• Tag Archives Orlandini
  • 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


  • Pietro Orlandini, “il Medico nomade”

    ship in Manaos portI cannot avoid to add the bandeau of the front cover of the first edition of his book: “Stravagante e meravigliosa avventura di un Marco Polo moderno (…)” But, who was Pietro Orlandini? I read Ella Maillard book, and she only said, at the very beginning that in Beijing, when thinking about her journey, she met an Italian, Orlandini, who had covered great distances by bike, the dream transportation in Central Asia… was she speaking seriously? did she talked tongue-in-cheek? But, Orlandini appeared at the very beginning of the book, and Peter did not even talk about him, so I forgot about him, until a different blog spoke about him. The mysterious Orlandini

    His life is extraordinary. It is all true? or was he a liar? In any case, he does not explain the bicycle part as his primary mean of locomotion, but rather as a failure.

    So, I got his book, and I should say that Pietro Orlandini was an uncommon man. Venetian, he doctored in medicine in Padova, one of the oldest medicine faculties.

    Orlandini’s practice started as a ship doctor, then he lived in New York for some months…congo-hands but this was not really interesting, so he enrolled on a Tropical Illnesses course that was given at Bruxelles University. Doctors who finish this course got an assignment in the Belgian Congo; well, not Belgian, rather King Leopold’s Congo, a country ruled as a company that should not have changed a lot since Conrad’s Earth of Darkness description, published some 30 years before. Orlandini commitment was to live and to practice in Congo for three years in exchange of his Tropical Illness course. His stage in Congo shows the colonialist view of the metropolis public-workers, surrounded by a plethora of adventurers wanting to get rich. It fascines the reader because it shows the end-to-be of a way of understanding the world. Pietro, in his own words, lived in an epoch which “was calm (1932 !!), in which it was possible to go, peacefully where we had the leisure to go”. Congo was not calm, China was not calm either, URSS had full steam ahead its Gulag archipelago, Germany Weimar Republic was in its last years, opening the way to Nazis and Hitler… but probably Orlandini was right, if you were European you might go where you had the leisure to go.

    And Orlandini opened a practice in Shanghai (the New York of Asia on his words), where he met Galeazzo Ciano, then Italian Consul there (this places his stay between 1930 and 1933), and, after a while, his nomad spirit rose again, and he started his Silk Road trip, which will be detailed in the next post, with the explanation of his bicycle and what happened to it.

    Amazonian cruise at Manaos. To make the history short after his failed Xinjiang crossing, he returned to Beijing, Shanghai and then to Italy. There he tried to be appointed as war surgeon in Abyssinia, and, as the appointment took time, he decided to accept the invitation of a retired Italian Admiral who was trying to start an agricultural business in the jungles of Peru. Orlandini landed in Pará, in the delta of the Amazon, navigated upstream through Iquitos, Manaos, then the Marañon river, until Yurimaguas, the end of the navigable part of the Marañon. Then by foot, he escalated the Andes through narrow passages, until his arrival to the Admiral’s plantations. Pietro stayed there for a short time, until he saw that without almost slave manpower (he knew what he talked about, due to his Congo experience), without roads to export the production, and with endemic malaria, the dream of the Admiral (a liar, or, sadly, a man who mistook his desires for realities) was short-lived. So, he left the Admiral, and he went, again by foot (there were no roads), through the Andes until Cajamarca and Lima, where, after one month, he took a ship to Italy… He explains in 20 pages matter-of-factly an amazing journey, of 3.000 Km, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the heat and humidity of the Amazonas until Lima, going through one of most inhospitable jungles in the world, and then crossing the Andes, a journey that for any other traveler would had been the adventure of his life.

    Orlandini book finishes with his evasion from a prisoner camp near Mombasa (he was made prisoner in Abyssinia after Italy capitulation), his eighteen day walk South through the savannah in which he said that he and his comrades drank their own urine (Pietro said, boisterously, that he drank his “pure, like a vermouth” while his comrades needed to leave theirs to cool down and they blended it with sugar and coffee – they had no water, they were lost in the middle of nowhere, but they still carried sugar and coffee, it isn’t amazing?. Or not true, of course 🙂 ).

    Port in Manaus

    Photo credits:
    Photos of Manaos ships: Carlos Griell

  • Two new arrivals: Jean Bouathier and Ella Maillard correspondence

    IMG_0130I must welcome the arrival of two books, Jean Bouathier “Aux confins de la Chine” (on the confines of China), and Ella’s correspondence book edited to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of her birth.

