The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford, 1939

The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford, 1939


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Friday, January 24
17 New & Used Starting at $1.99


In 1939 Swiss travel writer and journalist Ella K. Maillart set off on an epic journey from Geneva to Kabul with fellow writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach in a brand new Ford. As the first European women to travel alone on Afghanistan’s Northern Road, Maillart and Schwarzenbach had a rare glimpse of life in Iran and Afghanistan at a time when their borders were rarely crossed by Westerners. As the two flash across Europe and the Near East in a streak of élan and daring, Maillart writes of comical mishaps, breathtaking landscapes, vitriolic religious clashes, and the ingenuity with which the women navigated what was often a dangerous journey. In beautiful, clear-eyed prose, The Cruel Way shows Maillart’s great ability to explore and experience other cultures in writing both lyrical and deeply empathetic.

While the core of the book is the journey itself and their interactions with people oppressed by political conflict and poverty, towards the end of the trip the women’s increasingly troubled relationship takes center stage. By then the glamorous, androgynous Schwarzenbach, whose own account of the trip can be found in All the Roads Are Open, is fighting a losing battle with her own drug addiction, and Maillart’s frustrated attempts to cure her show the profound depth of their relationship.

Complete with thirteen of Maillart’s own photographs from the journey, The Cruel Way is a classic of travel writing, and its protagonists are as gripping and fearless as any in literature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226033044
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/10/2013
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ella K. Maillart (1903–97) was a Swiss journalist, photographer, and adventurer. She is the author of Gypsy Afloat, The Forbidden Journey, Turkestan Solo, and many other works published in English, French, and German.

Read an Excerpt

The Cruel Way

Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford, 1939

By Ella K. Maillart

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1947 Ella K. Maillart
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-03318-1



"If it's not warmer to-morrow when I take you to the station, the car might easily break down: it can no longer cope with such frosts." Christina made that remark by the way and I hardly heard it, for my thoughts were still in Prague: she had just described the soul of that city, the life of her Czech friends, their utter helplessness and despair as the might of Hitler approached them with steady relentlessness.

We were both looking through the small window-panes of her peasant's house in the Engadine. Winter ruled. Across the valley, clouds hid the slope of the Fextal where we had skied that morning between luminous red-brown larches. A dark, low sky oppressed the valley—shadowless, dead. Though high in the Alps, the land looked flat and broad, for the house stood by a lake now frozen hard under many layers of snow. Nothing but that desolate expanse barred us from the southern horizon where the Maloja pass leads into Italy.

Christina must have added: "The car is worn out and Father has promised me a Ford"; I only heard that last name and it seems to have been responsible for all.

That one word was enough; flocking ideas arranged themselves in the right order, vague tendencies crystallised into a solid plan. As if it were a kind of long-drawn echo, I heard a voice like mine begin to say:

"A Ford! That's the car to climb the new Hazarejat road in Afghanistan! In Iran too, one should travel in one's own car. Two years ago I went lorry-hopping from India to Turkey: I am not likely to forget that dusty journey with its many breakdowns, the fervour of the pilgrims, the sleeping on the road or in overcrowded caravanserais, the police inspections at each village and—more difficult to laugh away—the necessity of staying by the lorry instead of roaming at will."

In the clouds above the Maloja a diffused light seemed to show the way: after a drop of five thousand feet into the warmth of Lombardy it would wind through the Balkans and take us to the Bosphorus, gate to the immensities of Asia. My mind was already in Persia.

"East of the Caspian we shall drive to the ancient tower of the Gumbad-i-Kabus and camp among Persian Turkomans: they may still follow the customs I sought in vain among their kinsmen modernised by the Soviets. We shall see the golden dome of the Imam Reza shrine—smooth, compact, and precious shell aimed at the sky. Then we shall reach the giant Buddhas in the pure valley of Bamian, the incredibly blue lakes of the Band-i-Amir. Further still, down the northern side of the Hindu Kush, up the valley of the mighty Oxus, we shall vanish into the mountains before any prohibition from Kabul can stop us. There live the men I want to study in a country where I feel happy: mountaineers not enslaved by artificial needs, free men not forced to increase their daily production. If access to Kafiristan is barred, we can traverse India, take the Burma Road and live with the Lolos of Eastern Tibet. When I have collected new facts about these tribes, I shall at last be admitted into the brotherhood of ethnologists. Then all will be well: I shall belong to an organisation, it will be my job to rove, I shall no longer be tempted to write books to make a living." A power dormant in my talk had given birth to a plan already so mature that it at once imposed itself: it was like the mango trick.

