A Most Unusual Memsahib

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Some fierce looking Caucasians in tight fitting, full skirted black coats, belts bristling with weapons, elected to call on us that evening. When they felt sleepy, they just stretched themselves out on the floor. I lay down on the one and only bed, and my husband and Mr Speke arranged themselves on the floor each side of me, and we slept, my last thought being ‘What would my mother say if she could see me now!’

This is 21-year-old Catherine Macartney describing a night of her honeymoon. Three weeks earlier she had been quietly learning how to make cakes when her fiancé burst in, demanding they marry at once. So they did, and they set off immediately for Central Asia. She had never left home, let alone England, before.

The verb ‘to travel’ could be parsed like this: I’m a traveller, you’re a tourist, he’s a tripper. Most of us, including me, are tourists, condemned to the soul-destroying procedures of modern journeys. Travellers don’t do the sheep-in-a-line bit, they make their own way. They hitch lifts from passing pilots or use the local bus or buy a camel. They don’t land briefly on the surface of other people’s lives but get right inside.

Catherine Macartney was a traveller because she had to be, and she loved it. In 1898 she married George Macartney, the British Agent in Kashgar, Chinese Turkestan, and she spent the next seventeen years out there. She was observant and brave, and in 1931 wrote a most delightful memoir, An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan. It doesn’t have the lyricism of Bruce Chatwin or the learning of Robert Byron but as a description of the life and travels of an Edwardian gentlewoman on the fringes of the Empire, it’s unbeatable.

Her first journey to her new home took six weeks, travelling by boat, train, horse, on foot and finally in a carriage sent to help them over the last few miles by Macartney’s Russian rival in Kashgar. ‘I have never done such a funn

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About the contributor

Amanda Theunissen is a television producer. For her, making programmes in foreign countries is the nearest thing to real travel that there is, full of chances to open closed doors and wander off well-worn paths.

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