National Geographic : 1940 Oct
Along the Old Silk Routes A Motor Caravan with Air-conditioned Trailer Retraces Ancient Roads from Paris across Europe and Half of Asia to Delhi BY LAWRENCE COPLEY THAW AND MARGARET S. THAW With Illustrationsfrom Photographs by Mr. Thaw T E Great Silk Route! What visions of mile-long caravans of camels laden with spices and of the tramping march of invading hordes these words conjure up! Stretching east from Beyrouth or Antioch (Antakya) on the Mediterranean, it was known to Darius before Alexander and to the Assyrians before Darius. Imperial Rome used it as a direct means of communication with the East. By it Greek merchants, coming through Antioch, crossed the deserts of Mesopotamia (now Iraq). They paused at the mighty city of Baghdad before passing through the defile of the Zagros Mountains to reach the great trading center of Tehran and its near-by Caspian ports. After putting behind them the deserts of eastern Persia and the two-mile high passes of the Hindu Kush, they crossed the Khyber and other passes to the gold and spices of India (map, pages 456-7). In the 7th century parts of this mighty caravan route of the dead past were traversed by the Chinese pilgrim Hsiian Tsang. Six centuries later Marco Polo followed similar parts of its tortuous course. Changes were made in the great land route from time to time as a result of new geographi cal discoveries or political complications, but the general direction remained the same. Ancient Way of Spices and Gold We planned to follow with our modern caravan the western portion of this ancient route, reaching its beginning at Beyrouth by traveling first across the Atlantic to France, and thence overland from Paris through west ern and central Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, and Syria. At Kabul the road split, its north ern branch crossing the Oxus to China, its southern fork, which we meant to follow, going to India. To say it was hot in the forward hold of the President Roosevelt on June 22, 1939, would be ridiculous understatement. Yet six of us were toiling in the stagnant air of that hold, making a valiant effort to wedge into two specially constructed Chevrolet trucks some ten tons of film, camping equipment, food supplies, and miscellaneous gear. We had sailed from New York the day before. Our labor was required because Larry, fear ful that a war might interrupt the plans which had required two years of unremitting effort to perfect, insisted that our vehicles be loaded and ready to start the moment they were slung over the side of the ship in Le Havre. Around the enormous heaps of materials and the seemingly tiny trucks that must hold them we staggered: John Boyle, cinematog rapher (Director of Photography, A. S. C.); Earle Fahrney, mechanical engineer, lent to us by the General Motors Corporation; Larry, the cause of it all; and three unsuspecting friends, fellow passengers, shamelessly in veigled into yeoman service. A tiny patch of blue sky showed through the hatch opening far above us, except when it was obscured by Peggy (Mrs. Thaw). From time to time she would peer down and ask whether we were ever going to be finished. Our lunch was lowered on a line at noon and at dusk we climbed out, too weary to take much interest in the night life of the ship. Loading operations, as far as the capacity of the trucks permitted, were completed in four days. Larry had wirelessed for a third truck to follow on the next boat, which docked only two days after us. Besides the trucks, we had a Buick car with a small trailer for camera equipment; and on the deck reposed our "land yacht," a fan tastic contraption weighing nearly 13 tons. Little wonder that planning had taken so long. We had been obliged not only to arrange trans portation for this modern caravan over a 20,000-mile route, but-vastly more important to the photographic success of our mission to take measures which would insure us the position of honored guests within each country or principality to be visited.* After the two Chevrolet trucks were loaded, the boys had a few days to relax before the * With the unstinting assistance of the American Department of State and its foreign representatives, the British and French Foreign Offices, the British India Office, and the Home Department in Delhi; plus the magnificent co-operation of the British Em pire Society, and the East India Association of London, the Musee de l'Homme of Paris, our own National Geographic Society of Washington, D. C., and the American Museum of Natural History of New York, and a dozen Indian Princes, arrangements were made for the extensive educational films we planned.