At last Christina had a chance to speak: "When I was in Teheran I longed to go further East where traditional ways of living had not been abolished."

Her voice brought me back to the present. I looked at her coldly: though she was still convalescing after months of an exhausting cure, the look in her eye was sound and determined. Trying to dam the new current with the nearest bricks I could lay hands on, I said:

"My dear, I am a fool to talk like this. Unless you put on twenty pounds of flesh you cannot possibly tackle such hardships. Besides, who would finance us? And anyway war will soon break out ... And if it doesn't I shall probably lecture in the States." I didn't mention my main objection: provided she were soon normal, how long could we bear each other?

Though she probably guessed my thought she said nothing, nothing. Her thin hand held a cigarette, the yellow knuckles sharp under a skin as thin as tissue-paper. She was sitting on the bench—with hollowed chest, hugging her knees, her adolescent body leaning against the great stove built in the corner of the room. But for her tense presence it would have been restful in the quiet old house while the squalls whistled abroad, in that peasant house of bare larch (the oblong lozenges of its red grain are like watered silk). Table and walls were clean, smooth and friendly under the palm eager to feel them.

Though apparently impassive, Christina did not know how to be at rest.

Calm as usual, her colourless face was a symbol I was trying to read: devoid of all pretence, it was a "simple" face in the sense of true, artless, not concerned with itself. Under the mass of close-cropped hair the head seemed too big, too full of thoughts for so frail a neck. The forehead was not high but arresting by its broadness, its density, its determination—nearing stubbornness sometimes.

I knew that behind it thoughts could take to high flights once they had surmounted an obsession I could not yet define. The eyes set wide apart, showed changing shades of dark-blue grey under eye-brows much darker than her hair. Those eyes belonged to a soul in love with beauty that would often wince away from a discordant world; they could shine with enthusiasm, with affection, they could smile back at you, but I never saw them laugh. Unexpectedly fleshy when you studied it, the nose suggested that her constitution was perhaps not so weak as it seemed. Melancholy in the modelling of the pale, irregular mouth—lips that were inhaling smoke with silent voracity. (The dark shades of her teeth increased, she had told me, whenever her vitality was ebbing.) The small chin was particularly youthful, making one think of a puzzled child ready to ask for protection. Her hands were those of a patient craftsman who knows how to chisel a pure line: I have seen her turn seven sheets one after the other into the typewriter before that paragraph had attained the perfectly flowing curve which alone could satisfy her. Writing was the only ritual of her life: she subordinated everything to it.

Impassivity was quite natural to her concern for perfect form: she could never have displayed an untidy face like mine. It was partly because of this strange tense serenity that a friend of ours used to call her the "Fallen Angel". Her subtle body, her pensive face lighted by the pale brow, put forth a charm that acted powerfully on those who are attracted by the tragic greatness of androgyny.

She spoke, determined to allay my fears:

"Kini: I must go away. I am finished if I stay in this country where I no longer find any help, where I made too many mistakes and where the past weighs on me too heavily ... I had thought of going to Lapland but I would much rather come with you to Afghanistan. You see ... I have not yet learned to live alone! As for exploring, I needn't go with you into the mountains: you are a friend of the Hackins and I might perhaps help them if they are excavating there. You know I have already worked with archæologists in Syria and in Persia."

