The Last Secrets Of The Silk Road

Astonishingly beautiful young women, as talented as they are ambitious, flock to work in the COUNTRY LIFE office after they leave university. It is a burden that the male staff bears without complaint on the whole.

Six years ago, an especially dazzling group of female graduates could be glimpsed racing through the corridors trailing a blur of blonde hair and tantalising mention of a great adventure: something to do with wild horses and farthest-flung Russia, as far as we moonstruck eavesdroppers could gather.

What they were in fact plotting was a bold expedition. Four of them would ride 5,000 miles from Turkmenistan to China, largely for the pure thrill of it. Anyone who has ridden even for a day along an English bridle path will know the agony of organisation it involves. But the group would spend all of eight months riding on a relay of half-broken horses and camels, covering 22 miles a day come hell or high water. Hell and high water came in buckets most days.

Guides led them in thick fogs over sheer mountain passes where the horses’ legs wedged between boulders. Their local support drivers got so violently drunk on vodka or rice wine they had to be locked into the cab of the back-up truck.

Alexandra Tolstoy, 26 at the time, a former COUNTRY LIFE frontispiece and the Russian speaker in the group, tells the story of their triumphant crossing simply, quoting from her friends’ diaries and adding her own notes on the legends of Tamerlane, Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. The atmosphere is of breathless, Enid Blyton adventure: the books is subtitled ‘Four Girls follow Marco Polo across 5,000 Miles’, they call each other girls-dorm nicknames such as Charty, Mouse and Wic, and they fall out badly when they each develop mad ‘pashes’ on their own mounts.

But Alexandra admits her pash was the most divisive. She fell for Shamil, their broken-nosed young Turkmen horse-coper. Since the gang returned to England, newspaper diaries have rumoured an engagement. The Famous Five never had this much fun.

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