Pietro Orlandini, a rowdy Italian, in China in 1934 and his bike ride in the Takla-Makan

crescent_lake_gobi_desert_chinaOrlandini, as seen yesterday, was a rowdy Italian, who was sipping his own urine “like a vermut” (his words) when fleeing from a prisoner camp in Abisinia to Kenya.

Let us follow him in Marco Polesque journey in China, when he decided that he wanted to leave his doctor’s practice in Shanghai and return to Europe by land. We already know, by my previous post, that he was not someone to be afraid of small difficulties, such as the war in the Xinjiang, between so many factions that a cat will not find her kittens, the Cold War “avant-la-lettre” between Chinese Han and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the remnants of the “Big Game” in the Xinjiang, without forgetting the war between the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, Lin Piao et al. against Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang.

China political situation in 1934 was complex, to define it mildly. Probably nobody in their right mind should have started this journey. But let’s talk Orlandini himself: “Rumors about the lack of safety in the road from Cheng-Tu to Sian-Fu (Chengdu to Xian), the next stage, were not reassuring. There was some fighting, although nobody knew where, nor why, nor against who. It is true that in China there is always a small war somewhere; but if we should listen to all hearsay, we would never take the road”

kerriya3So, there he went, a mighty journey, it seems that he has no plan, nor schedule. His idea was to arrive to Urumqi through the Hexi Corridor (Langzhou, Xinning, then Northwest to Urumqi, and there to cross the border and continue via the soviet republic of Kazigistan). His trip plan is short: “I will leave, I will cross the whole China, I will follow the ancient Silk Road, until I met the Mediterranean. Wonderful!. The road is already there, it is always the same, I have good legs, why not to do it?”. Ella and Peter analyze how to avoid guarded routes, discuss a lot about passports, are well aware that the documents they have will not allow them to arrive to Kashgar, decide what weapons they need, they pack gifts for local authorities and Worcestershire sauce for Peter.

Orlandini does nothing of this (or, at least, does not give any importance to the logistics), he skips stages, he pushes forward, until he leaves Shanghai with a suitcase and a bag (Ella and Peter needed two camels, two donkeys and two horses, but of course, they brought with them a phonograph!:) ).

He navigated the Yang-Tze until he arrived to Chongking, then by bus to Chengdu, then Lanzhou… do you thing that he will go from there to Xining? well, no, in Lanzhou he meets a German and a Swiss, who return from Kunbum to Beijing. “for me, who strolled in China without a clear plan, it was worthwhile to change my itinerary. I will go with them to Pekin (…) then I will cross Mongolia to arrive to Turkestan through the Gobi desert”. Hop-la! soooo easy!

So, he returns to the coast, he stays for some time in Beijing, then he leaves for Baotou, in Mongolia, and then due West through the Gobi following the old caravan route

He matter-of-factly explains that he found bandits, he had a fight with an armed soldier (who stepped back with his rifle when Pietro yelled loudly at him), someone tried to poison him because he mistook him for a russian spy, he found quicksands and swamps and rivers without fords. Nothing stopped him. Finally he arrived to Urumqi, and there, in an official dinner, after the Chinese Governor and the Russian Consul speeches, he spoke: he said he was happy to be in the Xinjiang, who was, and will always be, a Chinese province. The Governor was happy with that, but the Russian Consul not really.

He was applying for a soviet visa.

He did not get it.

He must return to Beijing.

cicling under buranAnd then, the incredible happens “I had gotten firmly into my mind to go back by bicycle, as the road seemed suitable for this mean of locomotion” (!!). Before arriving to Urumqi (and he went back through the same caravan path) he found swamps, quick sands, sand deserts, so, it does not seem really suitable… either he was lying then, or he is lying now.

In any case, in Urumqi he had the choice between Russian bikes, sturdy but heavy, or Japanese ones, lighter but flimsy. He sold everything and bought a Japanese bike. He just kept food for the first stage (a boiled chicken), a sleeping bag and some toiletries. It was the first bike to rode through the desert. He was happily pedaling in spite of a heavy dysentery which started several days before (!!). But he was strong, he continued pedaling, eat some chicken, without even stopping, and he slept under a shepherd’s tent. And, on the third stage, when starting a mountain pass, the bike broke. And he continued with a caravan, with his bike above a donkey. In Turfan he had the bike repaired by a local blacksmith, and he traded it for a horse… so, it was not strictly true that Orlandini crossed the desert in a bike, as he told Kini.

But interesting, isn’t it?

Photos: all from the Gobi desert, taken from the Internet