After a short pause she continued: "You are concerned for my health and I admit I am weak. But you don't know my constitution. You must ask the doctors. They can never explain my recoveries. I promise you to ski every day instead of smoking too much; then I shall have more appetite, eat more and put on weight. As for money, our publishers ought to help us. I have just finished my last book and I can get an advance on a story about Afghanistan. The Geographical Magazine will also support us." Then, in a more subdued voice, she added: "I am thirty. It is the last chance to mend my ways, to take myself in hand. This journey is not going to be a sky-larking escapade as if we were twenty—and that is impossible, with the fear of Hitler increasing day by day around us. This journey must be a means towards our end. We can help each other to become conscious, responsible persons. My blind way of life has grown unbearable. What is the reason, the meaning of the chaos that undermines people and nations? And there must be something that I am to do with my life, there must be some purpose for which I could gladly die or live! Kini ... how do you live?"

"Now, listen. Let's be practical. We agreed long ago that we shall have to know ourselves better before we can know anything else; we also inferred that the chaos around us is linked with the chaos within. But first of all you must gain strength, cease to be at the mercy of your health. Are you willing during the coming months, to devote your marvellous energy to building a new body for your renovated nerves? Will you stop worrying about questions you can't yet solve? Don't say 'Yes' just to quiet me but, please, see what you owe yourself. For instance, you often said you would fight Hitler with all your might when war breaks out; but what will you do then if you are still a mere shadow?"

Thus my voice, with as much authority as I could. But I knew the torment that lay behind Christina's simple words. And deep down, where life is secret and smooth in its flowing, I uttered a silent prayer: May it be in my power to help you, impatient Christina so irked by the limitations of the human condition, so oppressed by the falsity of life, by the parody of love around us. If we travel together, may it be given me not to fail you, may my shoulder be firm enough for you to lean on. Along the surface of the earth I shall find our way where I have journeyed before; and inwardly, where I have long ago begun to ask myself questions so like yours, may the little that I have found help you to find what each of us has to find by himself.



Silvaplana in the Engadine was the spring-board of our imagination in its soaring East by South to the great watersheds of Asia. But the actual take-off was the rocky pass of the Simplon whence, wheeling, swooping, banking down the mountain road and the dark gorge opening into Italy, we went abroad.

Patches of snow invisibly thawing under the soft wind dotted the grey sides of the bovine mountain near us; no traffic, no noise disturbed us on that road still walled in between the banks of hardened slush. Thousands of feet beneath us a train was probably worming its way along the twelve-mile tunnel: we were happier here, poised between lowlands and high ranges, between southern and central Europe, between the charm of Latin warmth and the heaviness of Teutonic reserve, admiring a natural border that no politics can alter.

Let us linger there a moment before we look at Switzerland or the last time; let us evoke a little of what we left behind us then, in 1939. Our good-bye went also to Paris, London and Berlin, the monstrous towns that were still booming as usual; they built the background of our world, a world we knew condemned. Until "it" happened we must pursue our strife because we felt it less futile than any other activity.

Paris. Rushing from consulate to publisher, from dressmaker to museum, from bank to tip-giving journalist, from car-specialist to editor, from anthropologist to camera-man, from doctor to librarian, one day I found myself walking down the Champs-Elysées. The pollen of the blossoming chestnut-trees seemed to sparkle in the morning air, the sky was light blue, warm and gay. I turned into the Avenue Montaigne on my way to my stylish guestroom by the river. I was happy. But aware of the beautiful moment, my throat contracted suddenly. Tears were soon streaming down my cheeks, gushing out continuously. Deeply moved, half blind, I had to find a bench where I could gather myself together.

Very slowly that overwhelming impersonal emotion became a thought—that something was keenly suffering for Paris. It was as if the flesh and the spirit of Paris were maimed, martyred, torn apart and as if I had become a mass of compassion large enough to envelope the whole witty capital I knew so well. What else could be done about such misery but cry—cry with an intensity of feeling at which I soon began to marvel.

After a while more normal thoughts began to shape themselves: "it" had not happened yet and even if it did it might not be so terrible as all that ... Here and now I only knew that I was taking leave of Paris. I was right to look at it with intensity for I felt I should never again see it as it used to be.

There was nothing to explain this shattering experience. Only last evening, Blaise Cendrars had invited me to spend the summer in the Forêt des Ardennes: he asserted there would be no war. Since he spent much time in the office of Paris-Soir and ought to know more than ordinary mortals, I had felt cheered. Charming but wavering Robert was calmly becoming a bourgeois, pretending he was not worried by the future. Hackin had just left the Musée Guimet for Afghanistan as if life in Europe were quite normal. We had arranged to join him at Begram where he would dig in July: he had agreed to take Christina in his group.

