Maillart, Ella (1903–1997)

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Maillart, Ella (1903–1997)

Swiss-French writer, perhaps one of the last great 20th-century travelers to explore Asia before the onslaught of modern tourism, whose many travel narratives introduced Western readers to new, challenging perspectives on previously unexplored cultures . Name variations: Ella K. Maillart; Kini. Pronunciation: MY-ar. Born Ella Katherine Maillart in 1903 in Geneva, Switzerland; died at age 94 in her mountain chalet in Chandolin, Switzerland, on March 27, 1997; daughter of middle-class parents, her father was a fur-trader; never married; no children; spent the winter months in Geneva, summer months in the Alpine village of Chandolin.

Learned to sail on Lake Geneva as a child; left high school at 17 (1920); began university preparatory curriculum but did not finish; captained and organized first Swiss women's field hockey team; represented Switzerland in single-handed yacht competition in Paris Olympics (1924), the only woman among 17 entrants; sailed to Crete with an all-woman crew (1925); traveled to Berlin and later Moscow (1930) to study filmmaking; became a four-year member of international Swiss ski team, trekking to then-Soviet Caucuses, then-Soviet Central Asia, Peking, Tibet, Afghanistan, and India in 1930s, 1940s. Author, journalist, photographer.

Selected writings—in English:

Turkestan Solo: One Woman's Expedition from the Tien Shan to the Kizil Kum (Des Montes Celestes aux Sables Rouges ,1938), Forbidden Journey: From Peking to Kashmir (Oasis Interdites, 1937), Gypsy Afloat (1942), Cruises and Caravans (1942), The Cruel Way (1947), Ti-Puss (1951), Land of the Sherpas (1955).

At once intrepid and introspective, Ella Maillart chronicles her life and adventures through the pages of her varied travelogues. There is perhaps no better way to trace the experiences of a career that spans nearly eight decades than to sift through the photographs, reflections, and observations that compose Maillart's narratives. Through her texts, the author, photographer, and journalist exposes the reader to far-off people and places. She consistently brings women's lives—both her own and those she meets in her travels—to the forefront. Maillart's prose not only qualifies her as one of the premier travel writers of the 20th century, but has also helped to move the genre of women's travel writing into well-deserved critical focus.

Ella Maillart's multiple expeditions and wanderings may indeed represent an effort to compensate for an early childhood plagued by illnesses. Until she was ten, Maillart lived vicariously through the characters in the books she read. Older brother Albert's discarded Jules Verne books may have paved the way for later reverie and excitement, but a true turning point came when Ella was ten: that summer her father

rented a small house on Lake Geneva, and so began her love of sailing. Landlocked Switzerland may seem like an odd place to begin one's nautical career, but in the small village of Creux, Ella and her lifelong friend Hermine de Saussure learned much about boats and life on the water. Better known as Kini and Miette, the two piloted their first sloops on the lake. After learning much from brothers and friends, they managed to acquire a series of sail boats christened Poodle, Gypsy, and finally Perlette. They undertook the sail from the southern coast of France to Corsica in 1923, a journey that earned them local celebrity status. Following their trip, the two young women encountered Alain Gerbault, who was about to attempt and successfully complete the first solo crossing of the Atlantic. Indeed, this brief encounter was not to be forgotten, and Gerbault would become a strong supporter of Maillart in her future travels. A year later, Maillart became the sole representative of Switzerland in the single-yacht regatta at the Paris Olympics. In 1925, Kini and Miette joined two other women and set sail for Crete. This initial contact with the people in Crete, people whose lives were radically different than those they left behind in Western Europe, inspired Maillart to continue her travels.

