Fitzroy Maclean on the Turksib Railway

Molapse highlighted some of the later exploits of Sir Fitzroy Maclean, the inspiration for James Bond, previously. Now we will look at the work that made him famous and see his first visit to Alma Ata in 1937. 

In Eastern Approaches Maclean recounts his adventures before and during World War 2 in the USSR, Northern Africa and the Balkans. His journey begins in February 1937 with his transfer from Paris to Moscow as a 25-year-old diplomat. Europe is anxious at the prospect of coming war, but in the USSR the threat is from within. He arrives at the beginning of the Stalinist purges and show trials that devastated the country’s elite. Paranoia is rampant and as a foreigner he sees the fear interacting with him would bring.

Despite the atmosphere he resolves to visit Turkestan, by hook or by crook, and first attempts in the spring. This abortive attempt takes him as far as Azerbaijan, when the NKVD finally catches up with him. Travel to Turkestan is not officially allowed (but not disallowed either) so he has to try to remain under the radar for his journeys. 

After enjoying the ‘southern charm’ of Tblisi on the return trip, he plans a new strategy. He will take the Trans-Siberian east and transfer to the new Turksib line south into Turkestan.  He sets off in late Summer 1937, making his first stop in Sverdlovsk, a booming industrial city full of factories and new, yet somewhat shoddy apartments. 

He leaves the Transib at Novosibirsk and makes his way to Biisk, at ‘the foot of the Altai mountains’. Here Maclean notices he has an NKVD ‘escort’ (tail), which he surmises is at least better than being sent back. Biisk was not impressive, full of dilapidated pre-revolutionary houses, mud depressed people, and more mud. 

From here he continues to Altaisk and Barnaul, where the train switches to the Turksib track. While stopped Maclean witnesses another sign of the Stalinist times: mass deportations:

“…we stopped for several hours while a number of cattle trucks were hitched on to our train. These were filled with people who, at first sight, seemed to be Chinese. They turned out to be Koreans, who with their families and belongings were on their way from the Far East to Central Asia where they were being sent to work on cotton plantations. They had no idea why they were being deported but all grinned incessantly and I gathered from the few words I could exchange with some of their number that they were pleased to  have left the Far East territory where conditions were terrible and to be going to Central Asia of which they had evidently been given enthusiastic accounts. Later I heard that the Soviet authorities had quite arbitrarily removed some 200,000 Koreans to Central Asia, as likely to prove untrustworthy in the event of a war with Japan.”

Fruit sellers. Shu, Zhambyl Oblast.

Onboard the train to Alma-Ata, he notices the landscape begin to change upon entering Kazakhstan near Semipalatinsk. It becomes a “waterless desert, as flat, though far more desolate than the Siberian plain.” It is not completely uninhabited, with clusters of Kazakh yurts appearing at intervals along the train track. From their inhabitants, passengers,

“…could buy melons, eggs and other articles of food for the most part rather fly-blown and looking, as indeed was probably the case, as though they had met every train for weeks past. Lovingly a dirty, tattered old woman would produce from the innermost folds of her dress half a roast chicken, black with age, and offer it for sale at an enormous price, which only the very richest passengers could afford to pay. Personally I stuck to eggs and fruit.”

Finally as they head further south some hills begin to reappear, and then a sight that fills Maclean with “pleasurable anticipation”,

“Far to the south, dimly seen in the remote distance, towering high above the desert, rose a mighty range of mountains, their lower slopes veiled in cloud and vapours, their snow-clad peaks glittering in the sunlight, suspended between earth and sky.

These were the Tien Shan: the Mountains of Heaven. At their foot lay Alma Ata, beyond them Chinese Turkestan.”

The Steppe meets the Tien Shan. Outside Taldykorgan, Almaty Oblast.

(to be continued…)


5 Comments Add yours

  1. kazaknomad says:

    How I wish I had gotten to Turkestan when I lived in Almaty. Some day…some day! Thanks for this account by Maclean.

    1. francishodge says:

      For a fairly recent account of Turkestan try Colin Thubron’s – ‘The Lost Heart of Asia’. Colin, English, and a professional travel writer, and ‘Russia watcher (cf ‘Among the Russians’ – 1983 – London) travelled around shortly after the break-up of the SU. I am only partway through but Thubron gives a good account and , like Christopher Isherwood, his eye is an ‘open camera’.

      Given more thought I will comment on your piece about Broj Tito, but this needs more thought.

  2. cybernautika says:

    That is quite possibly my favorite book ever. What an amazing life and brilliant individual!

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