Fitzroy Maclean: The James Bond of Central Asia

Nigel Cox

Fitzroy Maclean (1911-1996) was a Scottish diplomat, soldier, writer and politician who loved travel and adventure. In the 1930s after graduating from Cambridge he became a diplomat in Moscow. There he worked with the author Ian Fleming in the British Embassy. He learned Russian and took several fascinating and exciting journeys around the Soviet Union of Josef Stalin and beyond.

His first trip in 1937 was to The Caucasus. He was arrested by the NKVD, as he approached the Caspian Sea on horseback. However, he was allowed to go free and after a visit to the British War cemetery in Tbilisi, where the remains of soldiers and sailors killed in the Wars of Intervention are interred, he made his way back to Moscow.

Later that year he set off again, travelling Eastwards along the Trans-Siberian Railway and then from Novosibirsk he took the Turksiib Railway that connects Siberia to Central Asia. From Novosibirsk on, he was accompanied by the NKVD although he wasn’€™t arrested. On the train journey, masses of Koreans who were being deported to the area boarded the train. Today their hard working descendants still live and thrive throughout the Central Asian region. After travelling past the beautiful Altai Mountains and through Barnaul, he eventually reached the former capital of Kazakhstan, Alma-Ata, known today as Almaty. Today it is the thriving and bustling business centre of Central Asia, but then he described it as a pleasant Soviet provincial town. Alma-Ata means ‘Father of Apples’€™ and in the nearby town of Talgar he recounts eating the biggest apple he had ever seen. This was the famous ‘€˜aport’€™ apple for which the area is famous.

From Talgar he journeyed on to Issik Lake some 40 miles from Almaty. This is a beautiful mountain lake surrounded on all sides by huge tree covered mountains. He describes looking down on the lake illuminated by a full moon, and whilst he sipped cognac and smoked a cigarette, it dawned on him he was one of very few Western Europeans who had ever witnessed the stunningly beautiful scene before him.

From there he travelled by train to Tashkent, travelling through villages that had hardly changed since time immemorial. From Tashkent he travelled to Tamerlane’€™s fabled city of Samarkand. However, the biting cold of winter was closing in, so he decided to return to Moscow.

The following year, when the weather improved he set off for Chinese Turkestan, today’s Xinjiang close by to Kazakhstan. He was on a fact finding mission for the British government concerning the city of Urumqi. So he returned to Alma-Ata and then travelled through the ‘Hungry Steppe’ (the vast steppe land where almost nothing of value could grow). However, although he crossed into China he was not allowed to continue and on returning to Alma-Ata he was immediately ordered back to Moscow by the Soviet authorities. Although this trip was done on the behest of the British government, Maclean always maintained he was not a spy and did most of his travels in the area purely for his own self-realization and the joy of travel and adventure.

His wanderlust had not been satiated and his next trip took him back to Uzbekistan with it’s beautiful classic cites and mosques. Perhaps he had been inspired by another Cambridge graduate James Flecker, part of whose work ‘The Golden Journey to Samarkand,’ is now inscribed on the Special Air Service’€™s clock tower in Hereford, UK.

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further; it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
Across that angry or that glimmering sea.

During the Second World War, Maclean was a member of the Long Range Desert Group, in North Africa, who were the forerunners of the modern Special Air Service.
Perhaps Maclean felt a need to retrace the steps of the two British undercover agents Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, participants of the ‘€˜Great Game’ who were both beheaded in the square of Bukhara nearly 100 years before.

In 1938, once more, he made his way back to Uzbekistan via Ashgabat in Turkmenistan and visited ‘the enchanted city’ of Bukhara. Then he took the train to Dushanbe in Tajikistan. He then crossed the River Oxus into Afghanistan. He visited the ruins of Balikh, founded by Alexander the Great but destroyed by the hordes of Genghis Khan. From there, Maclean returned to Moscow via India, Iraq, Iran and Armenia.

The fact that he was a close friend of Ian Fleming and that he led such an epic life has led many people to believe that Fitzroy Maclean was the inspiration for James Bond. Whether that is true or not, he was an amazingly colourful character in his own right.