The details of Maillart's sailing exploits in the mid- and late-1920s are compiled in Gypsy Afloat. Maillart found herself in England teaching at a girls' school and desperately wanted work more to her liking: she managed to apprentice herself as a sailor on the ship the Volunteer, impressing both captain and crew. She used this apprenticeship as preparation to fulfill a dream shared by Miette and herself: they planned to sail to Polynesia. Miette procured a boat for the journey, the Atalante, and, after nearly two years of planning, their project was finalized. Much to Maillart's chagrin, their hopes were dashed when Miette fell ill and could not make the journey. Two months later, Maillart lost her sailing partner: Miette did not succumb to illness, but to marriage.

The loss of her partner ultimately prompted Maillart to abandon her illustrious sailing career, but she could not shake the yearning to travel. As Françoise Blaser notes in an interview with Ella Maillart, the young Kini had no intention of pursuing a more conventional career path. When her father suggested that she accept a job as a bilingual secretary at the United Nations, Ella answered that she would rather die. Neither marriage nor an office position, more typical paths for young women in the 1920s and 1930s, appealed to her. Instead, she turned her sights east, first to Berlin where she occasionally worked on the English versions of the first sound movies, and then on to Moscow, a short 12 years after the Bolshevik Revolution.

In Moscow, Maillart announced her plans to learn more about Russian cinema, which was evoking much foreign interest. In truth, she was more intrigued by Russian youth and their activities. In the fall of 1930, Ella was invited to join a group of 12 young people in a voyage to the Caucuses. The group trekked through the mountains and on to the Black Sea at Batoum, where Maillart remained for a time. There she worked on perfecting her Russian before returning home to Switzerland. Upon her return, she was accused of having trafficked with the Bolsheviks, accusations that hurt both her and, especially, her father. As Maillart notes in Cruises and Caravans:

It was bitter to find out that people would not believe I was independent. My ailing father was upset to see that, even after the papers had published my reply, some of his friends were still cutting him. This incident affected me mainly because of him and it taught me a lesson: never to write or lecture on subjects related to political questions that do not interest me.

In fact, this learned abstention from political rhetoric would come to characterize all of Maillart's future narratives.

Maillart's adventures in the Caucuses found their way into print as the subject of her first book, Parmi la jeunesse russe or Among the Russian Youth, published in French. This initial attempt at writing did not belie a deep love for literary composition; on the contrary, Maillart needed the money that a book would earn her. In Paris, she was again encouraged by Alain Gerbault, who introduced her to the publisher of his latest book. Ella, in turn, had her book published, and the money she received for her effort bought the essentials for her next voyage. As she notes in Cruises and Caravans: "It was more money than I had ever seen before, and with the cheapness of third-class travel in Russia, it could take me a long way east of Moscow." The pattern for her future was thus set: she wrote to continue her travels, and her travels prompted her to write. In the spring of 1932, Maillart declared her next destinations to be what were then Soviet Turkestan and Khazakstan, both at the outer periphery of the Soviet empire.

Turkestan Solo documents Maillart's fantastic voyage from Moscow to the Celestial mountains that divide Russia, China, and Afghanistan. One of the first Westerners to observe the influence of Soviet authority on Turkestan and Khazakstan, Maillart in her travelogue delved into the complexities and repeated difficulties of daily life for travelers and indigenous people alike. The intricacies of Soviet rail travel, the complex process of obtaining horses, and the perils of high mountain trekking are interwoven with tales of the still nomadic Khirgiz and the essentials of their family life. Maillart identified with the nomadic lifestyle of the Khirgiz as she had once so closely identified with sailors: "All ports and none are home to them, and all arrivings only a new setting forth." While Maillart completed the first half of her journey in the company of four Russian companions, she proceeded alone to Uzbekistan and the Turkestan cities of Samarakand, Bukhara, and Khiva. She crossed the red desert, the Kizil Kum, on a camel, and astonished the president of the tourist society of Tourtkol, where she was proudly deemed the first tourist. When the office secretary does not understand the meaning of the word tourist, the reader understands that Maillart has indeed crossed into a land full of the unknown. She proved herself to be one of the last true travelers in a world that would soon belong to tourists.

