Sven Hedin, My Life as an Explorer

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Released: 1996 (originally published in 1925)

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Sven Hedin was one of the most famous explorers of his time (the late 19th and early 20th centuries). His exploits throughout Central Asia were well documented by himself and others across Europe and North America. And, indeed, he did a hell of a lot of exploring: five different expeditions into all corners of Asia, from Turkey to China, Mongolia to India. More importantly, he mapped out parts of the world that even local Asians hadn't dared to traverse: the deserts of Xinjiang and Turkestan, the mountains of Tibet. But his big accomplishment was discovering ancient cities in the various deserts of Eastern Turkestan, cities that had been abandoned thousands of years earlier but which unearthed countless historical treasures (including the oldest piece of paper ever found). My Life as an Explorer is his own narrative of his adventures, written long after those adventures had passed. It's a fun read--if you don't mind reading about the deaths of a few thousand animals.

Hedin was a Swede, and at this point in time, being a Swede in Central Asia had its benefits and its drawbacks. The benefits were that no one in Central Asia knew anything about Sweden, since Sweden wasn't one of the major powers of the region (those being England and Russia, with Germany in the rear). So he got away with more than other explorers might have been able to. He was able to travel through Russian-controlled areas and English-controlled areas, as well as areas that no one really controlled (like Tibet). The drawback to this is that he always had to obtain permission from about four or five different governments before he was allowed to make these voyages. They didn't really suspect him of spying, but this was the latter stages of the Great Game, so there were always those who doubted his true intentions. Lucikly for Hedin, one of his chief supporters was the Russian Czar, who not only helped him gain resources and permission to take at least one of his expeditions, but also sent along several Cossack soldiers to assist him as needed. The English, by contrast, weren't so free with their assistance. In fact, the English government once absolutely refused to allow him permission to travel into Tibet via India, forcing Hedin to make an end-run through Turkestan, masquerading as a shepherd (among other things), and sneaking into Tibet.

The narrative is filled with lots of interesting stories about his exploits, and the one thing that I think anyone can take away from this expedition is the price paid by the animals in Hedin's service. On every single expedition, Hedin begins with hundreds of different animals (camels, horses, mules, yaks, sheep, and so on); by the end, nearly all of them will have died from one malady or another. I'd say an animal dies on nearly every page in this 500+ page book--and if you think I'm kidding, then read it for yourself! Why would so many animals die? Well, it was largely due to the extremes of temperatures that he had to endure. Most of his voyages were to places that no other explorers had ever wanted to or bothered to visit: hot deserts, frozen mountains. Hence, the temperatures were generally below zero or above 100 (in Fahrenheit, of course). Add to this the fact that the animals weren't just taking a walk through a dewy meadow; they were carrying tons of equipment and supplies (or men) up and down sand dunes or rocky mountains or through ice-cold streams. It wasn't fun for anyone, and it's no wonder the animals kept dropping off. Frankly, I'm amazed that Hedin survived!

Reading this book, I learned to appreciate the kind of person it takes to successfully take on and accomplish insane expeditions like these. To succeed, Hedin had to possess certain qualities in abundance: perseverence, patience, and an unwavering belief in the importance of his mission. Hedin's goals were scientific and personal. He wanted to map out areas of the world previously unknown to Europeans; he wanted to discover things that no one else had every discovered, things that would contribute to Europe's understanding of primitive cultures and ancient civilizations. But, more than anything else, he wanted to be lauded for these accomplishments: to arrive home in Sweden to adoring crowds. Well, if those were his goals, he achieved them all, including the adoring crowds. Sadly, he made a few mistakes in his later life--supporting Germany in both world wars--and these things led to the decimation of his reputation outside Germany. But that doesn't really denigrate the amazing things he was able to accomplish in his long, distinguished life. So check out this book. He manages to traverse every corner of Central Asia, pointing out a lot of interesting things along the way. And, above all else, he's a great storyteller. It's a book well worth your time.

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