The Desert Road to Turkestan


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In inner Mongolia in 1927, when travel by rail had all but eclipsed the traditional camel caravan, Owen Lattimore embarked on the journey that would establish him as a legendary adventurer and leader among Asian scholars. THE DESERT ROAD TO TURKESTAN is Lattimore's elegant and spirited account of his harrowing expedition across the famous "Winding Road." Setting off to rejoin his wife for their honeymoon in Chinese Turkestan, Lattimore was forced to contend with marauding troops, a lack of maps, scheming travel companions, ...

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Jul 3, 2007

Before the end of the caravan days

Owen Lattimore, the successively famous Chinese and Mongolian scholar and much debated presumptive "comunist agent" of the McCartney period, wrote this book in 1927 after his incredible caravan voyage along the then unmapped "Winding Road" in Inner Mongolia of 1926. The reason for this ethnological feat was the Author's convinction that caravan days were going to disappear with the progress beeing made in China by railways and roads and as he puts it: "I wanted to feel the strange and actual life of the past which we usually accept without thought as the dead background of our present". The choice of the Winding Road instead of the more common and mapped Silk Road routes was determined by the then dangerous traveling conditions due to war going on in China. Lattimore's intention must be kept in mind while reading this exquisite work. Many of the apparent drawbacks of the book such as the excessive detail in the use of foreign toponyms, the frequent digressions into prices of wares, habits of people, legends and stories related to places are in reality a treasure of knwoledge that has been preserved for ever. However, the "winding" of Lattimore's prose and thoughts does not hinder the enjoyability of this adventure, because the Desert Road is an adventure book of the best tradition. The adventure of a smart and curious and brave young man that is completely engrossed in his dream but at the same times does not recoil from living and learning from the men he travels with. The characters such as Moses, the Villainous Camel Puller and Wa-wa, the Eldest Son of the House of Chou are etched with great care and deep understanding and even if there are no "strong episodes", the interactions among them is interesting to follow and works like the backbone of the story. But the real magic of the book is the description of the days, the atmospheres and the landscapes, the animals (camels and others), the physical excertion and the the inconveniences and the moments of joy and peace.The Black Gobi is looming in the back of the whole story with its camel skeletons and buried water wells. The book also offers many photographs shot by the Author that illustrate significant episodes and people.
I think this book is an indispensable read in the approach to Inner Mongolia and its traditions and represents at the same time a specialistic and a non-specilistic historical document that will not be forgotten like many other travel books of those times.

P.S. If one is curious on the House of the False Lama (see the more recent George Crane's Beyond the House of the False Lama) in the DRTT you can find many answers.
The introduction by the Author's son David Lattimore helps to contextualize the book and gives many useful information for cross-references.

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