Upon her return, the photographs, articles and book about Turkestan brought Ella Maillart much merited attention and allowed her to fund yet another expedition. With the backing of a French daily, the Petit Parisien, Maillart planned a daring journey across China. She traveled by sea to Shanghai and Manchukuo, and by rail on to Peking. Maillart bided her time writing about the Japanese presence in Manchuria while preparing to arrive at her true goal: she intended to meet up with the tracks of her previous journey at the foot of the Celestial Mountains. In January 1935, she met with bad news: the province of Sinkiang, north of Tibet and en route to her destination, was inaccessible due to civil war. She thus rerouted her itinerary through Tibet, with the hope of later deviating north. At this point, Ella encountered Peter Fleming, English traveler and journalist for The Times in London, and husband of actress Celia Johnson . Their voyage together became the subject of two books: Maillart's Forbidden Journey and Fleming's News from Tartary. Maillart's initial reaction to Fleming's accompanying her was hardly welcoming. Consider her remarks in Cruises and Caravans: "I was not very enthusiastic about our association, because I am sure that a weak girl travelling alone through a difficult country has a better chance of success than anybody else…. But this journey might be so long and monotonous that it was wiser to be together—also in case it should land us in jail." Maillart and Fleming went on to present two very different takes on their common journey: Fleming's narrative focuses on the many miles undertaken and the number of wild game shot. He often reminisces about England and the bounty that awaits him upon his return. Maillart, on the other hand, appreciates the primitive lifestyle that they and their guides must lead. She describes the details of each oasis and the long stretches in between, and her only regret is that the journey must someday end. In August 1935, the unlikely team reached their goal of Kachgar on the Russian border before they turned south towards India. Maillart recorded her thoughts about her flight home in Cruises and Caravans: "Though this miraculous flying made me air-sick, I was thinking; returning home I was different than the person who had left. I was no longer Swiss, or European. I belonged now to the whole world, and it seemed now that I could never-more feel fully at home in Geneva."

Schwarzenbach, Annemarie (1908–1942)

Swiss-German author . Born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1908; died in 1942; daughter of a wealthy industrialist.

Though Annemarie Schwarzenbach wrote many novels, travelogues, and stories, few have been published. She often appears, however, in the memoirs and biographies of many literati of the early and mid-20th century: Klaus and Erika Mann , Roger Martin du Gard, André Malraux, and Carson McCullers . Ella Maillart , with whom she traveled through Iran and Afghanistan in 1939, refers to Schwarzenbach as "Christina" in The Cruel Way (1947), Maillart's story of their journey. Annemarie Schwarzenbach's Eine Frau allein (A Woman Alone) was published in 1989.

suggested reading:

Fleischmann, Uta, ed. "Wir werden es schon zuwege bringen, das Leben": Annemarie Schwarzenbach an Erika und Klaus Mann. Briefe 1930–1942. Pfaffenweiler: Centaurus-Verlagsgesellschaft, 1993.


Klaus und Erika Mann-Archiv/Städtische Bibliothek, Munich.

This desire to find her place as a citizen of the world and to learn to know herself characterized Maillart's final two travel narratives and marked yet another chapter in her life. The Cruel Way tells the story of Maillart's 1939 crossing of Iran and Afghanistan with her friend Christina, a pseudonym Maillart gave to the Swiss-German author Annemarie Schwarzenbach . The two embarked on this journey in Schwarzenbach's Ford: Ella jumped at the chance to cross the roads of Iran and Afghanistan in a private vehicle and, at the same time, hoped to liberate Schwarzenbach from her addiction to morphine. The two looked to flee a Europe where war had already erupted in search of both interior and exterior tranquility. Maillart's account of their trip attests to the many people and varied cultures that the two observed, but the author could not help but dwell on her companion's drug addiction and her incessant relapses: "I worried about Christina. She was feverish, smoked more than ever and, though she suffered from a bad digestion, would not observe her diet when we dined out. My affection for her was far from sufficient to tell me how to help her. Rather, I thought that I was exasperating her, that I should leave her in peace." These lines signaled Ella's spiritual abandonment of Schwarzenbach: she knew not what to say and she had become tired of focusing so much energy on her companion. Ultimately, Maillart admitted failure, for Schwarzenbach remained drug addicted, and after a six-month journey the two separated. Schwarzenbach returned to Europe to do what she could to fight the fascists. Maillart refused to return to war, and, shortly before 1940, took up residence in southern India.

