Another book that focuses on strong independent women–in this case three of them who travel the Silk Road.
Destination: The Silk Road, Eastern China, early 20th century
Book: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar (2012) by Suzanne Joinson
I first became aware of Suzanne Joinson when I read Better Than Fiction , the collection of travel essays edited by Don George for Lonely Planet and reviewed here. I was fascinated by her story of a research trip to the Silk Road area she was going to write about in A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar. Her personal story was exciting and her writing was fresh and intriguing. So, of course, I immediately asked the publisher for a copy of Joinson’s novel, so I could share it with you.
The book does not disappoint. In fact it was even more than I had thought when I read her description in the essay Chasing Missionaries.
My missionary ladies were restless adventurers and their reasons for travelling (1900-1940) were so much more complicated than straightforward religious zeal. They hoped to carve a freedom for themselves in the Takla Makan desert.
Of course the exotic locales along the Silk Road are an obvious draw for readers who travel. What traveler has not wanted to follow one of the ultimate exotic road trips? But most of the story here stays in one place–Kashgar. And to clarify, in the final part of the novel which involves some adventurous trekking, the bicycle is abandoned. I want to emphasize that this is not a how-to book for bicyclists, although it is about a woman who is supposedly writing a how-to book for bicyclists. Clear?
But China is not the only story in the novel.
In the one about the missionary ladies in Kashgar in 1923– Millicent leads two sisters who follow her to the desert. The sister who serves as story teller of this part of the story only pretended to be religious in order to live her dream of following the adventurous path of the explorer Sir Richard Burton. Her life is a perfect example of the wisdom of being careful what you wish for. But the journal she is keeping gives Joinson the opportunity to exercise her own terrific powers of observation and description.
The other story involves a modern-day woman in London who seems to lead a life connected to those iconoclastic women in the desert. Her life intersects with a Yemini immigrant in London. In both cases there are mysteries to solve, missing mothers, conflict over religion, struggles between Christian and Muslim, the difficulty of fitting into a foreign society. Joinson keeps us in the dark for a bit more than half the book about how these two stories intersect, yet we know they finally must.
Although Joinson talks about the real missionary Mildred Cable in the essay in Better than Fiction, and says in interviews that her book is inspired by “the tweed brigade” of lady missionaries of the period, she nowhere mentions a direct connection to Mildred Cable and the two real sisters. Cable, missionary and co-author of a book The Gobi Desert, becomes Millicent in the book. Mildred’s life partner was Evangeline (Eva) French (Eva English in the book) and her sister Francesca (who becomes Lizzie.) Joinson, with her fair skin and red hair and writing skills, seems to be the model for the book’s Lizzie, who tells the story. Lizzie’s sense of adventure and reliance on the many British travelers of the time is revealed early in the book, as she is talking to a publisher.
So, I talked, and was impressed that off-the-bat he knew my reference, Egeria–the astonishing woman who travelled in the fourth century from Gaul to Jerusalem–indeed he told me the story of her book being discovered (possibly 1884 or 5?) and I admitted that it was reading her descriptions of the candles and lights and the mysterious glittering interiors, the tapirs, silks, the jewels and hangings that had inspired my desire to travel.
The escapades of the missionary ladies draw the reader in with totally credible details–gained from that research trip that almost ended in disaster that Joinson writes about in Better than Fiction. (And where she does mention Mildred Cable). However, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar most definitely is a work of fiction, not biography, and Joinson’s imagination provides us with great and exciting adventures.
Not only is this a rousing good story, it turns out that the author has done a very good deed in painting a picture of a territory little changed in the past hundred years until recently when the Chinese decided to obliterate most of the old town of Kashgar as part of their effort to dominate the recalcitrant Uighurs. Fortunately for us, Joinson visited and recorded details before the destruction.
If you want to know more about the region today, Read an excellent explanation of the Turkic speaking Uighurs and their conflict with the Chinese in Kashgar, in the far eastern reaches of China. To learn more about the real missionary ladies of the Gobi, take a look at Across China’s Gobi: The lives of Evangeline French, Mildred Cable, and Francesca French of the China Inland Mission by Linda K. Benson.
Have you ever considered traveling the Silk Road? Better yet, are you one of the lucky ones who actually DID?
Note: The publishers provided a copy of the book for review. You can click on each of the photos here to learn more about the photographer and conditions for use. Links to Amazon are affiliate links. I have a financial arrangement with Amazon, so if you use the links I earn a few cents. BUT–it costs you no more to do your Amazon shopping through my links. So please do.