Friday 3 March 2017

Sven Hedin: Travels under a darkening sky

OriginalImage: Sven Hedin Project
In ten journeys in Xinjiang, formerly known as Chinese Turkestan, and three in Tibet, a name that I noted which appeared again and again in their recent recorded history is Sven Hedin, the Swedish born geographer, explorer and much more. Of the figures who investigated the antiquities and history to be found in their caves, deserts and mountains, and who would seriously translate his journeying into maps of these regions, his story eclipses those others involved in the so called ‘Great Game’ between the Russian and British empires. And the race to re-discover the story of the lost Silk Road oases and their relics on the fringes of the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts.

Born in Stockholm he was the son of the Chief Architect, but from being a boy, having observed the return to the City of an Arctic explorer, and the adulating crowds, he decided he too would become a famous traveller. It seems few have ever pursued this ambition with such single minded determination. The list of languages he eventually commanded, a dozen or more, including Persian, Tibetan, Kirgyz and Turkish and, his studies in Sweden and then Germany from 1889, in first Berlin and then Halle-Wittenberg, studying under two of the outstanding geographers of the era, Von Richtofen and Kirchoff; these connections were to frame the rest of his life, for good and eventually for ill. It was the former a leading sinologist who coined the designation ‘The Silk Road’ for that famous trade route.

Hedin (pronounced Heedin in Swedish) began his travels at an early age; he was attracted most by deserts and mountains. At the age of 20 he was to be found in Persia and a few years later he was back there as a member of a  Swedish group, from which he and three members climbed Mount Demavend 5,671m which is the highest peak in the middle east, and is a former volcano. An easy climb technically but nevertheless in 1891 seen as an outstanding feat, he subsequently after this successful ascent set forth and journeyed along the Silk Road to Kashgar and reached the western fringe of the Taklamakan desert. To those who know nothing about the deserts of the world, then this is one you would think twice about trekking deeply into its dune and sandy wastes. The name means in the Uighur language, a form of Turkish, ‘you go in, but you do not come out!’ And crossing the fringes of this either by the northern or southern route was the crux passage for The Silk Road caravans, sometimes made up of a thousand camels or more; which on occasion just disappeared, buried in the notorious sand storms which occur in the Taklamakan.  

Hedin was not the popular image of the strong man explorer, he was of small stature, with a bookish bespectacled appearance, but he possessed a single minded ruthlessness in pursuing his goals, and he survived so many close calls during his expeditions, that one must wonder if his craving for recognition and approbation did not on occasion cloud his decision making. Between 1894 and 1908 in three daring expeditions he explored and mapped huge areas of Xinjiang and Tibet unexplored until then.

Surprisingly in 1894 he made the first attempt to climb one of the world’s high mountains, Muztagh Ata 7509m; the second highest of the peaks which form the northern edge of the Tibetan plateau. Kongur 7649m is the highest, and physically connected to the eastern end of the Pamir range. The Karakoram Highway now passes close to both these mountains, and at the Karakul Lake near the base of Muztagh Ata a famous mountain panorama can be viewed. But this was in the future in 1894, and there was misunderstanding subsequently as to which route/s Hedin had attempted on the mountain. This was compounded by Shipton and Tilman, attempting the peak by its west ridge in 1947 believing that this was also the route that the Swede had essayed. His were made firstly to the west of their attempted route, which has become the voie normal to climb the mountain, by the way of another ridge which would have landed him on the summit of the subsidiary peak of the mountain if he had been successful, and secondly an attempt on a steep rib to the east of their route.

A Swedish expedition followed his attempted routes in 2014, led by Lars Larsson, and from comparing their pictures with Hedin’s they realised his first attempt on the peak had reached over 6000m, which at that date of 1894 was the highest anyone had ever climbed. (Probably it might have been equalled the following year on Nanga Parbat by Mummery and his Gurkha companions).

Muztagh Ata however is one of the easiest high mountains to climb; it was first ascended in 1956 by a large party of Russian and Chinese climbers by the Shipton/Tilman route of the west ridge. And in 1980 a party of American’s led by Ned Gillette made a ski ascent/descent also by this way which has subsequently become popular. Hedin managed much of his ascent to over 6000m riding on a yak, but even so his camping and clothing equipment were rudimentary, and his companions were locals with no mountain climbing experience. I guess that Shipton and Tilman’s misunderstanding of his attempt, which in their report they downplayed, has subsequently deprived the Swede of the historical kudos he deserves?

His three expeditions before the first world-war were some of the most important in the history of exploration, and his books about his travels, his photographs, his water colours, and lectures made him a figure of world renown. I think what impressed his fellow geographers was the way he made good on his explorations by producing exquisite maps of these areas which had previously been ‘white’ on previous such publications. In all he mapped 10,498kms on 552 sheets, and I have been privileged to see some of these kept under lock and key in the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm. They are works of art and I would like one of them to be framed and on my living room wall to be viewed as such.