Ti-Puss recounts the five years that Maillart spent in India with Hindu sages, eager to know herself, to learn the inner wisdom that the sages offer. The book tells the story of Ella's inner and outer journeys, and the role that her attachment to her cat plays in her understanding of love of self and love of other. Ti-Puss, the elusive but charming cat adopted by Maillart, helps the author to understand the inner self of which the sages speak. Indeed, Ti-Puss represents at once independence and unconditional love to Maillart, thus embodying what she sought and what eluded her in Europe. Traveling from India to Tibet, the beloved Ti-Puss was separated from Maillart. This loss marked the end of her voyage to India: shortly thereafter, she returned alone to Switzerland in 1945 to look after her ailing mother.

Despite the sadness associated with the loss of her cat, Maillart called Ti-Puss the only book she enjoyed writing. Serge Guertchakoff notes Ella Maillart's words in his 1993 interview with her: "But the only work that I really wanted to write is the one about my cat in India, Ti-Puss. As far as that goes, I hate writing, I never learned to do it. I am not good at grammar." Despite her readily admitted distaste for the art of composition, her publications, in fact, always allowed Maillart to live independently and to fulfill her dreams. An ethnographer and traveler at heart, she wrote mainly out of necessity. Yet her writings brought her travels to life for her readers, and provided a wonderful vantage point from which to consider her reflections and adventures.

In 1946, not long after her return from India, Maillart purchased a small plot of land and had a chalet built in Chandolin, high in the Swiss Alps. After that, she curtailed her travels somewhat, and generally spent six months of the year at her isolated mountain paradise and the other six months in Geneva. Chandolin offered Maillart the majesty and solitude that inspired her, recalling the spirituality that she sought in all of her Asian voyages. She revisited Asia often, traveling with small groups of tourists in Nepal, China, Tibet, and other countries. As she noted in the epilogue to the French version of Cruises and Caravans, she no longer needed to travel to quench her desires: "I do not expect anything from the outside. I have patience. I possess my bearings to follow the path that leads to the immutable center, to the One without a second, that which is the first and last word of life."

The indomitable Ella Maillart continued to give conferences and interviews until she died, at age 94. Equally fluent in French and English, she spoke of the many people she had known during her travels: indeed, although she lived alone, she was constantly in good company. The celebrated grande dame of Swiss travelers continued her reign almost to the very end of the 20th century.


Blaser, Françoise. "Rester, partir: il faut choisir" (To Stay, To Go: One Must Choose), in Journal de Genève. July 10, 1994, p. 17.

Guertchakoff, Serge. "Une grande dame vagabonde: Ella Maillart" (A Great Lady Vagabond: Ella Maillart), in Revue du Vieux Genève. 1993, pp. 72–86.

Maillart, Ella K. Croisières et caravanes (Cruises and Caravans). Paris: Ed. du Seuil, 1951.

——. The Cruel Way. London: Heinemann, 1947.

——. Cruises and Caravans. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1942.

——. Turkestan Solo: One Woman's Expedition from the Tien Shan to the Kizil Kum. Translated by John Rodker. London: Heinemann, 1938.

suggested reading:

Russell, Mary. The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt: Women Travellers and their World. London: Collins, 1986.

Sara Steinert Borella , Assistant Professor of French, Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon, who had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Ella Maillart in January 1995