Spin a line
UNDER THE DRAGON: Travels in a Betrayed Land. By Rory Maclean. HarperCollins Pounds 16.99.
HOOKED: Fly-Fishing Through Russia. By Fen Montaigne. Weidenfeld Nicolson Pounds 20.
How far do you have to go for a really gripping traveller's tale? Janette Wolf sets off in search of an armchair thriller
As epic journeys flourish in this age of super-efficient expedition back-up (British mountaineer Alan Hukes phoned for a helicopter half way up Nanga Parbat, after he put his back out eating a chapati) travellers must become increasingly resourceful if their tales are to keep the rest of us clinging to the edge of our armchairs.
Luckily for us there are explorers such as John Hare, who blagged his way on to a Russian expedition to the Gobi Desert in search of the wild Bactrian camel by virtue of his impeccable camel credentials. While work for the Overseas Civil Service in north Africa had brought him more than a passing acquaintance with these creatures, his success owed more to telling the expedition leader a fabulous story about why the camel's penis is back to front (which it is, apparently).
The Lost Camels of Tartary is one of those quests that sounds preposterous but which becomes increasingly compelling thanks to the strength of Hare's exuberant narrative. This man is a rock-hard explorer, the sort for whom smearing himself with kerosene to keep parasitical ticks away is more a part of his bedtime routine than flossing his teeth. He tackles the deprivations of expedition life with a delightful matter-of-factness and is genuinely awed by the spectacular beauties of wild and inhospitable places.
From the rugged steppes of Mongolia he and his hardy troupe of camel-hunters find themselves on the doorstep to hell: the Gashun Gobi. This sand-blasted lunar gravel pit is "shadeless and exposed to scorching heat ... at night it is quite the opposite ... Many people have entered this desert, never to return". So why bother now? The truth is that Hare becomes romantically attached to the Bactrian, signs of which spur him on in his wild camel chase.
His naturalistic odyssey is enlivened by social and political history, from Kublai Khan to Stalin, with plenty of old-wives' tales thrown in for good measure: "discarded mutton bones have a peculiar usage in Mongolia. When they are dried in ashes, the resulting cracks foretell the future." At least the Bactrian's future looks a little more assured after Hare's exploits, as the Chinese have now dedicated a wildlife reserve to their preservation.
Kublai Khan also makes a mention in Rory Maclean's Under the Dragon, since the ambitious warlord ransacked Burma in his bid for global domination. This was probably not least in Burma's long history of catastrophic conflagrations and Maclean's travelogue takes up the baton on behalf of its cowed populace.
It is a worthy cause. In spite of Aung San Suu Kyi's daily acts of selfless heroism, we are still largely ignorant of the reasons behind her dedication. Maclean revisits this mysterious and troubled country which he discovered as an accidental tourist 10 years previously, having jumped on the wrong plane.
Although he possesses a distinguished traveller's CV, a tourist seems to be pretty much what he remains as he searches for the provenance of a certain Burmese basket, found in the bowels of the British Museum.
From the people he meets on this bizarre shopping basket expedition, Maclean recounts tales of unremitting bleakness: young girls forced into prostitution; hardworking people dispossessed and desperate; treacherous and brutal officialdom. It is a sorry tale and Maclean's grumbles about the state of Burmese public transport, or a bout of diarrhoea, seem misplaced. He at least can get on a plane and escape when it all gets too much.
Fen Montaigne also gets waylaid by diarrhoea but it doesn't stop him fishing which, surprisingly, is the reason behind Hooked: Fly-Fishing Through Russia. This is a beguiling account, alternately hilarious and deeply saddening, of how one man with a sporting obsession manages to find fulfilment in the watery wastelands of the Russian steppes. It is part travelogue and part social history: it is not just the Russian fish which is being filleted, but the country's psyche.
As a former Moscow correspondent and fluent speaker of Russian, clad in the latest out-door clothing, Montaigne is well-equipped for the task and well aware of the dichotomy he presents. He begins his expedition near the Solovetsky Islands, once home to a terrible network of post-Lenin labour camps and prisons, and which are now all soft ocean breezes and daisies. He draws out stories much like a fishing line and listens patiently to the voice of rural Russia, which is regularly brought to incoherence through enormous quantities of vodka.
Alcohol apart, the Russians that Montaigne meets seem to subsist on a variety of inedible-sounding diets, most of which have been grafted by hand from a backyard. To his credit, he never shows any signs of squeamishness in the face of hospitality: "I ate sheep's ear and brain and drank some more. I threw up violently and awoke with the most brutal hangover of my life."
If you thought that a book on fly-fishing was, rather like the Yellow Pages advert on the subject, the sole preserve of the man who wrote it, you would miss an enchanting and wonderful tale. Montaigne is a gifted story-teller, with a fine eye for the warp and weft of rural life and in Russia he has found a natural, epic source.