I defy anyone to read Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches and not want to go to mysterious Central Asia. From the moment I read those seductive first paragraphs as a student, I was drawn to the murky world of Bokhara, Samarkand and Tashkent that Maclean observed at close quarters in the 1930s when working as a diplomat in our Moscow embassy. It was to be ten years before I travelled to the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan in the ‘year of stagnation’ – 1975 – and another three decades before I saw the country without the dubious assistance of a Soviet minder.
But still those opening sentences hold me in thrall. ‘Slowly gathering speed, the long train pulled out of the Gare du Nord . . . I was on my way to Moscow, and from Moscow, I was going, if it was humanly possible, to the Caucasus and Central Asia,’ wrote Maclean. As he watched the drab, sodden countryside rush past the carriage window, in his mind’s eye he saw the green oases, the sunlit domes and minarets of Turkistan. ‘Suddenly, as I sat there in the half light, I felt immensely excited.’ If there is a more romantic opening to a book, not just a travel book but any book, then I don’t know of it.
Maclean’s ostensible purpose was a good deal more prosaic. He was leaving a very agreeable posting in Paris to take up an appointment in the embassy in Moscow as military attaché. Friends warned him that the Soviet capital in the 1930s was a dead end, a tedious round of parties in overheated chancelleries where he would meet the same people, none of them Russian. At the back of his mind, however, lurked the golden road to Samarkand and ‘the lust of knowing what should not be known’, in James Elroy Flecker’s unforgettable phrase. In the previous century, few Britons had visited this fabled region, and even fewer had returned to tell the tale. Turkistan, a vast area fought over by the warring khanates, had fallen belatedly and reluctantly to the Red Army in 1922. Since
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