For those who are  thinking, Sven Hedin ‘no one is interested in him now?’, as recent as August 2015, a re-issue of his autobiography, ‘My life as an explorer’ prompted an article in the Guardian, which advised that this book was ‘a nail biting read’, including highlighting his horrific attempted journey within the Taklamakan desert in 1895. ‘Once you have read Hedin’s account of what happens to the tongue and throat when the body is deprived of water, you’ll never wish to read another!’ This event brought home to Hedin the danger in relying on only local advice, for he was accompanied by four camel drivers and their beasts from Kashgar, and the decision on how much water they should carry proved inadequate.  It ended with most of them dying; whilst Hedin pushed on to find water, then, returning to discover he was too late to save them. He returned later with sufficient supplies and successfully crossed the desert, but it was this ruthlessness which made critics, accuse him of having an ‘Ubermensch’ view of exploration as ‘a struggle against the impossible’.

Nevertheless his explorations in the Tarim basin in the Oases of the Gobi and the Taklamakan exploring such as the Lop Nur region of the former settlements along The Silk Road were impressive. It was not until his third expedition that he finally was allowed to explore in Tibet. One area above all others that attracted him was in the West of the country, around Mount Kailash 6638m, a mountain which looks like a huge Tetrahedron which on occasion because of snow and weather conditions, a huge face appears on its slopes most apparent to the worshippers. 

This is the most holy of mountains to Hindus, Buddhists, The Bon (Tibet’s ancient religion) and some others. Because of this it has never been climbed, but pilgrims visit from many countries to undertake a Parikarama, a circulation of the Peak’s base. It is thought that Hedin was the first Westerner to complete this? He also discovered the source of the Indus, and laid claim to have found those of the Brahmaputra and the Sutlej rivers as well, all so important to the millions of people living downstream. But these last two claims were disputed when he came to give a lecture about his Tibetan travels in the Queen’s Hall, London in 1909 by the greybeards of The Alpine Club, and the Royal Geographical Society; Martin Conway, Douglas Freshfield and Tom Longstaff. They also objected to his naming the whole region of his travels as the ‘Trans Himalaya’. This must have been an evening to remember! But nevertheless Hedin left the UK laden down with RGS Gold Medals, an honorary membership of that body and such degrees from Oxford and Cambridge.

By this date he was the most famous Swede then alive, and few explorers have enjoyed such approbation, for as a renowned expert on Turkestan (Xinjiang) and Tibet; monarchs, politicians, geographical societies, and scholarly associations, all sought to purchase his exclusive knowledge about the power vacuum in Central Asia. None less so than the British who recognised him as an active player in addition to Nikolai Pzehevalsky, Sir Francis Younghusband, and Aurel Stein in the ‘Great Game’, the struggle with Russia for influence in that region, so vital to British interests and security in India. He was ennobled by the Swedish King, Knighted by the British with an Indian such title; he met with the Shah, the Czar, the Viceroy of India....George Curzon, the Panchen Lama, The Emperor of Japan, President Roosevelt, Chiang Kai-Shek, Hindenburg, and later Adolf Hitler. This was to be his undoing, his future affiliations with the latter and his support for the Third Reich, but he became so loaded with Honorary Degrees and Gold Medals, in the end 42 of these over the years, that he was certainly a figure in his heyday, who was greatly admired and respected as a pre-eminent one in his field.
At the outbreak of the First World War his regard for Germany where he had received much of his education, caused him to support the Kaiser. He was an avowed Monarchist in his own country, and he felt honour bound to do this, but it really upset the greybeards once again, and they cancelled his honorary membership of the Royal Geographical Society. However to be fair to him, he wrote a diplomatic letter to that body, accepting their decision and declared his understanding of the position that this had placed them in.

His fourth expedition 1927-1935 was on a grander scale than any of his previous journeys. This was to investigate the meteorological, topography, geology, and prehistory of the Gobi desert, including the part of that in Mongolia, and Xinijiang. This was made up of over 30 scientists from many disciplines including geologists, botanists, archaeologists, geographers, meteorologists, and zoologists from Sweden, Germany and China. Chiang Kai-Shek the Chinese leader was the patron and four postage stamps were issued by that country to celebrate this impressive undertaking, which are now highly prized by stamp collectors the world over for their rarity.

The results of this expedition has relevance in China today, for Xinjiang  was found to hold the largest deposits of natural resources in the country; iron ore, coal, oil, manganese, gold and much more; over a hundred minerals have now been found in the Province, the largest in China. From 1933 to 1934, Hedin led a group of Chinese scientists planning the best route for a road to run from Beijing to Kashgar. One site that had always intrigued him was the area around Lop Nur in the Gobi desert. Here there had been an ancient settlement, and a lake which literally ‘wandered’. He made some very significant finds in this area, including ancient burial sites, and it was from near here that the world famous Loulan mummies were found. 