    I am immersed in Jean Bouathier’s book. Bouathier is a French guy, with an Ethnology Diploma, and he studied in the “Institut National des Langues et des Civilizations Orientales” (Langues’O) which should be a guarantee. Jean speaks Turkish and Tibetan (but no Chinese), and, in June 2002 he starts an expedition in a rented Toyota Landcruiser, with a chain-smoker Chinese driver, and an interpreter, for a total amount of 25.000 Yuan (3.250 Euros). Well, as usual in China, nothing happens as he expects, the interpreter was not waiting for him at the airport, the “all-included” price did not include permits, driver had no idea on how to use a 4-wheel driven vehicle… and his international credit card was refused, leaving him stranded in Xining. Yes, definitively is better to avoid Xining trap 🙂 (more on it in another post)

    IMG_0135Of course, as often in China, this apparently unmovable obstacles are moved, and trip starts… but Jean does not like Chinese food! or at least, the food served along the road, he is fed up of mutton and noodles. And Jean does not like Chinese music that goes on an on at full power inside the Toyota. Not he likes the blend of tobacco smoke and fuels fumes that seep from additional drums which are inside the vehicle.

    But Jean has read Sven Hedin, Maillard and Fleming, he knows about the Lost Cities, and he follows the path Xining-Qinghai-Dzhoun, Golmud, Teijinar, and beyond. He talks about history, Hedin discoveries, people who has traveled this road, he references the places with texts from Hedin, or Maillard… well, the book is easy to read, and interesting.

    And… “Voilà Jean”, disguised as an Indiana Jones in sandals 🙂


    But, what happens to him, places where he sleeps, red tape problems, sand storms, roads that are only in the maps, rivers that are not in the same maps, makes my projected trip to seem impossible. Of course, 2002 China is not 2017 China, it has open somehow, but probably not enough. But, as Orlandini says, when someone talked about the unrest in Singkiang, with two civil wars acting simultaneously, plus the Big Game between Soviet Union, China and UK, plus Chang-Kai-Chech war against communists, plus Japanese invading Manchuria: “If one should listen to all “it is said”, one would never start a trip”.

    So, let us go there and hope for the best.

    Title Image: Dakar Rally bivouac in the Atacama Desert (detail) from the author

  • Marooned in Lanzhou

    Version española al final del texto en inglés

    Let us start with the name


    Ella and Peter did not enjoy Lanchow (Lanzhou, in the Gansu province – China is so big that they ran short of names, so there are four different Lanzhous in Wikipedia). The one we refer to is Lanzhou (Gansu), a city on the banks of the Yellow River.

    They were stopped for several days due to subtleties of local Police (probably the war in the Xinjiang had also some influence). See the link Shipwrecked in Lanzhou

    This is a view of Lanzhou circa 1900. Probably it did not change a lot from there to 1935. You can see in the drawing the water wheels


    This photograph shows the river and the water wheels Ella refers to.


    Ella describes the city, the streets and the shops (that already have glass windows), she strolls outside of the city following the water porters while Peter only says “the streets of Lanzhou are romantic”, thus opening a path to guesswork.

    This city was the last city truly Han in the Silk Road, from there on travelers going West will be in a more “exotic” country, while travelers going East jumped on rafts made of inflated mutton skins to navigate the Yellow River.

    Orlandini, the Venetian Doctor we will refer to later, has a vivid description of the trip he did from Lanzhou to Beijing, with a geographer, a journalist, two raftsmen (one of them seriously ill) and a cook, all of them on a 3m x 5m raft. One of the raftsmen must blow almost continuously into one or another of the floating carcasses to restrain the raft from sinking.



    Version española

    A Ella y a Peter no les gustó Lanzhou, en la provincia de Gansu (China es tan grande que se quedan sin nombres para las ciudades). A la que nos vamos a referir es a la que está en la provincia de Gansu, y en las riberas del Rio Amarillo

    Allí quedaron atascados, debido a las sutilezas de la Policia local, aunque probablemente el hecho de que quisiesen dirigirse a una zona en guerra podia tener algo que ver

    Ver el link: Shipwrecked in Lanzhou

    Se ven en las fotos primero, Lanzhou ca. 1900, con las norias a las que se refiere Ella, que están en la segunda fotografía

    Ella describe la ciudad, sus calles y sus tiendas (que ya tienen escaparates de vidrio), pasea por fuera de la ciudad siguiendo a los porteadores de agua, mientras que Peter dice solo que “las calles de Lanzhou son románticas”, abriendo el camino a toda suerte de especulaciones.

    Esta ciudad era la ultima ciudad realmente Han en la Ruta de la Seda, de aquí en adelante los viajeros yendo hacia el Oeste estarían en tierras más exóticas, mientras que los viajeros yendo hacia el Este embarcaban en balsas hechas con bambú y con pieles de cordero infladas como flotadores, y en ellas bajaban el rio Amarillo.

    Orlandini, el médico veneciano al que nos referiremos mas tarde incluye una divertida descripción del viaje que hizo Rio Amarillo abajo, en una balsa ocupada por dos remeros, un cocinero, un periodista y un geógrafo ademas de el. Uno de los remeros debía estar inflando una u otra bota a cada rato