A reader drew my attention to “Letters From a Traveller” by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Collins, 1962). Father Teilhard was a Jesuit priest and a leading palaeontologist and geologist of his time. He was attached to the Citroën Central Asian Expedition, popularly known as the “Yellow Expedition”, which was intended to demonstrate the adaptability of the Citroën tracked-vehicles which had already proved their worth in the “Black Expedition” of 1925, which crossed the Sahara to Madagascar. There was also the wider objective of reopening to economic exchanges the ancient silk route across the vast depression of Central Asia. The “Yellow Expedition” of 1929 had covered the Near East, Persia and Western India to Pamir, the climax of the test, and its second party which had crossed the Central Asian steppes and deserts joined the first at Kashgar and returned with it, the hard way, to Peking, i.e., Paris to Peking.
The author describes the horrific journey in a lucid and matter-of-fact way. There are not many references to the vehicles, and no pictures of them, but there is an interesting mention of the expedition being held up while replacement tracks for the Citroën-Kegresse tracked vehicles were obtained from Russia, not from Paris as one would have expected. This need for replacements occurred when 90 miles out of Peking in April 1931 “the rubber of the caterpillar tracks, burnt apparently during the crossing by the tropical sun, began to collapse. They had to wait for spare tracks from Siberia but the priest described the equipment as otherwise impressive and the morale of the team, which included engineers, scientists, two doctors, a painter, a cinema photographer, the reporter Georges and a staff of mechanics, astonishing. Resuming, 500 miles were covered between May 12th and May 22nd, in spite of a snowstorm and a sandstorm. By June 16th they had covered the 750 miles to Suchow. The final 750 miles of the difficult journey was delayed due to local fighting and what was intended to take six months took twice as long. There were places where “no automobile had ever been along the route (to Aksu), which would be impossible for wheeled vehicles. The caterpillars took us over the rocky passes, marshes, rivers and sands.” In the Gobi desert there was the choice of risking frozen radiators when they stopped at night in a temperature of -20 deg. to -30 deg. or running short of fuel if the engines were kept running. Later the convoy, which included trailers towed by the Citroëns, was fired on by bandits. Incidentally, I rather like the priest’s description of these Citroën-Kegresses, “Climbing on to the caterpillars as though I were mounting a camel . . .” It seems that the engineer in charge of the expedition was Brull and that it was recorded by the historian Le Fèvre, should any Citroën enthusiast care to follow up. — W.B.