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Born to Explore: The Real-Life Men who Inspired Chaturanga's Thomas Eaton

Chaturanga is a work of fiction, but the novel incorporates places, events, issues – and people – that are all too real. During his journey on the Silk Road, Patrick uncovers a legacy of exploration carved by earlier generations of Eaton men. One of these men was his great-grandfather, Thomas – someone Patrick never met but whose daring exploits nearly a century earlier grip the 14-year-old’s awe, stir his imagination, and cause him to wonder if he, too, has what it takes to call himself an Eaton.

Without a doubt, Patrick’s great-grandfather was an iconic explorer. “During the first half of the twentieth century, Thomas Eaton lived the kind of adventures that most people today could only imagine in books or movies.” His mental and physical toughness, self-assurance, knack for survival, and independence of thought are traits any boy would covet and wish to emulate.

But while this character might seem too good to be true, in fact several real-life explorers of Central Asia provided the inspiration for Thomas Eaton. Readers of Chaturanga will no doubt recognize aspects of each of the following men in the personality and daring feats of Patrick’s childhood hero.

Photo in the public domain.

Frederick Marshman (F.M.) Bailey (1882-1967) was a British intelligence officer and known as the last player of the Great Game. He began his career as a soldier, first serving in India and later in the Battle of Gallipoli during WWI (where he was wounded twice). Ultimately, he joined the Foreign and Political Department where he became a spy and traveled extensively through China, Tibet, and Central Asia. He is perhaps most famously known for his 1918 mission to Tashkent (in today’s Uzbekistan) to gather information on the newly formed Bolshevik regime. To escape the city, he impersonated a Cheka (Soviet secret police) officer who was pursuing… himself! Bailey survived the Great Game, continuing to serve His Majesty’s Government through WWII, and retiring an old man. Book recommendation: Mission to Tashkent, by F.M. Bailey.

Photo in the public domain.

Sven Hedin (1865-1952) truly was born to explore. In his autobiography, Sven writes that as a young boy living in Sweden, he obsessed over maps and the feats of great explorers, and even slept with the windows of his bedroom open to inure his body to the frigid night air. A trip to Azerbaijan as a young man catalyzed a career in exploration that lasted decades. Hedin carried out four lengthy expeditions to Central Asia, where he mapped the Himalayas (spending months at a time above 15,000 feet), discovered the sources of the Brahmaputra and Indus Rivers, often traveled in disguise to elude Tibetan authorities, and helped fill in some of the few remaining “white spots” on European maps. He also explored lower elevations, such as by undertaking numerous trips across the Taklamakan Desert to uncover long-lost Buddhist cities. One of these trips proved particularly disastrous after his guide became lost; Hedin’s party lost most of its men, and he literally crawled out of the desert to summon help for surviving members. Book recommendation: My Life as an Explorer, by Sven Hedin.

Photo: Roy Chapman Andrews on his horse, Kublai Khan. (Public domain)

Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960) – aka the “Dragon Hunter” – was a paleontologist famous for scouring the Gobi Desert for dinosaur fossils in the 1930s. His party was the first to utilize automobiles there (along with camels to carry extra supplies), which were driven deep into the unmapped and often dangerous interior of Mongolia. Along the way, Andrews discovered the first nest of dinosaur eggs, as well as Protoceratops, Oviraptor, and Velociraptor (made famous in Jurassic Park). Eventually, Andrews had to leave Central Asia due to its political instability. He went on to serve as director of the American Museum before retiring to write books for young readers. Today, Andrews is perhaps best remembered as the inspiration for Indiana Jones. Book recommendation: Dragon Hunter, by Charles Gallenkamp.

Photo source:

Sir Fitzroy Maclean (1911-1996) was a Scottish political officer, soldier, and writer, whose intrepid journeys across Central Asia (and various other places) are relayed in his autobiography, Eastern Approaches. On assignment to Moscow as a young man, Maclean became fascinated with Soviet Turkestan and was determined to explore it at any cost. Though off-limits to westerners, Maclean undertook several trips south to the oasis-cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, and east to the Tien Shan Mountains. Though frequently shadowed by Soviet secret police, Maclean made friends with all he met and was one of the few westerners to observe firsthand the devastation wrought by communism and Stalin’s political purges. Maclean went on to serve in the British SAS (special forces) in Africa and Yugoslavia during WWII, and he ultimately achieved the rank of brigadier. It is rumored that Maclean was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s character, James Bond (007). Book recommendation: Eastern Approaches, by Fitzroy Maclean. While these men probably never met – their journeys taking them to distinct corners of Central Asia – they shared many traits whose essence I hoped to capture in Thomas Eaton. All of them knew what they wanted in life and were determined to get it; none accepted the hurdles laid by nature or man, nor did they accept “no” in answer to their quests. They were each unwavering optimists who believed in themselves even when their situations seemed hopeless. They always treated other people – fellow expedition members, strangers they met along the way, and adversaries alike – with kindness and respect. They lead by example; not simply by issuing orders to others. And, as Patrick comes to discover for himself in Chaturanga, great explorers never stop putting one foot in front of the next in dogged perseverance of their dreams. They never quit and they never look back.

Originally published 5/18/2016 here. © Beyond the Range All rights reserved. Feel free to republish so long as credit is given.


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