But because he was an active socialist my friend Professor Rivet was no longer received in certain houses—a small sign that an ominous gap was widening, that ways of thinking had at last some bearing upon practical life. Political refugees had been expelled. Jean's "left" paper had been confiscated and some of his friends arrested. "Fascism will reign for a long time," he said. And as we parted he warned me: "This time, I assure you, war is quite near." But he had said the same thing on the eve of Hitler's march to Vienna.

As for Paul Valéry and Lucien Fabre, I was convinced that whatever might happen they would not be upset. Fabre seemed to understand my vague gropings. "The rational explanation of the world doesn't work," he said. "We throw a network of meridians and parallels over it but they don't contain everything and they explain nothing. Go and see more of the East, since you are so inclined. Perhaps in India, where many believe in a spiritual life, there is a climate favourable to revelations."

In London the atmosphere was quite different—more unanimous, more youthful than when I was last there. It looked as if the English had taken to eating lion at breakfast. But I could not help remembering how in September 1938, Hilary St. George Saunders as well as Denison Ross had lost their heads as soon as it seemed that the country might be bombed. In the rage and despair of their surprise, they had clamoured for the lives of sixty million Germans. Now each of them admitted that, caught unprepared, he had been in a bad mess but that he and his country were prepared to fight once more to the death.

Steve King-Hall had a clear vision of what was happening and I liked his way of proving that modern wars are cataclysms that only postpone a lasting settlement. Many peoples' problems may be simplified when they know they must fight for their country. But the suffering war involves is useless until the survivors know what to live for.

Frere had time to lunch me at the Savoy though he was now working at the Labour Ministry as well as for the firm that publishes my books. He had become detached and wise: chatting or joking was a thing of the past. He went as far as to say that spiritual problems were at the root of the European crisis.

The Royal Geographical Society had ceased to be august and imperial: in a busy atmosphere, precious books and documents were being packed off to safe places in the country. Choosing the maps we needed for our journey, I met Eric Shipton and Campbell Secord who were leaving next day for the Karakoram. Should the Afghans object to my plans, I was to join Shipton in his remote valley and there spend the winter among the Shimshalis, studying the women while he would deal with the men. (The only thing that happened at the time of our supposed meeting was that their expedition came back because of the war; but one of Shipton's companions disguised himself into me and "my" arrival was enacted at Gilgit where the Political Agent was deceived for a while.)

During these London days I was staying with Irene who had met Christina at Teheran in 1935. She thought I was unwise to start with such a companion—predicted that we would reach neither Kabul nor Iran. Assuring her she was wrong, I tried to convince her that I knew the "Fallen Angel" better than she. Deep in my heart was an unshakable confidence in Christina and that my double aim—Kabul and helping her—would be attained.

But frolicking through London with Audrey in search of a hold-all that would keep me warm if I got benighted among the snows of the Pamirs, I saw what fun it would be to rove with a witty companion, sparkling with joie de vivre. Then I knew I was not quite easy about our enterprise.


Excerpted from The Cruel Way by Ella K. Maillart. Copyright © 1947 Ella K. Maillart. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 The Idea 1

2 The Start 6

3 Italy 12

4 Yugoslavia 16

5 Sofia 23

6 Istanbul 31

7 Black Sea 35

8 Pontic Range 42

9 Bayazit 48

10 Azerbaijan 56

11 Roads 65

12 Nikpeh 71

13 Sultanieh 77

14 Teheran 81

15 Gumbad-I-Kabus 87

16 Khorassan 96

17 Meshed 104

18 Abbas Abad 110

19 The Border 116

20 Herat 122

21 Bala Murghau 131

22 Shibargan 140

23 Turkestan 149

24 Pol-I-Khumri 155

25 Do-Au 166

26 Bamian 173

27 Band-I-Amir 179

28 Begram 186

29 Kabul 193

30 Mandu 202

Envoi 209

Dates 210

Bibliography 211

Heights and Distances 212

Index 213

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews