The Desert Road to Turkestan


by Owen Lattimore, F.R.G.S. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1929. (An Atlantic Monthly Press Publication.) 8vo. xv + 373 pp. Illus. $4.00.
BY slow degrees Americans are learning to buy sound books of travel and to find in them the relish and the romance so meagrely served out in the modern novel. The Book of Ser Marco Polo stirred European drama, literature, and science to its very depths five hundred years ago — but books were scarcer then. To-day no such fresh horizons can be opened to us in geography, but, from time to time a book will come out which by all standards is better written and more humanly conceived than even Polo’s. Among these are the accounts of Vámbéry and some of the Polar literature and South American river travel. Now a new one by a young American appears.
The existence of Mr. Lattimore’s ‘Winding Road* had not been realized by Western geographers and probably not by the Tientsin foreigners whose goods were cameled along it to Turkestan. It has grown up, unnoticed by outsiders, as a way to avoid civil war on the border and the taxes of masterless officials. I had a hint of it at Maomu oasis in 1924, just after the time when the False Lama must have been at the height, of his power, but our camel leader dared not try it with so small a party, and I had not the wit to comprehend its geographic and economic significance.
Lattimore’s accomplishment was a difficult feat. He crossed Mongolia in time of civil war by a route no white man had used. He went ‘on a shoe string and not with motor cars and machine guns and interpreters, but with a few lean camels, subjecting himself to the small mercy of the road. His food was cooked over dung fires, and he labored on for months in smelly sheepskins pullulating with vermine. Already adept in the Chinese vernacular, his vocabulary was enriched by the border slang of the half-Mongolized camel pullers till he, a white man (and one who by his own confession wore a monocle), could himself join in their acrid mirth.
The contributions of such an observer as Lattimore are infinitely more weighty than those of the traveler by automobile who crosses that part of the Gobi from Kalgan to Urga where the Chinese have blazed the trail. His explanation of place names and of local customs— with their hoary half-understood origins —are significant to an unusual degree. He travels with an eye out not only for unaccustomed facts, but for the fundamentally significant and for the stuff of which human relationships are made — the lie of the land, the seasonal pasturage, and the effect of camel nature on human beings. There are single passages in The Desert Road to Turkestan so suggestive and weighty that Professor Huntington of Yale will no doubt quit New Haven and put, hotfoot, for Mongolia to observe and later to expand those paragraphs into volumes. Such, for instance, is the idea that there are places where trade does not naturally go on the flat, from oasis to oasis, between communities where men perforce produce similar goods, but vertically between the oasis and the mountainy people, whose products differ and supplement each other. So also he gives us the first authentic account which I have seen in print of the occurrence of one-humped camels within the area supposed to be occupied exclusively by the Bactrian variety. The crossing of the Edsin Gol near Kara (not Khara) Khoto is interesting at this moment in view of the discussion now going on in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society and of the bronze mirror and polychrome sculptures from that site to be seen in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard.
To the ordinary reader the human observations are the most arresting things in the book the delightful ways to insult a Mahometan, of which the blackest way is to call him little pig’s egg’: the often observed fact out there that ’the worse a man’s character the better one gets on with him,’and the terror of Mongol magic, which the author delicately covers by saying, ’It is magical to them and magical to me.’ We common folk will read the book for its enthralling quality of ‘being on the road,’while occasionally we can look up from the page and realize that we are toasting our toes by the fire and leave Lattimore laboring in the deep snow blanket over Dead Mongol Pass.