The BBC made a documentary about them, for they have confounded historians ever since their discovery for these people were taller, larger physically than any other such discoveries in that region, with fair hair and it is thought blue eyes, and are, at least 5000 years old. Where did they originate from? The Lop Nur Lake subsequently dried out and because of the roads built along Hedin’s planned route, became in 1971 the site of the Chinese nuclear weapon testing ground, set up there in a remote place in the eastern Gobi desert.

In the 1930’s Xinjiang was an unstable place to travel, for besides the activities of local war lords, the Soviet army was making incursions into the Province. The Chinese 36th Division army, led by the Muslim General Ma Zhongying was engaged in combating them, but they were in retreat when Hedin and his caravan of trucks appeared on the scene, at which some of these were hi-jacked by Ma’s army of Tungan soldiers. Hedin and his companions escaped in their remaining vehicles but as they did so they were shot at; subsequently they managed to travel via the southern route of the Silk Road to Hotan and from there south again to Xi’an. In 1934 that must have been a challenging journey, for the first section is mountainous and the roads would have been at best rough riding.

Finishing this incredible journey of thousands of miles in Nanjing which was then the site of the Chinese government, Hedin celebrated his 70th birthday in February 1935 in the presence of Chiang Kai-Shek and 250 members of his Kuomintang administration, to whom he reported the result of their researches, for which they awarded him as leader, ‘The Brilliant Jade Order’. The results of this expedition are still being researched in Universities as far apart as Germany and China. And, the subsequent reports are contained in many volumes.

1936 marked the year of the beginning of Hedin’s disastrous involvement with the German National Socialists. Hitler had been an early admirer of the Swede, whose-conservative and pro-German views eventually translated into sympathy for the Third Reich, and this would draw him into controversy that would last until his death in 1952. He was impressed by Hitler’s nationalism, and he interpreted the German leader’s rise to power as a revival of that countries fortunes; and a defence against the spread of Soviet communism which he felt threatened Sweden in a potential future invasion. The Nazis made a strong connection by bestowing awards upon him and an invitation to appear and speak at the 1936 Summer Olympics, where de delivered an address ‘Sport as a teacher’ to supportive crowds in Berlin’s Olympic stadium. In 1938 they presented him with that City’s ‘Badge of honour’ and on his 75th birthday in 1940 they awarded him with the ‘Order of the German Eagle’.

He was not the only major world figure to be drawn into the National Socialist sphere, for just before he was given the 1940 award it was also bestowed on Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. Hedin supported the Nazis cause in his journalistic activities, and in books such as ‘With the German Armies in the West’ and ‘The Trail of War’, but during the conflict he was at home in Sweden, which unlike Norway and Finland remained neutral. Although groups in that country, such as the Swedish Red Cross aided the flight of Jewish refugees safely out of Denmark.

Post the collapse of Nazi Germany, Hedin found himself more and more isolated, but he did not publicly regret his collaboration with them, and because of this co-operation it had been possible for him to intercede and make it possible to save numerous victims from execution or death in extermination camps. Investigators after the war found this to be true, and for instance he did manage to save ten Norwegian saboteurs from death by firing squad At Hedin’s plea their sentence was commuted to a life sentence. And so they survived the war to prove that this was so.

At the end of the war, US troops confiscated the documents, material and surveys held by Hedin’s publisher in Germany, for his planned ‘Central Asia Atlas’. However the US Army Map Service found that this had such strategic importance, they later solicited his assistance and financed the printing and publication of this one of the Swede’s greatest achievements.

He died in 1952, after living out the last years of his life in almost social isolation. Older people in Sweden do not wish to talk about him, but a new generation of Swedes led by such as Lars Larsson, who has organised two ‘in the steps of Hedin’ expeditions, are examining his life and contributions again. To come to some kind of balanced view about these matters, one is faced with a mountain of material; so far five biographies have appeared about the Swede, and a book by a holocaust researcher in the US blames him as a key supporter of the Nazis whose views helped to develop their ideology?

He left behind over 60 books,of which some titles were widely translated and published around the world, many articles, plus diaries, 2500 drawings and watercolours, a library of photographs, films, travel and expedition notes. Besides his scientific papers and newspaper articles held in sixty bound volumes, and of course the maps. The geological specimens are held at Munich University, and other materials in China, but the mass of the Sven Hedin collection is held in the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm.

Sven Hedin expedition watercolour: Image-The Sven Hedin Foundation

Life is a matter of luck, if a young boy in Sweden had not been taken to welcome home an Arctic explorer in the 1870’s, maybe he might have become a famous architect like his father? But we are all a product of our environment, events and times, and his youthful contacts with giants like Von Richtofen, and his love of Germany it seems almost inevitable that with his unforgiving personality he would move too close to National Socialism. It is hard to feel pity for him, he was a towering figure in the history of Central Asian exploration, but maybe it is still too soon to forget his support for the terrible evil that was the Nazi regime and sympathy for its victims. 

I would like to thank Lars Larsson; and the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm for their help in sourcing material for this essay. 

Silent documentary of Sven Hedrin's expedition through China's Gobi Desert

Dennis Gray:2017

Sven Hedin Project

Sven Hedin Foundation