiatic travels”, cracks with the weight of a second spare wheel, a luggage rack and a second tank as it bumps across poor Yugoslavian roads – the doors won’t close and the tanks leaked; Ella siphoned petrol by mouth (apparently a numbing sensation!). Everything was shoved into the extra “dicky” seat at the back of the car – equipment, suitcases, first aid kit, typewriters, spare springs… not your modern-day minimalist digital nomads by a long shot.
But now, if a little abruptly, I will leave you at this point, hopefully curious about how the trip went on, to let you discover for yourselves what curious restlessness could achieve (or not) all those years ago and to think about how it compares to expeditions in our modern world, 75 years on… remember my writing about the young Germans who undertook a rally to Mongolia in a Renault Twingo…?!
Edit: This book also appears to be available to read in a scanned version on Google Books, free of charge. (Add.: only partially available!) There are also other foreign language translations.
Sounds amazing – presumably they survived and lived to tell the tale? Back in the ’60’s I used to say that when you were grown up I’d like to travel overland to India – you may be grown up now, but I don’t think I’ll be doing that trek!
Ella lived to the ripe old age of 94 in Chandolin, travelling, writing and speaking well into old age (this particular book was published in the mid40s). Her companion “Christina” (Annemarie Schwarzenbach) died in 1942 following a bike accident in Sils, though I’d had the impression she took her own life – she’d certainly attempted suicide before; she was a morphine addict and the trip the women took together was actually Ella’s idea of therapy for a friend… Eva Dickson was killed in a car crash in 1937 in Baghdad, so never completed her solo drive along the silk road to China. Coincidentally, Blixen also eventually died in a car accident when he was 60…