Tuesday, 30 March 2010

French and Cable

They may sound like a female comedy double act, but they were in fact a trio of intrepid British missionary ladies, namely Mildred Cable and sisters Eva & Francesca French, who crossed the Gobi desert along the northern Silk route five times in mule carts in the 1920s/30s. They wrote and lectured extensively about their experiences, and many years ago when I was eighteen, my father gave me a copy of their aptly named book ‘ The Gobi Desert’. I was immediately captivated by its descriptions of oasis life, braving bandits and travelling by moonlight across barren and desolate landscapes. As a result I have always had a sneaking desire to emulate them – in their desert travels, not their evangelising – and now find myself with the opportunity to do so, although doubtless things will have changed beyond recognition since their time. We will see.
I plan to try and retrace their 1926 journey across the Gobi via Yumen, Anxi, Hami and north of the Tian Shan ‘mountains of heaven’ to Urumqi. Where they followed rutted desert tracks in carts pulled by mules, including their faithful pet mule Molly, there is now a railway and main road, and possibly even an expressway – it is difficult to keep pace with the speed of construction in China. Although I have managed to identify most of the places they visited and/or stayed, some of the oases appear to have completely disappeared with the coming of lorry transport. No longer do camel caravans, mule carts and herds of donkeys carry goods across the desert, but in effect the modern ‘oasis’ is the petrol station. But it will be fascinating to see to what extent life in this part of the Gobi has changed over the last eighty years.
If you are interested in learning more about ‘the Trio’, their books including ‘The Gobi Desert’ and ‘Through Jade Gate and Central Asia’ are easily available on Amazon. Professor Linda Benson has recently written an excellent and well researched biography ‘Across China’s Gobi’ and Australian journalist Kate James a most entertaining account ‘Three Women of the Gobi’.
A postscript. I was thrilled to discover in the 1901 census that the French family lived only a couple of streets away from where I was brought up in Bedford Park, London. And my Beijing host Caroline now tells me that husband David’s mother actually attended one of Mildred’s lectures when a child, and entered into correspondence with Topsy, a little deaf and dumb Tibetan girl adopted by Mildred.

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